At the heart of Turkey’s political upheaval is a whirlwind of authoritarian building

Protestors in Ankara on Sunday, June 2.
Protestors in Ankara on Sunday, June 2.
Image: AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici
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Atop Çamlıca, a hill on Istanbul’s Asian side, a 15,000 square meter (161,000 sq foot) mosque is being built. If all goes according to prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan, the structure will be not only enormous, but visible to the entire city, too.

The mosque on Çamlıca, seen here in an artist’s rendering, would see—and be seen by—all of Istanbul.
The mosque on Çamlıca, seen here in an artist’s rendering, would see—and be seen by—all of Istanbul.

The new mosque would be one of the most visible symbols of Turkey’s program of authoritarian building—infrastructure and housing developments with political and religious ties that hardly take public opinion into account. This trend is part of what’s been driving the last few days of protests at Gezi Park in Taksim Square, the city’s main space for public gatherings, which was slated to become a mall and could end up hosting yet another mosque instead.

taksim square plans now turkey
Taksim Square and Gezi Park have been at the center of the recent unrest in Turkey.
Image: BBC

Erdogan’s government has devoted some 150 billion Turkish lira (paywall), or $79 billion, to seven major construction projects, including a TL10 billion airport (the city’s third and, one day, the world’s largest), new subway and cable-car lines, a third bridge over the Bosphorus strait, meant to relieve heavy traffic between the city’s European and Asian halves, and a 30-mile canal that would divert shipping traffic away from the overcrowded strait and be bigger than both the Suez and Panama canals.

Urban planning experts say these ambitious projects are long overdue (paywall). In 1980, public officials estimated that Istanbul could handle a maximum of 5 million residents. It’s now home to 13-14 million. The city’s two existing bridges, for example, were designed to handle 250,000 vehicles per day. Today, they see 600,000.

But these and other building projects across the country sometimes come at the expense of ethnic minorities and the poor. The government razed the old, predominantly Roma neighborhood of Sulukule in Istanbul and demolished Izmir’s Kadifekale district to make way for luxury housing. Turkish authorities have been accused of illegal evictions and shutting off water and electricity in buildings where people still live, as bulldozers ravage parts of the neighborhood. “There hasn’t been any effective consultation process [in the urban renewal schemes],” Andrew Gardner, an Amnesty International researcher, said in 2011.

The construction also targets Istanbul’s public spaces and historical centers. The city’s landmark Haydarpaşa train station was closed last year, ostensibly for repairs. Since then, the government has approved a rezoning of the area that would turn the area around the station into a bustling port and threaten the structure of a train station that’s more than 140 years old.

Both the aggressive approach to the construction and the choice of projects tap into fears among secular Turks that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party is moving towards a more authoritarian and Islamist form of rule. For example, Turkish daily Milliyet reported in February (via ANSAmed) that 17,000 new mosques had been built in Turkey since Erdogan took office, but the number of schools in the country had stayed the same.

That’s why the mosque on Çamlıca is such a potent symbol: To Erdogan’s opponents, it represents both his Islamist leanings and his riding roughshod over public space.

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Plans for Taksim square would have converted one of Istanbul’s few green spaces into a shopping center.
Image: BBC

On top of that, there have been accusations of favoritism. Erdogan’s new business elite—among them some of the largest construction players—are newly empowered, and happen to share the prime minister’s Anatolian heritage, his party affiliations, and his conservative religious beliefs. The more than TL100 million cost of building the mosque on Çamlıca is to be paid for by donors, which may mean people or businesses currying government favor.

The massive Housing Redevelopment Association of Turkey (better known as TOKİ) hands out contracts only to preferred developers. Erdogan uses the organization as a campaign tool, touting the possibility of home ownership and enumerating the number of homes the organization has built in campaign stops. TOKİ estimated that it would have built 565,000 homes and 100 hospitals since 2003 when Erdogan beefed up the agency.

But the new developments also push poorer people to the suburbs. Lucky low-income Turks can win lotteries that will put them in line to rent and ultimately own a home for a reasonable mortgage. Residents of Istanbule’s Sulukule neighborhood had the opportunity to purchase property some 25 miles away on the outskirts of Istanbul. An estimated 50 of the 1,000 displaced families would have the funds to remain in the redeveloped district. In Kadifekale, a woman told reporters that her family was given TL40,000 for her home, but that it was too little money to buy property in the relocation zones. And after protests in one condemned neighborhood, police quelled dissent in patrols with armored cars.

There’s clearly more to the Gezi Park protests—and the violent police response—than construction. But it’s part of what’s mobilizing Turks to take a public stand.