Turkey is passing through a stormy period. Since May 31, thousands of people have been pouring into the streets and protesting the government and, more specifically, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has ruled the country for more than 10 years. The protests were inflamed by a group of environmentalists, who occupied Gezi Park in Taksim, a small common in the central square of Istanbul, to prevent the government from demolishing it and building an Ottoman-themed shopping mall. This plan was part of a larger transformation and gentrification project of Istanbul. Erdoğan, who had been the mayor of the city before his tenure as prime minister, personally supervises these projects. He interferes at every level, from choosing the contracting companies to deciding the styles of the buildings. In many ways, Istanbul is Erdoğan’s playground to materialize his fantasies — what he called grand projects — such as building the biggest mosque with the tallest minarets in the world upon the highest hill of the city, or a giant canal, parallel to the Bosporus, connecting the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea.
Most of these new projects have some historical symbolism. The shopping mall to be built on Gezi Park would revive military barracks, built in the late 18th century during the Ottoman Empire. This building was a central locus for the conservative Islamic resistance against a military coup in 1909, which put an end to the reign of Abdulhamid II, a sultan who reinforced the Ottoman caliphate and thus is highly esteemed by Muslim conservatives. Gezi Park, however, was built upon the ruins of the military barracks by Ismet Inonu, the second president of the Republic, who is considered the second founder, after Ataturk, of Turkey by its secular republicans. Therefore, Erdoğan thinks that his project would “correct” a historical mistake and reintroduce the city to its accurate historical memory.
Such an understanding of history has shaped the ideas of Erdoğan and other leading figures of Turkish neo-conservatism for some years. According to them, for around 100 years Turkey experienced a divergence from its natural historical path of the Muslim-Ottoman past to an unnatural path of radical secularism and westernization. This blatant modernization alienated the masses. It established an elitist and top-down republicanism orchestrated by military-bureaucratic patronage and consolidated by military coups whenever the masses refuted this patronage. While the last hundred years are seen as a kind of pathology, Erdoğan is presented as a corrector who would guide Turkey back to the right path.
Many observers agree that Erdoğan was successful in opening new venues for the conservative masses in the economic and political system of Turkey. His party, in alliance with a large liberal coalition, eliminated the military patronage. His recent brave attempt to make peace with the Kurdish guerilla movement triggered optimism that the violence shattering eastern Turkey might end.
However, while Erdoğan was opening some new venues, he was closing others. His arrogant language distinguishing “authentic nation” and “corrupted elites” offended millions of middle-class people who are sensitive about their secular lifestyles and have emotional links with the republican ideals. It was not only the urban middle classes who felt excluded.
This new historical trajectory of fabricating a golden Ottoman past ignores its controversial experience. Recently, Erdoğan declared that the third bridge, which will cross the Bosporus, would be named after Yavuz Sultan Selim. This naming seems to be an extension of his ambitious foreign policy in the Middle East. Selim was the 16th-century Ottoman sultan who added Syria and Egypt to the Ottoman Empire. But Selim was also responsible for massacring thousands of Alevis, namely ancestors of the distinctive Shi‘i-inspired Turkish community, which constitutes almost 20 percent of the country’s population. This is only one example of how Alevis were offended, and Alevis were only one of the communities that Erdoğan’s new Turkey is uncomfortable with including. In fact, it was the Armenian cemetery underneath the Gezi Park that perhaps best symbolizes the odd history of what is remembered and what is forgotten, what is readily apparent and what is hidden in the city’s complex register.
Turkey is experiencing a turn. During the last month, thousands of people from urban middle classes and worker unions, students, Alevis, Kurds, Armenians, LGBTs and others who felt offended, excluded and marginalized by Erdoğan have claimed rights to their cities, public spaces, histories and memories.
Ali Yaycioglu is an assistant professor of Middle East history at Stanford University