Translated to English by Sally Zahav
For about a week now, Turkey has been in an uproar. Tens of thousands of demonstrators have burst into the streets inf almost a hundred cities all over the country, in noisy, audacious protest against the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A few people have been killed, about 1500 have been injured and about 2000 arrested. The spectacles from the streets of Turkey were reminiscent of the mass demonstrations of January 2011 in Tunisia that eventually caused President bin ‘Ali to flee, and in al-Tahrir Square in Cairo, which resulted in the overthrow of Mubarak, and the demonstrations in the beginning of what was called the “Arab Spring” in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. The question arises – is it now Turkish society’s turn to rid itself of Prime Minister Erdoğan and perhaps the religious “Justice and Development Party ” as well, which has governed the country since 2002 as a single party, without need for a coalition because it has a majority in parliament.
The answer to the question is “probably not,” that is, the rule of Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party does not seem to be in immediate danger, for several reasons:
The first and principal reason is that, after all, Turkey is a democratic country, even if its democracy is not perfect, and in a democratic country, the prime minister is replaced by means of elections, not demonstrations. In contrast to the Kurdish minority, the Turkish nation, in all of its sectors, sees Turkey as its country, and the government is considered legitimate, despite the substantial criticism about how it functions. There is not an overwhelming desire to overthrow the government, but rather to improve the way it functions and correct the direction in which it is pulling Turkish society. The slogans heard in the demonstrations express the demonstrators’ rage over the behavior of Erdoğan, and actually, it is his personality that is the focus of the demonstrations. One of the signs in the demonstrations showed Erdoğan next to Hitler, both giving the Nazi salute, and for anyone who didn’t understand the image, “Erdoğan = Hitler” was written.
The second reason is that the regime truly wants to turn down the flames, and therefore, on most days of the demonstrations and in most places, there were no policemen positioned near the demonstrations, in order to minimize as much as possible the contact with officials and to minimize the potential for people to be injured, and indeed, by mid-week only a small number of fatalities, about five, was reported, hundreds of injured and about one thousand arrested. Compared to Egypt or other Arab countries that have been afflicted by the “Arab Spring,” the situation in Turkey is much better, at least in this phase.
The third reason that Erdoğan will remain in power is that the larger the demonstrations against him, the more justified he will be — if he wants — to bring out millions of Turks to demonstrate to support him and his performance. His supporters as well as his opposition know well that during the past eleven years he has brought Turkey to a position of economic power, certainly compared with Europe, which gave him a slap in the face when it refused to allow Turkey to join the European Union. He — the Islamist — took the refusal hard, because the real reason that Turkey was not accepted to the Union is because Turkey is an Islamic country, and Europe does not want to grant membership to 80 million Muslims. For these past five years, since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008, Erdoğan has been smiling at Europe all the way to the bank. If Turkey had been a member of the European Union it would have had to support — among others — Greece, and there is nothing the Turks want less than to support the Greeks.
For the sake of comparison: In Turkey the GNP per person is about $14,000 per year, while in Egypt it is less than half of that — about $6,000. The distribution in Egypt is much worse than in Turkey; that’s why there are millions of Egyptians who live on 2 dollars per day, while in Turkey the economic success pervades many strata of the population. True, there are pockets of poverty in Turkey as well, but they do not have the critical mass and they are not so severely impoverished — as in Egypt — to bring millions into the streets to demonstrate against the regime because of their poverty and hunger.
The demonstrations against Erdoğan stem from a sense among his opposition that he has crossed the line in Turkey too, on a number of matters.
The first matter is cultural. Turkey is an arena in the battle between Islamic tradition and the secular-nationalist heritage of Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk” (the father of the Turks) who founded modern Turkey after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. With his rise to power, toward the end of 1923, he imposed a secular nationalist agenda on the country, encouraged the drinking of alcohol and made “raki” the national drink, despite its being alcoholic. He did away with compulsory compliance with Islamic Shari’a, imposed on the Turks civil marriage and divorce, changed the written language from Arabic characters to Latin characters, closed madrassas, dismissed imams, forbade the wearing of turbans, encouraged women to walk in the streets without a head covering–like the women in Europe–and promoted the political and civil rights of women. His successor, President İsmet İnönü, continued in his path until 1950. Thus, for almost 30 years, the citizens of Turkey underwent a difficult “educational program” intended to strip them of “Islam” and garb them in a modern secularism that would be liberal in every way, except for its treatment of religion.
In parallel, the bazaar — the shuk –– developed as a result of several factors. These factors include economic stability, an air of “business first,” European markets and travelers who came in hordes to enjoy the pleasant climate, the inviting beaches and the “everything is included” service. The military, the parliament, the presidency and the high court all comprised a system that was expected to “adhere to the constitution,” meaning the secular aspect of the state.
This reeducation worked well in the cities, because there the regime had an effective presence, and the various branches of the regime could monitor the application of the anti-Islamic laws and principles. In the cities, a cultural elite developed that included people of the theater, authors, poets, journalists, politicians, lawyers and doctors, as well as economists and accountants, with an impressive representation of women among this modern, “European” elite. As is the way of the elite in the world demographically, this group has a low birth rate, mainly because women usually have plans in addition to being a wife and a mother.
The trend toward secularism was problematic in the villages, because there the regime had a small, even marginal footprint, and tradition remained the name of the game. The farther a village was from an urban center, the more traditional were its residents, and, as a result, the birth rate in the villages remains high. Thus, for 90 years–four generations–since Atatürk began the cultural revolution, the secular citizens have become a minority in Turkey and traditionalists have become the majority. This fact was expressed in parliament when Necmettin Erbakan’s religious “Welfare Party” won the elections in 1996. The secular sector did not accept their defeat and demanded the high court–a secular stronghold in those days–to outlaw the religious party. The court did so, and Erbakan was forced to quit in 1997.
About six years afterward, in 2003, Erbakan’s student, Erdoğan, assumed power after winning a majority in parliament with his “Justice and Development” Party. Most of the secular sectors were left out of the loop politically, and for Erdoğan and his friends it was a sort of revenge for the decades when the religious were sidelined and oppressed. Since the Islamic party rose to power it has made changes in the Turkish public arena: the Islamic courts were brought back to deal with matters of divorce, women were allowed to enter universities with head covering, and attempts were made to forbid abortions and the drinking of alcohol. Military officers were replaced with the Islamic regime’s faithful, and parallel changes were made in the high court following a referendum that called for such changes.
The secular sectors object to these pro-Islamic trends, and for the past 11 years they have been trying to stop the process by which Islam is gradually resuming the position it occupied before the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. The restless youth who burst into the streets a week ago carried banners that were red, the color of the Turkish nation; in contrast, the banners that the adherents of Islam carried in their demonstrations against the war in Iraq in 2003 were green. The red Nationalist versus the green Islamic, and in the struggle for dominion in the Turkish culture, color indicates your cultural identity.
The second matter that brought the demonstrators out into the streets was Erdoğan’s dictatorial behavior: in recent years he has sent almost a hundred journalists to prison because of their criticism of him. The government of Turkey, under his leadership, monitored what Turkish Internet users put on social networks, mostly Facebook and Twitter. The police take liberty in putting down demonstrations against Erdoğan ruthlessly and mercilessly, using gas mixed with water, and even rubber coated bullets that cause much pain–even though they’re not lethal. In recent demonstrations, one protester lost his eye as a result of being hit by a rubber coated bullet. Erdoğan’s crude and raucous style angers many, many Turks, who feel degraded by his arrogance.
The agreement that Erdoğan reached lately with the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, also angered many of those who see the Turkish nation and its rights as overriding principles. They see this agreement as a surrender to Kurdish terrorism, and from their point of view any surrender to the Kurds harms the Turkish character of the country.
Erdoğan’s foreign policy also gets a significant amount of criticism: his involvement in Syria has worsened the chaos there, and Turkey has lost out in Arab world markets where Syria served as a bridge to Turkey. The Syrian refugees in Turkey–approximately 200 thousand, possibly more–are a burden on the Turkish budget, and the tension on the border between Turkey and Syria does not contribute to the quiet necessary for economic prosperity. Many secular Turks view unfavorably Erdoğan’s support for the Syrian rebels, who identify with al-Qaeda, just as they object to his blatant sympathy with the Hamas movement in Gaza, and they accuse him of creating the Mavi Marmara affair. They do not agree with the Israeli response, which was, in their opinion, unreasonably brutal, but, in parallel, there are more than a few among them who think that the event began as an unjustified provocation by Erdoğan.
Erdoğan’s raucous style of speaking, the dismissive way he treats his political opposition, his attention to religious trappings and his activist foreign policy in the Middle East arouses concerns among his opposition that he is trying to restore the Ottoman Empire and become a modern-day sultan. These concerns have increased in the past two years as he began to transfer authority from the prime minister to the president, with the intention of being elected president in 2014, and having the authority to rule like the presidents of the United States, France and Brazil, who serve as executive heads of their countries.
The Taksim Events
The Taksim Quarter is in the heart of Istanbul and it is the stronghold of the modern nationalist state. At the center is Ğezi Park, with hundreds of ancient trees, among which Atatürk liked to stroll. Plans to improve the place include building a mosque and uprooting trees, which seemed to secular citizens like an Islamic blow to the symbols of secularism and Turkish nationalism. This blow was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the spark that ignited the secular public and sent it into the streets, to defend Taksim Square with their bodies, to defend the symbols of the nation, the culture, the arts, democracy and the right to speak out and voice criticism.
There are rumors that among those who stood to benefit from the changes in Taksim Square were two real estate agents who are personally close to Erdoğan. This kind of rumor creates the impression that the regime is corrupt, giving away national symbols to the prime minister’s cronies.
Erdoğan blames foreigners for stirring up the masses against him, and uses conspiracy theories in his defense. “Communists,” he calls them, and his spokesmen claim that those who are stirring up demonstrations are no more than a handful of people on the fringe, who belong to the radical Left. The Turkish media minimized their coverage of the events of last week so as not to give free publicity to the initiators of the demonstrations and so that the public would not be encouraged to join them. Erdoğan himself transmits a “business as usual” attitude–he went out this week on a tour of North African countries. He is also supposed to go to Gaza this month, in clear defiance of the president of the United States, whose Secretary of State John Kerry tried to dissuade him from going there.
As things appear now, the demonstrations do not endanger the government in Turkey, and don’t significantly damage Erdoğan’s image. There are analysts who claim that the demonstrations even strengthened his position among the religious groups, because they fear the resurgence of the secular and their return to power. Here I share with my readers what I heard myself, when I visited Turkey last summer and met with senior people from the ruling religious party. There were those among them who expressed considerable resentment regarding the crude style of the prime minister, his impulsiveness, the arrogant way he relates to anyone outside of his inner circle, and the raucousness that he has brought into the country’s political discourse. They also disagree with the way he relates to Israel. Some of them even claimed that they are embarrassed by him, but they have no choice but to support him, because he knows how to excite the masses; a different leader might be pale and unattractive and the result would be the return of the secularists to power.
Erdoğan will have to draw conclusions from the demonstrations even if they stop, because if he continues to behave as he has done so far, the demonstrations might continue and even intensify. If this happens, Turkey’s economy would pay a high price because of reduced tourism, since tourists don’t set foot in unstable countries (Look at Egypt, Tunisia and, of course, Syria).
It is reasonable to assume that in the near future Erdoğan will be more responsive to people from his party who disagree with his style of speaking and his micromanagement style. He may even free some of the jailed journalists. In the situation created following the demonstrations it will be difficult for him to continue with his changes to the constitution that are intended to strengthen the position of the president at the expense of the prime minister, because the public is more aware today than in the past of his ambition to amass power and perhaps become the sultan of the Neo-Ottoman Turkish Empire.
Can Erdoğan make a basic change to the country, to his behavior, to his personality? It is reasonable to assume that he cannot, and, therefore, in the future, the streets of Turkey will probably see more demonstrations, violence, wounded and killed, and each time the questions will arise: is Turkey really a democracy? Do the ruling elite know how to protect the civil rights of those who are not part of it? Doesn’t this country have more peaceful and orderly ways to influence the regime’s behavior through legitimate action?
It seems that more than a few years will pass before Turkey becomes an inseparable part of European culture, and by the time that happens, Europe will likely become an integral part of Islamic culture…
An Alternative Opinion
Those who research Islam have differences of opinion about whether there can be a nexus between the requirements of Islam and democratic values. Islam is divine law, while democracy is based on laws created by a legislative body. Divine law is permanent, while parliamentary law is relatively transitory. Islam determines punishments such as cutting off the hand of a thief while democracy tries to rehabilitate him. In Islam the state is the main mechanism for imposing the commandments of religion (Shari’a) while democracy prefers a separation of religion and state. In Islam the religious figure rules in the name of Allah (as in Iran) and democracy is led by a group of elected individuals in the name of the people.
Despite this, Turkey is an example that shows, especially after 2002, that there is a nexus between Islam and democracy, and the proof is Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party.
It could be that the events of the past week shatter the Turkish example too, because difficult questions do arise from them: Is the rage of the secular citizens directed against Erdoğan personally or against the Islamic culture that he represents? And if he is so democratic, why does his opposition equate him with Hitler and the Nazis? And why does he need to use such violent and undemocratic means to break up the demonstrations that should be allowed in a democracy? And perhaps all this “democracy” of his was only a means to take control of the state and then to impose Islam upon it? And if he puts journalists in prison because they criticized him, will he allow politicians to criticize him when it is time for the next elections?
All of these doubts are an expression of the fear that actually a nexus between Islam and democracy is not possible, and even the Turkish example worked for only a limited time period. Meanwhile, an Israeli has written a book on Turkey entitled “Demo-Islam” and it will be interesting to see if the theory will stand up to the test of reality.
Originally published at Israel and Terrorism.