What’s the Deal With a Pushback in Istanbul?

Hello All!

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that knows that planning an infrastructure project in Istanbul is no Turkish delight.

the changes proposed for Gezi Park & Taksim Square

the changes proposed for Gezi Park & Taksim Square

In this week’s post, we examine the growing protests in Turkey and the reactionary response from the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced Erdo-wan). As huge numbers of protesters continue to gather in cities across the country, we’ll look into why the protests are occurring, and what the protests mean for foreign and domestic affairs of the country and region. A window into Turkey’s history will shed a great deal of light into the affair and give us a good idea of what might come next.

The Current: Gezi Park, the catalyst

On May 28, small groups of environmentalists gathered in Gezi Park in central Istanbul to prevent bulldozers and demolition equipment from clearing the park’s trees and green space for a proposed shopping mall and a replica of Ottoman military barracks. After being able to thwart the bulldozer’s objectives, the protesters were met by police with water cannons and tear gas on the morning of May 30th who burned the protester’s tents and tried to force the protesters out of the adjacent public plaza, Taksim Square.

And so, the ‘Occupy Taksim’ square came to an abrupt, forced end. Or so the Turkish authorities hoped.

Immediately after police moved in, the protesters reached out for help through Twitter and other social media until enough people and politically motivated groups arrived to push back police in an intense clash. Police used not only tear gas and water cannons, but also rubber bullets and violently attacked demonstrators. The protests over the demolition project had turned into mass demonstrations over the government’s heavy-handed response.

Calm in Istanbul, like the trees in Gezi Park, has been uprooted

Calm in Istanbul, like the trees in Gezi Park, has been uprooted

The protests have now extended to a tenth day with no signs of slowing. Protests have demanded the resignation of Erdogan and have spread to 60 cities around the country, from Istanbul to Ankara, Antalya, an Izmir to Adana. Erdogan’s government has since tried to backtrack and only force out all the recent demonstrators – those who are not within Gezi Park and met with the demonstration group’s leaders. The government has admitted that their immediate response to the peaceful protest was wrong, yet continues to use riot tactics against angry protesters.

Erdogan’s condemnation of the protesters as “looters” and “thugs” influenced by foreign powers and calling social media the “greatest scourge to befall society”, make Erdogan seem increasingly out of touch with the largely secular population of the country, especially in Istanbul.  The protest groups resemble some of the Occupy movements of last year with encampments, music, dance, organized rallies, and a myriad of different people including minority groups like Armenians. The crowds at Taksim are mainly young and secular, but they are also diverse and include Islamists, gays, and older Turks.

banging the drum of resistance

banging the drum of resistance

With no plans for changing the demolition and construction projects, and Erdogan rallying government supporters in Ankara, the protests look far from over. The backlash against the Erdogan government comes amidst increasing dissatisfaction with Erdogan and his AK, or Justice and Development party. Several socially conservative initiatives by the AK government such as making alcohol laws more stringent and earlier attempting to criminalize adultery and abortions prompted big backlashes.

The police crackdown on the peaceful protest in Istanbul was the catalyst for demonstrations against a government that in many Turks eyes has come to resemble that of an Ottoman Sultan rather than an Islamist democracy. Many issues have been exposed by the protests such as human rights within Turkey, the lack of opposition political power, and the high number of arrests of journalists. The protests even have an implication for large scale issues such as Turkey’s application to become part of the EU, the peace proposal with the separatist PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party), the spillover from the war in Syria, and its relationship with its allies.

Will Turkey's protests further delay EU membership?

Will Turkey’s protests further delay EU membership?

Erdogan and the AK Party are by no means universally denounced. They enjoy wide support from around the country and were elected back into office just two years ago. His support has waned from many groups since his reelection, however, and shows the deep divisions in the Turkish electorate and how they feel government should function and serve.

To gain a better idea of what the scene is in Turkey, let’s take a look at the creation of Turkey as a country after the fall of the Ottoman Empire following WW1.

The Father Turk

Very much the father figure - with western suit to boot

Very much the father figure – with western suit to boot

Modern Turkey as a mildly Islamist country transformed a great deal from its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire – one of the last vestiges of the former Islamic Empire. When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (father Turk) founded the republic in 1923 after he led the war for independence as a military leader and abolished the Sultanate, he laid the foundation for the new country under 6 principles: republicanism, nationalism, populism, reform, etatism (state-ism), and secularism.

Ataturk emphasized many Western cultural institutions very quickly including changing the Turkish alphabet from Arabic to Latin, promoting equal rights for all Turks, advocating for equal women’s rights (including suffrage), stressing the importance of education for all, introducing Western arts, and instituting a secular government that made religious faith a matter of individual conscience. Ataturk also emphasized that Turkish culture pre-dated the Ottoman days and emphasized nationalism around a unique culture and people. Etatsim, or state-ism emphasized the use of the government to advance a society in economic and cultural terms as opposed to the theocratic mold of the Ottoman Empire.

Ataturk’s secularization also banned the fez, the traditional Islamic hat and discouraged women from wearing the veil. While these moves were supposed to move Turkey away from theocracy under the Ottomans, they started the questionable tradition of state interference in Turkish culture and, it could be argued, that this was a restriction on religious freedom. Ataturk’s moves were certainly not universally supported in a region with deep roots in Islamism.

Mehmed V, the last sultan,  wearing the last fez

Mehmed V, the last sultan, wearing the last fez

In this way, the new country became specifically Turkish – a secular republic for Turkic speaking people. This contrasted with the Ottoman Empire which was a vast empire of many peoples under Islamic control by one Ottoman Sultan and caliphate system. Ataturk’s ideology (“Kemalism”) and direction for Turkey is often seen as the principles upon which the Turks should be led – as opposed to the people deciding the direction through democracy.

Holding the Reins of Kemalism

Since the founding of Turkey, the country (like many republics) has struggled with how much freedoms it should give its peoples in terms of speech, political power, and economic control. Ataturk’s successor, Ismet Inonu introduced democratic elections and a multi-party system. When Ataturk’s party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) was defeated in elections in 1950, the new leadership under the the New Democratic Party headed by Adnan Menderes attempted to allow greater private economic activity and tolerance of religious and social activities around the country. Sensing a departure from “Kemalism”, military leaders overthrew the government in a coup in 1960 for a brief military tenure, only to return to civilian rule with the CHP leading a coalition government in a Second Republic.

In a salute to Ataturk, Turkish Generals restore order in the Turkish state

In a salute to Ataturk, Turkish Generals restore order in the Turkish state

The 1970s brought political turmoil as leadership was unable to gain parliamentary support. Political extremism, religious movements, and high unemployment sparked unrest throughout the country – stymieing the public order that had become the hallmark of Ataturk’s successors and the military. The inability of the government to restore order brought another military coup in 1980 to stabilize the economy and country. A new constitution written by military generals in 1982 gave more power to the executive and allowed for a more peaceful political process to develop in the following 2 decades (though, the 1990s saw economic deterioration and crackdown on political dissidents). This constitution is still in effect at the present in the ‘Third Republic’.

Erdogan Kenobi

The current Prime Minister of Turkey’s own individual religious conscience permeates his life and is often cited as the reason for some of the policies he has promoted. Erdogan grew up in an observant Muslim family and attended an Islamic vocational high school before attending Marmara University to study business and economics. He became engaged in politics when he became the leader of the youth Islamist Salvation Party and after the 1980 coup, joined the Islamist Welfare Party – a party that was suppressed by the military leadership, but allowed to participate following the new constitution. The Islamist Welfare Party held sway with a growing number of supporters as some of the populace became disenchanted with the strictly secular government.

In 1994 he was elected Mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s economic hub and one of the world’s largest metropolises. He did not implement Islamic law, as some feared, but was successful in reducing debt and improving public services. National leadership feared the rise of religious political parties, however, and the Islamist Welfare Party was shut down. Erdogan was convicted in 1998 of “inciting religious hatred” by reciting a poem at a public address that made Islam the center of Turkish culture:

“The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”

The conviction forced him to resign from his position and he served an 11 month prison term. He established the AK, or Justice and Development party after his sentence and the party won 2/3 of the parliamentary seats in the 2002 elections. Erdogan took over as Prime Minister the following year.

Erdogan keeps Turkey a step ahead of military intervention

Erdogan keeps civilian power in Turkey a step ahead of military intervention.

After leading Turkey from a huge economic hole when he took office in 2003 to the world’s 17th largest economy, Erdogan has certainly improved the lives of many Turks with GDP per person tripling in the last decade. Importantly for the stability of the country’s leadership and growth in democracy, Erdogan took power away from the army and kept it with the elected civilian government – a step that eluded previous Turkish governments.

Erdogan has also watered down anti-terror laws that have resulted in hundreds of Kurds in jail  – a result of the long running war between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) a separatist militia seeking independence for Kurds in Turkey. His changes to discriminatory laws, such as allowing Kurdish to be broadcast in the media and in schools, have begun to improve the chances for peace with the PKK and have even started peace talks after a ceasefire was declared by the PKK last year, and talks with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan have begun – a major step.

Since his party’s second reelection in 2011, Erdogan has begun to extend his party’s powers to more specific ends. He has neutralized checks on his power by giving the executive a greater ability to appoint judges without approval, arrested many journalists (the most of any country) to the point of scaring the media into self-censorship, and governed in polarizing fashion without opposition support.pro68_0

Using the justification of the reelection of the AK to a great majority, Erdogan has increasingly tried to move the country in the direction that he sees fit – ironic given his own restrictive political experience during previous Turkish governments.

His restrictions on alcohol sales, encouragement of women to have 3 or more children, and the introduction of Koran classes in primary school and Islamic clerical training in secondary schools are examples of a “creeping Islamisation” from secularists. For many liberals (young and old) who had supported the AK party, they are now distraught over Erdogan’s steps away from Ataturk’s 6 pillars for Turkey and towards social conservatism where Islam plays a greater role in Turkey’s culture and government.


What is evident from Turkey’s history is that those who have been popular leaders, like Erdogan and Ataturk before him, have shaped society greatly using the power of the state but with the justification of popular support.

  • Ataturk’s reliance on etatism started the tradition of the “paternal” government within a republic.
  • When change such as private interests and opposition politics based on popular culture like Islam came to have greater influence, the army retook power twice based on the assumption that they knew best.
  • Erdogan’s personal views on how society should act turning into law is justified he says by his election as leader.

    The legacy of Ataturk still flies

    The legacy of Ataturk still flies

Turkey, though in theory was intended to be a state for Turks with an individual culture, is a diverse mix of people with widely different backgrounds and beliefs. Ataturk’s legacy of a strictly secular governance has left a profound mark on many of the citizens of Turkey – citizens who have adopted a more Western style culture. This is evident from the participants of the protests and the charges laid against the Prime Minister.

We should remember, however, that despite the largess of the protests, he still enjoys a great deal of support from around the country. Despite this fact, Erdogan should not continue to brush off the protests as a few radicals – these are a great deal of people who did vote for him, but are now calling for his resignation. Their demands are real and they have exposed his flaws in leadership. If he does not recognize their issues and slow down his implementation of social conservative policies, he will find a much smaller electorate willing to keep him in power.

Besides all this, Erdogan faces tough issues on his southern border with the Syrian civil war spilling over, the slow progress of coming into the European Union, the peace progress with the PKK, and strained relations with Israel and other Middle Eastern countries. Most importantly is the democratic constitution that still has yet to make it out of the parliament drafting committee. If a proper democratic constitution is written and enacted, perhaps positive progress in other areas will become easier. Justification is a two-way street.

Until the next alcohol ban,

Your faithful historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:











About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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