Dear oh dear, the Turks do take their urban projects seriously, don’t they?
In London all sorts of giant phallic symbols are plonked smack in the middle, and no one bats an eyelid. The mayor charges admission for entering the city centre, as if it were some kind of theme park, and what do we do? We grumble and pay.
Yet propose some redevelopment of an Istanbul park, and the denizens are up in arms – and it’s not just a figure of speech.
Fire bombs, smashed shop windows, overturned cars, flares and heavy objects hurled at the police, the latter returning fire with tear gas, stun guns, water cannon – do you ever get the impression that other people are having all the fun?
Yet much as one would like to believe that the Turks are protesting against an affront to their heightened aesthetic sensibilities, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the reshaping of Gezi Park isn’t the reason for the riots. It’s merely a pretext.
If that’s the case, then any spark could have set off the powder keg. The repertoire of the local theatre, unavailability of some vegetables and abundance of others, the cut of policemen’s clothes – you name it.
But why Gezi Park specifically? The park was originally designed during Atatürk’s lifetime and laid a few years after his death. In the process, the old artillery barracks were pulled down, and there were protests even then.
To many Turks the barracks represented the glorious times when their country, flying the green flag of Islam, had threatened to dominate Europe. To Atatürk, however, the barracks symbolised every obstacle on the way to turning Turkey into a modern, quasi-Western nation.
He was a clever enough man to see that his lifelong dream was incompatible with any kind of Islamic power. He was also probably aware of the link between Christianity and all those lovely things he wanted to implant in Turkey.
But Christianity was a sore subject at the time, what with the systematic genocide of Christians in the later stages of the Ottoman empire, culminating in the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Young Turks in 1915.
Atatürk therefore sought to combine the reformist zeal of Luther with the carnivorous methods of Lenin to push Islam to the margins and replace it with the modern creed of secularism. In that he largely succeeded, and Turkey eventually become a reasonably successful country by regional standards.
Now Prime Minister Erdogan is, not to cut too fine a point, seeking to prove Atatürk wrong. According to him, there’s nothing incompatible between Islam and westernisation – no contradiction between Mullahs and moola.
By re-Islamising the country, while making it rich, he wishes to set an example for the rest of the Islamic world, thereby becoming its natural leader. That is an ambitious undertaking, and there’s only one problem with it: it can’t possibly work.
The extent to which a country is modern is inversely proportionate to the amount of power wielded by Islam – to this general rule there are no exceptions. When it comes to Islam and Westernisation, it’s not ‘both… and…’. It’s ‘either… or…’.
Sooner or later the Westernisers will clash with the Islamists, and the riots in Istanbul and Ankara are the living proof.
No wonder the disturbances were triggered by urban development. This isn’t just any old redesigning of a city park. The plans call for the Sultanate’s artillery barracks to be rebuilt, and also for The Atatürk Cultural Centre in Taksim Square to be pulled down.
This shrine to the westernisation that The Father of the Turks had pushed through is to be replaced by monuments to Erdogan’s eclecticism: a mosque (Islam) and a trade centre (westernisation). No doubt he’ll get his symbols. Nor is there much doubt that he’ll fail to achieve what they’re supposed to symbolise.
Most city folk in Turkey have no difficulty with the Western part. It’s the re-Islamisation part that they find vexing, and Turks have traditionally displayed their vexation in muscular ways. Hence the riots.
Obviously not every stone thrower in Taksim Square has pondered the incompatibility between Islam and modernity in much philosophical depth. As is always the case with mob violence, many utterly objectionable elements come for the ride, and their presence gives the authorities some justification for using no-holds-barred methods of suppression.
But it’s clear that the anti-Islam sentiment is strong, at least in the major cities, and we haven’t seen the end of violence yet. The cleft is both deep and wide enough to bring about a full-blown civil war, but that’s for the future.
At present, the government will succeed in slapping a lid on the violence and letting it seethe below the surface. A defeat for the protesters, a great opportunity for us.
Just as the Romans would import some vandals to keep other vandals at bay, we could grant temporary visas to all those Turks who’ll have plenty of spare time on their hands once the riots have been put down.
They’ve shown the kind of resolve we clearly lack to fight the Islamisation of our own country. So when in England, do as the Romans did: get the mercenaries in who have plenty of the spunk we lack.
Bring on the Turks, I say. From Taksim Square and Gezi Park to Trafalgar Square and Green Park – they are the kind of immigrants we really need.