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Erdogan’s Muse: The School of Necip Fazil Kisakurek

On May 28th, around the same time Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the Justice and Development Party (AKP) delegation in Parliament, as he does most Tuesdays, police were ejecting protesters from Istanbul’s Gezi Park. The previous day, environmentalists had begun gathering there to protest the cutting down of trees to make room for the reconstruction of the Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks, which stood on the same plot of land from the early 1800s until 1940. By the end of the week, the protests had grown in intensity, with over a hundred thousand demonstrators and police using tear gas and water cannons to control them. Clashes with police spread from the adjacent Taksim Square to other parts of the city, and later to eighty of Turkey’s eighty-one provinces, with more than two million people participating in a movement that by the end of June left five dead and thousands injured. Istanbul alone suffered tens of millions of dollars worth of property damage.

The heterogeneous protesters—among them Turks, Kurds, liberals, nationalists, Alevis (a non-Sunni Islamic minority), non-Muslims, assorted leftists, soccer fanatics, LGBT activists, and anti-capitalist Muslims—were united in their opposition to the AKP’s disregard for the half of the country that did not vote for the party in 2011. The protesters chanted for the still popular prime minister to resign. Erdogan has called them bums, drunks, and rodents.

As the fallout continues with protesters returning to the streets this autumn, the AKP’s international reputation has suffered. Numerous journalists who have criticized the government or backed the protesters have been fired. But while the future of Turkey’s unrest is now a subject of international discussion, Prime Minister Erdogan thought so little of the budding protests when he spoke to the party faithful on the last Tuesday of May that he didn’t mention them at all.

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On that occasion he did find the time, however, to honor the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Turkish poet and activist Necip Fazil Kisakurek. Erdogan recalled the joys of meeting Necip Fazil and walking “the path” alongside him. The prime minister described the poet’s life and works as a guide for himself and future generations. This was not an isolated reference. Last year, in an interview with a literary journal, Erdogan recalled that “the master and his ordeals helped us, like no other, to make sense of history and the present.” Presumably the capulcus (marauders) of Gezi Park, as Erdogan called them, could also learn a thing or two from ustad, as the poet’s devotees refer to him. Indeed, Necip Fazil’s political writings shed light on the illiberal tendencies, both religious and secular, that continue to plague Turkish democracy, and also help explain why a popular prime minister would risk his international and domestic reputation for the sake of an Ottoman barracks that once stood on the grounds of a municipal park.

The full text of this article is not available online at this time.

Sean R. Singer lives and writes in Istanbul.

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