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The 'Marxist Muslims' Of Taksim Square

Muslim anticapitalist Emin Albayra has found common cause with secular demonstrators on Istanbul's Taksim Square.
Muslim anticapitalist Emin Albayra has found common cause with secular demonstrators on Istanbul's Taksim Square.
ISTANBUL-- A bagpipe squeals over Taksim Square as a ring of demonstrators dances merrily around.

The circle largely represents the grab bag of disparate groups that has come together in their anger at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They say he is becoming increasingly authoritarian and many claim that he has tried to force Islamism -- through laws like restrictions on alcohol sales -- on a segment of the population that cherishes its secularism.

It is a cause that Zeynep Agbayir, a devout Muslim who proudly dons her head scarf as she joins her husband in the ring, says she strongly supports.

People like Agbayir, 27, and a member of the Muslim Anticapitalists movement, are a rarity in this square.

Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) enjoy widespread support from conservative Muslims whereas the overwhelming majority of protesters identify themselves as secular. But religious participants say there are others like them who would attend were it not for social pressures.

According to Agbayir, Erdogan adds to this tension by manipulating religious Muslims.

"For example, when he said I’m not going to build a mall, but I’m going to build a mosque here, he was playing the religious card -- trying to engineer religious kinds of feelings," she says.

One of Erdogan’s initial reactions to the unfolding protests against a plan to build a shopping center in Taksim Square, was a proposal to scrap the mall project in favor of a mosque and an opera house.

'God, Bread, Freedom'

Agbayir’s anticapitalist group might be characterized as Marxist with a religious twist. The organization’s website describes the "sweat and the blood of the working people," but a spokesperson said the group's left-wing political values are inherently religious ones.

"The group believes that property belongs to God and that means that the property belongs to the people," says graphic designer Emin Albayra, 33, beneath the organization's slogan "God, bread, freedom," which is emblazoned on the tent she is sitting in. "By being here we’re trying to tell people that this is how it is."

The collective, the most visible overtly religious group participating in the Taksim Square protests, does not represent a significant political force.

But other demonstrators who identified themselves as practicing Muslims also cited economic concerns and said there were more who supported their cause.

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Sukran, who asked that her last name not be used, is wearing the only head scarf in a part of the park that has become a de facto meeting point for fans of the Besiktas soccer team. She expresses deep bitterness at what she calls a phony upper-class version of Islam -- one in which women who wear designer head scarves do not work.

The 24-year-old textile-factory employee says she works six days a week. She claims to know others who agree with her but are restricted from participating in the protest movement because of social pressures.

"There are a lot of restrictions within the families," she says."I have a lot of friends who think just like me but they’re just not allowed to come here."

Barcin Yinanc, a political columnist for the Istanbul-based "Hurriyet Daily News," agrees that practicing Muslims face pressure at home, but she maintained that some who might otherwise support the movement were fearful that signs of religiosity like head scarves would attract unwanted attention at the protest site.

Nevertheless, she insisted that the protest could not be simplified as a battle between Islamism and secularism.

"The thing is [the demonstrators] don’t have these grandiose world views about the nature of the state, about politics, etc.," she says. "What really defines them is obviously sort of [being] freedom seekers."

Yinanc's "live and let live" outlook is something that Agbayir can also identify with.

"I don’t want anyone to get involved in my head scarf," she says. "Just like I don’t want anyone to get involved in someone else’s drinking."

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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

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