Erdoğan opens mosque in secular heartland of Taksim on protest anniversary

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will inaugurate a mosque with a capacity for 2,250 worshippers in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on Friday, the anniversary of the 2013 Gezi Park protests.

Taksim is the traditional secular and liberal heartland of Turkey’s largest city. A monument to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk stands there, along with the shell of a cultural centre named after Turkey’s staunchly secular founder, closed allegedly for repair more than a decade ago.

Erdoğan, a former mayor of Istanbul, will open the mosque following Friday prayers. He had proposed it when campaigning for mayoral elections in 1994.

Fahrettin Altun, Erdoğan’s communications director, hailed the mosque’s opening as a “dream come true” in a statement on Twitter. “Best wishes to our nation and the entire Islamic world,” he said.

The presence of the Atatürk Monument and cultural centre at Taksim helped make the square a symbol of secular Turkey and a key location for decades of protests and rallies, including the nationwide Gezi Park demonstration that began there against the government eight years ago.

Plans for a mosque at Taksim have long been advocated by Turkey’s religious right, before finally being approved under Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in January 2017. The AKP is a successor to an Islamic movement banned by the Constitutional Court in 1997.

People began congregating in Gezi Park on May 28, 2013 in protest at the AKP’s plans to build a shopping centre, cultural centre and mosque there. The protests were eventually stifled by police after Erdoğan ordered a heavy-handed crackdown with tear gas and plastic bullets that led to 11 deaths, 11,000 injuries and more than 3,000 arrests.

Taksim was concreted over by the government following the protests in what some AKP opponents say was revenge for the demonstrations. Opposition plans to redevelop the square with green spaces have not been approved.

Erdoğan adopted liberal, pro-European policies after becoming prime minister in 2003 to help garner public support and see off opposition by the secular military.

But Erdoğan’s rhetoric and actions have become increasingly Islamic as he sought to depict himself as a leader of Muslims in the Middle East, Europe and Africa. His AKP has poured billions of dollars into the country’s Religious Affairs Directorate, built scores of mosques, including one that towers above Istanbul’s Bosporus straits, turned secular high schools into institutions focusing on religious education, and vowed to bring up a pious youth.

The new mosque complex, with a construction area of 16,500 square metres, includes a conference centre, exhibition halls, an outdoor prayer area and a car park. Its minarets stand 81 metres high.

Taksim mosque

Despite Erdoğan’s daily political speeches and his thinly veiled criticisms of Turkey’s secular past, the AKP’s policies are still opposed by large sections of Turkish society. Many young Turks have only known Erdoğan as leader. About a quarter of Turkey’s youth is unemployed.

The president’s opponents include supporters of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by Atatürk, and politicians from the leftist pro-Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP), many of whom have been ousted from office or jailed on charges of terrorism.

Erdoğan’s critics also include Osman Kavala, a Turkish businessmen and philanthropist. He has been held in custody for more than three years after Erdoğan accused him of plotting the Gezi Park protests to overthrow his government. Kavala denies the charges but remains behind bars despite calls for his release by the European Union and the United States.