Turkey's Ottoman revival, secular revulsion

By bne IntelliNews June 3, 2013

David O’Byrne in Istanbul -

Disquiet with intolerant, incompetent and authoritarian government does not automatically translate into violent protest. If it did, much of the world would be in flames most of the time.

As recently as a week ago few would have expected a peaceful protest by a small group of young people against the destruction of a small public park in central Istanbul to morph into violent clashes in cities all across Turkey Sadly, the police response to that protest - violently evicting the protesters in clouds of tear gas - was all too predictable.

Such authoritarian measures have become sadly common over the past two years, as has the willingness of the mainstream Turkish media to fail to engage with the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. Many news channels chose to completely ignore last week's protests until they escalated into widespread violence over the weekend.

But even then with clashes erupting in cities cross Turkey, media reports were vague and failed to convey the full picture, preferring instead to lavish lengthy coverage to Erdogan's own responses to the protests in a serious of belligerent speeches at public functions, held despite the growing clashes.

Little wonder that Turks and international media alike have turned to the internet, with social media and live TV feeds from a few local media groups proving the most reliable source of news.

Little wonder too that Erdogan has chosen to brand Twitter a malign influence and label protesters as "çapulcular", or looters, and accused opposition political parties of orchestrating the rioting.

But while it is true that some fringe political groups have joined the protests, the majority of those protesting are ordinary people who have probably never taken part in a protest before. Many of them are young, too young perhaps to remember the economic and political chaos Turkey experienced in the 1990s and the early 2000s, prior to the election of the AKP in late 2002.

That election ushered in a new era of hope for Turkey. Both Erdogan and his AKP government were at pains to stress their commitment to democracy, secularism and to bridging the divides that had grown up between Turkey's various religious, ethnic and secularist parts.

More importantly, they were committed to following the strictures of the 2001 bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the letter, and to strictly enforcing impartial regulation of Turkey's financial services sector whose collapse in 2001 obliged the IMF rescue. Important because despite religious and political sympathies, most Turks vote on one issue alone: the handling of the economy.

And few would dare claim that any other Turkish government has ever handled the country's economy as effectively. Not for nothing has the AKP been re-elected twice with landslide majorities. Alone in Europe, Turkey continues to enjoyed remarkable growth rates despite losing vital export markets to the Eurozone crisis and not a single Turkish bank has experienced problems. GDP is expected to grow 4% this year and inflation - the scourge of the Turkish economy - is expected to fall under 5% for the first time in over three decades.

Those ministers who have presided over this "economic miracle" remain popular with the public and business communities alike and the respect of their international peers. So what has gone wrong?

Too prickly by half

If the chants of the protesters around Turkey are any indication, it boils down to the prime minister himself - specifically, his increasingly authoritarian tone, and the bizarre direction he has chosen to lead his government, implementing unpopular laws restricting the advertising and sale of alcohol, and calling on women to have "three children for Turkey", rather than, say, addressing an increasing ambiance of "sleaze" that has led to accusations of favoritism and lack of transparency.

Indeed, it is Erdogan's controversial plan to destroy the tiny Gezi Park to the north of Istanbul's iconic Taksim Square and rebuild the Ottoman barracks that once stood there as a shopping mall that has sparked the current protest.

Central Istanbul has very few green spaces and destroying the park makes little sense, the more so as Taksim Square is also one of the most potent symbols of Turkey's secular republic, and one of which most Turks are fiercely protective.

No wonder then that many see the plan to obliterate the park in order to recreate an insignificant Ottoman structure as one with sinister overtones, of undermining the secular republic and harking back to the era of the autocratic Islamic rule of the Ottoman Sultans.

The more so after Erdogan's announcement last week that he was naming the new, third bridge over the Bosphorus after controversial Ottoman Sultan Yavuz Selim (Selim the Grim), who massacred tens of thousands of his own citizens and conquered the Arab peninsula declaring himself the caliph of all Islam. Hardly a reassuring message to the newly emerging Arab democracies, which Erdogan himself has called on to look to Turkey as the region's oldest secular democracy.

And also a message that has worried many Turks, given that Erdogan has signaled both that he would like to be elected as the country's next president, and that he would like to change the constitution to one of government by executive presidency. In effect, replacing Turkey's parliamentary system with the very type of autocratic rule that the revolutions of the Arab Spring sought to overthrow. An irony that so far seems to have escaped Turkey's leaders.

The more so given that despite having united the Middle East under the banner of Islam, the Ottomans were also comprehensively evicted by their Arb subjects. And while some Ottoman Sultans did enjoy unrivalled power and demonstrated an enlightened approach to government, others were violently overthrown, even by their own supporters.

Credit: David O'Byrne

Turkey's Ottoman revival, secular revulsion

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