Is Turkey’s Future Back to the Past?
The protests that began with the public outcry against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans to demolish Gezi Park in Taksim Square–one of Istanbul’s main hubs–and build a replica of an Ottoman army barracks to house a shopping mall, should not, as some people have done, be compared to the protests in Tahrir Square or the Syrian civil war.
Unlike Egypt and Syria, Turkey boasts a vibrant economy and a growing middle class. The standoff that escalated between Erdogan and the protesters erupted after years of discontent and mistrust between Islamists and secularists.
From dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I and the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his followers, Turkey has become a successful, secular, Islamic country vying for membership in the European Union. Ataturk’s legacy, while not a perfect democracy, is something many Turkish citizens hold dear. Secularization brought Turkey into alignment with the west and remained, for the most part, unchallenged until Prime Minister Erdogan and his AK party became a force in the government and the first major challenger of Ataturk’s vision.
The dilemma for the followers of Ataturk is that Turkey has experienced unprecedented economic growth under Erdogan’s leadership. However, as the recent protests in Taksim Square indicate, Erdogan’s form of capitalism echoes his conservative religious roots.
Visitors like me watched when Erdogan, who was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, cleaned up the city for the tourist boom. Yet, in 1997, he was arrested, tried and imprisoned after reciting a poem that “incited hatred based on religious differences.” He was banned from office and during his time in prison founded the AK (Justice and Development) party. From its inception, the AK party became Turkey’s most popular political movement. In 2002, the AK party won 34 percent of the vote and nearly two-thirds of the seats in parliament forming Turkey’s first single-party government.
A decade later, in May of 2012, I sat with an American friend who lives in Istanbul, at the rooftop bar of the Anemon Galata Hotel overlooking the pedestrian area in the trendy neighborhood of Beyoglu. A new city ordinance had banned restaurant tables on the sidewalks. “It is because this is where people socialize. Here, they can smoke while having drinks and dinner,” my friend explained. “And this law caused many restaurants to go out of business.”
We saw a hundred or so young men and women sitting on the ground where there were once tables and chairs, drinking and eating food out of paper bags in a party-like atmosphere. Several police vehicles and officers, including the local chief whom my friend recognized, strutted through the crowd pressing in on the protesters. Nothing happened, but even from several stories up, we felt the tension.
It was the first time since I began traveling to Turkey in the early 1990s that I glimpsed unease from my secular Turkish friends and acquaintances. People looked over their shoulders before saying anything negative about the government.
“I love Istanbul and my business is here,” said my friend. “I can’t afford to have the local government against me, they hold the power.”
Later that night, walking back to my friend’s apartment along Istiklal, the pedestrian street that leads to Taksim Square, she pointed out one of the art nouveau buildings built during the emergence of Ataturk’s republic and slated to be razed. “They (the government) are replacing these with ugly, expensive apartments and shops,” she said.
Indeed, the Istanbul building boom is at full throttle and making a lot of money for contractors. In Sultanahmet, around the Grand Bazaar, cobblestone streets are being replaced with smooth sidewalks leading to Rodeo Drive-style shops. Near Topkapi Palace, new sights such as the expensive reconstruction of the fourteenth century Baths of Roxelana’s, named for the wife of Suleyman the Magnificent, are drawing a very different traveler than those who came to Istanbul along the Hippie-Trail enroute to India.
Another American friend who lives just outside Sultanhamet told me that while local residents welcome improvements to sidewalks and sewer systems, and a new metro tunnel under the Bosphorus, there is resentment at the total disregard of their voices in the building plans. “Don’t get me started on the million-capacity meeting site they are building near us requiring landfilling along the Sea of Marmara,” she said. Another “Gezi Park” type of renovation project on the Golden Horn was also recently announced.
Renovation projects extend well beyond the busy metropolis of Istanbul. Friends who recently traveled along the Mediterranean coast showed photos of the reconstruction of the ancient Lycian cities of Xanthos and Letoon for the influx of mass tourism.The Ministry of Culture and Tourism Strategy 2023 has slated most of the country to be developed for tourism. Along with tourist development, I’ve seen several large, new mosques while traveling in remote areas of northeastern Turkey where Erdogan has many conservative constituents.
During the past few years, in Erdogan’s Turkey, you also see a more fashionable Muslim woman. Istanbul shops that sell expensive silk headscarves and designer coats with bows and epaulets are becoming the norm. Once Erdogan’s wife, Emine, was considered an embarrassment for wearing the hijab, now she’s becoming the embodiment of a proper covered Turkish woman.
Erdogan says that he is moving Turkey forward, and will not let protesters whom he calls capulcu, looters, take the country backward while at the same time pushing his personal beliefs into law with the goal to raise a “religious youth.” He has tried to restrict C-sections and abortions, and dictate that families should have at least three children. Last year, he passed education reform that allows families to homeschool girls beyond the fifth grade and approved a religious-based curriculum in schools called iman hatip. In the past month his party has regulated that alcohol in Istanbul not be sold after ten pm.
“We all have had enough of the prime minister scolding people a few times every day and almost becoming a dictator,” one Turkish friend confided. Even some of Erdogan’s early supporters and AK party members have raised eyebrows at his dictatorial approach to governing.
My Turkish friends who live part time in the United States say that during his three terms as Prime Minister, Erdogan has systematically brought religion into the government. But with support from half the voting population, Erdogan’s position of strength allows him and his party to continue to push his agenda whether to raze a park or ban alcohol. With Erdogan’s aggressive agenda to move Turkey away from its secular roots and the likelihood that when his term as Prime Minister ends he will take the role of President, he and the protesters are in for a long and difficult struggle.
Freelance writer and illustrator, Angie Brenner, is a contributor to the online magazine, Wild River Review, covering PEN World Voices Festival and Los Angeles Times Festival of Books events, international topics, current events, political issues, and author interviews such as those with Orhan Pamuk, Elif Shafak, and Pico Iyer.
Brenner is currently writing a cookbook with co-author and Wild River Review founder, Joy E. Stocke, Anatolian Kitchen: Turkish Cooking for the American Table, to be published by Burgess Lea Press in the fall of 2016. Her first book, a travel memoir, also co-authored with Stocke, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints was published in March, 2012, by Wild River Books.
Brenner left the security of a managerial job to follow her passion and opened a travel planning service, Journeys by Angie, where she created personalized travel itineraries for clients that included researching history, art, and cuisine. Later, she bought and operated a travel bookstore, Word Journeys, in Del Mar, CA. For nearly ten years, Brenner nurtured her inner travel bibliophile by buying and selling travel literature. She closed her store in order to travel and write.
With a business background, Brenner worked in the health care industry in Southern California for several years, and later as Business Manager for a public school district. Yet, a love of travel and a curiosity of foreign cultures led her to explore Europe, East Africa, Vietnam, and South America. For over twenty-five years, she traveled the four corners of Turkey, and became immersed in all aspects of Turkish culture from food, to politics and religion. She is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
It was during a research trip to Turkey that Brenner began to sketch and watercolor, and to create the illustrations that are included in her memoir. A certified yoga instructor, Brenner lives, writes, and facilitates weekly yoga classes in Julian, California.