Within the context of the protests, Taksim has been the pinnacle of the anti- government movement since the very beginning. All impromptu demos, creative democratic protests, clashes with police etc. have all centred on Taksim and Taksim Square.
Yesterday, Taksim was host to yet another bizarre image that as a Turk, I had not witnessed before in my life. Over the past weeks, the ‘Anticapitalist Muslims’ – a group that has taken part in the protests – have been promoting an event titled the ‘Earth Iftar‘ (Iftar is the breaking of the Ramadan fast at sunset). With this event, all have been invited to break their fast at a dinner table that would span from Galatasaray Highschool on Istiklal Street to the start of Taksim Square, a span that stretches over 700m.
Indeed, people in the thousands turned up to break their fast at the street Iftar get-together. Meanwhile, the municipal borough of Beyoğlu (includes Taksim) had planned their own Iftar banquet on Taksim Square. Hence, there was an image of two competing Iftar banquets taking place in the same space but separate from each other.
This separation was not merely ideational. As the crowds were filling up Istiklal Street, a TOMA water cannon vehicle was parked in front of the banquet in order to stop it from growing towards the square, creating a physical barrier between the two parties. In the end, the water tank was as far as the banquet reached.
Merely 30 minutes after the call of prayer (time to break fast) the police started making announcements for people to leave Istiklal Street. In the end, against a large and peaceful crowd, the police pulled back and the public entered the square and Gezi Park.
Below is a video footage taken by Ben Trimmel that summarises the evening:
Symbolism and Politics
Within the current political climate, the polarisation of society and the creation of much stricter political ‘camps’ have resulted in the increase of symbolism within politics.
In the same way that wearing a headscarf had been turned into a political symbol, drinking alcohol has also become a political symbol. This is why the debates over alcohol consumption and regulation have taken centre stage in political and social divisons the same way wearing a headscarf in public spaces has done so in recent Turkish political history.
This latest twist over the Iftar issue is also an example of the role of symbolism in politics. The banquet laid on sheets of newspapers over the cobbled streets of Istiklal is for sure a humble passive resistance against the wordly rulership of the AKP. What I mean by this is that the protest movement is in opposition to the rulership of the AKP, but not in opposition to the godly beliefs that the party latently adopts. The movement calls for tolerance and for individual freedom, not differentiating between religious freedom or otherwise.
It is in this sense that the support shown for the ‘Earth Iftar’ banquet is a step in the right direction. The message that it puts across is that the protesters are not ultra-secular Kemalist that want to see Islam retracted to the shadows of civil society.
Unfortunately, initial attitudes against the ‘Earth Iftar’ event seem to be negative on the whole. I have read many statements that accuse those at the street banquet for using Iftar as an attempt to further polarise society by those who are non-believers or people who have not been fasting.
On the whole, the overlap of the Holy month of Ramadan with the protests could turn out to be a bad coincidence for a number of reasons. I would like to state that I make this statement not in support, but in grief of this belief. First, there is the distinct possibility that escalations during the month of July could trigger negative responses from Muslims who see the ‘provocations’ (from their respective angle) of the protesters as being insensitive to this holy month.
Second, as the initial reactions to the street banquet suggest, attempts at bridging the social division between the protesters and AKP’s more religious supporters – by trying to share the spirit of the month – is approached with skepticism. This skepticism is an engrained societal conditioned that exists due to the symbolic usage of religion in Turkish politics in a systematic manner throughout the Turkish Republic’s short history.
Within this context, the conduct of the government is of key importance. Unfortunately, an irresponsible government that has not refrained from taking all the wrong steps when faced with strong opposition is likely to make the most of any impending issue to rally support and marginalise its opposition. In this case, we might bare witness to a month of harsh criticism against ‘marginal groups’ that are disrespectful of the nation’s traditions, religion and culture. I do hope that the government will act responsibly and not try to strike a blow against its critics over such a delicate and fragile topic that can increase social tensions.