East meets West in Turkey’s constitutional referendum

Raising Turkey from the ashes of the first world war, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first president, said, “My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth, and the teachings of science. Superstition must go… Every man can follow his own conscience provided it does not… bid him act against the liberty of his fellow men.” With these words, Atatürk steered Turkey’s path through the 20th century. To westernize and to liberate the Turks from the bindings of theocracy — these aims were realized to great prosperity.

Fast forward to today and Turkey is drowning, a far cry from the peaceful democracy that Atatürk envisioned.

Terrorist attacks in the last two years have killed over 500 people. The once-bustling Istanbul now sits against a backdrop of fear and violent, anti-government protest. Tourism has been bottlenecked by fear, setting Turkey adrift from Europe and crushing hopes of integration into the EU. Many blame the government — at its head lies the fear-mongering, would-be autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

His quest to consolidate power has left a divisive line across Turkey between Islamic nationalists and globalists. Last summer the situation boiled over into a coup attempt by an anti-government faction of the military. Erdogan used the opportunity to jail journalists, judges and teachers, labeling them conspirators. Many think the coup — which failed in a day — was a ploy.

Now Erdogan is seeking to dissolve all checks on his power. Turks headed to the polls this week to vote on sweeping alterations to the constitution. Among the most extreme changes would be eliminating the position of prime minister, giving the president authority to act in the judicial system and to appoint top officials.

Similar to the coup, this vote will grant Erdogan maneuverability and mandate to jail dissidents, critics and radicals. Unique to this consolidation, however, is the democratic means by which these power moves will be carried out. What new space this affords Erdogan will create a tougher, more centralized government and to match it, a bolstered revolutionary movement will rise. We can expect to see an increasingly vocal resistance to the government as free speech is punished more and more and dissidents are marginalized.

Istanbul is called the crossroads of the world, with one half of the city lying in Asia and the other in Europe. On one hand, this is simple middle school geography; on another, though, it stands for the intersection of culture, ideas and major civilizations all arriving at one central hub. Wrestling with its Middle Eastern, European and Asian identities has defined Turkey’s modern history. This referendum — and Erdogan’s rule — is but another step in Turkey’s confused journey to stability among these outside forces.

Before WWI, Turkey — then the Ottoman Empire — embraced its Islamic heritage. After suffering terrible losses in the war, Atatürk turned toward Europe’s model of development to transform Turkey into a prosperous, modern state. Now, Turkey is in the midst of another cycle of change that harkens back to its Islamic roots. Middle Eastern ideology is clashing with Western ideology across the globe; Turkey is a battlefield in this struggle.

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