From Taksim to Tahrir Square: the Somali experience

Published on 18th June 2013

Protestors in Turkey                                        P. Courtesy
From 31st May until 10th June I was on a brief visit in Istanbul in Turkey. Having lived in west Europe for sometime, I wanted to visit a country that was European and Asian at the same time! And which other country could meet these criteria, except Turkey, a country which connects the two continents via the Bosphorus Bridge. In one hour you are in Europe and next you are in Asia, experiencing different cultural and historical aspects of these two diverse continents. Mosques with their minarets seem to dominate Istanbul’s skies with a few churches which, believe it or not, have also minarets!

I was particularly attracted to Turkey because of the Turkish government’s recent good efforts in Somalia to help the country stand on its feet again and as Turkey has been seen as a rising political and economic power in the region which could inspire other Muslim and Arab countries to follow its style of governance: democracy/secularism alongside Islam working together in harmony. I wanted to find out if the country lived to its name. 

From my first impression, I was not disappointed by what I saw. Rich historical and cultural aspects of the Turkish people with their diverse ethnic groups from Europe to Asia were there to be explored and admired, especially the history of the great Ottoman Empire which ruled parts of Africa, Asia and Europe over half a century. One only needed to visit royal palaces, mosques, churches, and castles to experience some of the historical events that shaped this country, such as the defeat of the Byzantine Empire by Sultan Mehmet II who conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453, ending a thousand years of Byzantine rule. Churches converted to mosques, such as Hagia Sophia mosque once an Eastern Orthodox cathedral by the orders of Sultan Mehmet II are clear evidence of this country’s past turbulent history where great empires fought to the bitter end for religious, political and economic superiority. Or if one wanted to find out more about the establishment of Turkey as a modern secular state, then one just needed to visit museums and other centres to learn more about the history of Kemal Attaturk, national hero and father of modern Turkey.

On its present make up, Turkey comes across to me as a modern state which struggles to come to terms with the demands of a modern world. On one hand, its European cultural history side (the European Union) demands Turkey to behave like a mature secular country where democracy and the rule of law prevail, where human rights and individual freedoms are not threatened by religious dogma or military dictatorship as the case had been in this country in the past. This is particularly important as Turkey has been desperately seeking to get membership in the European Union, which seems to have closed its doors.  And do not forget about Kurdish secessionist movements which seem to be latent at the moment due to political dialogue between the parties.

On the other hand, its Asian cultural side (Islam) seems to demand respect for the soul and the essence of this nation, a country which was once the most powerful Islamic empire that ruled the world over half a century. Indeed, the present Islamist government, which has won successive elections, was elected by a majority of the Turkish people who accepted the call from their Asian cultural side of their nation’s history. Perhaps having grown weary of Attaturk’s secular state with its past military dictatorship and civilian governments, they feel that a return to their Islamic values might well save them from the perils of dangerous and uncertain world.   

I was quite impressed by the harmonious way that seculars and religious conservatives, different ethnic groups from Armenians to Greeks to Arabs to Kurdish have all accepted to some extent Turkish identity but with different cultural values, or as the mayor of Istanbul’s Fatih district put it in a slogan: “7 bolge, 7 renk” (7 regions and 7 colours) to celebrate cultural diversity in one of his last cultural event that I attended. Veiled women happily intermingled with their brethren and sister with different political and religious persuations.

As incredible as it may sound, all that was to change on the fourth day of my visit when protests broke out in Istanbul and other major cities in Turkey! What started as peaceful environmental demonstrations against the re-development of Gezi park, a small park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square degenerated into what some analysts described as the “Turkish spring” comparing it to those upheavals in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Riots spread like a wild fire across the country.

Unfortunately as events developed, an ugly face of deep division within the Turkish society seems to have emerged. From secular Kemalists that are unhappy with what they see as a neo-Ottoman Islamic empire being constructed by the ruling Islamist party, the AKP.  Led by the current Prime Minister Erdogan who is being accused of authoritarianism, secularist and likeminded groups believe that the government is pushing an Islamist agenda in the public life. For example it has started to teach the Koran in primary schools, as it has introduced a law which bans the sale and consumption of alcohol between 10pm to 6am and near mosques. Indeed, the prime minister was quoted saying that any one that drinks alcohol is alcoholic, and perceives half of the electorate as drunks! Secularist and other likeminded groups see this as an infringement of their secular freedoms, which Attaturk had fought for it very hard.

I was actually lucky to have visited the Taksim Square and Gezi Park while the protest was going on, and I was able to gauge the general mood from the displayed placards, slogans, and people’s mood. Some of the deep division within the Turkish society was clearly displayed at the opposite placard with details of different religious and political denominations from atheists and Alevis, a minority religious group with a history of persecution, to ultra nationalist parties. 

So the question is what is the Somali connection in all of this?  There are two relevant points here. As a secularist who has been campaigning for secularism for Somalia, my heart goes out to those who want to keep Turkey as a secular modern state as Attaturk had envisioned. Turkey cannot afford to look backwards in nostalgia as once great Islamic empire, as Britain and other defunct empires cannot afford to do so. Times have changed and people have moved on. As they are getting closer to Turkey, Somalis can learn from this great country in terms of making Islam and secularism work together in harmony. The secret here is to learn from the Turkish experience.

The other relevant point is a unique Somali behaviour that I saw in Istanbul! One evening I was strolling alongside one of Istanbul’s many seaside walks when I stopped to watch a shootout game in which players armed with a replica rifle have to shoot a target:  bottles and balloons lined up on the top of rocks. Players have to pay 1 Turkish Lira to participate in the game. I could not believe my eyes when I saw three young Somalis – two boys and a girl all in their twenties – lining up to play the game. The first boy was a good shooter and hit all targets with replica bullets, smashing all the bottles. Spectators were quite impressed by the skills he had shown. The second boy was not so good. Even the veiled girl played the game although she was not successful at hitting the target.

As I was watching the game, I could not help but to put this playful and fun experience in the context of what is going on in our country. I know there are no many Somalis or even blacks in Turkey, and the only conclusion that I could reach was that these young people must have been part of a few lucky students who were granted scholarships by the Turkish government. the persistent and annoying thought that kept coming to my mind was why our people (particularly the young) are attracted to guns, and by judging the skills that the first shooter had shown would it have been possible that while growing up in Somalia he was exposed to gun fights? Indeed, any young person born in 1990s in Somalia must have been affected by the daily warfare that ripped our country apart. And as we know young people are the victims of this cruel civil war as their elders use them as robots to fight wars they do not understand. Perhaps those young people in Istanbul played with real guns as toys in their early childhood lives. 

I would have liked to see them in Istanbul reading books, or writing love letters. But I must thank Turkey for supporting Somalia. I hope Taksim Square saga ends peacefully.

By Muuse Yuusuf
Courtesy: Hiraan.

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