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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT