Skip to main content

Past and future collide in Turkey clashes

By David Perry, Special to CNN
June 12, 2013 -- Updated 1901 GMT (0301 HKT)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the deputies of his ruling Justice and Development Party during a meeting with Turkish parliament on Tuesday, June 18. Erdogan said he had no intention of restricting anyone's democratic rights. "If you want to make a protest do it, do it, but do it within the framework of law," he said. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the deputies of his ruling Justice and Development Party during a meeting with Turkish parliament on Tuesday, June 18. Erdogan said he had no intention of restricting anyone's democratic rights. "If you want to make a protest do it, do it, but do it within the framework of law," he said.
HIDE CAPTION
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
Demonstrations in Turkey
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Perry: Plan to reconstruct Ottoman era barracks in Taksim Square revealed deep divisions
  • When Atatürk modernized Turkey, he says, many resented parting with old Islamic ways
  • Perry: Prime minister and his AKP party exploited that resentment in their rise to power
  • The meaning and relevance of the Ottoman past remains a powerful question, he says

Editor's note: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. His blog is How Did We Get Into This Mess. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- In 2012, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan defended the highly divisive renovation of Taksim Square in central Istanbul by invoking history. Referring to the plan to build a replica of a monumental 19th century Ottoman army barracks that once stood there, he said: "We are working to bring back history that has been destroyed. ...We will unite Taksim with its history."

As it turned out, Erdoğan's attempt to unite Taksim with its history has revealed very deep fissures in Turkish culture. Starting at the end of May, more and more opponents of the renovations began gathering in the square. Protests evolved into a general condemnation of the government, becoming more chaotic, with police attacking protesters with water cannons and tear gas. Thousands have been injured and at least two protesters and one police officer have died. The demonstrations have spread to other cities.

Although Erdoğan has claimed to be open to "democratic demands," he has denied the legitimacy of all the public unrest. A day after the prime minister proposed talks with protesters, bulldozers and riot police swept through the square and blanketed the area with tear gas. Chaos and standoffs between police and protesters continue.

Turkey looks for 'legitamite protestors'

David Perry
David Perry

Debating the causes of the conflict, some commentators focus on the role of Islam in Turkey; others emphasize disagreements about the nature of Turkish democracy, the lack of civil liberties, or the nascent environmentalist movement, which was stirred by plans to take down trees in the square's Gezi Park.

All these played a role in igniting unrest, but the issues surrounding the reconstruction of the Ottoman Taksim Military Barracks in particular point to deep unresolved historical tensions within the Republic of Turkey. The protesters and the government are engaging not only in a battle for their park and perhaps their country's future, but also for control over the past.

When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923, after years of war, he was embraced by a population eager to return to the days of the great Caliphs. But Atatürk chose, instead, to modernize, Westernize, and secularize the country. He disbanded the Caliphate, secularized the education system, outlawed Sufi Islam, enforced gender equality, Westernized the Turkish alphabet, and famously banned the fez. But these radical and sometimes ruthless steps, especially those that ran counter to perceived Islamic mores, engendered deep resentment and resistance.

Opinion: From victim to villain, Erdogan's unfinished transformation

In the last decade, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party, known as AKP, have exploited that resistance as an element in their rise to power. Under AKP rule, the Ottoman past has re-emerged in a culturally powerful way. The movie "Fetih 1453," a highly dramatized account of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, had the biggest budget in the history of Turkish cinema, an investment handsomely rewarded by its box office returns.

Turkish television is full of Ottoman-era dramas and soap operas, including the wildly successful "Magnificent Century," set in the era of the famous emperor Suleiman the Magnificent. More and more aspects of elite Turkish culture embrace Ottoman architecture, fashion and even food. But according to some opponents of the AKP, the cultural embrace of Ottoman history promotes a political agenda of regional domination.

Zakaria: 'It is a culture war'
Turkish police send tear gas into crowd
Fireworks amid protests in Taksim Square
Experts: Protests hurt Turkish economy

The decision to rebuild a symbol of Ottoman militarism, the Taksim Military Barracks, like the decision to name the new Bosphorus bridge after Sultan Selim I, conqueror of the Arab world, feeds this speculation. In popular Turkish culture, the Taksim Barracks are associated with the killing of Christian army officers in 1909, while the Alevis -- a large minority group in Turkey -- remember Selim I as the murderer of their people. Thus, both bridge and barracks pit one view of history against another.

But the Ottomans were not merely expansionary conquerors, nor were they generally devoted to Islamic purity. At their best, the Sultans ruled over a surprisingly pluralistic society that enabled people of diverse religions and ethnicities to flourish and live in relative autonomy. Both non-Turkish Muslims and non-Muslims rose to great heights of political power. Jews fled from Christian persecutions into Ottoman territory. In the wake of the riots, elements of this Ottoman legacy have begun to emerge as well.

Devrim Evin, who played Sultan Mehmet II in "Fetih 1453," declined to join Istanbul's formal celebration of the 560th anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople. Instead, joining actors from "Magnificent Century," he went to Gezi Park to support the protests. Thus, the protesters were treated to actors playing Mehmet the Conqueror and Suleyman the Magnificent marching and tweeting alongside them.

Evin, like Erdoğan, invoked Ottoman history. He said, just before the violence began, that Mehmet preserved the Orthodox basilica Hagia Sophia when he took the city. "Such were our ancestors," he said. "They preserved things, did not destroy or tear down."

As with any turbulent situation, it's hard to predict what will happen in Gezi Park or within the broader cycles of social unrest emerging in Turkey. Erdoğan looks unlikely to back down, at least not without a huge loss of face. Because the AKP has enjoyed broad popular support for its agenda, it will require internal pressure from within the movement to push Erdoğan toward a consensus settlement.

But even if issues involving Taksim Square are eventually resolved without greater riots and brutality, the question of the meaning and relevance of the Ottoman past remains powerful.

In "Fetih 1453," Mehmet proclaims, "Making history is no job for cowards." The events unfolding in Taksim remind us that remembering history can be just as dangerous as making it.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Perry.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 13, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
A Scottish vote for independence next week could trigger wave of separatist tension in Europe, says Frida Ghitis.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2212 GMT (0612 HKT)
You couldn't call him a "Bond villain" in the grand context of Dr. No or Auric Goldfinger. They were twisted visionaries of apocalypse whose ideas were to be played out at humanity's expense.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1705 GMT (0105 HKT)
As a Latina activist I was hurt to hear the President would delay executive action to keep undocumented immigrants with no criminal record from getting deported.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 2224 GMT (0624 HKT)
Stevan Weine says the key is to stop young people from acquiring radicalized beliefs in the first place.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
US Currency is seen in this January 30, 2001 image. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Lisa Gilbert says a million people have asked the SEC to make corporations disclose political contributions.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 0455 GMT (1255 HKT)
Christi Paul says unless you've walked in an abused woman's shoes, don't judge her, help her get answers to the right questions: Why does he get to hit her? And why does nobody do anything to stop him?
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1932 GMT (0332 HKT)
Mel Robbins says several other NFL players arrested recently in domestic violence are back on the field. Roger Goodell has shown he is clueless on abuse. He must go.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says President Obama has a remarkable opportunity Wednesday night to mobilize support for a coalition against ISIS.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 0041 GMT (0841 HKT)
The Texas senator says Obama should seek congressional authorization for a major bombing campaign vs. ISIS.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT