What’s in a (bridge) name?

Apparently there were major, nationwide protests today in Turkey against the government of PM Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party. The protests began in Istanbul as a reaction to government plans to develop considerable portions of that city’s already scarce green space by bulldozing Gezi Park and running a third major bridge over the Bosphorus Strait that separates Istanbul’s Asian and European components. But the protests spread nationally, particularly in major cities like Izmir and Ankara, as protesters complained about a government that seems increasingly fundamentalist and decreasingly responsive to moderate and secular voices (severely curtailing the availability of alcohol, for example, and cracking down on public displays of affection). #occupygezi was trending on Twitter. The police crackdown seems to have been fairly brutal; Amnesty International and the European parliament’s “rapporteur on Turkey” (how does one get a job as an observer on behalf of a legislative body that has no authority?) complained of excessive use of force, and one woman seems to have been critically injured.

Sultan Selim I (d. 1520)
Sultan Selim I (d. 1520)

According to Al-Jazeera, one complaint is that this planned third bridge over the Bosphorus, in addition to being an environmental concern, is going to be named after the early-16th century Ottoman Sultan Selim I, known as Yavuz Sultan Selim or “Sultan Selim the Tough,” though this usually gets translated in the West as “Sultan Selim the Grim,” a much less impressive-sounding epithet. Selim was an undeniably successful ruler from a military perspective, an almost unstoppable force. He ended the first real threat the Ottomans had faced in over a century when he defeated the Shi’ite Safavids at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514; the Safavids, under their charismatic founder, king, and religious leader Shah Isma’il I, controlled the Caucasus, Iraq, and Iran and had started to engineer some Shi’ite rebellions in the eastern parts of Ottoman territory. Selim actually dethroned his father, Bayezid II, in 1512 because of the latter’s inability or unwillingness to do anything about the Safavids. That done, Selim invaded Safavid territory, and although the Safavids had a zealously committed force of Turkic cavalry behind them, what they didn’t have were very many firearms, or people who could use them proficiently, and the Ottomans, who had firearms and able gunmen to spare, decisively defeated them. The Safavids from then on would be the recipient of violence in the Ottoman-Safavid relationship, rather than the deliverer of violence, except for a brief period in the early 17th century. Next Selim turned his attention to the weak, decaying Mamluk Empire of Egypt and Syria, which was on its last legs practically speaking but had both lucrative access to Indian Ocean trade routes and control over Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam (not to mention Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest site). By 1517 there was no Mamluk Empire anymore, and Selim claimed the title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” and, interestingly, “Caliph.” The Ottomans, who had always wrestled how to demonstrate their legitimacy (beyond the obvious “we keep winning battles”) in their official court documents, histories, etc., got a semblance of real legitimacy in 1453 when Mehmed conquered Constantinople and laid claim to the heritage of Rome, but Selim’s capture of Mecca and Medina was at least as important in Ottoman political formulations.

So why would naming a bridge after this guy contribute to these protests? Well, Selim was a great military commander, but he wasn’t a very nice guy, and if you’re a Turk today who may be Shi’ite, perhaps descended from the same Shi’ites who, whether they actually rebelled or not, were viewed with supreme suspicion by successive Ottoman emperors, who were brutalized and often forcibly relocated further west to get them further away from the Safavid sphere of influence, you probably don’t appreciate having a major new construction project named after the guy who really started all of that stuff. If you’re a secular Turk who doesn’t want to see your government take on more religious trappings, the naming of this bridge after a divisive figure along religious sectarian lines probably seems like a warning that the government is taking on an increasingly religious (Sunni) bent.


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