(Minor edits July 20, 2013)
In streets of major cities across fast changing Turkey, there is open conflict between the non-violent protesters who have come to represent the pluralism of democracy and the security services representing the government. The violent repression of the Occupy Turkey protests under the orders of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is harming democracy and not just inside Turkey’s borders. This is an internal struggle for power but the outcome is not only critical to Turkey’s future as a democracy, but also may well define the map of 21st century.
A Different Time, Same Istanbul (or Constantinople)
Turkey’s long history reveals a people that have thrived on pluralism, perhaps most spectacularly during the Ottoman Empire. In 1453, Constantinople, the last refuge of the Roman Empire was conquered in a historic siege by Ottoman soldiers. This victory cemented Istanbul, once Constantinople, as a Muslim capital on the continent of Europe.
Following the victory, Turkish armies spent centuries on the advance in every direction including east into Persia, south into Africa and north into Europe conquering almost all of land that is now Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary and Ukraine.
In an age when democracy and pluralism had largely been forgotten in Europe, Ottoman strength stemmed from policies of tolerance that were exceptional for the time. During the persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition, Jews fled en masse to Ottoman territory where they enjoyed greater protections.
Mehmud II who conquered Constantinople is known for having a Jewish minister of Finance and master of the mint. According to Ottoman Centuries by Lord Kinross, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was “a prince of the Renaissance – outdoing in the magnificence of his court and his style of living many of those in this Golden Age”. Two-thirds of Suleiman’s Royal Viziers were Christian and he named a Jewish diplomat Joseph Nasi to a powerful post as governor. For centuries, cultural exchange across the empire’s borders from Africa to Asia encouraged science and innovation and brought vast wealth to the empire.
But in time Ottoman power would be eclipsed by its European competitors. The revealing history of the fall of the Ottoman Empire by Norman Itzkowitz, “Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition”, describes the slow erosion of power as “religious and intellectual conservatism” constrained scientific progress and technological superiority was lost. Pluralism’s slow death brought the end of minority representation in government and religious conservatives blocked science directly through empire wide bans on artillery and even the printing press. Policies of multiculturalism and pluralism gave way to repression of cultural and intellectual minorities and gradually weakened by infighting the last major Muslim empire was divided into pieces and colonized by European armies.
“History should be written as philosophy” – Voltaire
As the Occupy Turkey protests have erupted in the last month, the country and its neighbors are again in the midst of monumental change. The Syrian rebels fighting to oust violent dictator Bashar al-Assad are supported by both sides of Turkey’s internal power struggles, but fighting has brought chaos to their mutual border and is feeding neighboring Iraq’s unceasing violence. Lebanon is now also on track to be completely engulfed by the war.
Turkey’s historical rival, Russia, continues to forcibly press its interests in the Syrian war as well as in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The democratic world’s Iranian sanctions have caused deep economic disruption to trade between the Turkey and Iran at the same time that the Euro crisis has weakened the power and unity of Turkey’s democratic allies. Turkey also remains involved in the Israeli-Palestine conflict and is in the middle of its own critically important peace talks with its massive Kurdish population.
However despite the scale of these challenges, the most powerful changes taking place in modern Turkey are not political. The driving force behind the dramatic politics of the entire region is driven by the transformative power of technology that defines the fast changing modern world.
On a global scale, the era of the internet, smartphones and ever deepening networks of like-minded people is rearranging all modern societies. With each new shipment of devices and each price reduction, the power of the underlying technological revolution is feeding calls for pluralism and openness in government worldwide.
The ongoing protests in Egypt, Brazil, Indonesia and India have been deeply connected to Turkey’s protests through modern technology and there is no coincidence that Turkey’s protests have been directly inspired by the Arab Spring and America’s Occupy Wall Street. We are living in an era of world protest that rivals the largest political eruptions of people power in history, while the number of people taking part and the connection between political movements is on an unrivaled historical scale. Modern Turkey represents about one percent of world population but the eyes of the entire planet are fixed on the protests in Istanbul.
iPhone and Occupy Turkey Conclusion
Turkey’s role in this era of world protests is wholly unique. Occupy Turkey is an expression of the struggle against of centuries of repression of diversity that has brought violence, disorder, and subjugation to the Muslim heartland once ruled by the Ottomans.
With the lessons of the country’s recent past, the government must embrace the growing diversity of opinion and culture that advancing technology inevitably brings and will continue to bring. Turkey is the crossroads of Europe and Asia but more importantly today is its role as the crossroads between the pluralism of democracy and the path of isolation and dictatorship. Only elections and respect of minority opinions and cultures can bridge the divide between the protesters and the government while solidifying Turkey’s leading role in the world. There is a path forward for Turkey and her name is democracy.