Last March I was walking past Gezi Park with a Turkish friend at dusk. He had just joined me from prayers and I asked him what he thought about the brewing debate over the park's future. Like most Turkish voters, he is a fan of the country's prime minister, Erdogan. Like most of the country's voters, my friend easily integrates his faith with his daily routines. But he said simply "Istanbul doesn't need another Mosque." He started pointing off in different directions. "There's one there, there and there. And there and there and there. Istanbul needs a park."
There's a common misconception that Turkey's current crisis is about a resurgence in political Islam. Some commentators fear that Turkey's leadership trying assert to Islamize a country that has been proudly secular for a long time. Some argue that the #occupygezi crisis is about Islam and the survival of the republic. But the crisis isn't about an elected leader trying to inject religion into public policy by building a mosque over the park where people go for political rallies and romantic strolls.
Everyone in Turkey can tell a story about how they turned on the TV hoping for news about current events, but found game shows, beauty pageants, and nature documentaries.
Erdogan and his leadership had little public engagement on Gezi Park development, so people used social media to have their own conversations, develop their sense of collective opposition, and then organize their protests.
The country-wide protests are actually the result of how Turkish politicians and citizens use media. The country's political elites have been trying to dominate public life through broadcast media, by controlling state-owned newspapers and television stations. But like most people, Turks like to manage their own communication networks. They prefer mobile phones and the internet as sources of news and information. And in times of crisis, they trust the information that comes from their own friends and family. The result is a kind of media cold war that pits politicians, political parties and broadcasters against civic groups, citizens, and social media.
This is not to say that Erdogan hasn't pushed a religiously conservative agenda. He has tried to curb drinking and outlaw adultery. But he has a history of reading public opinion well, learning from popular protest, and reigning in the conservatives in his party. He scrapped the law defining men as the head of household. For the 2007 elections, all of 62 female candidates running for election discarded their headscarves. He prevented 150 incumbent deputies from running again, either because of their conservative Islamic views or because they voted against letting U.S. troops pass through on the way to Iraq. So sharia law is not really on the national agenda, the ruling AK Party has done a good job, and Erdogan has been an effective leader. The economy is booming, many parts of the country are developing well, and government is not crippled by corruption.
Everyone in Turkey can tell a story about how they turned on the TV hoping for news about current events, but found game shows, beauty pageants, and nature documentaries. Even Erdogan's devotees know that the state-run news programs are grindingly uncritical. The pall of media control even has an impact on foreign broadcasters like CNN, which aired a penguin documentary within Turkey while its international broadcasters covered the clashes. Even when the country's newspapers and broadcasters began reporting on the crisis, they spun the story as being violent and local to Istanbul. Another friend, who attended the protests on Saturday, said "you see misinformation on Twitter. But social media has played a corrective role to faults in the other available media." On the days he joined in, he was part of peaceful demonstrations, and he found the Twitter streams telling stories about how the protests were country-wide and mostly nonviolent.
These days, Turks find themselves caught in the crossfire between highly politicized media organizations, so it is not surprising that when people want news they trust their own networks. The country has a dedicated community of startups designing apps, building games and generating content for the country's rapidly growing population of internet and mobile phone users. Half of the country's 75 million people are under 30. Half of Turkish citizens are online, and they are Facebook's seventh largest national audience. Government ministers and strategists do have Twitter accounts, but they still tend to treat social media as a broadcast tool, a way of pushing their perspectives out to followers. Erdogan has a twitter account with more than 2.5 million followers, but recently opined that "This thing called social media is a curse on societies."
The government has a bad reputation for persecuting journalists, especially those who have given up on working for state-run media and publish their investigative work online. Yet Erdogan's government has chased them down there too. In early 2011, police raided the offices and homes of staff working for the dissident website odatv.com. After the raids, an even larger dragnet of journalists was charged with coup plotting. Many of these journalists had never worked for odatv.com, but mainstream television broadcasters and newspapers pushed out the story that online radicals were threatening the country's political stability. When it came time for the trials, other journalists covered this story by live tweeting from the courtroom, and they successfully swung public opinion against further prosecution of odatv.com's staff.
Indeed, several of the country's national crises in recent years have emerged after difficult political conversations have been driven off the airwaves. Turkey's generals have long considered themselves the protectors of the country's secular values. In 2007, only a few months before a national election, a press release on the general staff's website warned the public about the Islamist rhetoric among the country's political leaders. With a sensitive history of military coups, this triggered a political crisis and was labeled a "coup-attempt-by-website" or "e-coup." Erdogan's government has made it clear that there will be no apology or reparations for Armenians, and the mainstream media seems more interested in music contests and game shows than such sensitive discussions. So thousands of Turks have been going online to sign declarations of apology and organize community memorials, triggering a new round of court challenges, police investigations, and accusations of disloyalty.