Approximately 1 million secular-minded Turks protested in Istanbul today over the government's decision to appoint a Muslim-leaning candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, for the presidency. The military has threatened to defend Turkish secularism by force if necessary, in keeping with a Turkish tradition of military coups; but the protesters want "Neither Sharia, nor coup d'etat. Democratic Turkey."
The European Union is telling the military to cool their jets, but from the sound of it, they're not far out of step with modern Turks. The state has been secular since it was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the Young Turks in the 1920s after the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the melee of WWI. Ataturk imposed Western laws, replaced Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, banned Islamic dress and granted women the right to vote. He also banned the fez, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.
Anyway, the Ottoman Sultans weren't particularly devout themselves, in spite of holding the caliphate. A frequent complaint in the dar al-Islam was that the Ottomans were not true Muslims; however, these complaints were seriously muted by the fact that the Ottoman Empire was a successful Muslim empire; the strongest in the world for quite some time.
Istanbul has always been a place where East met West and saving souls was less important than saving tax revenue. The Sultans had an official policy of tolerance towards people of the book, which is why so many Jews wound up in Salonica in 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella sent Christopher Columbus out of Spain, along with all of the Jews in the country. Interestingly enough, many of the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany would also be taken in by the Turks over 4 centuries later. Istanbul has not always been secular- in fact, the name is a mangled version of Islambol, or great with Islam- but, it has a tradition of tolerance.
(Correction: According to 'Miss-stanbul' the word derives from the Greek (i)stimboli(n)meaning basically 'the city'.)
This tradition was nearly destroyed in the nationalist mania of the 19th and early 20th century, which played a huge role in tearing apart the empire. The officials were much more pragmatic than the nationalists. As Philip Mansel phrases it, ''They saw nationality as a career, not as a cause''. In the 1840s the Sultan Abdulmecid told Alphonse Lamartine that he saw the empire as a rampart against nationalism. But, by the end of the century, the sultans were shoring up their crumbling empire by exploiting ethnic hatreds, unleashing the Muslim mob on rebellious Armenians on at least three separate occasions before the widespread massacre of Armenians in 1915, which many now call a genocide. Of course, they don't call it a genocide in Turkey, where saying such things can get you arrested for ''insulting Turkishness''.
Nationalities are varieties of madness. In the end, the Ottoman Empire was destroyed by a number of factors, but the most active agent might well have been the nationalist mania of the era. And modern Turkey is similarly threatened by the religion mania of the 21st. But the two are really the same thing, aren't they? Besides, there are plenty of reasons to have hope for Turkey. Istanbul is still one of the greatest cities in the world. And it's frankly amazing to see such a large protest in the name of secularism. Who knew such things were still possible. Hopefully Turkey can come through this to avoid both theocracy and militarism.
P.S.- Incidentally, let me know if there are any mistakes here. Istanbul is one of the approximately 7 billion things I'm supposed to know about for my oral exams.