May 28 started out as a simple sit-in, as a handful of environmentalists protested the destruction of a small public park in Istanbul's Taksim Square. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan planned to replace the park and demolish the historical Ataturk Cultural Centre in favor of a mall, a mosque and a replica of Taksim Military Barracks, a relic of the Ottoman Empire destroyed in 1940.
At first, the protests, as Elif Batuman observed in The New Yorker, felt more like an impromptu street festival. Once the police crackdown began in the early morning hours of May 31, the mood rapidly changed, and news of the struggle started to make the rounds on Twitter and Facebook. #OccupyGezi took over the Twittersphere so rapidly it formed what some called a "hashtag army," unleashing a force powerful enough that even the Greeks were showing their solidarity.
You don't get a turnout like this for protecting green space, no matter how sacred. The protests say more about Turkish identity than they do about urban development. Turks are awakening to fight against their prime minister's attempts to transform Turkish identity through initiating a neo-Ottoman revival, quashing the opposition and expanding the role of the state.
First, Erdogan's "Otto-philia" is wildly known and is not kept under wraps. True, it's not just his pet project: The Ottoman cultural revival has swept popular culture, expressing itself in soap operas like Magnificent Century, films like "Conquest 1453," fashion exhibits and even ads for airlines. Then there's the planned construction of a third bridge over the Bosporus, which Erdogan named after Yavuz Sultan Selim – a sultan who massacred the Alevis, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, in the 16th century – in a controversial May 29, 2013 ceremony.
Perhaps the best example of this clash between Erdogan's Otto-philia and modern Turkey is in Taksim Square itself. Erdogan's reconstruction of the Taksim Military Barracks, a relic from an empire defined by religion, would have been sharing the square with the memorial to the Turkish War of Independence, a statue featuring the father of modern Turkey and Turkish secularism, Ataturk.
Second, #OccupyGezi spurs from Erdogan's failed attempt to instill real harmony, which primarily consisted of quashing dissent and the domestic opposition. As he told The New Yorker,
"Dear friends, to be one, to be together, to walk together toward the same future is the biggest strength of our people," he said. "For this reason, the first priority should be to eliminate those who do not want Turkey to grow, develop, and advance. Everyone should be at ease – we will not let anyone disturb this harmony."
Turkey's thirst for economic growth initially won Erdogan votes. He turned around the economy, making Turkey now one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe with a per-capita income of $10,000, triple what it was prior to his administration. As a result, the middle class has grown, with wealthier citizens moving from rural areas into Istanbul. This economic strength also won the admiration of the West.
Yet Erdogan's call for unity and belief in majoritarian democracy has a more sinister side. As one protester noted, "his understanding of democracy is you vote and that's it." In Erdogan's mind, the majority has already expressed its will by voting for him. This mentality has created a sort of tyranny of the majority, which Erdogan uses to stomp out dissent through arrests, bad publicity for dissident groups or simply ignoring the voice of the minority.
For instance, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 21 journalists have been killed since 1992, and 49 imprisoned for their work as of Dec. 1, 2012. More journalists were jailed in Turkey in 2012 than in Iran, China or even Eritrea.
Third, Erdogan has attempted to redefine the role of the state, and in the process, pitted himself up against a long-standing and aggressively protected history of secularism. Once imprisoned for his Islamist leanings in 1999, he at first found himself concerned about the possibility of butting heads with Turkey's "deep state" – an alleged clandestine network in the military bent on protecting the country's secular heritage. At the moment, he's finding himself disagreeing with his own people, including some of his old supporters, on the country's trajectory.
The protests may not have much to do with Turkey's media-friendly struggle between the secular and the religious, even if age-old debates over public displays of religious faith are still brewing. However, none of this can be separated from a larger debate about the proper role of the state in Turkey.
#OccupyGezi gave a voice to those concerned about the rise of an autocracy by demanding a free and just democracy for all. Meanwhile, Erdogan's moderate Islamism – found, for example, in his limitations on alcohol consumption or in his comments on his desire to protect the nation from bad habits – embraces a broader view of state power, one with more power over individual decision making. It's this overbearing "fatherly" instinct that many Turks find ill fitting with their understanding of democracy and state power.