Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says his government will not allow month-long demonstrations at a Turkish university to grow into anti-government protests similar to those in 2013, calling the protesters “terrorists” and slamming the LGBTQ movement as incompatible with Turkey’s values.
Defying a government ban on demonstrations, students and teachers at Istanbul’s Bogazici University have protested against Erdogan’s appointment of Melih Bulu, an academic and former political candidate, as rector.
They say the process was undemocratic and want him to resign, causing a nationwide debate over the government’s reach and separate protests elsewhere.
More than 250 people were detained in Istanbul this week and 69 others were detained in Ankara.
The unrest marks some of the largest demonstrations since 2013 when hundreds of thousands of people marched against government plans to build replica Ottoman barracks in Istanbul’s Gezi Park.
“This country will not be run by terrorists. We will do whatever is needed to prevent this,” Erdogan told members of his AK Party on Wednesday.
He said young protesters lack Turkey’s “national and spiritual values” and are members of “terrorist” groups.
“Are you students or terrorists trying to raid the rector’s room?” Erdogan said. “This country will not again live a Gezi event in Taksim, will not allow it. We have not stood with terrorists and we will not.”
The dispute over the rector intensified last week after protesters hung a poster near his office depicting Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba shrine in Mecca, that featured an LGBTQ symbol.
Erdogan said “there is no such thing” as LGBTQ.
“This country is national and spiritual, and will continue to walk into the future as such,” he said.
Erdogan’s comments came a day after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds of more than 1,000 in Istanbul and several hundred in Ankara.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu on Saturday and Tuesday called LGBTQ people “deviants” on Twitter.
Twitter took the rare step of hiding the messages under a warning that it violated the platform’s “rules about hateful conduct” – as it did regarding tweets from former US President Donald Trump before banning him last month.
The US on Wednesday said it was “concerned” by the detentions of students and other demonstrators while condemning the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric around the protests.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said, that freedom of expression, “even speech that some may find uncomfortable, is a critical component of vibrant functioning democracy”.
“The United States … stands shoulder to shoulder with all those fighting for their fundamental democratic freedoms,” he said.
The main opposition party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has called for Bulu’s resignation. Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas urged Bulu in an open letter to “sacrifice” his position instead of “academic peace, youth and our future”.
Rector Bulu said earlier he would not step down despite growing calls. “I am never thinking about resigning,” Turkish media quoted him as telling reporters.
Bulu, who once applied to Erdogan’s ruling party to run for Parliament, told broadcaster HaberTurk that the “crisis will be totally finished within six months”.