A very personal, biased backgrounder on Turkey

DISCLAIMER: I am by no means an expert on this.  I’m not even as good a source as someone reasonably politics- and current-affairs savvy who lives in Turkey would be. I’m just writing this because I know more about Turkey’s history and situation than most of my non-Turkish peers, and I’m seeing a lot of confusion, misconstrual and missing context on what I’ve been reading in English about why there are mass protests in Turkey today.  I hope I can help you get oriented, but do not mistake this for an authoritative source. It’s just a personal view from someone who pays more attention to Turkey than most people around me because I have emotional ties to the place.

GOAL: I’ve seen some good writing on the proximal and medium-term causes of the current mass protests in Turkey, but the better-informed pieces seem to assume prior knowledge that many foreigners lack, and the less good pieces confuse various issues with each other. Taking a historical view on events sometimes makes them much easier to understand, and my hope with this piece is to help you, the non-Turkish-speaking reader, take that historical view. If you speak Turkish, you can certainly find better sources, and if you know Turkey and think I’ve got something wrong, please tell me in the comments.

MEDIAEVAL HISTORY: Modern Turkey is the descendant state of the Ottoman Empire; a dynasty of Sultans who ruled from the end of the 13th Century to the early 20th. In the 15th Century the Ottomans conquered Constantinople (İstanbul), and made it their capital, and at the empire’s height in the 16th & 17th Centuries it was arguably the most powerful state in the Old World, controlling much of the Mediterranean, Black & Red Sea coasts, the Balkans and the Caucasus:

Ottoman Empire at its heightThe Ottoman Empire was a strange one. I don’t think the distinction between conquered and tributary states is anywhere near as clear as this map implies. More importantly, the sultans’ relationship to Islam, Turkishness and ethnic minorities was rather complicated. This was an empire that expanded aggressively, much more by military than trading means, yet repeatedly gave foreigners high office in its government. This was a dynasty that styled itself the defenders of Mecca and Caliphs of the known world, yet also promoted secular learning. Sultan Selim (“the grim”) in particular is remembered for massacring non-Turks in his expansionary wars, but from before his time until the 20th Century İstanbul was a much safer place to be a Jew than anywhere in Christendom (this is directly related to how all of my ancestors ended up there – each branch found İstanbul safe after persecution elsewhere). The same empire, in the same century, sheltered hundreds of thousands of Circassian refugees from Russian ethnic cleansing, and massacred similar numbers of its own Armenian subjects. At its best, the Ottoman Empire was a thriving, cosmopolitan empire of high culture and learning, but at its worst it was just as venal, corrupt and oppressive as every other empire in history.

All of this is to say that the Ottoman Empire can stand for pretty much anything you want it to, and different groups remember it in radically different ways, within Turkey and across its former territory.

END OF THE EMPIRE: What can’t be disputed, though, is that the Empire did eventually decline, and by the end of the 19th Century Turkey was known as the “Sick man of Europe” and losing territory fast to foreign powers and independence movements. Joining the First World War on the German side was the death blow, and after WW1 all remaining Ottoman territory was carved up between many powers (I won’t even attempt to summarise the intricacies of this – just read the Wikipedia article on Partitioning of the Ottoman Empire if you want to know more).

ATATURK AND THE TURKISH REPUBLIC: All of what is now Turkey was to become colonial territory of one foreign power or another, until Mustafa Kemal—who would later call himself Atatürk, “the father of the Turks”—led a successful independence struggle. The borders of modern Turkey are essentially the extent of the territory he could force Britain, France, Italy, Greece & the USSR to give up – they reflect the capability of his army more than any natural or ethnic boundaries. Once independence was secured, Atatürk appointed himself President, filled the government with his allies, and set about a program of freeing Turkey both from foreign interference and from the baggage of the Ottoman Empire’s failure.

For the next 15 years, until his death in 1938, Atatürk’s mission was to modernise Turkey and turn it from an East-facing to a West-facing culture. This was done in all kinds of ways, but the part that has a toxic legacy today was a secularisation campaign that started with the abolition of the Caliphate, but overreached dramatically into a range of repressive actions. Not only symbolic steps like moving the capital to Ankara & banning the fez, but also banning whole religious orders and driving them underground. And yet… he also established a Ministry of Religious Affairs, that controlled the training of imams and generally interfered with the conduct of religious practice far more than a truly secular state—one that also protects church from state like the US or France—ever would. Atatürk was also a theoretical democrat, who is generally credited with bringing democracy to Turkey, but Turkey’s first real elections were 12 years after his death.

I think this is the best single illustration of Atatürk’s contradictions: under him Turkey granted women full voting rights before many western countries, but there was no leadership election for them to vote in until 1950.

In other words, his legacy is just as malleable and contested as that of the Ottoman sultans.

THE RELIGIOUS-SECULAR CULTURE WAR AFTER ATATURK: Atatürk was never able to wish political Islam away, so the rest of the 20th century was characterised by a deep polarisation in Turkish society, between two broad groups:

The RELIGIOUS/SOCIAL CONSERVATIVES sought to roll back Atatürk’s reforms, and make both schooling and the courts at least somewhat Islamic in nature. They mostly represented rural, poorer and less well educated people, and the only times they achieved political dominance in the 20th Century the army stepped in to unseat their party. They seem to have developed something of a persecution complex over the course of the century, which I find myself sympathising with given how far Atatürk and his followers sometimes overreached. They’ve also long complained that to the extent that Turkey did develop economically under secularist governments, the benefits were overwhelmingly realised by secularists, turning the cultural divide into an economic one.

The KEMALISTS, or secularists, essentially saw Atatürk as the saviour of Turkey, and secularism as the only way to stop Turkey from—depending on the decade—reverting to the depravity of the late Ottoman Empire or turning into the Sunni version of Iran. In service of this, they were largely willing to overlook any of Atatürk’s excesses, often even criminalising any criticism of him. They tend to interpret the growing economic inequality as a result of the rural religious peoples’ lack of education. They also tended to see the army as their guardian, seeing repeated coups, corruption and partial democracy as a lesser evil than the restoration of a religious state.

BOTH SIDES have been incapable of conceiving of any sort of compromise or coexistence with each other. The mistrust is just too deep, so any progress for one side has been seen as an attack on the other, in a zero-sum battle over rights.

UNGOVERNABILITY OF TURKEY: Sadly for Turkey, the things the two sides have tended to agree on are some of the worst aspects of recent Turkish history:

  • Both sides have tended to see the Kurds as a threat, and repress them – at times quite viciously.
  • Both sides have had a vested interested in denying the Armenian massacres, because there were at least two separate massacres; under the Ottomans in the 19th Century and Atatürk in the 20th.
  • Both sides participated gleefully in petty corruption, to such an extent as to be a major obstacle to Turkey’s economic development.

To make things worse, Turkey had many decades of being governed exclusively by fractious coalitions. It has a rather similar electoral system to Germany’s, but where Germany’s relatively consensus-friendly political culture means that at least some of its coalition governments have been effective, Turkey has not only the vicious culture war I’ve already described, but also divisions within the secular side between economic liberals, socialists, proto-fascist nationalists, and parallel divisions within the religious side.  And then there are the ethnic tensions; that with the Kurds being the most significant because they account for something like a fifth of Turkey’s population.

EU ACCESSION TALKS: Turkey has had some kind of preferred trading status with the EU since the 1960s, and started formal membership talks in the 80s. It’s not clear to me to what extent the EU forced politicians hands versus giving them cover to make necessary but unpopular reforms but for a long time the process was a force for good in Turkey. The EU’s accession requirements were credited/blamed for improvements in press freedom, reducing the repression of the Kurds, improved relations with Greece, some steps to reduce corruption and a host of economic policy improvements. They also reduced the army’s grip on politics, which is the most controversial change of all. Clearly as an end point in a long-term process, the army needed to be pushed back into its barracks to let Turkey be a proper democracy, but many of the secularists argue that Turkey wasn’t ready for this yet and a more influential army was still needed to keep the Islamists in check.

Personally, I mostly sympathise with the Kemalists, but this is one of the issues on which I part ways with them. I think the military intervention in politics is one of the reasons the religious-secular culture war has become so entrenched and vicious, I’ve often worried that the next time the army stepped in it wouldn’t step back again and would install a Turkish Mubarak, and I think the army’s own cronyism has been a major driver of Turkey’s awful wealth inequality. At the same time, I can’t deny that the modernisation process was far from complete when EU accession became completely derailed, first by Sarkozy’s opportunistic racism, and then by the EU’s own economic meltdown. In theory the accession process remains open, but since fewer Turks now want to be EU members, and those that do no longer expect that they have a chance, the process has lost much of its power over domestic politics.

URBANISATION: One more piece of background, which foreigners often seem not to notice but is crucially important, is Turkey’s urbanisation. Under Atatürk the religious-secular divide was fairly closely paralleled by an urban-rural one. İstanbul, Izmir, the touristy areas around the Aegean/Mediterranean coast, and I think also Ankara, have tended to be heavily secular, cosmopolitan and west-facing, while the rest of the country has felt left behind. Over the course of the century, the population urbanised rapidly, bringing many religious traditionalists into the cities, especially İstanbul which now accounts for almost a fifth of the country’s whole population. The cities remain the bastion of secularism, but there is a new urban religious middle class, and unfortunately few signs that living side by side has reduced the secularist-religious mistrust at all.

THE 21st CENTURY & Erdoğan’S RISE: Through the 20th Century, any time a party that smelled too religious became too influential, the army or judiciary invariably stepped in to obstruct them; either having them ruled unconstitutional, threatening to or actually having a coup. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan worked within this system in the 80s and 90s, first as a member of existing Islamist parties, and then after the second of those was banned he became one of the founders of the Adalet ve Kalkınma [Justice and Development] Partisi (also known as the AK [white/purity] Parti or AKP). AKP is officially a socially conservative but not religious party. Secularists, suspicious of it for many reasons, argue that it’s a religious party dressed up as something just secular enough to escape being banned; certainly there have been unsuccessful legal attacks on it, and almost all of its support is from the religious side of the culture war.

AKP won the 2002 general election with about a third of the vote. The secularists’ disunity and quirks of the electoral system allowed that third to translate into a raw majority of seats, giving Turkey its first non-coalition government in some time. Partly because it had that advantage, it has also cemented a reputation as the most competent, effective government Turkey has had for many years; arguably since Atatürk was alive. The upshot of this is that its popularity has increased over successive elections, falling just barely short of 50% of the vote in 2011. However, most people who didn’t vote for it vehemently oppose both the party and Erdoğan, and still fear that he wishes to become a neo-Caliph.  They’re not short of reasons, symbolic and pragmatic, to justify this fear.  I’ll try to give both (or all 3) views on some of the AKP/Erdoğan’s major achievements:

  • Rolling back the influence of the military. AKP presents this as compliance with EU requirements and making Turkey more democratic; Kemalists see it as removing an obstacle to Erdoğan’s total rule. I suspect both are actually correct.
  • Jailing many senior military leaders for their alleged role in a massive conspiracy to undermine the government and rule of law. I have no idea who to believe here: I wouldn’t put it past the Turkish army to have been doing exactly what they were accused of, but I also wouldn’t put it past AKP to have invented the whole thing because it’s convenient for them.
  • Constitutional reforms that one side says strengthen democracy and the other argues set the stage for a Putin-Medvedev style perpetual presidency. I suspect the critics are right here.
  • Huge curtailment of press freedom, not through directly nationalising the media but through the chilling effects of threatening and harrassing editors, sometimes with physical force and sometimes through clearly malicious tax investigations. The divide here seems not to be between those who support and oppose, but those who have enough exposure to international news & social media to see what’s happening and condemn it, and those mostly in the countryside who only get Turkish news and can’t see what’s missing.
  • Removing bans on headscarves in public buildings, universities, etc. AKP (and I) argue that the bans were a restriction on freedom, and had the perverse effect of keeping religious women out of higher education and politics. The Kemalists argue that this is the cover for a stealth islamicisation. I actually side with AKP here, but this is a very powerful symbolic issue in modern Turkey, to say the least.
  • Significant restrictions on the sale and public consumption of alcohol. AKP argues that these are no more draconian than their equivalents in the US, are needed for public health, and are balanced with liberalisation of the brewing & distilling industries. Opponents argue that in practice they would turn much of urban Turkey into alcohol-free zones because they draw a booze-free radius around every mosque, and as such are a gift to Islamists. There are also rumours that existing businesses will be grandfathered in, in which case the real gift would be to the holders of existing liquor licences and the local bureaucrats who would get a new channel to collect bribes through. Whatever the truth of it, this is another issue with symbolic weight beyond its practical importance.
  • Massively expanding compulsory education (from 8 to 12 years), the university system (every province now has at least one), and the education of girls. No-one argues with this in itself, but secularists complain that at the same time the government has interfered heavily in the content of education with a revisionist bent that glorifies the sultans and emphasises religious education too heavily.
  • Starting a meaningful peace process with the Kurds. This is the single thing I am most impressed with AKP over, but strangely almost everyone in Turkey (including half the Kurds) seems to oppose it. I can’t tell if this just means that decades of propaganda have demonised the Kurds particularly effectively, or if there are issues I’m missing here.
  • At least some reduction in the petty corruption that obstructs business in and with Turkey; however at the same time suspiciously many big project contracts seem to go to companies close to the AKP or related to Erdoğan himself, so I’m not convinced there’s been any progress on large-scale corruption.
  • Economic liberalisation that has led to a long boom even while the rest of the world crashed. Secularists tend to agree with this one, except for the more left-wing who see a bubble forming. I don’t understand enough to have a sense of who’s right, but time will tell.
  • Significant progress on EU accession until Sarkozy screwed it all up. The more distrustful of the secularists have argued that AKP had only ever been selectively interested in those parts of the EU process that happened to suit their agenda; I’m pretty sure this is true, but it was also true of their predecessors and is plainly true of most EU member governments….
  • Until the Arab Spring: a “zero problems with the neighbours” foreign policy that probably has made Turkey safer and certainly made it more regionally influential; but which secularists accuse of having been much too friendly with Iran and Saudi Arabia, and laying the groundwork for Erdoğan’s ambition to be the new Caliph.
  • Since the Arab Spring: a more opportunistic foreign policy, with Erdoğan trying to position himself as a moral leader of disaffected Muslims whose own governments oppressed them in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. Secularists seem to see this as another step in his plans to become Caliph. Personally I can’t argue with opposing Assad & Mubarak, but I do see the other opposition argument, which is that pragmatically this stance has made life harder for Turkey without actually providing any meaningful help to the Arab revolutionaries.
  • Massive infrastructure projects all over the country. Opinion on these doesn’t seem to split along the old culture war lines at all, but in a much more similar way to that in Western Europe and the US: a divide between those who see the infrastructure as necessary and those who find the price—in dollars, environmental destruction and/or displacement of people—unacceptably high.
  • Huge urban renewal projects in İstanbul. Much of this, like the metro system, is clearly needed, decades overdue and seems to be broadly popular. However there is also a sense that it’s being done by fiat, with no consultation or even clear explanation of plans, little thought about what would really make the city better, and a heavy emphasis on symbols of Islam & state power, plus commercial projects that happen to benefit cronies of the AKP.
  • An earthquake safety campaign that İstanbul clearly needed, but seems to have quickly devolved into using the tool of condemning buildings as seismically unsafe as cover for unpopular redevelopments, displacing families and uprooting whole neighbourhoods. This has been an interesting one because it seems to have upset a lot of AKP’s base—the recently urbanised middle class—and is dangerous because it’s spreading mistrust of earthquake engineering in general, in a city that does genuinely have large numbers of unsafe buildings.

Until the 2011 election, I was personally rather supportive of the AKP. In successive visits to Turkey I could see the country rapidly shedding its former poverty and third-world infrastructure, and I felt that most of the pro-religious moves secularists were howling about were merely the undoing of Kemalist repressions. I can’t have been the only person to see things this way, because the party’s increasing popularity in each election showed them bringing new people into their supporter base. However, over the years the party, and especially Erdoğan himself, do seem to have turned into the elected autocrats that the secularists feared. I still don’t see Erdoğan as a potential Khameini, but he’s been reminding me more and more of Vladimir Putin: populist in a socially conservative way, economically liberal within limits that let him wield much power through economic policy, increasingly intolerant of dissent, and increasingly willing to use totalitarian means to keep a hold on power. Another parallel is that he’s been an exceedingly skilled player of the game of politics, while the opposition has been too fractious to even slow him down.

THE GEZI PARK PROTESTS: Against this backdrop, the Gezi Park protests started as a relatively small (the highest estimate I’ve seen being 500 people) sit-in, protesting that one of İstanbul’s precious few parks was to be replaced with yet another mall.  It was obvious from the outset that it was more than just sentimentalism about a few trees; that park was clearly a symbol of broader fears about what İstanbul is being turned into and how, but it was still a relatively small, local protest over a local issue. The reaction to it has been by far the biggest miscalculation I’ve seen from Erdoğan. 8 days ago he could easily have disarmed the protesters by ignoring them to their faces while telling the rest of the country how essential this development was and how out of touch and anti-progress the privileged, urban protestors were. With most of the country behind him, he could have let the protests fizzle away into irrelevance without losing more than a couple of weeks on the construction schedule.

Instead he sent the police in to set fire to protestors’ tents as they slept, blanket the park with tear gas, and beat up any protestors who didn’t flee. This is what set off the larger protests: the initial group of protestors ceded the park to the police, but started asking everyone outraged about police brutality to meet back at Taksim Square (İstanbul’s main central square; also subject to a controversial redevelopment project at the moment) later in the day. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people showed up then, and that was the start of the mass protest. There isn’t a singular issue being protested about, but this ad which ran in today’s New York Times gives a good sense of what’s important to many protestors:

direngeziparkiA week later, the Taksim area looks like this, and Erdoğan seems determined to inflame things with ever more defiant speeches demonising the protestors and arguing for the tyrannity of the majority. There are some important things to understand here, which I’m seeing badly misunderstood in the foreign media:

THIS IS NOT TAHRIR SQUARE: Remember that Erdoğan is the most popular politician in Turkey. I suspect that if he called a snap election tomorrow, the AKP would get at least half the votes, and the opposition would remain self-destructively divided. Because of this I can’t see the government falling, and it’s not clear that the government falling would even be a good thing.

THIS IS NOT LED BY ANY OPPOSITION PARTY: The protests have more in common with Occupy Wall Street than the Arab Spring, and one of the links is that many protestors were not previously politically active, and are badly disillusioned with all the parties in politics. I’ve heard repeatedly about opposition party people showing up with flags and songs only to be booed and shouted down by the protestors.

THIS IS NOT ABOUT RELIGION PER SE: This may seem like a strange thing to write after so many words about the religious-secular culture war, but its significance is as the backdrop against which Turkish society became so fractured that a popular Prime Minister can face a popular resistance movement, and each side’s supporters can believe nothing that the other side says.


I don’t have a good sense of how this will end. I’m quite worried, but here are a few potential scenarios, which I dare not suggest odds for:

CLIMB DOWN: I still think Erdoğan could defuse these protests by taking a more conciliatory line, and starting to govern in a more inclusive way. It would take a long time to build trust, but the majority of the protestors are not hardcore activists and have jobs to go back to, so if only out of fatigue they could probably be persuaded to give this a chance, and Erdoğan has enough genuine achievements and political skill that he could come out of this more popular than before. The trouble is, I’m not convinced he’s personally capable of climbing down like that.

PALACE COUP: While AKP is in little danger nationally, it does have internal divisions, and I could see Erdoğan being deposed by others within his party. I don’t know enough about potential successors to see where this would go in the long term, but in the short term I’m sure his scalp could defuse these protests. I still reckon the odds are against this, though, because of his personal popularity and the extent to which the party is identified with him as an individual.

ATTRITION DEFEAT: I suspect that what Erdoğan is counting on is that the inexperience of the protestors, combined with the size and resources of the police, will let him win by sheer staying power. Thousands of people have been injured or arrested already, and the protestors are relatively unlikely to manage to draw many AKP supporters into their camp, so the police can probably just outlast the protests. The main arguments against this are the protestors’ sheer numbers and reports of fatigue and morale problems already appearing within police ranks.

CIVIL WAR: Erdoğan has at least twice threatened to mobilise his support base in even larger numbers than the protestors, and while he hasn’t explicitly said it the implication is clearly that his own proto-militia would deal with the “looters” violently. The possibility of this actually happening strikes me as the most pessimistic scenario.



Alright, that’s a very personal, biased account of what’s going on in Turkey and why. As I’ve already said, please don’t treat me as an authoritative source; I just hope I can give a helpful orientation.  If you have another take I’d love to hear it in the comments or your own blog, and if you want things clarified please ask.


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