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

    US, Somalia Launch New Chapter in Relations

    US sends first ambassador to Somalia in 25 years; diplomatic presence and forces pulled out in 1993, after 18 US soldiers were killed when militiamen shot down military helicopter

    Brexit Vote Ripples Across South Asia

    Experts say exit is likely to have far-reaching economic, political and social implications for a region with deep historic ties to Britain

    Russian Military Tests Readiness With Snap Inspections

    Some observers see surprise drill as tit-for-tat response to NATO’s recent multinational military exercises in Baltic region

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Testing Bamboo as Building Materiali
    X
    June 27, 2016 9:06 PM
    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora