Taksim Square Protests: Turkey Has Got an Identity Crisis


Type "Turkey secular country" into Google and you'll find dozens of headlines that end with question marks. Since the Development and Justice Party (AKP) claimed power in 2002, many of Turkey's 75 million citizens, despite being over 99% Muslim, have been asking themselves how long the country will hold onto this identity.

Founded in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal Ataturk enshrined secularism as a core value in Turkey's newly formed national identity. Although the country's population was overwhelming Muslim, Ataturk insisted on a clear separation of mosque and state. Attributing the demise of the empire to its inability to embrace a more modern mentality, Ataturk embraced Turkey's European identity, adopted the Latin alphabet and gave women the right to vote. Unrestrained by the religious elites, Ataturk banished the caliphate.

Yet for all Ataturk's progressive reforms, his legacy included leaving behind a strong military charged with protecting this secular legacy. Three times after his death and most recently in 1980, the military initiated a coup d'état, asserting the legacy of Ataturk against Turkey's political system — efforts that did not quell concerns that Turkey was much less democratic than it aspired to be.

Legal actions to protect Ataturk's image also infringed on personal liberties; over the decades, hundreds of journalists and citizens have been imprisoned for their criticism of Ataturk. Most recently, the Turkish government banned YouTube in 2008 for over two years because of alleged critical content posted on the site and only relented when a new arrangement offered the government some amounts of control in evaluating content. 

Despite some of the crippling and suffocating effects of his legacy, many Turks have remained fiercely loyal to Ataturk and have come to see many of the actions and policy of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP as threatening their nation's identity.

While critics have been quick to criticize the AKP as Islamist-leaning, the party itself has branded itself as seeking a democratic state where Muslim identity can be more easily expressed. While he has been careful not to verbally deride the legacy of Ataturk, Erdogan has seemingly been building his own image of Turkey, one where Ataturk has less influence and that offers more openness to the exhibition of Muslim values in the public square. For instance, he rankled many Turks by renaming schools previously named for Ataturk after other notable Turks, easing university restrictions on headscarves, and increasing restrictions on the sale of alcohol.

To widespread public dissent, last year the government moved to ban selling alcohol on the state-owned airline. Last month, they announced that alcohol could no longer be sold between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. It also required that alcohol could not be sold closer than 100 meters between premises selling alcohol and places of worship or education. Notably, this did not include tourist locations.

Furthermore, Erdogan himself has worked to consolidate his own power as prime minister. His administration has jailed hundreds of journalists. Having changed the constitutional process, he is expected to run for president next year.

As other news outlets have addressed earlier this week, there have been other factors such as a new mall, a new mosque, and the government chopping down trees, that have led to these immediate protests. But the tinder was lit a long time ago.