A growing divide between secular and religious factions in Turkey was starkly illustrated by two crosstown protests in Istanbul on May 31.
The first, covered minute-to-minute by the international media, was held to mark the first anniversary of Turkey’s historic anti-government uprising.
The protest commemorated riots that drew hundreds of thousands of angry locals to Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, after police took brutal measures to disperse a group that had gathered peacefully to oppose the development of nearby Gezi Park. Under a strict crackdown ordered by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, police ended up killing 12 protesters and injuring thousands more — mostly from wounds caused by tear gas canisters and plastic bullets.
The 2014 anniversary protest was a similar scene: Police tackled protesters to the ground, kicking and beating them with batons, and fired tear gas and plastic bullets at close range.
The second event, held only a few kilometers away on the opposite shore of the Golden Horn, was an anti-Israel rally marking the four-year anniversary of Israel’s deadly raid of the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship that attempted to deliver aid to Gaza in May 2010.
A largely Muslim crowd marched from the heavily touristed Sultanahmet Square down to the Sarayburnu port, where they crammed onto the decks of the run-down Marmara and the dock below. Ten larger-than-life photos of the Turkish “martyrs” killed by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the raid hung from the side of the ship. Rally-goers waved a sea of Palestinian flags alongside ones from Turkey, Syria and Egypt. Their cheers and slogans — including “Zionists you will see, Palestine will be free” and “God is great” — echoed across the water.
Media reports put the Gezi Park protest turnout in the hundreds or low thousands, while the march to the Marmara apparently attracted more than 10,000. Yet not a single policeman could be spotted in the immediate vicinity of the latter.
“The mere fact that anti-government protest is deemed illegal and anti-Israel protest is deemed legitimate is a disconcerting image,” Gabriel Mitchell, Israel-Turkey project coordinator for the Israeli foreign-policy think tank Mitvim, wrote on his blog.
In the days leading up to the Gezi protest, Erdoğan had warned protesters of the Taksim Square area: “You will not be able to come to those places like you did last year. Because the police have taken absolute orders, they will do everything [to drive you out].”
He stayed silent, however, on the anti-Israel march and rally across town.
Both crowds appeared to carry a renewed passion for their cause — perhaps having to do with the fact that, in another coincidence, both 51-year-old Uğur Süleyman Söylemez, a Turkish activist aboard the Marmara, and 64-year-old Elif Çermik, a Gezi protester, finally succumbed to their injuries the week before the protests, after suffering long-term comas.
The Marmara rally, also called “Anti-Zionist Day,” has become an annual event thrown by the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), the same Turkish NGO that originally sent the Marmara to Gaza. The IHH is often criticized for its close ties with the Turkish government. A columnist from the Hurriyet Daily News, a left-wing Turkish newspaper, once called it a “ ‘GNGO,’ in other words a ‘governmental-non-governmental-organization.’ ”
Speaking to the Journal on the streets of Istanbul, various Gezi protesters said they saw the Marmara fanfare across town as a government-supported ploy to distract the Turkish citizenry from unrest at Taksim.
Although Erdoğan didn’t publicly condone the anti-Israel rally, members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) reportedly attended and spoke at the event. One woman in attendance wore a full-length cape printed with Erdoğan’s face. And many others wore sweatbands printed with “R4BIA,” or held up four fingers, a symbol of support for Egypt’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Erdoğan also has close ties.
Another red flag for anti-Erdoğan secularists was that the Marmara event overlapped with a Muslim protest outside Istanbul’s most popular tourist attraction: the stunning Hagia Sophia. Thousands of protesters gathered at the site that same day to demand that the former cathedral — converted into a mosque by a 15th century Sultan, then to a secular museum by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern-day Turkey — be reverted back into a place of Muslim prayer.
Mitchell of the Mitvim think tank explained in an interview that the message Erdoğan sent on Saturday was that “when it comes to IHH and its agenda with Israel, that’s OK. And when it comes to the pressure to make Hagia Sophia into a mosque, that’s OK. But if you are rallying against the government, that is definitely not OK.”
Atatürk’s radical early 20th-century modernization of Turkey is revered by the Gezi crowd; Erdoğan, on the other hand, is seen as an increasingly authoritarian ruler imposing his Islamist values on the country.
The prime minister isn’t a big fan of his detractors, either. Today’s Zaman, an English-language newspaper in Turkey, reported that, on the eve of the Gezi anniversary riot, Erdoğan claimed protesters had “killed people with Molotov Cocktails, attacked our head-scarved sisters, mosques [and] burned Turkish flags.”
Nervana Mahmoud, a popular Egyptian blogger and Middle East commentator, tweeted on the morning of the protest: “On Gezi’s anniversary, Erdoğan is more powerful, but also more paranoid, smug and delusional.”
To the outside world, Turkish-Israeli relations, which collapsed after Israel’s Marmara raid and have remained delicate ever since, appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough this spring.
However, an IHH lawsuit brought against the four Israeli commanders who ordered the raid may be preventing the final steps of reconciliation. On May 26, Istanbul’s 7th Court of Serious Crimes ordered Interpol to arrest the IDF commanders and force them to appear in court — a highly political move that only added more fuel to the Marmara rally. Bright red posters being waved at the event showed the Israelis’ faces under the heading, “WANTED.”
Erdoğan has distanced himself from the IHH’s ongoing Marmara battle. “The court case opened by families of our martyrs or of our wounded ones is not an initiative of ours,” he said at a recent press conference. “We cannot influence that.”
A scathing piece on the Turkish court’s decision in Foreign Policy Magazine pointed out that while “strategic and economic interests may nevertheless pave the way for a loveless Israeli-Turkish rapprochement … under an Islamist leadership that offers an anti-Israeli narrative for every domestic crisis, Turkey has become a hostile environment for Israel.”
Even if Erdoğan didn’t directly back the anti-Israel rally, he has much to gain from it.
A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 86 percent of Turkish voters had a negative view of Israel, while only 2 percent viewed Israel in a favorable light. Turkish politicians, Erdoğan included, have been known to piggyback off this popular anti-Israel sentiment in order to win elections — like the one coming up for Erdoğan in August.
Most recently, when outrage swept the country anew last month after a coal mine caught fire and killed more than 300 miners, Erdoğan was quoted by local media as calling one protester “Israeli spawn.”
Said Mitchell of the Turkish prime minister: “He has made plenty of statements that are closing in on that derogatory, disgusting language. Even in Turkey itself, to refer to someone as Israeli or Jewish, these things are derogatory terms.”
While the Gezi diehards clashed against Erdoğan’s police barricades up the hill at Taksim Square on May 31, the sounds of an IHH promotional video boomed out over the Golden Horn.
“Since its establishment, the State of Israel has played the role of the world’s spoiled child and has built walls of shame, with the intention to protect its lands and to dissociate itself with the outside world,” read the narrator. Two young Turkish boys in the crowd whooped their support, one of them waving a big sign that read, “DAMN ISRAEL.”