In our 12 months of travelling, Turkey was high on the list as being our favourite country.
The people were friendly and open, the country was beautiful, easy to get around and we always felt safe.
What also impressed us as tourists was the secular society, where religion didn’t dominate life and the freedom of the people.
Secularism was a primary principle of Mustafa Kemel Atatürk (1881-1938), the first President of the Republic of Turkey.
An excellent example of Atatürks strategy of unification and conciliation, was the way he dealt with the sensitive subject of Hagia Sophia.
Built in 537 as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, Hagia Sophia was to become a Roman Catholic Cathedral an Orthodox Cathedral again, and then in 1453 an Imperial Mosque.
In 1935, under the direction of Atatürk, it became a museum and it still is today. Thus diffusing the divide over what religion this ancient and important building should represent.
Atatürk transformed the Republic of Turkey into a modern state by introducing social reform and separated politics and religion.
As we travelled throughout Turkey we spoke with many Turks about their society and the possibility of them joining the European Union. The consensus was that their country was doing well, especially compared to the EU, and that they might be better off staying out of the partnership. There was also a feeling of disquiet about the current regime of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Especially his desire to move Turkey from a secular, Eurocentric society to a more Islamic, Middle Eastern one.
When we travelled to Gallipoli we were overwhelmed by the Turks love of all things Atatürk. There are quotes, statues and monuments everywhere on the peninsula. It’s therefore not surprising to hear that the average Turkish citizen is mistrustful of a government that seems to want to distance itself from the legacy of what many see as their founding father.
In fact the name ‘Atatürk’ was bestowed on Mustafa Kemel in 1934 by the Turkish Parliament and means “Father of the Turks”
This name is forbidden to any other person.
The last 10 years have seen the economy strengthen under the rule of the AKP, but this growth seems to have been at a cost.
It would be a disaster for Turkey if this current civil unrest plunges it into the rule of fundamentalism and it goes the way of many other countries in the Middle East.
It must be remembered that Turkey is a democracy and the current government have been elected to power.
What is going on right now is a struggle for that power.
The only real way change should take place is by the democratic process, but that requires an opposition capable of winning the vote.
Currently this doesn’t exist, which has allowed the present government, feeling invincible, to deal harshly with any form of dissent.
However what does appear to be a bi-product of this conflict is the emergence of a meaningful opposition. It’s to be hoped that they will find a leader that has the intelligence and vision of Mustafa Kemel Atatürk.
Right now, Turkey needs him again.