How a single protester sparked Turkish flag frenzy

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Media captionEkrem Bitmez makes flags in his workshop in Istanbul

Many countries treat their national flag as an important symbol but few can rival Turkey in its passion for the symbol, as recent events show.

Turkey's reverence for its national flag is stated right at the start of its national anthem.

"Fear not, the crimson banner that proudly ripples in this glorious dawn, shall not fade."

But a single event in eastern Turkey has now provoked the country into new levels of flag support.

On Sunday, during clashes between the police and Kurdish protestors, a masked demonstrator scaled a flagpole at a military base and took down the flag in the south-eastern province of Diyarbakir.

The event - horrifying to Turkish eyes - was captured on camera.

"We strongly condemn the attack on the Turkish flag, the symbol of the Turkish nation and our independence for which our martyrs' blood was shed, by a person who possesses no value," said the general staff of the armed forces.

The governor of Istanbul, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, decided that a simple statement could not do justice to his feelings of outrage.

So he posted a video in which he recited a well-known poem called Flag by Arif Nihat Asya:

"How radious and in waves my flag is/ I have read (about) your saga, I will write your saga/ I will dig the grave of one who doesn't see you the way I see you / I will destroy the nest of the bird who doesn't salute you."

Flag defence expert

Ekrem Bitmez spends every day making Turkish flags in his workshop in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Gaziosmanpasa. A flag billows as he lays it upon the table.

Image caption Ekrem Bitmez sees the national flag as an important reminder of Turkey's historical heritage

"Our flag was created with our blood, during the war of independence and the Dardanelles war. Our ancestors became martyrs in these wars for our flag," he says.

"Everybody has to show their respect to the flag because it represents our own heritage."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would agree. He has condemned the flag-lowering protestor, and also the soldiers at the base for not doing anything to stop the attack.

Turkey's leader considers himself an expert in innovative flag defence.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption This Kurdish protester sparked fury for taking down the Turkish flag

Protocol experts at international summits sometimes lay out small national flags on the ground to mark leaders' positions for press photos.

But this breaches Mr Erdogan's sense of flag protection. TV footage from two summits shows the prime minister finding his designated spot, then bending down to rescue the small Turkish flag from the ground.

On each occasion, he carefully guards the rescued flag in his jacket pocket. The other leaders took their positions without saving - or even paying much attention to - their own countries' flags similarly marooned on the ground.

In March, the prime minister narrated a flag-based video for his party's local election campaign.

The footage shows an unidentified man in sunglasses and smart overcoat trying to lower a massive Turkish flag - in Turkish iconography, many flag abusers are masked or unidentified.

In the video, the unidentified man's attempt to lower the flag provokes the country into action.

Thousands of people go to its rescue and form a human tower to re-raise the flag. Mr Erdogan's party won the election easily.

Students drawing blood

Flag defence in Turkey is not limited to government officials.

In 1995, a Turkish freighter crashed into some rocks a few miles off the Aegean coast, near the Greek islands.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seen on a poster, is known for ignoring international protocol for the flag

Shortly afterwards, a number of Greek citizens, including a priest, landed on the rocks and waved their country's flag.

Three Turkish journalists, taking pictures from a helicopter, saw this and decided to take action.

"Despite the bad weather conditions the helicopter landed where the Greek flag was erected," reported the Cumhuriyet newspaper proudly.

"The Turkish journalists erected the Turkish flag that they had put into their bags. Cameraman Osman Korkmaz, Aykut Firat and Cesur Sert together posed for the camera. The mission was accomplished."

But their act was outdone in 2008 by a secondary school class from the Anatolian city of Kirsehir. The students made their own Turkish flag, using blood from their fingers for the colour red.

The pupils sent their creation - now known as the "blood flag" - to the Chief of the General Staff Yasar Buyukanit.

A number of doctors and teachers were reported to be disturbed by the students' act. But General Buyukanit had no such doubts.

"Such a nation is ours," he declared with pride.

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