Protesters stormed the streets of Istanbul this weekend in defiance of a proposal to build a military barracks, complete with shopping mall, over one of the few remaining green spaces in the city. Castigating Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s unilateral decision to build the Ottoman-style barracks, the protests spilled over into other major Turkish cities as concerns were raised about the future direction of the country and its government.
Since coming to power in 2003, Erdogan has overseen an unprecedented period of Turkish economic expansion and Turkey is now a key geo-political player in both the Middle East and the Mediterranean. However, his background as a staunch Islamist has gradually moved to the foreground of political life and many mainstream Turks are beginning to question the security of their founding principle of secularism.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the Republic of Turkey, led his country through a bitter war of independence, defeating the last vestiges of the corrupt and destabilised Ottoman Empire and the occupying Allied forces after WWI. Wanting to drag Turkey away from the conservative Islam of the past two centuries, Ataturk initiated a series of economic and social reforms to create a secular and largely democratic nation state.
Despite an overwhelming Muslim majority in Turkey, the principle of secularism has been retained since independence. Some now fear that this may not last much longer. Restrictions on the purchasing of alcohol, increasing press censorship of religious and political broadcasts, the undermining of Kurdish minority rights and a desire to combine the office of Prime Minister with that of President under his own rule, have led to accusations that Erdogan is moulding Turkey into a staunchly Islamic authoritarian state.
For a nation that still claims to have designs on EU membership, and remains a popular destination for Western tourists, such moves seem counterproductive. More worryingly, however, they undermine the founding principles of the Turkish state established under Ataturk. No matter what percentage of the population agrees with Erdogan’s more conservative Islamic principles (and there is much conjecture over figures, which do not necessarily correlate with his AKP support base), the Turkish people will not want to regress to the dying days of the Ottoman Empire when society crumbled in the face of a conservative elite unwilling to yield any kind of power to the people even during wartime.
The decision to rebuild the Taksim Military Barracks in Gezi Park – initially built in 1806 during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Selim III and demolished in 1940 – could be interpreted as a symbolic gesture of national prestige. Equally, it could further the argument that Erdogan fancies himself as a modern-day Sultan, keen to reform the opulent city centres of the imperial era and hoard power around his own person. His heavy-handed response to what was, initially, a small protest outlines his belief in his own authority.
He must be warned, however. Whilst his political track record is impressive by any standards, particularly his economic modernisation of Turkey, Erdogan threatens to stake his reputation on dismantling the basic founding principles of his nation. The days of Suleiman the Magnificent are long gone and recent uprisings against authoritarianism in the Middle East have proved that ordinary people are unafraid to fight back against the suppression of their individual rights. For a population such as Turkey’s, which has enjoyed a more liberal existence than many of its neighbours in recent years, a reversion to an authoritarian, Islamist rule will not be accepted lightly.