Tear gas and water cannons met thousands of protesters in Ankara who had staged a pro-secular rally on Republic Day. The clashes mark a growing gap between the Islam-leaning government and the country's secular layers.
“Turkey is secular and will remain secular!” chanted protesters waving Turkish flags and banners.
The capital’s governor last week banned a planned pro-secular rally citing fears that “some groups may seek to incite anarchy in the country.” But Monday, over 30 civil society groups, led by the Youth Union of Turkey, still took to the streets.
Tens of thousands gathered in Ankara's old city to march to the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the secular republic on October 29, 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
“We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal!” shouted the demonstrators, who have been angered by an Islamic bent demonstrated recently by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Since Erdogan first occupied the PM’s seat in 2003, his government has pushed a number of democratic reforms to bring Turkey closer to EU standards, such as abolishment of many restrictions on freedom of speech and the press.
But a recent education reform has been slammed by opposition groups as “promoting more Korans in schools and veil wearing.” Other criticisms stem from Erdogan’s strong political personality, with many suspecting the PM of “elected sultan” ambitions.
In recent years, Republic Day celebrations have become a common date to mark the country’s fears for its secular traditions. But as on Monday demonstrators failed to reach Mustafa Kemal’s mausoleum, where Erdogan, President Abdullah Gul and other top officials had laid wreaths hours earlier.
“Great Ataturk… We stand before you with the pride of being a country that is improving its democracy, protecting human rights and freedoms, strengthening its economy and maintaining reforms. We are trying our best to surpass the level of contemporary civilization, to maintain the basic values of our republic,” President Gul wrote in the special ceremonial register at the mausoleum.