The Abode Of Felicity, Sultan Ahmed III’s magnificent tribute to his own reign, stood on 30 marble columns with a pool before it, at the end of a great axis of symmetrical facades behind which his courtiers lived. The courtiers’ palaces had fanciful names, the historian Caroline Finkel records: The Elephant’s Bridge, the First Waterfall, the Silver Canal, the Hall of Paradise. Fed by the waters running from the meadows upstream of the Kagithane stream, where the waters of Europe run into the Golden Horn, it was the great emperor’s refuge from the realm — his Versailles, or Petrograd Gardens.
Like so many magical stories of this kind, this one did not end well: in 1730, a rebellion of the janissaries, or élite palace guards, deposed Ahmed III. He was to die after 6 years in confinement.
Triumphant from this weekend’s constitutional referendum, which will give Turkey an executive presidency with sweeping powers unrivalled among major democracies, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now preparing to wield power unrivalled since the days of the Ottoman emperors from the palace he built in anticipation of this moment — a gargantuan, 250-bedroom building four times the size of the Palace of Versailles, with carpets worth $ 10 million, and so many spas, pools and bathhouses that the heating bill runs to almost $ 1 million a year.
For many in Turkey, the tightly-fought constitutional referendum marks the final chapter towards the climax of a tragedy that is leading the country towards the destruction of its hard-won secular democracy. The truth, however, could be more complex: Erdogan’s moment of triumph could also be remembered as the time hubris led him towards his political demise.
Even though official results will not be available for at least another week, the 51%-49% lead for the ‘Yes’ vote shows just how divided Turkey is over its political destiny. The stakes go some way towards explaining why this is. Erdogan’s new-model presidency will give him power over appointments to Turkey’s Supreme Council of Judges, as well as over prosecutors. Legislative authority will, for all practical purposes, be removed from Parliament. In all but form, Turkey will cease to be a Parliamentary democracy — something Erdogan’s supporters claim is necessary to end political instability.
The referendum was held under a state of Emergency, with opposition newspapers shut down and journalists jailed, the fallout from the failed coup attempt last summer. Even worse, there are allegations of outright rigging: the Supreme Electoral Council, Turkey’s Election Commission, allowed as many as 1.5 million unstamped ballots to be accepted as valid, after the ‘No’ vote was reported to be ahead.
Key to the resistance against the referendum is the growing sense that Erdogan seeks to dismantle Turkish secularism — built when the Republic was created from the debris of the Ottoman Empire in 1922. Egitim-Sen, a teachers’ union, has warned against proposed curriculum reforms that seek to remove the teaching of evolution from some science classes, and rewrite history texts “from the perspective of a national and moral education”.
In 2014, parents took to the streets against the government’s decision to enrol 40,000 pupils in state-run religious institutions, called imam-hatip schools, whether they wanted to join or not. Since the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or Justice and Peace Party, came to power in 2002, enrollment in these schools has surged from 63,000 to over a million — with Erdogan proclaiming he wishes to raise a “pious generation”.
The signs of a counter-secular rising are everywhere: ministers proclaiming the proper place of women is as mothers; a growing resurgence of religiosity among young people; pop television shows that promote neo-Ottoman culture. It is no surprise, then, that the strongest ‘No’ vote came in Turkey’s three largest cities — Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir — where secularism has its strongest bases among the educated middle class.
The roots of the tragedy, however, go somewhat deeper. The scholar Howard Eissenstat has noted that Turkish secularism was always problematic. Imams are employees of the Directorate for Religious Affairs, established under Turkish Republicanism’s founding patriarch, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in 1924; sermons are written in Ankara, for delivery at mosques across the country. In place of a radical, French-style laïcité, which sundered the state from religion, the Turkish state sought to use Islam for its ends. The AKP has merely continued this tradition, using the faith to cater to the interests of its constituency, the pious lower middle class.
Indeed, some discrimination is institutionalised: children of the heterodox Alevi sect, as well as non-religious children, are not allowed the exemption from Sunni Islam teaching that non-Muslim children receive, and Alevi cemevi, or prayerhouses, are not recognised by the state as religious sites, but only as cultural institutions.
Like its predecessors, moreover, the AKP was never willing to open a debate on a genuinely plural notion of Turkish identity. Though it profited from Kurdish votes in 2002, 2004, and 2007, and opened secret negotiations with insurgents in 2009, the discussions never went further than a vague dialogue on cultural rights. The Kurdish insurgency has erupted again — and Erdogan’s early support for jihadists in Syria has returned to haunt Turkey, with bombings regularly targetting the country.
In retrospect, it is clear the coup of 2016 — ineffective and poorly planned as it was — was a desperate attempt by some inside the military to ward off what they see as a looming crisis. The results have been catastrophic. Figures from Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu record over 47,155 arrested — including many eminent academics and journalists, with no role in the coup — and over 100,000 detained so far. In addition, more than 125,000 people have been sacked from civil service positions, and thousands of teachers have had their licences revoked. The day after the attempted coup, the government suspended nearly 3,000 judges and prosecutors.
When a court ruling recently released 21 journalists and others, the chief prosecutor objected; by evening all were back in jail. The three judges who heard the case were then themselves suspended from their positions. Put simply, Erdogan’s effort to build his neo-Ottomanist state, marketed as a democratic renaissance in 2002, rests now on naked coercion. In a modern market economy, whose fortunes rest on its integration with Europe and the wider world economy, this project cannot survive in the long term.
In 1720, when Sultan Ahmed III began building his paradise, the Empire’s balance of payments situation had shown a positive turn for the first time in years, relations with France and England were cordial, and peace prevailed on the borders. Less than 10 years later, the end had come. It’s a lesson in hubris that Erdogan almost certainly learned back in school — and will forget at his peril.