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Turkey’s Culture Wars: The Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, the Topçu Barracks & the AKM

By   /   June 3, 2013  /   2 Comments


Can Erimtan

Dr. Can Erimtan (İstanbul) – The term ‘Culture War’ refers to the struggle between two sets of conflicting cultural values. Derived from the German Kulturkampf, the noun is mostly known nowadays in its American usage as a shorthand for the assertion that there is a conflict between those values considered traditionalist or conservative and those considered progressive or modernist. Its American circulation originated in the 1920s when urban and rural American values came head to head, with the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial (1925) being one of the then-culture war’s most prominent episodes. The expression regained currency in 1991 with the publication of the book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America written by the solciologist James Davison Hunter. The relevance of the term in a Turkish context appears straightforward, as I explained somewhere else: “In 1923, the foundation of the Republic of Turkey at the very edge of Europe led to a cultural malaise among its intellectual and political leaders alike. Established on the remains of the multi-ethnic yet staunchly Islamic Ottoman Empire, the Republic set out to emulate Western civilisation from an early date . . . chose to abandon the cultural idiom of Islam and to opt instead for the civilization of the West as Turkey’s structural and intellectual framework”.

The above quote appears to nicely encapsulates the scope of Turkey’s cultural wars. In reality though, the situation is much more complicated than a mere polarization between Westernist elites and Islamic populace, as the whole notion of Turkish nationalism and citizenship, the cornerstone of Turkish people’s identities and the Turkish state’s legitimacy, is actually intimately intertwined with the religion of Islam. As a result, the idea that Turkey has been a secular nation since 1923 is really an untenable proposition. The mere fact that a Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Reisliği, in Turkish) has been existence since the Republic’s earliest days, illustrates the thorny nature of the issue. Still, on a purely symbolic and visual level, the reality of the just-mentioned culture wars cannot be denied – the most obvious example to spring to mind has been the whole tussle about the wearing of the headscarf that has constituted a dark cloud over the freedom of individual in Turkey for the past decades.

The recently passed new regulations concerning the sale of alcoholic beverages constitute another such symbolic issue that forms one of the battlegrounds for the culture wars. As I wrote in October 2011, when a previous regulation on the sale of alcohol had been issued: “the whole debate surrounding the consumption of alcohol in Turkey is primarily about perception. Opponents of the AKP government accuse Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ministers of secretly planning to introduce Islamic codes and attitudes via the backdoor. They thus regard [the new legal provisions] as a direct attack on the country’s ‘secular constitution’. Is this really the case, and if so, why? In my book, Ottomans looking West? I posited that the ‘proclamation of the Republic . . . liberated Turkish citizens from the restrictions of Islam and the Şeriat [Shariah]’. As a result, Republican Turks were meant to enjoy this world and its delights to the fullest and the decision to let Turkish citizens ‘partake of the delights of the mortal world was arguably crystallized in the consumption of alcoholic beverages. A strict interpretation of Islam explicitly prohibits the drinking of intoxicants in this world’. Hence, the issue of unrestricted access to beer and other alcoholic intoxicants has now assumed political, if not ideological, importance. Turkey’s Muslim citizens have had legal access to alcohol since 1926. Turkey’s Islamic neighbor states do not grant their citizens equally easy access to the forbidden delights of alcohol. As a result, some Turks regard the issue as critical to the definition of secularism in the country. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) also defines secularism as ‘Concerned with the affairs of this world, wordly; not sacred’. But nowadays, the term, particularly in its French form of laicité (at the root of Turkey’s laiklik), denotes a strict separation of church (or religion) and state. And, the theory is that Turkey, as a result of the reform movement, known as the İnkılap, is a secular state. In reality, however, ever since the Turkish state abolished the Caliphate and the Ministry of Pious Endowments in 1924, the Turkish Republic has regulated its citizens’ religious life through the Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet, a branch of government attached to the office of the prime minister. Consequently, proponents of secularism in Turkey quite naturally feel the need to attach a lot of importance to certain symbolic issues: the availability of alcoholic beverages springs to mind, as well as the thorny headscarf issue, or rather the notion that women possess the freedom to don more or less revealing outfits (arguably, to please the male gaze). Let us call these charged matters ‘beer and bikinis’ as a shorthand for the contentious topic of Turkish secularism in the 21st century”. The events of the past days have shown us how the symbolic battles waged in Turkey’s current culture wars have moved to the street, involving unarmed protesters and heavy-handed police forces. But, prior to the outbreak of the Gezi Park protests, the Erdoğan government delivered another heavy blow in Turkey’s war of symbols.

The present government has been steadfast in its determination to have the project of building a third bridge across the Bosphorus, that has been in the cards for a long time, finally come to fruition. This determination culminated in a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, 29 May 2013 – not coincidentally also the anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople or the foundation of İstanbul. The bridge is projected to contain an eight-lane motorway and a two-lane railway bridge across the waters dividing Europe and Asia. In another example of Turkish hyperbole, the new bridge is expected to be one of the word’s widest suspension bridges, built by a Turkish and Italian consortium and costing $3 billion. The aim is for the bridge to be operational in 2015, with the expectation that this addition will ease congestion on Istanbul’s roads

On that day, Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül announced that the new bridge will be called “Yavuz Sultan Selim”, after the 9th Ottoman sultan (1512-20). In some ways, the choice of this name might seem awkward, as Sultan Selim has no palpable or direct connection with either the city of İstanbul or the strait known as the Bosphorus (apart from his small mosque in the Çarşamba district of course). Selim’s reign nevertheless was of great importance for the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan conquered the whole of the Arab Middle East during his short reign, defeating the Mamluks and thus also securing Ottoman control over the Haramayn or Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Madinah. Selim’s patronage of the last descendant of the Abbasid Caliphs eventually led to the Ottoman claim to the khilāfa (hilafet) or Caliphate (successor to the Prophet and nominal head of the world of Islam). As a result, Selim’s reign transformed the Ottomans into the ultimate champions of Sunni Islam. Prior to the Sultan’s war against the Mamluks (1516-17) and securing the top spot in the Muslim world, he had already waged war against the Shi’ite Safavids in Iran (1514).

In fact, Sultan Selim’s position as the man behind the staunchly Sunni stance of the Ottomans has now led to some opposition to naming the third bridge across the Bosphorus in his name. Turkey’s Alawite (Alevi) community, consisting of an estimated 15 to 20 million, is now outraged. They namely claim that Sultan Selim was responsible for the slaughter of numerous Alawite Turcoman tribes living in what is now Turkey’s south-east area bordering on Iraq and Iran. They claim these killings took place against the backdrop of the Ottoman struggle with the Safavids which ended in the battle of Çaldıran on 23 August 1514. The Chairman of the Cem Vakfı (Cumhuriyetçi Eğitim ve Kültür Merkezi Vakfı), a major foundation representing the interests of Turkey’s Alawite (Alevi) community, Prof. Dr. İzzetttin Doğan had this to say on the topic: “But of course, this is a matter of preference. Sultan Selim was politically an important figure. The things he’s done were remembered for centuries [on end]. History has also recorded that he killed 70,000 Alawites. It is politically wrong to give the name of someone who has achieved such infamy to a place where he will be remembered for ever. It [seems] necessary to see this is as a mistaken preference. In 1997 the then-government declared at Hacı Bektaş that ‘We need to bring peace to Shah Ismail and Sultan Selim in this society. Governments may change but they [nevertheless are supposed to] represent the continuity of the state. I do not think that Sultan Selim’s name was given to this bridge to be a constant reminder of the fact that he murdered Alawites. But it is politically wrong, the people should make the choice of naming [the bridge]”. The opposition CHP MP from Tunceli Hüseyin Aygün, for his part, declared that “Giving Sultan Selim’s name to such a big bridge is nothing but laying dynamite [underneath the structurte of] solidarity, [and] brotherhood between Sunni’s and Alawites in Turkey”.

On the other hand, pro-government voices, such as the one belonging to the erstwhile director of the Topkapı Palace Museum and member of the Galatasaray University Prof. Dr. İlber Ortaylı, simply state that Sultan Selim “united the world of Islam”, arguably also one of the goals of Turkey’s current pseudo-Ottoman foreign policy. In Turkey such symbolic issues, like naming huge bridges or wearing a headscarf, are nothing but tactical maneuvers in the the nation’s culture wars. The first bridge straddling the Bosphorus and uniting Europe and Asia was named after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1973), the second one (1988) after the founder of İstanbul, Sultan Mehmed II (Fatih), and now the third one (2015) after the sultan who secured the Ottoman ascendancy in the world of Islam during the early modern period – Sultan Selim I, popularly known in Turkey as Yavuz.

In other words, the government quietly and seemingly unnoticed continues its efforts to paint itself as a Sunni Muslim entity within the framework of the Turkish nation state that, in theory, endows each and every citizen with the name Turk, supposedly irrespective of ethnic of religious affiliation. The outbreak of the current Gezi Park protests, apparently sparked by environmental concerns yet now acting as a lightning rod for all kinds of dissatisfaction with the current government, have unveiled yet another battleground in the ongoing culture wars: the re-building of the Topçu Barracks and the demolition of the AKM or Atatürk Kültür Merkezi in Taksim. Even though an erstwhile supporter of the Prime Minister like Noam Chomsky has now stated that the “reports of the past few days are reminiscent of some of the most shameful moments of Turkish history, which, it seemed, had been relegated to the past during the progress of the past years that has been welcomed and praised by all of us who wish the best for Turkey and its people” (1 June 2013), the AKP leadership seems unimpressed. Tayyip Erdoğan, for his part, declared that “We will not stand idly by while a few bandits go to the public square and provoke our people” (2 June 2013), thus paddling the idea that the protests are nothing but unprovoked disturbances instigated by ‘dark forces’ bent on duping law-abiding citizens.

In my previous ‘Angle Special’, I have outlined the extent of the refurbishment of the wider Taksim area. Now, why does the Prime Minister appear so intent on having a copy of a 19th-century barracks built in the commercial heart of the city? The Topçu Barracks were originally constructed by Sultan Selim III (1789-1808) as a counter-part to his barracks on the Anatolian shore. These barracks were supposed to house the new standing Ottoman army (Nizam-ı Cedid) that Selim III had set up to arguably replace the outdated Janissary corps. Following his deposition from the throne the barracks were also largely destroyed. Subsequent sultans refurbished the barracks at several points in time, notably Mahmud II (1808-39) and Abdülmecid (1839-61). Arguably, the real reason behind the current interest in these barracks seems to lie in the fact that the counter-revolutionary action of 1909 (31 Mart Vakası) started inside these Topçu Barracks. The Constitutional Revolution of 1908 (popularly known as the İlan-ı Hürriyet or ‘Proclamation of Freedom’) had reinstated the 1876 Ottoman Constitution, which limited the absolute powers of the Ottoman sultan to that of a mere figure-head constitutional monarch. The following year, 1909, supporters of Sultan Abdülhamid tried to reinstate his erstwhile absolute power but were eventually defeated by the so-called Hareket Ordusu that had marched to Istanbul from Thessaloniki under the command of Mahmut Şevket Paşa. These replica barracks would thus represent a physical reminder of popular support for Ottoman absolutism based in Islam.

In addition, the Taksim plans also include the demolition of the AKM (Atatürk Kültür Merkezi), a cultural centre operating in remembrance of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the man behind the Republic’s proclamation and rallying symbol of Turkey’s modernist-minded citizens. As such, the present AKM is a rebuilt version of a former AKM, which burnt down on 27 November 1970. Does the whole Taksim Refurbishment Project boil down to a kind of score-settling contest in Turkey’s culture wars? The Prime Minister indicated that the demolished AKM will be replaced by a grand opera building, a building which will also include a cultural centre as well as a mosque. Protests continue but the Prime Minister calls them “events organised by extremists”, adding that “This is not about Gezi Park anymore. These are organised events with affiliations both within Turkey and abroad”, indulging in the Turkish penchant for conspiracy theories and foreign plotters. As the Gezi Park protests continue all throughout Istanbul, all throughout the country and as the existing polarization really all but deepens and turns personal, Turkey’s Cultural Wars seem set to continue for a long time to come . . . 

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About the author

Can Erimtan

Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the wider Middle East. He tweets @theerimtanangle


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