Will gas canisters or yoga prevail in Turkish spring?

  • 8 June 2013
  • From the section Europe
  • comments

Anti-government protesters are continuing to demonstrate in Istanbul's Taksim Square and elsewhere, despite Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's demand for the protests to end.

When I was a kid, footballs were made of leather and when they got wet, and when you headed one, you came away with a stunned, slightly spacey feeling.

That is what it is like when you get hit on the head with a CS gas canister. If you are wearing a helmet.

If you are not wearing a helmet it can take your eye out, or leave a dent in your scalp, so you have to wear a white hairnet and a big padded bandage.

That is what the doctor was wearing when I interviewed him at the Taksim Emergency Hospital: a white doctor's coat and a white bandage on his head.

He had been hit on the head while treating somebody who had been hit on the head with a CS canister.

I had been hit on the head while filming somebody getting hit with one. But I was wearing a helmet.

"They are targeting people," he said. "They are supposed to be fired at a long distance but they fire them close up, straight at you."

He showed me one of the empty canisters - there were a lot of the walking wounded carrying them around like souvenirs.

I slotted the end of it into the semi-circular hole in my helmet. It fitted perfectly.

So far, during the street fighting in Istanbul and other big Turkish cities, more than 4,000 people have been injured, and at least four killed.

Some people have lost an eye, some have received severe head injuries.

By day, when there is no gas, Taksim Square is of festival of fresh faced, youthful modernity.

Every metre of grass is covered by people: sitting, squatting, smoking, cuddling, looking at their photos from last night's riot, showing each other bruises.

People march up to you demanding you take a free biscuit or bottle of water.

Over here, 100 women in leotards are taking part in a free, mass yoga session, over there are women in veils beneath a banner reading "anti-capitalist muslims".

I have seen all this before - in Syntagma Square in Greece, among the Spanish indignados, on the roundabout in Tahrir Square.

But there is a difference, which accounts for the pall of sadness that hangs here between the plane trees.

The secular, urban, educated, young are a political minority in Turkey.

In Alifuatpasa, a small town which is a three-hour drive away from Istanbul, the Turkish spring will not be happening.

There is the bread shop, the mosque, the tea shop where the old boys in their knitted woollen hats sit and talk about the past.

In Alifuatpasa, the women do not wear skimpy tops, or yoga pants, but in fact the veil and clothes that cover them head to toe.

Here, my Turkish fixer has to get the local pharmacist to approach them to ask if they will speak to me - because I am not allowed to. The answer is no.

There is mild outrage here over what has gone on in Taksim.

"We never used violence in the fight against the ban on wearing the veil," says one man. "They are drunks", says another.

Alifuatpasa is one of those towns in Turkey that ensure prime minister Erdogan can win any election he cares to fight.

It is from towns like this that the moderate religious conservatism of the AK Party took hold, and it is to towns like this that Mr Erdogan has delivered.

"I am 72 years old," says one man, "and my life has never been better. What are they fighting about?"

The short answer is: Turkish society is split about 50-50 between supporters of religious conservatism and the rest.

The rest includes secularists, religious and ethnic minorities, the left, liberals, and those nostalgic for military rule.

It includes the football fans dancing arm-in-arm in their rival shirts, staring at each other in disbelief that they suddenly do not hate each other.

Mr Erdogan's strength lay in the fact that this secular part of society clung to old political projects and was divided.

What has brought them all together is not the park - that is just a symbol.

It is a feeling - as one Turkish writer put it - that there is, within society, "a growing unspoken air of animosity toward the modern", and that Mr Erdogan is playing to it.

So the forces of political Islam are strong.

But so is the force of Facebook, yoga and the barricades.

In the end it will come down to how much tear gas one side can dish out, and how much the other can take.

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