This writer recently visited Istanbul after a gap of about five years. While the trip was very short a change in the landscape of the city’s historic Taksim Square indicated the enormous ideological transformation underway in Turkey.
Five years after the establishment of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal in 1923, a monument in its honour was erected in the Square. It became an important symbol of a Republic determinedly pushed in the direction of secularism and modernity by a great and progressive leader on whom a grateful people conferred the title of Ataturk—the father of the Turks. Now, Turkey marches to a different tune, one set by another forceful leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan who served as Prime Minister between 2003-14 and has been President since then.
Erdogan is determined to reinforce Turkey’s Islamic roots. He is inspired by the vision of Turkey leading the Islamic world as it did in the heyday of the Ottoman empire. This is vastly different from the aspirations Mustafa Kemal Ataturk espoused. He wanted Turkey to become a modern nation and a part of the European family. Over the past two decades Erdogan has succeeded in taming the army which was the main Turkish institution committed to preserving Ataturk’s secular legacy. With the army under his firm control there are no institutional brakes left to check Erdogan from walking his chosen path.
In 2013 Taksim Square became the scene of substantial protests which were ostensibly against a decision to replace the Gezi Park within the Square with other structures, including commercial ones. In reality though the demonstrations were against the gradual undoing of Ataturk’s legacy. The Gezi Park remains, but Erdogan has had an imposing mosque constructed in a section of the Square. It completely dwarfs the Republican monument. While the idea of making a mosque at Taksim Square goes back decades it was never implemented. Erdogan decided that it should be made and it was inaugurated by him in May this year. The construction took four years.
A significant indicator of Turkey’s current direction is the vastly enhanced power and reach of the Directorate of Religious Affairs. While it was established under Ataturk’s republican constitution in 1924 the Directorate which administers Sunni institutions pursued a moderate stance. Over the past decade and a half its approach has become more assertive and conservative. Its size and budget have also dramatically increased. Interestingly foreign leaders interact with the Directorate’s head. Indeed the Taliban foreign minister who was on an official visit to Turkey a fortnight ago met the Directorate leaders too. Clearly, the Directorate is being permitted to influence the course of the country’s foreign policy.
The changes underway in Turkey provide a fascinating example of the civilizational shifts that take place within a country and also changes in the thinking of peoples and countries within the parameters of a single civilization. Through its rich history Turkey has witnessed both processes. It has seen tectonic civilizational changes. It was part of the Greek and later the Roman world. The city of Ephesus founded during the Greek period became an important city of the Roman empire. Parts of modern day Turkey later became the most important centre of Christianity’s eastern church with the Constantinople becoming one of the principal cities of Christendom. From the end of the 11th century Turkish tribes originally from Central Asia began moving into some areas of present times Turkey.
The process of consolidation of the Turkish tribes continued over more than two centuries. During that period a great struggle took place between the Byzantines and the Turks which ended in 1453 with the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror captured Constantinople. With that the Byzantine empire came to an end; Constantinople became the capital of one of the greatest empires in the world; the Hagia Sophia one of Christianity’s most sacred churches became a mosque, and the civilization of Turkey changed decisively.
By the end of the 18th century Ottoman power began to wane while that of Europe backed by scientific and technological advances rose. In the 19th century and the early part of the 20th the Ottoman empire still controlled large areas of the Arab world and some parts of Central Asia but it had become effete and weak. It entered the first world war as a German ally. After its defeat it lay prostrate. It was at this time that Ataturk gathered nationalist forces and successfully fighting the Greeks restored Turkish pride and honour. He abolished Ottoman rule. While retaining Turkey’s Islamic foundations he sought to infuse his people with a modern spirit and looked to Europe as a model for development.
It is this Ataturk model that Erdogan is changing. Within the parameters of Turkey’s Islamic creed basic shifts are occurring taking the people in more orthodox directions including in matters of dress. The controversies over women wearing the hijab in public places have continued from the mid-1930s. It was actively discouraged and later banned in public spaces. Under Erdogan it has been allowed through parliamentary action. The hijab has therefore signalled ideological shifts in Turkey.
Another powerful example of the ideological changes in Turkey was Erdogan’s decision to allow the namaz at the Hagia Sophia now officially called the Ayasofya mosque. Ataturk, in a major gesture to Christianity and to European countries had made it into a museum in 1935. However, neither the appeals of Christians abroad nor Turkey’s secularists prevailed upon the man with a mission.