I've been tweeting about the protests in Gezi Park in Istanbul. It hasn't yet gotten much U.S. media attention, so I thought I'd do a basic summary of what is happening. I've simplified things a bit, forgive me.
Taksim Square is basically the heart of European Istanbul, where you go for a good meal, entertainment, and a stroll. It is also always the site of protest marches, often by labor unions, student groups, and ethnic minorities. So, protests in this area are not uncommon-- nor are police interventions.
As Turkey's economy has grown rapidly, many old Istanbul districts have been torn down to make room for high rises and shopping malls. While the ruling AK (Justice & Development) Party has also added greenspaces and planted many trees around the country, it has been fairly callous in its view of history. Not far from Taksim square, a famous 70 year old cafe , part of a larger historic district, was recently closed to make way for a new shopping center.
This comes on top of other changes in Turkey led by the AK Party, an Islamic-leaning pro-business party. It has nudged Turkey in a new direction from that of Atatürk, the secular founder of modern Turkey, and his would-be disciples known as "Kemalists." Kemalists closed religious schools, the AK Party has reopened them and increased mandatory religious education in public schools. Women are more encouraged than before to wear headscarves as both the President and Prime Minister's wives do, something unthinkable even 20 years ago. Atatürk was fond of the Turkish alcoholic drink rakı, but Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a practicing Muslim, has worked to tighten restrictions on alcohol and declared ayran, the yogurt drink, as Turkey's new "national drink." Abortion has been restricted. The military, once able to stage coups every decade to thwart any Islamic influence on government or public discord, has essentially been neutered. The media has come under increasing censorship, with even cartoons like The Simpsons coming under fire from the government for "blasphemy." All of these changes have happened relatively slowly, with the AK Party, known to be masters of opinion polls, taking advantage of the economic success to maintain popularity. The majority of Turks are nominal Muslims (70% don't drink, and over 60% of women wear headscarves) sympathetic to at least some of the AK Party's goals.
Atatürk and Turkey's commitment to secularism remain a pillar of early childhood education-- most of the national holidays celebrate Atatürk and his ideals. Since there is strong sentiment for secularism, the Kemalists have grown increasingly wary of the Islamists' attempts to change things (I witnessed this while teaching at a very Kemalist school). Istanbul, in particular, has always been European-style cosmopolitan-- different from Anatolia-- and much more secular in its leanings.
*Forgot to mention this in my original post* One of the most-told stories of Atatürk is when he was told that a large tree near one of his homes posed a danger to the home and needed to be cut down. He responded "The tree won't be cut down, the house will be moved." An entire team of engineers moved the entire house's foundation to save the tree. That is also in the spirit of this protest.
Hence, the battle for a single park in Istanbul is actually a symbol of a nationwide struggle between (often left-leaning) secularists and pro-business religious conservatives. The protestors are battling a Prime Minister who has said he will not be defied on this issue, making the battle oddly personal (he used to be Istanbul's mayor).
It's important because Turkey is still trying to get into the European Union as well as earn Istanbul the 2020 Olympics (it would be the first Muslim country to host the games). The government is trying to wield its new economic might and political influence in areas such as the conflict in Syria and Middle East peace. Now that Turkey is very much on the world stage, how it treats a rapidly-growing group of mostly peaceful protestors in Istanbul will be judged by the world.
For pictures from the protest, I recommend this Tumblr feed. The Washington Post also has a good running account of the protest. But know that protests and wanton tear gas firing by police are almost a daily occurrence all over Turkey over various grievances, labor disputes, soccer matches, etc. It is just the underlying meaning of this protest and its rapidly growing fervor that makes this one different--and important.