Istanbul Rising…and Falling


Turkey, by far the most western looking and peaceful country in the Muslim world, has been upended by protestors this past week. Outsiders to this part of the world may be confused by what is happening in Istanbul, thinking that this wave of protest and violent government suppression is just like the “Arab Spring” movement in Egypt or Tunisia. In fact, much of the fuss is an exact opposite–it is a group demanding a separation of religion and politics, not a Muslim Brotherhood confluence.

I have a very soft spot for Turkey. My in-laws made their careers there and my wife called Istanbul and Ankara home for much of her childhood. I have been thoroughly steeped in Turkish culture (and cuisine) ever since. And my own experiences in Turkey left me irrevocably changed, as all good travel does.

Istanbul has always been an international and cosmopolitan city, always simmering with the activity of people and ideas from all over the world, and occasionally boiling over. Its strategic location has been fought over in every century since the time of Christ. As ancient Byzantium, it was an trading town.  As “The City” or “Nova Rome,” it was the capital of the aging Roman Empire. As Constantinople, it was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, the last city of Europe and the first city of the rest of the world. Istanbul became the New York of the Muslim world with its conquest by the Ottoman Empire. And it was the launching point of the modern, nationalist state of Turkey, salvaged from the wreckage of World War I. The rather obnoxious earworm below makes for a better summary of “The City’s” history:

Turkey is a secular nation, much as America is. The separation of mosque and state is an important tenet of Turkish life. Yet, the people are religious in private life. Turkey is nationalist first–proud of its modernization. The tensions in Turkish politics are caused by the balance between secular and sacred life. Like America, Turkey has pockets of “blue states and cities” where most people live. But the “red states” make up most of the political map in Turkey. Those smaller towns and villages are more conservative, and voted into office a party that was interested in “reforming” the old secular model of the country. For ten years, the current ruling party has chipped away at social issues, while enjoying political support for an economic boom time in the country.

The latest Turkish tumult is a study in extremes. The protests began modestly enough with a group of environmentally-friendly and preservation-conscious citizens who opposed the demolition of one of the last remaining green spaces in Istanbul— a city of over 10 million people. Put another way, 1 in 7 Turks live in “The City” and there is no Central Park.  The protests began because local authorities, regional governments, and the courts had halted the planned redevelopment of the square by the national government in Ankara, the country’s capital. However, the Turkish prime minister—Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced Reh-jepp Tie-yip Air-dough-ahn) decided to redevelop the property despite the local ruling by decision makers.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Caricature

Erdogan is a polarizing figure in modern Turkey. Depending on your political persuasion, he is either the Ronald Reagan (or FDR) or Putin (or Ronald Reagan) of Turkey. He has brought optimism and economic vitality to Turkey while wielding an oppressive fist against opposition parties. Erdogan was a conservative mayor of Istanbul in the 1990’s, who was sentenced to prison for reading Islamist poetry in public as mayor. At the time, Turkish law had severe restrictions on freedom of expression to assure the separation of mosque and state. This separation is a legacy from the founding father of Turkey—Kemal Ataturk—who founded the country as a secular, nationalist state after World War I. Turkey has been a stable ally in the middle east because of this national secularism. While the majority of Turks are Muslim, they do not desire a theocracy like in the Ottoman days or in neighboring Iran.

From jail, Erdogan founded a political party—the “Justice and Development Party”— to oppose the secular Kemalist party, and his party won a majority in the national parliament in 2002. His friend, Abdullah Gul, became prime minister, and he stepped down in favor of Erdogan in 2003. Since then, Erdogan has won three national elections with a majority. Erdogan is the most popular elected official since the country’s founder–Ataturk. And like Ataturk, he has been as polarizing.

Erdogan’s winning coalition is based on two pillars—Turkey’s economy, and Turkey’s countryside. The Turks have enjoyed an economic boom in the past decade. Erdogan has led Turkey’s renewed interest in joining the European Union. And Erdogan has overseen vast infrastructure improvements. Erdogan has calmed the conflict between Turks and Kurds, welcomed the return of Kurdish language and culture on TV and in the streets and negotiated the self-deportation of the anarchist Kurdish Workers’ Party. However, like all politicians, he has used that political capital to cash in on social issues. He forced through constitutional revisions that helped improve freedom of expression—the sorts of laws that landed him in jail. However, he persecuted generals and military personnel loyal to the secularist party. He made pronouncements seeking a “pious generation” in Turkey, pitting the conservatives and the devout of the countryside against cosmopolitan Istanbul. He has pushed hard to severely limit alcohol sales, has been friendly with Iran, has been vocally antagonistic against Israel and held sympathy with the resurgent Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Eqypt and Palestine.

The protests come on the heels of an economic slowdown that is leaving many Turks frustrated with the Erdogan “Economic Miracle”. Without the economy masking the social change in Turkey, Erdogan’s social conservative efforts have been exposed.

That brings us back to the little park in Istanbul. That park—Taksim Square and Gezi Park—is very symbolic to the Kemalists. The monument to the Republic, with massive statues of Kemal Ataturk—sits at the center of the square. Erdogan has proposed the demolition of the “Ataturk Cultural Center”—a western-style operahouse, theatre and museum, in favor of a “restoration project” involving the rebuilding of an Ottoman-era fortress to house a theatre, mosque and food court of a kind. The project is masked as “economic development” but is a bit more symbolic than that. As Ataturk (war hero, atheist, libertine, boozer) represents everything that Erdogan is not (politician, devout Muslim, conservative, tee-totaller), many in Turkey view this latest effort as an affront to the country’s founder, who they have been raised from birth to revere.

Atatürk in Stone


Erdogan has decided to take his lessons from Putin or more fittingly, a Sultan instead. By denouncing the student protests, and the wide variety of protesters (from Kemalists to Communists), Erdogan is representing the worst in democracy—the tyranny of the majority. Minority opinions have rights in a democracy, and compromise happens in between the two forces. Rather than allowing for peaceful protests, Erdogan has used police brutality. And in a wily manner, he apologized for that brutality, only to double down on it weeks later. He also agreed to meet with select protestors, then scrounged the square with an even more massive response. And now the protestors are expected to kiss the ring of their Sultan.

Erdogan is term-limited as PM, but it is clear he has no intention of leaving public life. He has tried for amendments to the Turkish constitution to give more power to the Presidency, held by his friend Abdullah Gul. Many expect a Putin-esque switcheroo, with Erdogan preparing for a presidency putting him in power for another five to ten years.

Each action in Taksim Square has been in extremes. The redevelopment was an extreme move, the student protests turned into an massive rebuke of the Erdogan era. Erdogan responded not as a democratically-elected ruler but as a oppressor. The narrative plays well in the countryside, but the city slickers are not taking to the heavy handed treatment. And the tensions are high, not only between secularists and the devout, the city and the country, but economic interests as well. Istanbul is in the running to host the 2020 Olympics. Istanbul has been massively and quickly redeveloping land to improve their bid. And these protests might cost Istanbul the honor of hosting the first Olympics in the Muslim world.

The Turkish question is not the same as the Arab Spring. In Turkey, the conservative majority rules. It is the secularists that are trying to claw back their republic. And with the tumult in their corner of the world, Turkish secularists fear the Muslim Brotherhood and theocracy as much as westerners do. Turks are still seeking balance in their lives. Nearly the entire population are Muslim adherents, but they also embrace modernity. They do not evangelize their faith in the ways that other citizens do in other corners of the Muslim world. Members of Erdogan’s party seek religious tolerance but also seek to impose conservative laws–such as the prohibitions on alcohol–on a cosmopolitan city. Istanbul boils over today, but it remains an eternal city, where change is measured in epochs and eras, not days and decades.

Bosphorus Photo Credit: Stéphane Gaudry / / CC BY

Taksim Square Protest Photo credit: Fotomovimiento / / CC BY-NC-ND

Ataturk Photo credit: Sr. Samolo / / CC BY-NC-ND

Erdogan Photo credit: DonkeyHotey / / CC BY-SA

Ataturks Children Photo credit: olive eyes / / CC BY-NC-ND