The downward spiral of Turkish democracy



When I was a curious teen-aged kid, I subscribed to a series of Time Life books on history and civilization. One was a beautiful book entitled Islam, the Religion of Peace. It was the early fifties and this was the only source of my knowledge of Islam at the time. It was illustrated with photos of the great achievements of Islamic cultures: quiet courtyards with fountains, beautiful mosques, calligraphy.

Such a book would now present a different face. The world is fixated on suicide bombing, wars, revolutions, terrorist movements.

The fact is that both presentations of the religion are wrong. Religion is neither peaceful nor warlike, though the history of a religion may be one or the other or both. Who was not surprised to learn the Buddhist monks in Myanmar were leading murderous raids on Muslim communities?


Christian history has periods which are drenched in blood, often the blood of opposing Christian groups. It is not the religions that are peaceful or genocidal: it is the human beings associated with religions.

In 2001 I moved to Turkey. I realized that there were conflicts in the society and that some of them involved religion. When the Islamist party of Tayyip Erdoğan came to power in 2003, I had trouble understanding the fears my secular Turkish friends expressed about the new government. As he dismantled the power of the military which for years had controlled the fate of Turkish politics he seemed to be establishing a Western-style democracy.

I had met many religious Turks who embraced an open-minded interpretation of their religion. These included Sunni intellectuals, Alevi young people - adherents of a minority Muslim sect - and a group of Sufi mystics. I felt that the new government would hardly embrace religious authoritarianism.

I was wrong.

While the government made strides in stopping the civil war with the Kurdish forces, it at the same time was throwing large numbers of journalists and political activists in jail. To a great extent it silenced the press and stifled dissent. The Prime Minister showed himself to be completely intolerant of criticism. And he led the country into participation in the sectarian war in Syria on the side of the Sunni forces. While the Alevi are not  the same as the Syrian Alevites, the Alevi have reason to be nervous as the Syrian violence spills over into Turkey, now in the form of the bombing of a Turkish city on the border. The Syrian civil war has become basically sectarian, and it enflames sectarian conflicts in the whole region.

There are two developments that may symbolize a further erosion of Turkish democracy. A third bridge over the Bosporus is planned to unite Europe and Asia. The government has chosen to name the bridge after Yavuz Sultan Selim, the Sultan who ruled from 1512 to 1520. During his relatively short reign the Ottoman Empire trebled in size, taking over most of the Arab Middle East including Egypt. In itself, naming the bridge after "Selim the Grim" makes sense from a nationalistic point of view. However, another aspect of his reign is disturbing. His forces massacred tens of thousands of the Alevi minority.

It would appear that Erdoğan styles himself after this Sunni crusader. 

And the news from Istanbul today is likewise disturbing. A group of peaceful protesters have been violently attacked by the police. The protest was against the destruction of the only green space in the middle of the city to be replaced by a shopping mall - in the form of an Ottoman military barracks.

It is not religions that are in themselves violent, but rather people who have embraced religion and use it for their own purposes. 


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