Ottoman History at Stake in Taksim Squaretags: Turkey, David M. Perry, Ottoman Empire, Taksim Square, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Credit: Wiki Commons.
In November of 2012, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reacted to criticism of the planned renovation to Taksim Square in central Istanbul by invoking history. "We are working to bring back history that has been destroyed," he said this week, in reference to the demolition of the barracks in 1940. "We will unite Taksim with its history."
As it turned out, Erdoğan’s attempt to unify Taksim with its history has turned bloody. Police attacked protestors with water cannons and tear gas, thousands were injured, and several people have died. The deputy prime minister issued an apology, the police attacked again, the demonstrations have spread to other cities, and Erdoğan has demanded the protests cease. He has claimed, however, to be open to discussing “democratic demands.” As of Saturday, the protests continue with Taksim more crowded then ever; the potential for serious civil strife remains high.
Commentators from around the world are debating the causes and significance of the conflict. Some focus on the role of Islam in Turkey, while others emphasize disagreements about the nature of Turkish democracy, the lack of civil liberties, or the nascent environmentalist movement (the initial protest related to the destruction of Gezi park, one of the few green spaces left in the city). While all of these issues are playing a role in sparking unrest, the reconstruction of the Ottoman barracks is not a mere catalyst here. Instead, the issues surrounding the barracks point to deep unresolved historical tensions within the Republic of Turkey. The protestors 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 and persistent resistance. In the last decade, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have exploited that resistance as one element in their rise to power.
Under AKP rule, the Ottoman past has re-emerged as culturally powerful. The movie Fetih 1453, a highly-dramatized account of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople/Istanbul in 1453, had the biggest budget in the history of Turkish cinema, an investment handsomely rewarded by its box office returns. Turkish television is now littered with Ottoman-era dramas and soap operas, including the wildly successful Magnificent Century, which is set in the era of the famous emperor Suleiman the Magnificent. More and more aspects of elite Turkish culture now embrace Ottoman architecture, fashion and even food. According to some opponents of the AKP, the cultural embrace of Ottoman history promotes a political agenda of regional domination. 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 fact, 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 are contentious projects asserting one type of historical memory over others.
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 protest. Thus, the protestors were treated to the media representations of 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, “Now that Taksim is being pedestrianized, wouldn't it be better to build more parks and plant more trees for that?" He noted that Mehmet preserved the Orthodox basilica Hagia Sophia when he took the city. Evin continued, “Such were our ancestors; 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 specifically or with the broader cycles of social unrest now 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 their agenda, it will require internal pressure from within the movement to push Erdoğan towards a consensus settlement. But even if issues involving Taksim square are eventually resolved without brutality, the deeper fissure over 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.
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