07/03/2013 11:12 am ET Updated Sep 02, 2013

The Streets of Istanbul

ISTANBUL, TURKEY -- Walking the busy streets of Besiktas, a lively, upscale neighborhood in Istanbul, the other evening, I had the impression that the discord that so recently convulsed the city was over; there was little evidence that the protests that made headlines around the world had ever occurred. Life was back to normal. Well dressed, young cosmopolitans and university students filled the brightly lit modern cafes, bars and shops. Western music blared from passing cars. The only visible sign of the recent civil unrest were the tattered letters and pictures that had been taped to a sculpture depicting the eagle mascot of the local soccer team, which had taken a leading role in the Taksim Square demonstrations.

Then Alper Boyer, an Istanbul interior designer, led my wife and I up a street toward the darkened precincts of the neighborhood park and everything changed. We heard amplified voices and, suddenly, all around us, the sound of banging pots. Looking up, I saw men and women hanging out their apartment windows hitting their kitchen ware with wooden spoons. In the center of the park, a small amphitheater was lit up and jammed with people listening to a speaker. The crowd of about 500 people spilled out under the trees along the margins of the amphitheater, many sat on spread-out newspapers drinking tea and coffee and smoking cigarettes. Mostly they were young students and activists, some professionals and a smattering of smiling older residents taking in the action.

Boyer had brought us to one of about 50 forums that have been taking place every night in parks across Istanbul. The proceedings at the one we attended were ultra polite and democratic. In consideration for their neighbors, hands were silently raised and fluttered to signal approval and arms crossed to vote no. Anyone who wished to speak could take a number and get on stage. We heard from a Kurdish activist, a middle-aged socialist, an environmentalist, a group of conscientious objectors, a political strategist and a noted Turkish journalist who had spent a year in jail awaiting a hearing on charges a judge ruled were based on planted evidence.

"People are not afraid to speak out anymore," Alper told us. Far from being over, Alper felt the momentum of liberalization in Turkey was continuing and unstoppable. I was surprised. Many of the editorials I'd read in the papers maintain that Islamist influence in Turkey has never been stronger -- at least not since before Kemal Ataturk secularized the country early in the last century. In some parts of Turkey my wife and I had seen as many women wearing head scarves as there were women without. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan claims he has more than 50 percent of the population behind him, counting both his conservative religious base and supporters from the middle and upper classes who have profited from the country's recent economic boom.

Strolling in Taksim square late that afternoon I had seen only one remaining protestor -- a teenage girl who was carrying a hand painted sign and asked for a hug -- among the thousands of busy pedestrians rushing by (a group of vigilant riot police officers and an armored vehicle stood watch). But Boyer reminded me that just the day before more than 20,000 people blowing whistles and carrying signs marched through the square in support of an L.G.B.T. parade.

"Things have changed. Erdogan has lost all his legitimacy with the Turkish people and the international community," Boyer said. "There have been so many ridiculous lies, no one believes anything he says anymore."

Baris Terkoglu, the journalist at the forum, agreed. He said that though more than 60 journalists remained in prison, the charges against them were so transparently trumped up and false that it had almost become laughable. The city's cultural elite and intelligentsia, he told me, were beginning to call the government's bluff and were throwing their support behind the new opposition movement. "I may go back to prison, but I am not afraid," he said.

There was an infectious elation among these peaceful, pro-democracy advocates at the forum, who are not calling for Erdogan's resignation but fervently believe that their side will prevail when the national elections are held in 2014. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that change will take place uncontested. As the forum continued late into the night -- it was nearing 11 o'clock -- a knot of restive, young men gathered at the rear of the crowd tossing out taunting remarks.
"They look like ultra-nationalists," Boyer told us and suggested it was time to leave.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Istanbul is Turkey's capital, while Ankara is Turkey's capital.