By John Weeks.

[New web page @]

Orange designates those Turkish provinces affected by substantial popular protests in May-June 2013. Note the absence of orange in the east of the country.

If you have ever visited Izmir in western Turkey, you know that it is the jumping-off point for one the most spectacular Roman archeological sites, the ruined city of Ephesus.  If you visited Izmir recently as I did last week, you know that much of its population is jumping with outrage at the policies of the current Turkish government, parallel with the better known protests at Gezi Park in Istanbul (see video of the national police clearing away squatters,

Prominent among those Izmir protestors has been the mayor, Aziz Kocaoğlu, in response to which the central government charged him with 33 counts of fraud and other offenses, could result in a combined 397 years in jail.  Understanding why Izmir is Turkish sauna of protest, even to its mayor, requires a bit of history.

The mayor of Izmir, Aziz Kocaoğlu, marches with his fellow citizens in protest of central government policies in June 2013.

One hundred years ago what we now call Turkey constituted the greater part of the Ottoman Empire, formally created in 1299, and a major Euro-Asian power after seizing in 1453 then-Constantinople, which unceremoniously ended the existence of the 1000 year “eastern” Roman Empire.  While an ally of Germany on the losing side in World War One, the Ottoman army did not itself suffer defeat (quite the contrary).  The Sultan ruledS one of the three great empires that WW1 would destroy, the others being the German Second Reich (1871-1918) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918).

Ottoman Empire in 1914. Libya is shown as an Italian colony and Russia as grey in upper right corner.

Out of the ruins of the Ottoman regime rose a new nation, dragged into existence in great part by one man, Mustafa Kemal, who had served as a high military officer under the ancien régime.  In late 1922 the de facto government in Ankara (central Turkey) formally created the Republic, with Kemal as its president. During the subsequent 16 years until his death, he would unambiguously earn the title bestowed on him in 1934, “Father of the Turks” (Atatürk).

During the 1920s and 1930s, Atatürk 1) was solidly anti-fascist and anti-imperialist, 2) introduced a comprehensive economic plan to industrialize his country, and 3) created a range of modern public services, such as free pubic education.  What would most infuriate his reactionary opponents were his increasingly successful efforts to transform Turkey from a feudal, religiously-based society to a modern secular state.  To this end he replaced Arabic script with the Roman alphabet, banded the wearing of religiously inspired dress for both men and women (tunic and burqa, respectively), banned polygamy, and replaced religious law with a secular code enforced through secular courts.  He was one of the great progressive leaders of the twentieth century, along with Franklin Roosevelt, Cement Atlee and Jawaharlal Nehru.

When the current government of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) took power through the election of 2002, many if not most progressives in Turkey gave it their qualified support despite its popular base in religious groups. The AKP government’s unrelenting opposition to the military prompted this support, a military who after the coup in 1980 executed dozens and arrested and jailed almost a half million people. Until the last few years religion and religious practices appeared of little importance in the government’s policy.  Recently that changed, with laws or threats of laws to limit sales of alcohol, undermine civil liberties, especially the political rights of women.

While great parts of Istanbul have a strongly secular ambiance (the Taksim Square area, for example), the wealthy city and province of Izmir are the bête noir of religious Turks.  From the dress of both men and women to the cheerfully raucous cafes and restaurants along the waterfront of the central city, Izmir reminds the visitor of Italian or Greek coastal towns.  This is a truly cosmopolitan city with indigenous Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities as well as large ex-patriate Western European and American populations.  In Izmir more than anywhere else the protests overwhelmingly represent a struggle to preserve the Kemalist project of a secular Turkey (see the fusion of Kemalism and protests at

Demonstration in Izmir in June 2013 (no information on the political orientation of the dog).

A friend who teaches at one of the universities in Izmir asked his students why they were protesting, and was told by several that they were outraged by the government’s attempt to restrict sales of alcohol, enforce dress codes and ban kissing in public.  More aggressively political was the student who told me that she opposed the government’s attempts to restrict the civil rights of women.

An independent national public opinion poll suggests the early and inchoate nature of the protests.  When asked whether they “approved” of the protests, 44 percent replied “yes”, and 46 percent “no”.  Asked whether the police acted “excessively” in reaction to the protests, 58 percent agreed, but 40 percent endorsed the brutal suppression as “fair”.*

Police seize a demonstrator literally by the throat in Izmir, mid-June.

Two factors explain the surprising degree of support for an increasingly authoritarian government.  First, much of the Turkish population, especially in the provinces east of Ankara, live in male dominated communities in which religion serves as a bastion against progressive change.  To a great extent, the men in those communities endorse and welcome what they perceive as repression of secular activists.  Second, under direct intimidation from the government or because of active support for the repression, most of the media, especially television, provided only limited coverage of the public protests.  Finding the truth required going to non-Turkish sources, such as the Real News.

Viewing the protests in western Turkey as a continuation or local manifestation of the “Arab spring” is superficial and incorrect.  The Turks who demonstrate, young and old, do not challenge a dictatorship.  On the contrary, in the last general election the current government received over fifty percent of the vote, impressively large in the Turkish political context.  Further, the economy has grown rapidly under the rule of the AKP government, much to the benefit of the middle class.  In great part growth resulted from recovery after a disastrous depression with hyperinflation in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The ongoing demonstrations focus on political goals that appear on their surface quite moderate (see the article by Marxist intellectual Korkut Boratav, at**  In a “face-to-face” poll of over 4000 Gezi Park demonstrators, only one in eight (12%) called for the resignation of the government (Sunday Zaman 30 June 2013, page 14).  At this moment the protests represent a surge of outrage against piecemeal attempt to undermine the secular Turkey that was Atatürk’s great contribution to his people.

The major role of women in the struggle, slightly over 50 percent of the demonstrators, provides a good indication of the civil liberties focus of the growing political movement. This is a modern revolt in a modern country, focusing on civil and human rights.  Perhaps a further indication of the ongoing struggle are rumors that the shopping mall planned for Gezi Park, the proximate cause of the entire revolt, would be partly owned by members of the family of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  If true, that would help explain the why the prime minister has taken such a hard and brutal approach, leading prominent members of his party to express oblique criticism (the Deputy Prime Minister and the President).  In addition to an attack on secularism, we may have in the Turkish revolt a strong element of the Economics of the 1%.

I thank several Turkish comrades for their help with this article.  The current repression of dissent, with dozens of journalists in jail and countless numbers of other people detained requires that the thanks be anonymous.

[Advance orders of my new book, Economics of the 1%, at

*The poll is reported in the English language newspaper, Sunday’s Zaman,  The English language edition of the Hurriyet Daily News, which provides relatively balance coverage of the protests, at


Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

John Weeks is Professor Emeritus and Senior Researcher at the Centre for Development Policy and Research, and Research on Money and Finance Group at the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London.