A secularist rally which was controversially banned by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyp Erdogan briefly went ahead today, with thousands of protesters gathering in the capital Ankara, before police dispersed the group with tear gas and water cannons.
The organisers of the rally had planned the event to protest against the authoritarian rule and Islamist tendencies of Erdogan’s government. Local authorities however, also under the control of Erdogan’s AK Party, banned to rally from going ahead claiming that they had intelligence reports to suggest that the event would be used for ‘provocation’. Protester claim that this was a naked attempt by the government to silence their critics, and thousands turned up to protest despite the ban.
Turkey has had an uneasy relationship between secularists and islamists for many years. The country was founded on strong secular principles and many citizen’s take great national pride in the country’s strong secular traditions. However the country is also home to many social conservative Muslims, who want to see the nation’s political system based on Islamic, rather than secular principles. Over the year’s the Turkish army, traditionally a bastion of secular thought, has staged several coups to prevent Islamist rule.
The current government is lead by the moderate Islamic AK party of Tayyp Erdogan, which won 50% of the vote in elections last year. But many secularists see Erdogan as moving away from his moderate platform to create a more authoritarian and Islamist government, which is eroding the secular foundations of the state. The international media watchdog The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said last month that Turkey has jailed more reporters than either Iran or China, and hundreds of politicians, academics and journalists are currently serving sentences in jail for plotting to overthrow the government. Whether these sentences are deserved or an attempt by the government to silence its critics is hard to judge – ultimately that is a question I can’t answer, but my personal feeling is that it is probably a little bit of both. Critics also point to increasing restrictions on alcohol and the governments educations policies as proof that the current government is undermining Turkey’s secular constitution.
Today’s protest saw thousands of people waving Turkish flags gather outside the old parliament building in Ankara, from where they intended to march to the mausoleum of Attaturk to celebrate the 89th anniversary of his founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Chants calling for the government to resign and celebrating the country’s secular heritage rang out from the crowd as they reached a police barricade holding them back from their destination. Then the police began firing tear gas and water cannon into the crowd to disperse them.
Some protesters retaliated by throwing projectiles of various kinds at the police line, but most just tried to get away. After a few hours the police barricades were removed and the protesters were allowed to march to the mausoleum.