İstanbul’s Third Bridge: Why So Grim?

The 2nd Bosphorus Bridge, named after Mehmet the Conqueror.

The 2nd Bosphorus Bridge, named after Mehmet the Conqueror.

In 1995, then the Mayor of İstanbul Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said:

A third bridge is a murder for İstanbul. It is nothing but massacring the remaining green areas in the city’s north by zoning the area for construction. I hope the government will change without this murder being committed.

The government of the time changed and so did Erdoğan’s position, dramatically. Now he is taking the credit for building that third bridge that he once fiercely opposed. As can be seen from Erdoğan’s past remark, topic of a new bridge on Boshphorus has always sparked controversies. But distinctively, the current debate focuses more on the bridge’s name than on concerns about urban development. Without any open criteria, surveys or consultations with NGOs, the government announced it had named the bridge after 9th emperor of the Ottoman Empire Yavuz Sultan Selim (Yavuz being his nickname, usually translated as “the Grim” or more correctly “the Stern”) who is, to put it mildly, a highly unpopular figure among Turkey’s large Alevi community that practices a uniquely heterodox way of Islam.

Alevis openly expressed their opposition, due to the fact that many Anatolian Alevis were persecuted and killed during Selim’s campaigns against Safavid Iran at the beginning of the 16th century. Ali Balkız, head of Alevi-Bektaşi Federation, said “We, Alevis, will not pass through that bridge.” Columnist Yavuz Semerci stated he would continue calling it “The Third Bridge” instead of “Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge”. Prof. İzzettin Doğan, honorary president of an umbrella association of many Alevi NGOs, said “A mistake was made at a time when sectarian wars are being provoked in the region. Selim is believed to be responsible of massacre of countless Alevis…” Renowned historian Prof. İlber Ortaylı suggested that the name Mimar Sinan who was the chief architect of three Ottoman sultans, would be more appropriate. Even Fethullah Gülen, a cleric who is controversially close the ruling party AKP, spoke up: After talking of cultural and emotional “bridges” between Sunnis and Alevis in Turkey, he said “Because of one bridge, let’s not destroy many others”. Other intellectuals also voiced similar concerns and suggestions.

Of all the thirty-six sultans the Ottoman Empire had, choosing Selim the Stern sends a message, people believe. This issue is clearly a part of a wider “war of symbols” that is now occurring within an extremely polarized Turkish society. But to understand this domestic squabble that has historical roots, we should separate it from the bigger picture and take a look at Selim’s legacy and what it means for both conservatives represented by the ruling AKP and also Alevis.

As can be understood from his nickname, Selim was ferocious: he killed his brothers Prince Korkut and Prince Ahmet along with their sons and dethroned his peaceful father Bayezit II in a coup. (This kind of makes Erdoğan’s praise of Selim ironic, considering how he dramatically portrayed himself and Mohamed Mursi as victims because of “coup attempts” in Turkey and Egypt’s actual coup.) He was always very war-like. Even when he was Sancakbeyi (a title close to governor) of Trabzon and a prince, he attacked Georgians, took Kuban and made bold moves against the Safavids — actions greatly exceeding his authority. He had a very angry character. He never tolerated the officers who failed and lied to him, was famous for having his Grand Viziers executed. There’s no doubt that he was a military genius: He won every battle he fought decisively, used the latest technology of his time to bring his enemies to their knees. İlber Ortaylı points out that he passed through Sinai desert with fewer casualties than Cemal Paşa did during World War I.

Selim’s reign was not long -only 8 years- but in his short era the Empire’s lands more than doubled. He visited İstanbul only once, in his childhood and during his rule, he spent almost all his time on military campaigns. So, he barely lived in İstanbul, which according to some, makes his name less relevant for the bridge which will become one of the symbols of the city.

At the beginning of 16th century, Shah İsmail I of Safavid Empire made Shia the official sect of Iran, had it embraced as also a kind of ideology and was trying to export it to Anatolia. The Shah sent his militants to Anatolia to spread the Safavid doctrine of Shi’ism. Even as a young prince Selim was aware of the threat and angry at his father for not taking action against the Safavids. So after taking his father’s throne by force and eliminating the possible candidates for emperorship, he started his Iranian campaign in 1514. After following Shah’s army for months, Ottoman army met Safavid forces on a plain called Chaldiran. There, the Safavids suffered a disastrous defeat that forced the wounded Shah flee from the battlefield. The Ottomans advanced even further and took Tabriz which was then the capital of Iran. During the war, many Alevis were killed and the incidents left a mark in the memory of their community. It’s said that 40.000 Alevis were killed, although some experts question this figure as 16th century’s census documents (a.k.a. tahrir defterleri, special documents that include many statistics for taxation) do not indicate such a loss of population.

There was also a cultural side to the war. The Safavid dynasty and its army were Turkish, as well, which made it easy for some Turkmen Beys in Anatolia to pledge their allegiance to the Shah. The Ottoman Empire was more cosmopolitan, urban, and orthodoxly Islamic. The Safavids, however, were representing a more rural and Anatolian culture, more tolerant of Turkmen Alevis’ nomadic roots and heterodox ways, therefore, I daresay they were “more Turkish” in some respect. For instance, today an average Turk in Turkey would understand poems of İsmail I much better than he would understand Selim’s poems, for Selim used a Turkish that is mixed with Persian and Arabic (in some poems he used only Persian), whereas İsmail’s Turkish was pure, clear and closer to modern Turkish.

The conflict was ultimately more strategic than sectarian. Selim was relentless towards Anatolian Alevis not because he believed their faith was twisted but because he saw them as collaborators of the Shah. He didn’t give Alevis the kind of autonomy that he granted the Kurdish tribes who were located to today’s South-East Turkey to encounter Iranian influence.

His Mamluk campaign is another factor that enhances Selim image in minds of today’s conservatives. Between 1516 and 1517, with three battles, Selim annihilated Mamluk Sultanate, ruled by a Turkish-Circassian dynasty, conquering much of the Middle East including the sacred cities of Islam. For that he took the title “Servant of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina”. Most of the sacred objects exhibited today at Topkapı Palace in İstanbul were brought in his time. More importantly, he was the first Ottoman emperor to officially take the title “Caliph of Islam”.

Tomb of Selim the Stern (Photo taken by Sinan Doğan)

Tomb of Selim the Stern (Photo taken by Sinan Doğan)

Hence, for most of those represented by AKP, Selim is a hero, whereas, for Alevis, he is an oppressive and atrocious figure. A well-known law professor Hüseyin Hatemi, went as far as saying “For Alevis, Selim is what Hitler means for Jews.” Undoubtedly, the bridge bearing his name will be a reminder of past sufferings and bloodshed for the country’s large Alevi community. And instead of pride, they will take offense from that grandeur structure. Among all Ottoman emperors, Selim is perhaps the most divisive figure. That’s why many other names that are more relevant and less controversial were recommended to the PM. But his “my way or the high way” attitude still continues.

For long, Alevis have been at odds with the AKP government over a number of matters. They have been expecting reforms regarding the status of their temples, structure of Directorate of Religious Affairs, contents of compulsory religion lessons at schools and so forth. Yet the PM’s recently unveiled democratization package addressed none of these issues, causing disappointment and anger. For that, they now feel even more excluded.

Plus, choosing Selim the Stern seems to be a promotion of an identity that is more Muslim and “Ottoman” less Turkish, more “imperial” less national. That’s why he has a special place in conservative minds. That’s why 122 schools in Turkey bear his name. That’s why the bridge’s foundation ceremony was conducted with prayers and lots of references to Ottoman glory. Yet, a part of the society, the part that is socio-economically more developed, the part that joined massive Gezi Park protests, does not intend to wear this identity whatsoever. This is not because they hate “Ottoman” and “Selim” images particularly, but because they hate the fact that the government tries to make them to be like its own voters who are more pious and obedient.

A bridge is supposed to connect, but considering the motives of the government, it seems that this one is doomed to divide.

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Gülen Schools, Their Goals and How They Are Perceived in Turkey

A scene from a new Turkish school in Sendai, Japan.

A scene from a new Turkish school in Sendai, Japan.

Gülen schools is a strange subject, so much information is actually available on it but not the information you search for. For instance, we don’t even really know how many Gülen schools there are. Because there isn’t an organizational structure that ties the schools directly to Fethullah Gülen. (To get to know him, you should definitely read this piece by Claire Berlinski.) He’s more like an honorary leader who inspired them. The schools are generally founded by members of Gülen Movement (a.k.a. Cemaat in Turkey, meaning “the Communion”) that is neither an NGO nor a group that requires any kind of registration. But in 2011, Helen Rose Ebaugh of University of Houston, said on CNNTürk “the best estimate is that there are around 2000 schools, half of them are abroad.” These schools include universities, language schools, high schools, elementary schools and dersanes – that are privately owned schools that prepare Turkish students for university entrance exam (YGS), public personnel selection exam (KPSS) and so forth…

Gülen schools abroad definitely have more sympathy and respect in Turkey than those at home do. They enjoy quite a lot of intellectual support, not only from notoriously pro-government and pro-Gülen Movement (GM) authors, but also from truly respected names of various sides of the political spectrum.

“Bridges of Peace: The Turkish Schools That Opened to the World”, first published in 2005, contains articles and interviews of twenty seven academicians and writers on Gülen schools abroad, sheds some light on possible goals of the schools. A big proportion of the contributors are well-known supporters of AKP and the GM yet to see some names there might really surprise Turkish readers or informed non-Turkish readers. The first surprising name is the late Bülent Ecevit, former Prime Minister of Turkey, who was leading a left-wing party and was very fond of secularism. The first thing impressed Ecevit who was also a poet, was the importance given to teaching of Turkish language at the schools. For him, Ottoman Empire didn’t bother much teaching Turkish in its lands and these schools are now fixing that very mistake. It can be inferred from his statements on the interview that Ecevit saw Turkish way of Islam as the best alternative to Saudi Arabian and Iranian kinds, which, according to him, do not fit to our age and therefore Gülen schools representing Turkish Islam should be favored. In a trip to Albania he received teachers of a Gülen school there and he said “I know I will be criticized by some, but I appreciate the works done here.” And as he anticipated, he was criticized vigorously. Another name worth mentioning is the late Gündüz Aktan who served as Turkey’s ambassador to Kenya, Switzerland, Greece and Japan respectively, and was an MP from MHP (Nationalist Movement Party). Aktan argues that while judging merits of these schools, internal squabbles should be put aside. He tells how he was amazed by success of the language schools opened in Japan: “First they opened a language school. It was to teach Turkish, then they decided to add courses of other Turkic languages and Russian, imported teachers. When I was leaving Japan in middle of 1998, there were -if I am not wrong- three language schools in three different cities. And I saw reports in the Japanese press that Turkish was ranked as the 4th foreign language that the Japanese were most interested in.” He says that the teachers who made Turkish language popular there in just two years, had a missionary spirit and they were working for very low salaries. “I sometimes even wondered whether they were hungry”, he adds.

Prof. İlber Ortaylı.

Prof. İlber Ortaylı.

İlber Ortaylı, a professor of history who has a huge following in Turkey, also implies that Gülen schools could actually be called missionary schools: “A society that felt disturbed much by the missionary activities in 19th century… now spreads similar schools.” He argues that such schools abroad are a matter of political influence and should be supported, emphasizing “Secular France is behind its Catholic schools. Britain is behind its Protestant schools.” But he also notes that conversion is hardly observed, just like happened at missionary schools within the Ottoman Empire. For Ortaylı, perhaps the biggest perk of the schools is that they would create Turcophile communities in other countries, especially among the elites: “We have seen no Russian who became Muslim. But the kids learn Turkish and grow very fond of Turkey… In future, this will, of course, create a well-educated Turcophile class. Because those are smart kids, selected by exams and are being trained meticulously at low-size classrooms… They embrace Turkish traditions and lifestyle, like showing respect to the elders, being clean and not drinking alcohol… That’s why parents in St. Petersburg and Moscow -including the elites of the cities’ bureaucracy- fancy these schools much.” He also points out that the schools also help Turkish entrepreneurs who do or want to do business in foreign countries and in return, they are glad to make contributions to the schools. There other interesting names in the book: Strictly Kemalist academician Prof. Toktamış Ateş (one of the editors of the book); worldwide famous Kyrgyz author Cengiz Aytmatov and Prof. Büşra Ersanlı who is a socialist and a supporter of pro-Kurdish BDP…

Surely not everyone thinks these schools are such houses of endless goodwill. For instance; some Kemalists and socialists believe that Gülen schools, especially those in Central Asia, are actually tools of American imperialism and they were established to bring the people there a new ideology and identities that are pro-American. But the real dissidence surfaces when it comes to activities of GM within Turkey, which, of course, include its educational works.

To get the view, we need to mention ışık evleri (can be translated as “houses of light”) that are houses where the GM trains university students. These rented houses are supervised by older students called ağabeyler (elder brothers) and ablalar (elder sisters). The GM, in general, selects especially poor, smart and hardworking students when they are preparing for university entrance exam (or much earlier) and when the students get in a university, they transfer them to an ışık house. In these houses, they have to obey their supervisors which often means they have to read certain newspapers like Zaman, journals like Sızıntı; watch TV channels like STV and some religious channels, join religious conversation meetings, study and practice their religion, avoid wearing open clothes and having a girlfriend or a boyfriend… Although they do not bluntly force the students -anyone is free to stay on or leave-, they constantly suggest to pray and be religious. A study titled “Being Different in Turkey: Religion, Conservatism and Otherization” done by Boğaziçi University in 2008, presents some interesting stories from students who stayed in ışık houses and the GM dormitories. A teacher from Aydın complains about one of his/her 6th grade student’s decrease in performance and constant sleepy look. After investigating, the teacher finds out that the student’s dormitory makes him wake up very early for the morning prayer and read books of Said-i Nursi, a deceased cleric that the GM hugely respects. Another teacher from Batman, who found out that one of his students suffers from the same problem, says “The kid wakes up 4:00 am in the morning to perform morning prayer, then studies Arabic. He hardly has any time left for the school’s lessons.” The teacher also points out that the GM “catches” bright students from rural areas when they are at 6th or 7th grade. There are also complaints that some kids estranged and turned hostile to their families after staying at GM’s houses.

And there’s the matter of dersanes. Since public schools ridiculously fail to train their students for university entrance exam (YGS), there are private schools focuses specifically on preparing students for such exams and they’re called dersanes. The GM is known to have many of those. According to a report by daily Cumhuriyet, there are 4.000 licensed dersanes in the country and 60% of them are the GM’s. 80% of dersane publications are also theirs.

Of course, there have been more serious developments than the funny little things I have personally seen. For instance; in 2010, head of ÖSYM (Student Selection and Placement Center) Ünal Yarımağan resigned due to allegations of cheating in KPSS (Public Personnel Selection Exam). The allegation was that the questions were stolen and given to GM’s dersanes. After Yarımağan who publicly complained about the changes imposed on ÖSYM by the government was replaced by Ali Demir, about a dozen of scandals occurred including shady exams allegedly tied to the GM and its dersanes and a plagiarism accusation to Prof. Demir. (The British academic who made the accusation accepted a written apology published in a magazine, aborted the investigation on Demir.) A report also revealed that majority of ÖSYM personnel are first and second degree relatives of each other. The scandals stained reputation of ÖSYM that supervises all the exams that select and place personnel for state institutions, and increased existing suspicions about the GM. It’s widely believed these current corruption cases including the ones in the police organization (some of them were revealed and documented in a book by Hanefi Avcı, a former chief of police) are related to the GM. We have a disastrous educational system and many corrupted state officials but in past we at least knew that exams and selection processes were fair. Now hardly anybody thinks so. A poll published in 2011, suggests that 72% of people do not trust ÖSYM and only 18% think that Ali Demir should not resign.

A scene from 10th Turkish Language Olympiads, 2012.

A scene from 10th Turkish Language Olympiads, 2012.

Having said all this, I also see a structure that takes young students early, injects them a certain lifestyle (or in most cases ensures that students retain conservative lifestyle of their parents); helps them get in good universities through providing studying opportunities and shelter either for free or at very low costs; and expects support (financial support or various favors) of the students when they reach good positions in the civil service and private sector.

In conclusion, whether Fethullah Gülen is a benevolent man or not, whether his schools are exporting an ideology based on religion or not, whether they have an ultimate plan of turning Turkey into an Islamic state or not; existence of an entity this big and influential and has its arms and legs in business, police organization and elsewhere in the state; is doomed to alienate others. That is why, while at annual Turkish Language Olympics GM shows off its muscles by shipping its students from 140 different countries and all pro-government media -including the state television TRT- covers the event, a very good proportion of the Turkish society really creeps out. (Though 2013’s event was overshadowed by Gezi Park protests.) Not because they don’t like foreigners learning Turkish; not because, as some would like to assert, they dislike and look down on rural people and Islam and therefore AKP and the GM; but because they feel besieged. And they have very good reasons to feel so.