Turkey will have to change the name of the third bridge to be built over the Bosporus if it wants to preserve national unity, Masum Türker, the leader of the Democratic Left Party (DSP), has maintained.
At a groundbreaking ceremony of the bridge in İstanbul last week, President Abdullah Gül announced that the third Bosporus bridge would be named after Ottoman Sultan Yavuz Selim, who is widely claimed to be responsible for the brutal massacre of tens of thousands of Alevis in Anatolia in the early part of the 16th century.
Noting that it was not only Alevis, but a considerable portion of Turks as well who are angry with this choice of name for the bridge, Türker cautioned, during an exclusive interview with Today's Zaman, that "because of his cruel behavior towards his own [Alevi] subjects, Yavuz is a figure who may disrupt the peace in Turkey." "Turkey will, sooner or later, have to change the name of the bridge if it doesn't want the country become divided," he added.
In 1511, the Ottoman army brutally suppressed a revolt by the Kızılbaş (crimson head) Turkmens of the Alevi faith on Anatolian soil. And in the period preceding and following the battle of Çaldıran, fought between the Ottoman Empire under Yavuz Sultan Selim and Safavid ruler Ismail, who was also a Turk of Alevi faith, in 1514, as many as 40,000 Alevis of Anatolia who were ethnic Turks were killed by the Ottomans. The battle of Çaldıran resulted in Yavuz Selim, with Yavuz meaning "cruel", issuing an edict to kill all the Alevis in the region.
According to the DSP leader, who is strongly convinced that the name Yavuz has strong sectarian connotations as he was also the Ottoman ruler who, after having beaten the Mamluks on the battleground, took over the caliphate from the Mamluk Sultanate, it will mainly be through the efforts of some leaders of the Sunni faith in Turkey who favor a culture of tolerance and living together that changing the name of the bridge will most likely be possible. The DSP leader expressed optimism about a possible name change, saying, "Even constitutions can be amended, so why not the name of a bridge?"
It's also meaningful that the three highest-ranking officials of the Turkish state --President Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek -- were all present at the ceremony and that it was Gül, the head of the state, who announced the name of the bridge. "It [the name of the bridge] is a declaration of [the state] taking sides [in the Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Middle East,]" concluded Türker, who strongly believes that the name Yavuz was not chosen by chance. "This act of taking sides is also a message to those countries which the Turkish government is [economically and politically] 'dependent' on that Turkey is ready, if need be, to burn its bridges with Iran," Türker maintained.
After Yavuz inherited the caliphate, the Sunni character of the Ottoman Empire was strengthened and the name of the bridge brings to mind an impression that Turkey intends to position itself in the region as a Sunni country, rather than a secular one, and a rival to the Shiite sect of Islam represented mainly by Iran, most of Iraq and the regime in Syria, although the faith of Arab Alevis and Nusayris in Syria is only loosely connected to the Shiite sect of Islam, as is the case for Turkey's Alevis.
The DSP leader is concerned, for this reason, that Turkey's attitude may further provoke a sectarian conflict not only in a region that is already deeply divided along sectarian lines, but also in the country. "The name of the bridge is an outright challenge [by Turkey] on Iran, Iraq and Syria. It also serves to fan the flames of division between Sunni and Alevi citizens in Turkey," he commented. Noting that this is like reopening old wounds, he warned that "it is most dangerous to provoke religious beliefs."
With regards to the settlement process which the government re-launched at the end of last year with the jailed leader of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, to settle Turkey's decades-old terrorism issue, Türker has some misgivings, making it clear that he is in no position to be able to express an opinion on the issue, as he "knows nothing about the content of the peace process." "The prime minister should inform [the public about the content of the deal] first so that I can express an opinion about it," he said.
The DSP leader has the impression that according to a letter sent by Öcalan to the government through the agency of some deputies of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) who had visited him in prison in İmralı, a letter which was published by the Milliyet daily a few months ago, the government may be seeking a confederation with Kurds in which the Kurds in Iraq and Syria would also be included.
Noting that a confederational structure representing a loose political union would mean a separate state for Kurds, Türker said "We don't support any agreements, including a federative structure, that would do away with Turkey's nation-state and disrupt the geographical integrity of the country." Such an initiative would also deeply harm Turkey's relations with its neighbors, he warned.
Undemocratic tendencies surfaced as AK Party took over state
The DSP leader also criticized the government for exploiting Turks' aspirations of becoming a member of the EU, maintaining that the government presented the issue as a carrot before the people to gain more powerful control over the state. "[In the last few years] the party in power [Justice and Development Party (AK Party)] became more authoritarian and [started to] act in non-democratic ways where the party and the state has become one and the same and where it has [managed to] form the state of the government," he complained.
Membership in the EU itself doesn't represent a sine qua non for the DSP, but the EU stands for a set of standards which Turkey should also aspire to for the benefit of its own citizens. "We've always offered support with regards to [the efforts to reach] the EU standards which we also believe are very up-to-date to enact in Turkey," Türker said.
The DSP leader is worried about the progress of democracy in Turkey in recent years. "In Turkey, where most of the mainstream media is under government control, democracy doesn't function [today]," he said, describing the way the country is being ruled as "autocratic." "An oppressive way of governing is currently in effect," he commented. For Türker, the choice of name for the third Bosporus bridge can be taken as a clear indication of the government no longer feeling the need to consult shareholders in various projects. "For the choice of a name, the people should have been involved through an opinion poll," he remarked.
As an example of the government's authoritarian tendencies, he cited the police crackdown on peaceful protestors at Taksim's Gezi Park at the crack of dawn with tear gas. Noting that before the prime minister had made a negative statement about the protestors, the police had refrained from resorting to force against the demonstrators who had occupied Gezi Park to prevent a replica of barracks and a shopping mall to be built there, he noted "The fact that after the prime minister's statement, the police intervened with tear gas demonstrates the fact that the laws in Turkey are applied not democratically, but rather, autocratically."