Erdogan’s Folly

 Neo-Ottoman: Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a very angry man. Not only has he had to deal with a gang of tree-hugging troublemakers just when he was trying to push through his new constitution, but the international media and EU ministers persist in insulting him. Worst of all, his pet Ottoman barracks project is in serious jeopardy.

Gezi Park used to be an unassuming patch of green by Taksim Square in Istanbul. It is now a symbol of widespread resentment against the Justice and Development party (AKP) government, in particular the prime minister. For some time, Erdogan has been planning to redevelop the whole area of Taksim, and the centrepiece of his plan was to rebuild the Ottoman Taksim military barracks, demolished in 1940. A “cultural preservation board”, however, refused permission for the project in January. No matter — by May 1, a higher board conveniently overturned the decision, just in time for construction to start.

Why has Erdogan been so insistent on this project? In June he told the occupiers of Gezi Park, “Do what you like. We’ve made the decision and we will implement it accordingly.” The man has a mission, and it is bigger than a mere whim of urban planning.

In 1909, the original Taksim barracks was the seat of an Islamic uprising against the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the nationalistic predecessor to the founders of the republic of Turkey. The CUP used the mutiny as an excuse to exile the last power-wielding Ottoman sultan, Abdulhamid II, who had adopted a controversial policy of pan-Islamisation throughout the empire. The barracks was turned into the first football stadium in Turkey in 1921. It was demolished in 1940, and Gezi Park was created.

The barracks project is of great personal significance to Erdogan, an uncompromising leader who is determined to re-establish the prominence of Islam in Turkey. In 1909, Islamic Ottoman soldiers were repressed by revolutionary nationalists. In the 1990s, Erdogan and other Islamic-leaning politicians were also repressed by nationalists, most significantly the underground members of the ultra-nationalist “Ergenekon” movement. In the last few years of AKP rule, there has been a slew of Ergenekon trials aimed at taking revenge on those who tried to bring down the AKP during the 1990s.

Erdogan sees himself as a neo-Ottoman leader who honours the Islamic heroes of Ottoman history in order to celebrate the return of Islamic leadership in modern Turkey. He recreates elements of the Ottoman past to show that the pendulum has swung: the decades of military-backed nationalist control are over, and Erdogan can say: “We’ve won.” The most striking way to express that is through changing the landscape of Istanbul, rebranding a previously secular square of great historical importance with an overtly religious renovation project. 

In 1999 Erdogan was sent to prison for reciting a poem which was regarded as an “incitement to commit offence”. It included the lines: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” Perhaps in recent years the overlapping images of mosques and barracks have made an impression on him. Last year, in suitably Sultan-esque style, he announced plans to build an enormous mosque on Çamlica Hill in Istanbul, to be visible from any point in the city. If he persists in this project after the debacle of Gezi Park, I hope we will see a return of the tree-hugging troublemakers throwing themselves in front of bulldozers.

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