Turks Rally in
Support of Secularism
Thousands gathered in Istanbul to protest what they
see as the government’s move away from Turkey’s secular legacy.
Photo by Reuters
By SABRINA TAVERNISE,
from the NYTimes on the Web, April 29, 2007
ISTANBUL -- A huge crowd that
appeared to number in the hundreds of thousands gathered in central Istanbul
today to protest against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan,
and what they said was his agenda to move Turkey away from the country’s secular
In a growing political showdown in Turkey, the country’s long-ruling secular
establishment, backed by its powerful military, is confronting a new class of
Islamic-influenced political modernizers, led by Mr. Erdogan. The
confrontation has burst into public view over Mr. Erdogan’s choice for
president: Abdullah Gul, his foreign minister and a close ally.
The presidency is the most important post in the secular establishment, and
the prospect that it could be occupied by a man whose background is in political
Islam is seen as deeply threatening. Voters do not choose the
president directly; instead, the country’s parliament elects the president.
On Friday, the military, which has ousted four elected governments since 1960,
warned that it would intervene again if the government did not demonstrate
sufficient respect for the secular state.
The confrontation seemed to harden further today as Mr. Gul, an affable figure
whose wife wears an Islamic headscarf, a practice that secular Turks find
unacceptable for a presidential candidate, declared that he would not withdraw
“The process has begun and will continue,” Mr. Gul said today in Ankara, Reuters
reported. “There can be no question of my candidacy being withdrawn.”
That stance has set his party, and the emerging middle class of religiously
observant Turks that it represents, on a collision course with the secular
establishment and the military.
On Tuesday, the constitutional court is expected to rule on whether Mr. Gul can
indeed be a candidate. If it rules against Mr. Gul, Mr. Erdogan has
promised to call national parliamentary elections, a move that may redraw
Turkey’s political map, perhaps even more favorably for Mr. Erdogan and his
party, the leading force in the current parliament.
Protestors joining the huge crowds in Istanbul wore and waved Turkish flags and
chanted “Government resign!” in Caglayan Square, on the European side of this
vast port city. Municipal authorities refused to give any official
estimates of the crowd’s size: Both sides in the political standoff are
trying to put them to political use. Aerial views showed a sea of Turkish
flags, and crowds overflowing highway dividers.
The gathering seemed to draw Turks from a variety of backgrounds. The
uniting factor seemed to be their distrust of Mr. Erdogan’s government, though
they disagreed broadly on the reasons for distrusting him.
“Their constitution is the Koran,” said Yalcin Turkdogan, a 61-year-old
architect who had not been to a protest since 1977.
The evidence, he said, was “their behavior, their speech, their ideas, and their
For others, the sorest points were Mr. Erdogan’s policy of selling off state
assets. His government has pushed to modernize the state, including sales
of state-owned companies, a process that has made some Turks uncomfortable.
A serious problem for secularist Turks is the lack of an agile, articulate
political party that could unite them and mount a serious challenge to Mr.
There appeared to be broad agreement that Deniz Baykal, the current leader of
the main opposition party, was not up to the task.
Gokay Gedik, a 20-year-old student at Marmara University who had come to the
rally with his friends, all members of the same rock band, described that
political party with an idiomatic Turkish phrase that his friend said would
translate roughly as “Blah, blah, blah.”