News / Europe

Turkish Troubles Highlight Cultural Divide

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan waves to his supporters next to his wife Emine Erdogan in Ankara, June 9, 2013.
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan waves to his supporters next to his wife Emine Erdogan in Ankara, June 9, 2013.
Reuters
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan stands before a sea of cheering faithful waving Turkish flags and, to shouts of "Allahu Akbar," God is Greatest, summons the spirit of pious Ottoman poets in denouncing protesters who challenge his power.

Supporters wave flags backdropped by a large picture of Turkish PM Erdogan as they wait for his arrival in Ankara, June 9, 2013.Supporters wave flags backdropped by a large picture of Turkish PM Erdogan as they wait for his arrival in Ankara, June 9, 2013.
x
Supporters wave flags backdropped by a large picture of Turkish PM Erdogan as they wait for his arrival in Ankara, June 9, 2013.
Supporters wave flags backdropped by a large picture of Turkish PM Erdogan as they wait for his arrival in Ankara, June 9, 2013.
Across Istanbul, the same flags, white crescent moon and star on a red background, are raised, but they proclaim what some Erdogan critics see as a different kind of Turkey.
    
Riots and protests have highlighted an underlying schism in Turkish society reaching back to the 1920s when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forged a secular republic from the ruins of an Ottoman theocracy.

He banished Islam from public life, replaced Arabic with Latin script and promoted Western dress and women's rights.
    
What emerged was a sometimes uneasy cohabitation of what some have called "White Turks," a secular Western-facing elite, and "Black Turks" -  a more conservative, religious population largely excluded from the privileges of state power and viewed warily by generals long considered guardians of secularism.

"I was surprised to see those crowds carrying the Turkish national flag," said Ugur Genc, 42, standing on the Istanbul square that has become the Centrex of protests. "We too carry the same national flag, but we're not the same."

At a nearby barricade stands a woman in a red cap emblazoned with the words "This Is My Republic" and a tee-shirt bearing the face of Ataturk. She sees Turkey's secular constitution under threat from the more religious followers rallying to Erdogan.
    
The Turkish flag, has become the rallying point of both sides claiming the republic for their cause.

Erdogan dismissed any suggestion the forces ranged against him, especially those who have fought street battles with police over the last week, represented the true Turkey.
  
Turkey's PM Erdogan addresses his supporters in Ankara, June 9, 2013.Turkey's PM Erdogan addresses his supporters in Ankara, June 9, 2013.
x
Turkey's PM Erdogan addresses his supporters in Ankara, June 9, 2013.
Turkey's PM Erdogan addresses his supporters in Ankara, June 9, 2013.
"Aren't those who gathered at Istanbul airport in two hours, in Adana, Mersin, and here in Ankara - the people?" he asked during one of six meetings he addressed on Sunday.
    
The objections of Erdogan were shared by his supporters.

"I love my country," a woman giving her name as Zeynep says. "We will not let some looters hijack our country and our flag."
    
Erdogan's rallies also carried a nod to Ataturk, with some portraits and banners showing his face.

Erdogan, who might have fallen into the category of "Black Turk," made history in 2002 when he led to power a new party amalgamating Islamists, liberals and nationalists. Impatient with fractious traditional secularist parties, voters welcomed his plans for social reform and renunciation of political Islam.

Only three years earlier, he had fallen foul of his love of words, jailed for reciting a poem by a Turkish nationalist deemed an incitement to religious hatred. "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets."

Protesters on Taksim Square and in other cities across Turkey believe that three election victories later, Erdogan's blustery, florid style so beloved of voters has turned to intolerance with any challenge inside or outside his AKP party.

Erdogan denies any intention to subvert the secular republic and impose an islamist order.

Turning Eastwards

"I cannot applaud cruelty, I cannot love what is cruel," Erdogan told a rally, quoting Mehmet Akif, an Ottoman poet who wrote the Turkish national anthem, but who abandoned Ataturk's Turkey, unhappy with its secular constitution. "I am the enemy of the wrong do-er but I love the wronged."

The protests draw an unlikely coalition; Kemalists alongside Kurdish activists, liberals and leftists, unionists and gay rights activists, the bones perhaps of a new civil society. In ways Erdogan himself may not have anticipated and clearly does not approve he has lifted the expectations of rising generations critical of what they see as state interference in their lives.

Cafes are banned from serving wine at pavement tables, new restrictions on alcohol sales have been introduced; similar to those in Western countries, but critics see in this Erdogan's pious objection to alcohol rather than health concerns.

PM Erdogan (3rd L), his wife Emine (4th L), President Abdullah Gul (6th L) and his wife (5th L) attend a groundbreaking ceremony for the third Bosphorus bridge, May 20, 2013.PM Erdogan (3rd L), his wife Emine (4th L), President Abdullah Gul (6th L) and his wife (5th L) attend a groundbreaking ceremony for the third Bosphorus bridge, May 20, 2013.
x
PM Erdogan (3rd L), his wife Emine (4th L), President Abdullah Gul (6th L) and his wife (5th L) attend a groundbreaking ceremony for the third Bosphorus bridge, May 20, 2013.
PM Erdogan (3rd L), his wife Emine (4th L), President Abdullah Gul (6th L) and his wife (5th L) attend a groundbreaking ceremony for the third Bosphorus bridge, May 20, 2013.
Some see Turkey's face changing in other ways. The head scarf, symbol of female piety once banned from state offices, is now seen in colleges and even the presidential palace. Erdogan's wife stands alongside him, head covered. His public reflections on women's role suggest a more traditionalist view.
    
But many Erdogan supporters see these changes as liberation.

When Erdogan quotes poet Akif on his love for those "wronged," he speaks among other things of women who have in the past been denied higher education because of a scarf ban. The ``wrong-do-er'', his enemy, is by implication a pre-Erdogan order that denied traditional Turkish values.

For many middle class Turks raised in a strictly secular republic Erdogan's words and his message smack of a foreign land, a Turkey facing the Middle East rather than Europe.
    
"I salute my brothers in Sarajevo, Baku, Beirut, Damascus, Gaza, Mecca, Medina," Erdogan says. No mention of Berlin, Paris or London to the cheering masses. But Erdogan can contest his opening to the Arab world brings commerce and influence alike.

Turkish youths shout anti-government slogans as they march in Ankara, June 4, 2013.Turkish youths shout anti-government slogans as they march in Ankara, June 4, 2013.
x
Turkish youths shout anti-government slogans as they march in Ankara, June 4, 2013.
Turkish youths shout anti-government slogans as they march in Ankara, June 4, 2013.
Many on Taksim and at protests across Turkey are young enough to have known only Erdogan as prime minister. He might  argue youth blinds them to the scale of his reforms.

In his first terms he opened EU entry talks, extended minority rights, outlawed torture, and showed courage in seeking to end a Kurdish rebellion that has cost 40,000 lives. He won the blessing of liberals, secularist and the religious alike.

Arguably his greatest single achievement was in bringing to heel, in line with EU requirements, a military that had toppled four governments in four decades; though sceptics who will never trust Erdogan argue this was done not in the name of democracy but to remove a barrier to political Islam.

The economy has boomed, per capita income tripling.

Erdogan, raised in Istanbul's rough-edged Kasimpasa district, far from the world of big business, clearly now sees hypocrisy among influential businessmen abandoning him.

"If a bank general manager claims he sides with these vandals, he'll find us against him. Those who came and told us they had got five times richer in our time now change sides."

Picture gallery on Turkish protests


  • Riot police officers gather in central Ankara, Turkey, June 10, 2013.
  • An anti-government protester gestures during a demonstration in central Ankara, June 9, 2013.
  • Anti-government protesters remove bricks from a sidewalk to build a barricade in central Ankara, June 9, 2013.
  • Riot police chase protesters at Kizilay Square in central Ankara, June 9, 2013.
  • Supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan listen to his speech at the Ankara airport, June 9, 2013.
  • Supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cheer upon his arrival at Istanbul's Ataturk airport, June 7, 2013.
  • Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves to supporters after arriving at Istanbul's Ataturk airport, June 7, 2013.
  • Pedestrians walk among tents set up by protesters in Gezi park, Taksim Square, Istanbul, June 6, 2013.
  • People observe a destroyed urban bus with a destination sign that reads ''This bus goes to Dictator'' at Taksim Square, Istanbul, June 6, 2013.
  • Thousands of protesters gather for another rally at Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, June 3, 2013.
  • Protesters carry the Turkish flag and shout anti-government slogans during a demonstration at Gezi Park near Taksim Squar, Istanbul, June 3, 2013.

Changing places

Some on Taksim suggest what they are seeing is a settling of accounts for restrictions on religion in the past.
    
"The prime minister says we're provocateurs, but he's the real provocateur," said Ece Simsek, 17. "He's using religion to provoke people...He boils religion down to whether we're wearing a miniskirt or a headscarf, and that's wrong."

Islamist parties have been banned repeatedly, and in 1997 the first Islamist-led government was ousted by the army in a campaign of pressure since dubbed the "post-modern coup."

"I've been in politics forty years," Bulent Arinc, a victim of that "coup," said. "I'm someone who's felt kicked around, ignored; my wife, myself, my lifestyle, with my opinions. But we didn't consider fighting. We sought solutions within democracy."

Erdogan's critics argue that democracy is being rolled back.

Investigation of alleged coup plots against Erdogan sprawled, bringing the arrest of hundreds of top generals, intellectuals and journalists. In a display of well choreographed press, seven newspapers carried an identical headline last week commending Erdogan's handling of protests.

Some critics say the decisive sea-change in the AKP after the 2010 election gave Erdogan a record 51 percent vote.

Former AKP deputy Suat Kiniklioglu recalls a purge of centrist and liberal forces in the parliamentary group in 2011.

"Many who were critical in shaping the perception that the party was moving to the center in 2007 were expelled," he writes in Zaman daily. Executive organs were similarly purged in 2012.

This might resonate with those who see Erdogan using democracy as a path to the Islamic order poet Akif cherished.
    
While the drama and rhetoric of recent weeks may for some speak of "two Turkeys," 10 years of Erdogan has in fact blurred somewhat the disputed notion of White Turks and Black Turks.
    
"These terms are not significant today," said Cengiz Candar, a journalist who has followed Erdogan's career. "Erdogan's complexion has changed. His skin has become lighter."
   
Meant here is that Erdogan has succeeded in breaking the hold on the old elite on the state, from the military to the courts, and built his own power base with all its prerogatives of patronage. One result has been an economic boom in AKP's central Anatolian heartland. Wealth is being redistributed.
    
"Erdogan unleashed the potential of a rural-provincial populous who in less than a decade managed to replace the cronies of the old establishment," said writer Alev Alatli.
    
The new elite now build their own mansions and visit shops and hotels once the preserve of the old elite. They claim places at top schools, and send their children to U.S. colleges.
    
Akif saw a Turkey in the late Ottoman era too much in thrall to Western power. Erdogan, his admirer, steers a delicate path restoring what he sees as a neglected Islamic cultural legacy while accommodating deeprooted secular traditions.
    
More ructions could follow before Turkey finds that balance.

You May Like

Multimedia US Defense Secretary: Iraqi Forces Lack 'Will to Fight'

Ash Carter criticizes Iraq's reaction to Islamic State; National Security Advisor Susan Rice echoed Carter's concerns in an interview on CBS More

Boko Haram Surrounds Havens With Land Mines

Chad and Cameroon say huge numbers of land mines planted by Boko Haram fighters along Cameroon's border with Nigeria are a danger to people, livestock and soldiers More

Women Peace Activists Cross Korean DMZ

Governments of Koreas give international delegation of women peace activists permission to pass through heavily fortified border, but some critics say symbolic crossing only benefits Pyongyang More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs