The Republic of Turkey is a democratic, constitutionial republic which broke from the Ottoman Empire after World War I and declared itself independent. The nation was born in October 1923 with Mustafa Kemal named as the first President. Because of Kemal’s immense popularity (due mainly to his efforts to transform this Muslim country into a secular state), Turkey’s Parliament in 1934 bestowed upon Kemal the honorific name “Ataturk” (which means “father of Turks”).
The current Prime Minister of Turkey – Recep Erdogan – has been in power since 2003. While Erdogan has been praised for his accomplishments and steady hand during the last decade, he has recently been moving in directions which have caused unease. Turkey is 99% Muslim (Hanafite Sunni) and Erdogan (a member of the Islamist Party) has begun to accept direction from some of the more fundamental members of Turkey’s religious right.
A few weeks ago, the government decided to demolish Gezi Park — a small green space in the sea of concrete that is Istanbul. The object? Build a shopping center. It was this move to ravage the park that caused the eruption of thousands of demonstrators on the very night we arrived in Istanbul — May 31st. But it is the Islamic leanings of Mr. Erdogan which has sustained the ongoing demonstrations. Criticism of Mr. Erdogan has increased given his stifling of criticism, personal liberty and freedom of the press. And given his capitulation to Islamic fundamentalists on a variety of religious issues, this secular state seems to be threatened. In the protests, thousands have been detained, hundreds injured and four killed. Given Turkey’s desire to enter into the European Union, with the EU’s insistence on human liberties among its members, one wonders which fork in the road the country and its leader will take.