June 4, 2014 | Policy Brief

Turkey’s Double Standards On Protests

June 4, 2014 | Policy Brief

Turkey’s Double Standards On Protests

Anti-government demonstrators gathered at Istanbul’s Taksim Square on Saturday, May 31 on the first anniversary of last year’s Gezi Park protests. As expected, the government responded with overwhelming force, sending in 25,000 policemen and 50 water cannons, while police helicopters hovered the sky and access to the square was blocked. In the end, some 120 protestors were detained.

Meanwhile two other demonstrations happened in Istanbul on the same day, some 15 minutes away from Taksim. Both were organized by Islamist groups and neither encountered trouble from the police.

The first was a provocative prayer in front of Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia, originally a Byzantine cathedral. The event, organized by the Anatolia Youth Association (AGD), was a demonstration to turn the Hagia Sophia, now a museum, back into a mosque, as it was from 1453 through 1935. The AGD is an arm of the Islamist Milli Goruş movement, which seeks to Islamize Turkish society.

Separately, around 3,000 demonstrators gathered in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet District to begin their “Al-Quds and Al-Aqsa Mosque” march on the fourth anniversary of the Mavi Marmara flotilla conflict between Islamist activists and Israeli commandos, which led to the death of 10 Turkish citizens. The event was organized by the Turkish charity Humanitarian Aid Foundation (IHH), which maintains close ties to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). IHH has also been accused of maintaining ties with terrorist organizations.

Both demonstrations were cause for concern among Turkish secularists. The prayer at Hagia Sophia, for example, was read by Sheikh Abdullah Basfar, a Saudi cleric known for his jihadi leanings, and his travel ban in France for his “statements that call for hatred and violence.” Meanwhile, the president of IHH declared Saturday to be “World Anti-Zionism Day,” while demonstrators chanted slogans such as “The path to Jerusalem is through the Levant,” and “Murderer Israel will be held to account.” 

Neither gathering was subject to the same “security measures” as the Gezi protestors. Indeed, the Turkish government appeared to green-light both demonstrations. This was particularly controversial since the IHH march took place in an area deemed illegal for such activity. Critics openly griped about this perceived injustice on social media.

The inconsistency of the government’s policies toward the Gezi, IHH, and AGD rallies underscores that the AKP motto of “ileri demokrasi” or “advanced democracy” rings hollow to the opposition, particularly as the AKP continues to find ways to pursue its conservative agenda, at the expense of Turkey’s secular and liberal factions.

Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate at Foundation for Defense of Democracies specializing in Turkish affairs.