It was a very Turkish standoff. The venue was the large cobbled square in front of Istanbul’s ancient Haghia Sophia, a favored local venue for protests for centuries. The antagonists were two groups of women, both young, both in a uniform of sorts, but reflecting two very different sets of social ideals. On one side, 150 middle-class women, all wearing colorful Islamic headscarves and long Islamic coats, held printed banners protesting the Pope’s visit. On the other, lined up in a row, was a selection of Istanbul’s finest: female police in dark blue combat pants and plastic body armor, wielding batons. The message from the authorities to the protesters was simple enough: you send your Islamic womento stage a demonstration. We have our secular women—in riot gear—to stop you.
“We’re here because the Pope has insulted our prophet and our religion,” said one young Muslim activist, a woman who gave only her first name, Emine. “He is not welcome here unless he apologizes for the insult.” Before the demonstration dissolved peacefully, just minutes after the protest license granted by the Istanbul municipal authority expired, the protesters—supporters of the Islamist Saadet party—unfurled a petition of tens of thousands of names calling for the Pope not to come to Turkey. One of the few men present, Omer Bilginc, claimed that there were 1.5 million names on the Saadet petition. “The Pope wants to turn the Haghia Sofia back into a church,” he complained, referring to the building’s history as a sixth-century Eastern Orthodox Church that was converted to a mosque by its Ottoman conquerors in 1453 and then turned into a museum in the 1930s. “We will never let that happen.”
Benedict XVI arrived in the Turkish capital of Ankara this morning amid motorcades and security, a sure sign that this visit will be far more controversial than that of his predecessor, John Paul II, in 1979. In an attempt to defuse tensions, Benedict expressed support for Turkey’s bid to join the European Union during a private meeting with Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan shortly after arriving. Benedict also stressed that he had come in peace: “The scope of this visit is dialogue, brotherhood, a commitment for understanding between cultures, between religions, for reconciliation,” he said as he left Rome.
But Benedict’s goodwill may not be enough to allay Turks’ suspicions. Recent polls show that a large majority of Turks consider the Pope to be “anti-Islam” after Benedict quoted a 14th century Byzantine Emperor as saying “Show me what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman.” Though Turkey is one of the world’s most moderate Muslim countries, a significant minority of Turks are devout. That minority was out on force on Sunday, as 25,000 supporters of the Saadet party turned out to protest the Pope’s visit.
While Saadet represents a small slice of Turkish society—in the last parliamentary elections in 2002 the party gained just over 4 percent of the vote—the sensitivities which Benedict’s visit will expose are far wider. The visit of the Pope is set to unveil the deepest of Turkey’s ongoing culture wars: tension between the secular Turks and Islam. Ever since the founding of the Turkish republic on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire by General Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s rulers have looked West rather than East.
Yet ever since the Europhile but mildly Islamist government of Erdogan’s AK Party came to power in 2002, Islamicobservance has become less of a taboo in Turkey’s political culture. A recent study by Bosporus University showed that more Turks are defining themselves by their religion rather than by their nationality; 45 percent said they were “Muslims first” (up from 36percent in 1999) and 19 percent said they were “Turkish first” (down from 21 percent). Interestingly, just 1 percent said they were “Kurdish first.” At the same time, support for the idea of religious-based political parties has fallen from 41 percent to 25 percent over the same period. And perhaps most significant of all, despite rising support for scrapping a long-standing ban on Islamic headscarves in schools, universities and government offices, the percentage of women wearing the headscarf has dropped from 16 to 11 percent.
Suspicion of political Islam is growing in secular circles—particularly the politically powerful military, which has removed four governments in as many decades. Erdogan, though a moderate, will doubtless be blamed for any anti-Christian outbursts during the Pope’s visit. In some senses, the damage is already done: images of Sunday’s protest dominated media coverage in the run up to the visit and created the impression that Turkey is devoutly Muslim and vehemently unfriendly to Christianity’s representative in their midst. That’s an image that Erdogan has been trying hard to dispel as he faces a critical juncture in his relations with the EU. And Benedict will be working hard to dispel the impression that he is a Muslim-hater as he visits Istanbul’s Blue Mosque on Thursday, which will be only the second papal visit to a mosque ever.
All sides will also be praying that a warning issued from prison last month by Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turk who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981, that the Pope will be “in danger” of assassination during his visit, is baseless. Over 20,000 police have been mobilized to protect the Pope’s party, which will be traveling in two identical motorcades. On the streets of central Istanbul, groups of police have been stationed at 300-foot intervals all along the Pope’s expected route since Sunday to avert roadside bombs.
And protests will be ruthlessly suppressed. “My hope,” says one senior police officer at yesterday’s Haghia Sofia protest, “Is that the Pope’s visit is as boring and uneventful as possible.” For a visit so heavy with symbolism and tension, there’s little chance of that.