The coverage of events in Turkey roll on and on and the mainstream press continues to treat this as a simple clash between the moderate Islamic stance (whatever that means) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a hip, young, urban secular vision of at Turkey looking toward Europe and the future.
If only things were that simply.
The other day I dug into a very religion-free report in The Los Angeles Times (click here for a refresher).
The Times of the West followed that with a very similar piece that — once again — used a wide variety of labels, often attached to the undefined word “Islamist,” without offering much information about the symbolism of the very battlefield on which this drama is unfolding. Here is one chunk of that second story that captures the flavor:
Erdogan is still very much in control, and few would venture that the crisis will bring him down, but the protests have hurt him politically and exposed misgivings within his party. Tear gas and water cannons have damaged Turkey’s international image, upsetting the stock market and giving investors pause at a time when the once hyper-speed economy has slowed to about 3% annual growth.
The unrest also suggests that his blend of Islam and democracy is too restrictive for secularists, artists, activists and even working-class mothers who have turned out in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square. Like Egypt’s Tahrir Square two years ago, it has been transformed into an iconic, scorched patch of rebellion.
“Erdogan’s vulnerability now is the secular middle classes that have risen against AKP governance. And that genie will not go back into the bottle,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is a new dynamic in Turkish politics and this will challenge him on his urban renewal and foreign policy programs. So far, he has had an easy ride.”
All the usual camps are mentioned. The big themes are all rooted in the present, with constant attempts to hook events to the other uprisings in the Arab Spring. But wait, the Arab Spring revolts have all pushed against corruption and in favor of a rising sense of Islamic identity. Is that what is happening here? Does the history of Turkey fit that template?
Wait, Turkey has a unique history?
So what is missing from this story?
Anyway, a GetReligion reader sent us a URL to a CNN report that seems to, well, get the fact that the past matters in the Middle East and the other cultures near it. The reader noted:
The Google News aggregator had an interesting headline, so I clicked on a CNN story about the park and plaza where the protests are going on in Turkey. I was surprised with lots of information, historical details, and an account that does not focus or dwell on religion but recognizes its importance. I have questions about matters not explained, but there are no ghosts. And, since I am reading on-line, I can click on several related stories that might answer my questions.
No joke. Here is a long, long chunk of that CNN report — which I urge GetReligion readers to check out. This touches on some of the themes I mentioned the other day and, in fact, goes deeper. This starts with some of the symbolic structures that currently are located around Gezi Park. Symbols, by their very nature, have history.
Read. It. All.
The barracks being reconstructed are from the 19th Century, a period when Turkey was still ruled by Ottoman sultans, who declared themselves the “caliphs” — or spiritual leaders — of the Muslim world. In 1922, first president of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, sent the last sultan into exile and two years later, banned the caliphate and declared Turkey a secular state — so the ideals of the Republic of Turkey clash with those of the country’s Ottoman past.
The plans to rebuild Ottoman-era barracks had raised two different issues — the physical change and the idea behind it, said Benjamin Fortna, professor of Middle Eastern history at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London.
“The idea — building a replica of a past building — probably suggests to some people that the government’s trying to link itself to the Ottoman past. But of course the square does exist from the Ottoman period.” Fortna said many people objected to a “kind of glorification” of the Ottoman era, which the early republic had tried to “ignore and denigrate.”
And where does the current government’s roots fit into this?
As I stressed the other day, note the historic importance of Turkey’s own definition of the word “secular.”
Kalaycioglu said the barracks had also been associated with the massacre of Christian army officers during a major uprising against constitutional rule in 1909. “In the minds of the people, [the uprising] was the conspiracy of the sultan who tried to get rid of the officers in 1908 by using religious provocation,” he said. “That left an indelible mark in the minds of the people that religion could be deployed as a major factor against modernization.”
That concept was “at the very base” of Erdogan’s AK Party, Kalaycioglu said. The plans for Taksim Square also including the building of a mosque, he said. This meant “anybody objecting to the project would be objecting to a mosque” and the AKP was presenting objectors as atheist, secular, communist, anti-democratic and anti the people, he said. “The masses on their side will be conservative and Sunni Muslim,” he said.
The proposed mosque would also overshadow the statues of the major figures of the republic represented on the Monument to the Republic in Taksim Square, Kalaycioglu said.
Taksim’s lack of religious connotations was “probably one of the reasons that it was favored by the republic as a modern urban space,” Fortna said. The plan to build a mosque in Taksim was therefore “highly controversial and something that those with a secular orientation in the city and the country itself would resist,” he said. “The other side would see it as a natural place to have a mosque.”
The term “secular” — most often understood in the West as referring to the separation of religion and government — was often applied to Turkey, Fortna said. “But in Turkey itself they use the French term ‘laïque.’ In Turkey you really have the situation that’s related to the founding of the republic – that the state will kind of control religion,” Fortna said. “So, for example, the Directorate of Religious Affairs is responsible for deciding the text that Muslim clerics can deliver in their Friday sermons.”
Kalaycioglu said the government also planned to demolish the Ataturk Cultural Center. They [Erdogan’s government] want to get rid of anything and everything to do with Ataturk,” he said. Kalaycioglu suggested that another example of this was the government’s proposal to close down Ataturk Airport — Istanbul’s main international hub — and build a new airport in the north. He said this would involve excavating a new channel between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. “All this to get rid of the name of Ataturk. There’s a lot of ideological baggage.”
You can say that again. It’s time for some journalists to start taking a few historians out to lunch.