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June 7, 2013

Istanbul’s Riots

Roy Meachum

There is behind North Market’s yellow door an image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, given by Turkish friend Atakan. He gave it as a commemoration of my visit to his homeland, courtesy of Rumi Forum.


On my return, I was asked to write my impressions, which I already reported in The Frederick News-Post and on WFMD/930AM: Turkey had the feel of southern European cities, especially Italy. The men, women and children didn’t possess any of the fatal resignation that I attributed to the insha’allah spirited, which I’ve written about before.


In no way, I anticipated the current riots in Istanbul and other parts of the country. Still, I should have expected, knowing the strict secularism imposed by Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkey. He wrought the nation out of the Ottoman Empire, establishing the new capital in Ankara, up in the mountains.


Istanbul, founded as Byzantium, later Constantinople, has retained its international importance, and nationally in the land the tribes that originated in Asia, collecting Islam along the way. It was the seat of the caliphs – the popes of all Muslims. In order to fashion a modern state, Mustafa Kamal tried to exorcise religion.


The riots in the former capital can be attributed to reaction to Ataturk, translated as the father of Turks. With the increase of Islamism, it was to be expected naturally; I saw the movement in Cairo. Once women dressed in the latest mode; most were wearing Egyptian long, flowing robes and hoods to cover up their hair, when I left in 1979 – more than 30years ago.


Recep Tayipp Erdogan took advantage of the backswing. He was sworn in as prime minister in 2003; previously he was mayor of Istanbul. But his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party gained an absolute majority in the Turkish parliament four years later.


The riots came directly over his plans for Taksim Square, historically a place for public gatherings, like Cairo’s Tahrir. His government proposed a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks and a shopping mall. He was opposed by many who see the vision for his hometown as too Islamist, preserving mosques at the cost of other antique buildings. The wife of Turkish president Abdullah Gul joined protests against the demolition of the city’s oldest movie theatre – for another shopping mall.


“This is the first battle Erdogan lost in recent memory,” according to Soli Ozel, an Istanbul newspaper columnist and academic. “He overreached – his hubris, arrogance and authoritarian impulse hit a wall.”


The prime minister responded on a defiant chord; he said no shopping mall would be built in Taksim, but he vowed to erect another mosque in the square. And so it goes.


Egypt’s President Muhammad Morsi and Turkish Prime Minister Tayipp Erdogan have reached further in Islamist control, very much opposed by the Saudi Wahhabism, which preaches strict Sunnism. Then there are running around Muslims of different hues and beliefs, calling themselves Shiites, who have a long history of saints and shrines.


Islam has almost as many sects as Christianity and Judaism. The three Western religions contend with eastern Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Confucian, Taoism and Zoroastrianism – all with splinters.


God save mankind from the faithful.


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