DALLAS October 29, 2012 – The Middle East is a lot things; predictable isn’t one of them. And this unpredictability can be even more pronounced in Turkey, the region’s only constitutional democracy and secular state. The country has been moving with faltering steps into the 21st century – two steps forward and one step back.
Yesterday, Turkey celebrated Republic Day to commemorate the founding of the secular state by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the hero of the modern nation state of Turkey. You would think the government would play a key role in organizing the festivities to celebrate 89 years as a modern secular state. You would be wrong. The government apparently wasn’t in a festive mood.
It all started when the Interior Ministry refused permission to political and civil society groups who wanted to hold their own rally instead of attending official celebrations organized by the ruling AKP, a party with decidedly Islamist leaning. The government said that permission was denied because of intelligence indicating that the rally would turn into a protest, hardly a crime in a country with constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
Thousands of Turkish citizens celebrated Republic Day in front of the country’s first Parliamentary Building, after which they wanted to march to Atatürk’s Mausoleum, a shrine to the country’s founder and hero. Police barricades blocked their way. In the end, there was a standoff with the crowd shouting slogans like, “We are Atatürk’s soldiers” and “Total Independence for Turkey.” The confrontation eventually turned violent as the police used pepper spray and water cannons to try and disperse the crowd.
Imagine a group of American patriots being treated this way on a march to the Washington Monument on July 4th by an American White House that was apologetic to the British for the American insurrection that led to the Revolutionary War, and you will have some idea of the tension created.
In addition to water cannons and pepper spray, the police also employed jammers to disrupt communications and several news agencies had trouble communicating with their offices. Vehicles with live broadcasting equipment were also doused by police water cannons. In the end, Prime Minister Erdoğan called Interior Minister Şahin and ordered him to call off the police. But not before Gülsün Bilgehan, a CHP deputy, had been exposed to tear gas.
Leader of the CHP opposition party, Kilicdaroglu, expressed the feelings of many in his statement:
“Those people were only carrying Turkish flags. The state had police and pepper spray on hand. Are we going to war here? What could be more natural than celebrating Republic Day? Our grandfathers founded this Republic with blood and tears. Sovereignty rests unconditionally with the people. I wonder if this administration even knows what that means.
“A Republican administration is one that values the republic. Did the crowd get out of control? Did they break windows or doors? No. And the people should not have to get permission to celebrate a national holiday. I want to thank all of my fellow citizens for bringing a flag and joining the celebration.”
Actually, the crowds at this “unofficial” celebration would have been larger, but buses from outlying provinces were turned back by the police. CHP Group Deputy Chairman Muharrem Ince said, “What has happened here is a murder of democracy. It is a constitutional crime. It is a crime to deny freedom of movement.”
In later comments, Ince said, “This shows that the AKP is afraid of the people. This is the sign of fear. The opposition in Syria is free to use weapons, but there is a ban on marches by the opposition in Turkey. We vehemently condemn these fascist tactics of the AKP.”
In response to criticism for the ban placed on the march for October 29th, Prime Minister Erdoğan said, “The Ankara Governor’s Office is currently discharging its duties based on the intelligence it has obtained. Why don’t they join us in the hippodrome, and we’ll celebrate all together.”
Of course, the country’s secularist citizens have no intention of celebrating the founding of the secular Republic, which meant the abolishment of the Caliphate, with a political party they believe is bent on turning the clock back in Turkey. In their eyes, Erdoğan’s goal is to put religion back into public discourse and politics.
Journalist Güler Kömürcü is one of many who seem to be fed up with the current administration’s heavy-handed tactics. She tweeted, “Justifying these acts by saying, ‘We have intelligence. It will be used for provocation’ is a very dangerous. It is an open-ended justification. The justification of an authoritarian regime.”
Luke Montgomery, author of A Deceit To Die For, lived in the Middle East for over a decade. He holds an MA in Linguistics, speaks fluent Turkish and writes on foreign policy, religion and culture. You can follow his work at www.lukemontgomery.net, or find him on Twitter at @LookingFor_Luke and on Facebook.
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