Istanbul and the great unraveling

History warns out to watch out for those unexpected sparks in unlikely places on the oft-ignored eastern edge of Europe, every 100 years or so. I can't help but think that the ghost of Archduke Ferdinand was looking on as Turkey's largest city of Istanbul descended into fiery chaos over the last few nights.

The protests and unrest that are rocking the fulcrum between Europe and the Islamic world seem to be inspired by an issue of little consequence: The Turkish government wants to take a small strip of public space near the center of the giant city, a place called Gezi Park, and convert it into a kind of a shopping mall that would be a reconstruction of barracks that existed on the site a couple of centuries ago.

About a week ago, an Occupy Gezi movement popped up to prevent Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's plan from taking place. Since then, police and other government forces have used tear gas and tried to forcibly clear the park. Not only have the government efforts backfired so far, as the park remains in control of the Turkish occupiers, but the protests have spread to other cities outside of Istanbul.

It may seem inconsequential -- but the symbolism is overpowering. This battle over a tiny acre of land is also the story of the 21st Century writ large. Will the rights of everyday citizens -- to gather and assemble freely, to enjoy one of the few remaining patches of nature in a densely populated, pollution-choked metropolis be trumped yet against by the creation of a capitalist theme park, backed by one more democracy-flavored despot who sees his mission as serving corporations over people?

Or is Genzi Park, some 5,000 miles from where I write this, the place where the people finally say, Yok!


Genzi Park is Zuccotti Park -- and yet it is also more than Zuccotti Park. Like the many Middle Eastern nations to its south, Turkey is struggling to juggle modern governing -- as well as secularism -- with the more Islamist elements of its society (in Turkey, Erdogan's government tilts Islamist and the current protesters lean secular.) . And like the European nations to the east, there is the powder keg of austerity, the failed, elite-driven policies that have caused youth unemployment to skyrocket, the raw kindling of revolution.

America has flirted with the same disastrous policies -- witness the sequestration -- but so far we haven't fully joined with Europe on the wide superhighway to unrest. But too many other commonalities -- income inequality, unresponsive and unaccountable government, difficult job prospects for young people -- are present here. And once a brushfire starts, you never know where it may spread.