Gaining Freedoms
Claiming Space in Istanbul and Berlin
Berna Turam



The City and the Government

The city is a space where the powerless can make history. That is not to say it is the only space, but it is certainly a critical one.

—Saskia Sassen, “The Global Street: Making the Political”

On Monday, May 27, 2013, some seventy peaceful demonstrators organized a sit-in at Gezi Park in downtown Istanbul’s Taksim Square.1 Their goal was to oppose the demolition and replacement of the park with a mall. At first the Gezi demonstrations, initiated by urban activists who wanted to save the trees, did not appear much different from the numerous Occupy movements that had developed in cities around the world. But in less than a week, as harsh police retaliation attracted wider circles of supporters,2 the Gezi demonstrations triggered large-scale resistance across the nation and throughout the Turkish diaspora.3 The protest rapidly turned into an uprising against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Most important, the Gezi protests brought together ordinary people, mostly non-activists, university students, artists, intellectuals, and academics, who had long been divided by ancient ideological hostilities.4 In their defense of freedom and rights, the demonstrators formed new alliances that rose above these deep-rooted old antagonisms.

Muted by Erdoğan during the weeks of the protest, the Turkish television channels showed documentaries of penguins, while the world condemned the extreme use of tear gas, tanks, and police beatings. The Economist published a cover depicting Erdoğan in the robe and headdress of an Ottoman ruler, and asked “Erdogan: Democrat or Sultan?”5 The New York Times displayed images of police brutality toward unarmed protestors on its front page and published the protestors’ charges. A passive protestor, the “Standing Man” whose image was quickly spread around the world, was given a major German human rights award for his “courageous commitment to freedom of expression and human rights.”6 Divan Hotel in Taksim, which opened its doors to protesters and the wounded, was awarded the “Hospitality Innovation Award” by an organization based in Munich.7

In the new world politics, government violations of freedom and rights coexist with democratic alliances and practices in many nations that are vaguely referred to as democracies. Cosmopolitan cities like Istanbul in particular have increasingly experienced deep conflict with ethnic or religious claims seemingly replacing struggles over “Enlightenment ideals of universal citizenship.”8 As urban space generated pro-democratic alliances out of deep divides, Erdoğan’s government lost its initial (2002–7) enthusiasm for political reform and sank deeper and deeper into authoritarianism. Does this then suggest an inherent relationship between identitarian clashes and urban space? On the contrary, the Turkish case shows that the violation of basic codes of civility in the city has everything to do with political institutions that seek to control and “govern urban life.”9

This book explores the link between contested urban sites and government without reducing this relation exclusively to the global forces of neoliberalism. More specifically, it reveals and analyzes opposite political transformations in the realm of the city and the government. As urban space generated more democratic practices and alliances, the government sank deeper into authoritarianism.

In The Spaces of Democracy, Richard Sennett asks: “what is urban about democracy?”10 He answers that certain urban sites, such as squares, bring differences together and enable various identities to interact and mingle. As opposed to this view that emphasizes the cohabitation of differences, others have highlighted the clash of identities in the city as the core of a new global urban politics.11 By studying highly contested urban sites from Istanbul to Kreuzberg, Berlin’s so-called Turkish neighborhood, my ethnography suggests that neither festive cohabitation nor clash of differences renders the city central for democracy. Then, why and under which conditions does urban space take on an imperative role in democratic contestation? More specifically, in which ways and why does urban space become pivotal in unifying a previously divided opposition in defending freedoms and rights?

The predominant explanation of why urban space matters comes from the critics of neoliberalism, who often prioritize socioeconomic factors over political ones. Most urban studies view the city critically as a primarily neoliberal space. Notwithstanding the fact that cities have become hotbeds of class inequalities, this ethnography shifts the focus of analysis from strictly socioeconomic to primarily political dimensions.12 On the basis of in-depth empirical evidence, the defense of freedoms and rights comes to the forefront of analysis in this study. It is significant that among these political matters, the “spatiality of freedom”13—the fact that freedom pertains to and is constituted by space—has probably been the least explored subject.

In the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, another prevailing approach to urban space is centered on the presumed discord between democracy and Islamism, which largely flourished in cities. Over the preceding decade, Erdoğan had been perceived in the West as the epitome of a much-applauded “moderate Islam,” acquiring the image of a “democratic leader of the Islamic world.” Yet, seemingly overnight, he crushed this image when the police brutally evacuated Gezi Park. Major world powers, particularly the United States, hinted at withdrawing support for Erdoğan, while Germany sent warning messages to the government. Within Turkey, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, henceforth AKP) lost the support of secular circles of various political orientations. Moreover, Muslim democrats, such as pious feminist and anti-capitalist groups, joined the Gezi protestors condemning AKP’s policies. Despite these remarkable new bonds between Muslim and secular residents, many associated the Gezi protests with AKP’s, and thereby Islam’s, incompatibility with democracy.

The concurrent explosion of urban protests across the world from Latin America and the United States to Europe and the Middle East suggests a new trend in world politics that cannot be reduced to the clash between Islam and secular democracy. Globally, more and more people express their anti-government feelings by claiming and occupying urban spaces, as the formal official channels no longer suffice to represent people’s sociopolitical needs and grievances. Hence, indexing the Gezi protests to the politics of class, ethnicity, or religion fails to situate the urban contestation in Turkey in the larger geopolitics of space. Rather than pointing to the defeat of secular democracy by “pious Muslims”14 or the “Islamist” government, urban contestation in Turkey speaks to a sharpening polarization between the supporters and opponents of a deeper democracy that accommodates the rights and liberties of all, including minorities and dissenters, regardless of their differences of ideology or identity.15 When the parliament is dominated by an overempowered government and/or when political institutions fail to accommodate dissent or minorities, the city becomes the prime hub of democratic contestation over freedoms and rights. Looking beyond the seeming ideological clash and polarization on the surface, we actually see more and more urbanites demanding and collaborating for civic rights and freedoms to live, talk, think, dress, and act as they choose.


Two major urban protests have defined contemporary Turkish politics: the Republican Marches (Cumhuriyet Mitingleri) in 2007 and the Taksim-Gezi Protests in 2013. Both developed in Turkey’s major cities. But beyond a superficial similarity in a shared anti-government stance against the AKP, they did not have much in common. In fact, their political agendas, methods, and vision were polar opposites. The Republican Marches divided the secular discontents of the AKP and split urban space into hostile zones, whereas the Gezi Protests unified an already divided urban opposition to the government over the defense of freedoms and rights. So what changed in such a short time in the political arena and the city that culminated in a drastic change in the nature of political opposition? The main goal of this ethnography is to answer this question.16

During the Republican Marches in April–May 2007, more than a million people poured into the streets of Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara. In the aftermath of these demonstrations, I found myself in a zone of discontent that was divisive and infused with anxiety and fear in Istanbul. Offensive language, discriminatory behavior, and even physical confrontations in neighborhoods, university campuses, and streets were common. I had a hunch then that something important, something with long-term effects, was taking place in urban space. Now in retrospect, it became clear that 2007 was the start of fault lines in urban space and political divides between the governing branches of the state. Conflicts at both levels have deepened since then, as the AKP expanded its political supremacy and alienated large numbers of state actors and urbanites, all of which amounts to half of Turkish society living in despair.

The Republican Marches in 2007 were largely a “secularist backlash,” an outcry against the increasing popularity and successive victories of the pro-Islamic AKP government.17 Capitalizing on and fuelling the clash along the Islamist-secularist axis, the demonstrations condemned the increasing visibility of religion in the public sphere, as well as the socioeconomic and political empowerment of pious Muslims. The secularist protestors acted out in support of their commitment to protect the laicism (state control of religion) that has been one of the main pillars of the Turkish Republic since its founding in 1923. A considerable number of protestors even had sympathies for military tutelage over politics as an ultimate guard against the “Islamic threat.”18 Clearly, the agenda of the Republican Marches did not have much to do with democracy or freedoms and rights. On the contrary, they were mostly motivated by sheer power struggle between the new Islamist elite and the old secularist elite. Therefore, these protests not only deepened identitarian fault lines, such as religious versus secularist cleavage, but they also estranged genuine democrats, who refused an unconditional defense of laicism at the cost of freedoms and rights for all.

Neither disorder nor contestation is of the essence of the city life. Urban contestation is closely linked to and shaped by the competing “territorialities of the institutions.”19 Put differently, the disputes in the city are largely molded by the use or intrusions of political institutions, such as the government, that claim “ownership” of space or control conduct of urban life. In the years leading up to the 2007 Marches, Turkey had gone through major structural transformations of class and social status.20 The gradual replacement of the secularist political elite by the new pious Muslim elite had created deep-rooted power struggles between the two groups. The structural change was accompanied by major political transitions. In its first term (2002–7), the AKP conducted efficient economic and political reform, such as putting an end to military control of politics and passing laws that protected women against violence. However, AKP’s political reforms slowed down during its second term (2007–11) with the demise of Turkey’s EU dream, and ultimately stagnated during the third term (2011–present).21

The slowing down of the political reforms followed AKP’s nomination of Abdullah Gül from within the ruling party to become the first pious president of the secular Turkish Republic. Most secular democrats perceived this move as contradictory to the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of the state. The ensuing presidential crisis marked the beginning of a power struggle between the branches of the government. The military issued a warning (muhtıra) on its website directed at the AKP and reminded the AKP of its power and domination over the political realm.22 Following the presidential crisis, the AKP became increasingly confrontational and aggressive in its politics against the military.23 After being elected for the third time in free and fair elections in 2011, the pro-Islamic AKP gradually adopted undemocratic patterns of rule, some of which were inherited from the early Republican era,24 such as violation of rights and freedoms of minorities and political opponents.25

Efficient negotiation and cooperation with the increasingly hegemonic AKP failed in the parliament and other branches of the state, and urban space generated dissent. Vocal contestations occurred, primarily in major cities. When pious Muslims gradually integrated into more inclusive urban sites, and began sharing bourgeois lifestyles in the city, longtime secular residents became alarmed and started to act in defense of “their sphere” of freedom and privacy. Bitterly contested issues included, but were not limited to, freedom of lifestyle,26 dress, privacy, sexuality, expression, and thought. A new territoriality emerged in Istanbul, which was largely symptomatic of urban residents’ rising fears of losing their intimate space—space that people often associate with their individual freedom and rights.

Unlike some other large cities, such as Izmir and Eskişehir, where the secularists have an uncontested monopoly of power and control, Istanbul has become increasingly difficult to share between pious and secular urbanites. More specifically, the weakness of formal political channels in encountering AKP’s supremacy culminated in spontaneous daily quarrels over lifestyle, and heated bickering over freedoms.27 As AKP increasingly picked on and interfered with “un-Islamic” ways of life, Istanbul has turned into a zone of clashes and confrontation. Drinking alcohol, wearing revealing outfits, such as showing cleavage,28 and displaying intimacy and sexuality in public spaces became charged symbols of political contestation over freedoms.

From 2011 on, the political situation in Turkey grew more alarming: arrests and unsubstantiated detentions of journalists, academics, and university students peaked. Jails were full of people accused of terror-related activities and denied a trial. A considerable number of people convicted of terrorist activities in Turkey had “never taken up a gun” or committed violence.29 By 2013, the government had changed its position on judicial reform, stepping back from earlier commitments and placing the judiciary under the control of the prime minister. In this way, Turkey’s traditional Kemalist judicial tutelage, often referred to as “a juristocracy,” was replaced by judicial control by the new pro-Islamic elite.30

In sharp contrast to the weakening of democratic credentials and rising authoritarianism under AKP’s rule, urban space prominently generated pro-democratic contestation, along with democratic alliances. Six years after the Republican Marches, the Gezi protests erupted. In contrast to the divisive Republican Marches, Gezi had a remarkably unifying effect on oppositional forces and voices. As Erdoğan’s political supremacy politicized the state, new urban alliances seeking freedoms and rights developed in squares, parks, and streets across the country, bridging the traditional ideological fault lines within the opposition.

Gezi was the culmination of a long-term transformation that had simmered over the years in major cities, particularly Istanbul. The AKP distrusted city life in general, particularly profane art, un-Islamic or liberal lifestyles, and nightlife, and it developed explicit antipathies to secular sites in the unruly yet very pivotal city of Istanbul, which was capable of escaping the government’s grab (unlike Ankara, for example). Subsequently, the AKP has thus launched a process of encroachment upon the city’s urban space, green areas, forests and parks, art centers, and iconic historical places loaded with meaning and intimacy for the locals, hastily building new malls, expensive residences, public housing, and roads with no regard for aesthetic sensibilities. In line with the AKP’s capitalist ambitions, and at the expense of the historical city, the government has championed aggressive forms of neoliberalism. Meanwhile, nepotism has led to rivalry among its inner cadres and followers, who compete over contracts for new construction.

The AKP’s obsession with controlling and cashing in on urban space has gone hand in hand with violation of civil rights, specifically the rights of expression, press, assembly, and protest. During its third term, more than one thousand cases were brought to the European Court of Human Rights. In turn, the deterioration of individual liberties and civic rights reinforced the prioritization of the use of urban space for resistance and opposition to the government.

Ironically, AKP’s disproportionate encroachment on city life provoked new expressions of love of freedom in urban space. For example, residents of what had been a rather homophobic city started to paint their streets, doorsteps, sidewalks and squares in LGBT rainbow colors. AKP’s increasing supremacy triggered a new urban search for freedom,31 manifested in mundane living rather than strategic organizing and mobilization. This new urban politics cannot be explained by the rich existing literature on organized collective action, social movements, or political mobilization,32 mainly because these blossom and flourish in strikingly spontaneous, creative, often humorous, and mostly unintentional aspects of everyday life.33 As a “non-movement,” to use Asef Bayat’s terminology, it manifests itself in the way city dwellers live their lives—their urban lifestyles, consumption patterns, tastes, and so on. Different from collective upheavals in history or current contentious politics,34 this politics of everyday life informs the rise of a new form of urbanism as the major resistance to the authoritarian government.

This new urbanism simply opposes political supremacy by demanding, claiming control, and “ownership” of urban space. This is more than utilizing the city to organize or protest. This claim of space has a direct effect on power dynamics through shaping ways of life in neighborhoods, campuses, and streets.35 Facing an increasingly unresponsive, discriminating, and repressive government, urban residents carve their space of rights and freedoms out of cities, where they can and feel entitled to contest politically. Paradoxically, as urbanites defended their doorsteps, streets, and neighborhoods against an increasingly authoritarian government, pro-democratic sensibilities and alliances grew across groups, which were historically divided and antagonized, particularly since the Republican Marches.

Spatial defiance and urban anxieties are fortified by people’s decreasing trust in, and increasingly unfulfilled demands from, the government. When urban residents feel that their rights and liberties are not protected and their life world is attacked, their discontents are manifested in various forms of territorialities, such as claims over neighborhoods, campuses, parks, squares, and so on. In the absence of a reliable institutional protection of rights and freedoms, residents tend to hold on to their immediate space as the base of their rights and freedoms. Intimate spaces take on a primary value under these conditions of weakening democracy and revived authoritarianism, since these places are associated with a sense of spatial belonging, intimate familiarity, and territorial entitlement.

Briefly, during the short period between the Republican Marches and the Gezi Protests, Turkey went through major urban and political transformation in the opposite directions, democratization in the city and authoritarianism by the government. The power of the contested urban space came from its ability to stand above the identitarian or ideological fault lines in the defense of universal values of democratic liberties and rights.

This book is an ethnographic analysis of this shift, which “liberated” and united pro-democratic urbanites from the cages of ideological divides and urban fault lines between Islamism and secularism. In sharp contrast to this liberating trend in the city, Erdoğan and his government have become increasingly trapped by these old, polarizing cages, which impede capacities of cooperation between the political elite in the government and opposition. While the urban trend deepened and strengthened democracy, the government capitalized on the idea of the “deep state,” implicated in illegality, illegitimacy, unaccountability, and corruption.


1. See Cassano 2013. On May 28, the group petitioned Istanbul’s Council to Protect Culture Heritage as a coalition of Right to the City associations.

2. As the bulldozers started uprooting the trees, tension arose between the protestors and the police. At about 5:00 a.m. on May 30, the peaceful protestors were caught by surprise facing the disproportional use of force and violence by the police. Taking advantage of his parliamentary immunity, Sırrı Süreyya Önder, representing the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) faced off a bulldozer to stop it from destroying the park. However, the Kurdish presence remained low and less visible in the protests overall, since they did not wish to endanger the peace process under Erdoğan’s regime.

3. Originally, the protest was closely associated with a residents’ group called Taksim Platform, established in January 2012, which has been in a dialogue with both Taksim area residents and local government in the city in order to form public opinion about several projects, such as the construction of an underground tunnel.

4. According to a KONDA survey, the average age of the protestors was twenty-eight.,231889 (in Turkish).

5. Economist, June 6, 2013.

6. “Turkey’s ‘Standing Man’ Wins German Award,” Al Jazeera, August 26, 2013; “Turkey’s Standing Man Wins German Rights Award,” Hürriyet, August 26, 2013. The Turkish choreographer has become an icon of peaceful resistance by standing motionless for hours and starting a new form of anti-government resistance in Istanbul.

7. “Gezi Protestolarındaki cesareti için dev ödül” [Giant award to Divan Hotel for its bravery during Gezi protests]. Hürriyet, October 8, 2013.

8. Davis and Libertun de Duren 2011: 2.

9. Ibid.: 4.

10. See esp. Sennett 1998: 12.

11. See, e.g., Davis and Libertun de Duren 2011.

12. While scholarship has been rich in analyses of the spatiality of socioeconomic processes, the spatial turn in exploring political issues, such as citizenship, democracy, and social justice, has been rather recent and scant. See, for exceptions, Işın 2000; Sassen 2006; Soja 2010.

13. No doubt, space is not the only factor that shapes freedoms, but it is a largely neglected factor even in intersectional studies, which take the intersection of various social and political variables seriously. I use “spatiality of freedom” not as a merely negative or positive quality of politics, but as a conditional aspect of it. Depending on sociopolitical conditions, governments and political forces, including both progressive/democratic and conservative/authoritarian ones, all interact with urban space.

14. Throughout this book, to differentiate the ordinary believing, practicing residents whom I refer to as “pious Muslims” from the Islamist political elite, I switch between the terms “pious Muslims,” “pro-Islamic,” and “Islamist.” Pious Muslims are identified primarily by their faith-based ways of life (rather than a unifying Islamist political ideology), whereas the AKP represents a conservative, right-wing, neoliberal, pro-Islamic political ideology. Although overlaps between the two categories may exist, it would be a sweeping generalization to identify religious urbanites from all classes and walks of life with the increasingly paternalist and authoritarian party ideology of the AKP.

15. Turam 2012a, 2012b. See also Ağırdır 2013.

16. With regard to methodological improvisations, see Zussman 2004; Pierce 2003; Nelson 2001; Trouille 2012. Though I hadn’t arrived in the field with a distinct agenda, I was spontaneously pulled into studying the street-level contestations. “Many of the [scholars who do sociology of place] do not seem to have started, as Burawoy (1998) would have it, with their favorite theory, then gone out looking for places to reconstruct it. . . . Adie Nelson seems to have found herself at ballet classes more as a mother than a sociologist, and then, a good sociologist as well as a mother, began to think about what her experience told her about ‘dream work.’ Jennifer Pierce’s tenure trials were not an issue she sought: They were something that happened to her” (Zussman 2004: 358). For striking methodological examples, see Nelson 2001; Pierce 2003.

17. Turam 2008a, 2008b.

18. Author’s interviews in the aftermath of Republican Marches in 2007. I have argued elsewhere (Turam 2008b) that the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) was doomed to failing in forming efficient opposition because the secularist Kemalists were accustomed to claiming “custody” of the state and never learned to engage or share power with rival political forces.

19. Davis and Libertun de Duren 2011: 4.

20. On the shifting political allegiance of Turkish business and entrepreneurs, see Yavuz 2012.

21. Öniş 2012; Kadıoğlu 2012: 55.

22. The presidential crisis put a sharp end to the period of smooth engagement between pious Muslims in the parliament and the secular branches of the state, which lasted over a decade.

23. In its second and third terms in office, the AKP waged war on the military, accusing it of an anti-government conspiracy committed by an extralegal network, referred to as the “Ergenekon network.” A large number of military officers of different ranks were detained for extended periods without trial and when they were eventually tried received long or life sentences, suggesting that the judiciary had lost its independence.

24. See esp. Bayar 2014.

25. “[O]ne should not underestimate the elements of exclusion, which appeared to underpin the ‘old regime,’ and to some extent new elements of inclusion have been built into the ‘new regime,’” the prominent political economist Ziya Öniş writes. “While the old regime provided little leeway for the religious and conservative segments to express their identity claims, the new system has similarly limited the claims of secularists or minority groups,” (Öniş 2013: 106–7). See also Tombuş 2013.

26. I use the terms “lifestyle” and “ways of life” interchangeably throughout the book in the context of freedoms and rights.

27. Ağırdır 2013 provides the best account of the centrality of lifestyle in polarized Turkey.

28. “Turkish TV Presenter Fired for Revealing Cleavage,” Hürriyet, October 9, 2013.

29. Commentators have criticized the “mentality of the judiciary” (yargının zihniyeti) or used the term “judicial activism” (yargısal aktivism) to describe the increasingly political and authoritarian attitude of the judiciary. See Berkan 2013; Taha 2013b. A large number of military officers, including top-ranking generals and the chief of the General Staff (Genelkurmay Başkanı), İlker Başbuğ, were sentenced to decades in prison. Although the AKP lifted some of these sentences before the local elections in March 2014, the judiciary remains questionable, as it deferred political rulings to special courts rather than pursuing fair trials.

30. Özbudun 2012; Belge 2012. Conference paper. “Dismantling Turkey’s Juristocracy: AK Party and the Transformation of Political Power in Turkey,” Middle East Studies Association Annual Meeting, Denver, Colorado, November 2012. See also Taha 2013a, 2013b.

31. I thank Yeşim Bayar for suggesting the term “searching for freedom.”

32. For comprehensive discussion, see Polletta 2002, 2006. Previous scholarship on democratic contestation has largely focused on grassroots activism, collective action, and social movements. Similarly, the bulk of existing work in urban studies has been on urban democracy that entailed local governance, community-building, and strategic networking in cities. See, e.g., Singerman 1996.

33. Bayat 2007.

34. Tilly and Blockmans 1994; Tilly and Tarrow 2006; McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001. Mundane everyday life lacks both strategic mobilization and collective action. Unlike these wide-ranging forms of abrupt or long-term organizing, the new urbanism is manifested in the ways of life and thereby unconventional parameters of power contestations.

35. In contrast to the predominant neglect of power struggles in many theories of symbolic interaction and the public sphere, recent ethnographies have paid attention to “the actual processes through which open territories are claimed, controlled, and contested” (Trouille 2012: 2). See also Turam 2012a; Gökarıksel 2012.