Mount Turkey has erupted, they say. Turks have had enough, so it goes. Down with the Dictator, down with fascism! At last, the Turkish people (and the Kurds, and the Laz, and the Armenians, and the Greeks, and all the other neglected minorities in Turkey) have taken a stand against the tentacles of backward Islamization.
This alarming but unsurprisingly simplistic us-versus-them narrative, as epitomized by the American magazine, the Atlantic (whose self-effacing articles include Protests Show Turks Can’t Tolerate Erdogan Anymore and 4 Jarring Signs of Turkey’s Growing Islamization) is being seized upon by many a social networker and adding extremely revisionist, ignorant fuel to what is an extremely complex fire.
Having spent the best part of a year living in Istanbul I saw, heard, and felt first hand the fault lines in Turkish society, which are far from reflected in these reductionist polemics.
These divisions, which are superficially marked by extreme positions, are also quite nuanced. On the one side, there are those who see Erdogan as a strong and committed reformer, while, on the other side, there are those who believe he is covertly engineering an Islamist takeover.
At the same time, there are many in Turkey who sit in the middle, and sympathize with both sides of this political construct. As is usually the case, these moderates do not feel the need to foist their opinions on anyone and quietly listen to and absorb different perspectives in developing their own views.
I feel inclined to take a leaf out of their book to promote a bit of moderation, and to reject the us v them narrative that is taking hold inside Turkey and feeding coverage of the protests in the international media.
On Friday, May 31, as the protests really began to take off, I was proud to see people standing up to defend Gezi Park, not only because I used to eat my breakfast there, but also because it imposed some frankly overdue checks on the ruling AKP government and reaffirmed the need for government-to-people dialogue.
Peaceful demonstration, a free media (sadly, lacking in this case), and criticism of the government are essential release valves for any society. In responding to the police violence, Istanbolis largely maintained the peaceful nature of their protest, uniting to reject the government’s vile and disproportionate use of force.
Unfortunately, as I flicked through Twitter, my delight at these developments began to ebb, replaced by a nagging feeling of dismay.
The protests seemed to be evolving into something different. While still embracing their original, honorable message of ‘you cannot do as you please’, the movement was becoming a vehicle for an anti-Erdogan agenda that had existed in the country well before the protests began.
This agenda has been on the rise since AKP came to office in 2002. It is embraced not only by ultra nationalists and other smaller, more militant groups, but also by a large number of so-called liberals who have always felt deeply uncomfortable with the prospect of a religious-leaning government. Until relatively recently, the Turkish armed forces were also firmly entrenched in this camp (although for the time being, have remained silent about the protests).
If unchecked, this divisive agenda will cost the movement its chance for success and potentially plunge the country into deep crisis.
Let us put aside, for the time being, the huge economic growth, the inroads with the Kurds and Armenians, and until recently, the successes abroad. Erdogan has enormous levels of support inside his country, far more than any Western leader. It would be mistaken, as such, to believe that a majority within Turkey wishes to see him go.
The success of Occupy Gezi depends directly upon the number of people who buy into its message, itself dependent on broad appeal. To succeed, Occupy Gezi must be what Erdogan is increasingly not: inclusive.
By promoting exclusivist positions, the movement alienates AKP, whereas by behaving in an inclusive manner, it reasons with and appeases the party’s supporters. For these reasons, any desire to label Erdogan and the AKP government as fascist and dictatorial, and to call for their ouster, should be avoided. Such partisan ideas have no effect other than further exacerbating the us v them divide.
Unfortunately, this partisan-style of thinking has strong roots in Turkish political culture. Since the founding of the Turkish Republic, and even before, there has been a seemingly constant friction between East and West, and Islam and secularism.
These extremes, while not reflected in the general Turkish population, have expressed themselves in authoritarian ways in the political realm. Instead of attempting to reconcile these two images of Turkey, it has been the policy of those in power to project their image and values at the expense of the powerless.
Although it is the first Islamic party to lead the government since the country’s establishment, the AKP’s tenure has neatly reflected and fallen into this pattern. Like previous government’s, the AKP has expressed its partisanship both through social legislation, which infringes on people’s private lifestyle choices, and attacks upon freedom of expression.
Before Erdogan’s rise to power, state-sponsored social restrictions took the form of laws limiting religious freedom, including prohibitions against the wearing of the hijab in schools. While the AKP government has lifted the ban on hijab, it has put other restrictions into place. These include new laws limiting alcohol consumption, restrictions on the right to abortion, a large increase in police presence and surveillance, as well as other more indirect forms of social pressure and control.
Erdogan has also continued the country’s notorious policies against press freedom. Currently, Turkey has more journalists in jail than any other country. This state-fueled attack on journalism has led to self-censorship within the Turkish press with less and less people trusting the media as a reliable source of information.
This turn toward authoritarianism is also a very Turkish phenomenon. Throughout the country’s history, different leaders have come and gone, generally following a similar process.
In most cases, these leaders have been democratically elected to power as populist candidates and have initially enjoyed great success. They have, however, gradually slid into authoritarianism, which has usually resulted in a military coup to oust them from power, ending in their death or exile. A military government has then taken their place until a new candidate is democratically elected and so on.
This historical trajectory was reflected in the tenure of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes in the 1950s, Suleyman Demirel in the late 1960s, Bulent Ecevit in the 1970s, and Necmettin Erbakan in the 1990s.
What can we understand from all this? The warning signs for Tayyip Erdogan appear clear. Censoring of the media? Check. Tightening of personal freedoms? Check. Increasingly heavy-handed response to criticism? Check and check.
More importantly, however, what this historical pattern shows is that Erdogan’s behavior is not an isolated case of an ‘Islamic takeover,’ but rather the repetition of an all too familiar historical process in Turkey.
This, in essence, is what the protests are about. Or at least that is what they should be about. Unfortunately, amid voices calling for personal autonomy and freedom, Occupy Gezi is gradually being co-opted by those demanding the overthrow of a democratically elected and deeply popular government.
This leads to questions as to what Occupy Gezi should be focused on. To avoid splitting the country irrevocably, the movement must frame its message as pro-lifestyle, rather than anti-government. Only then can it enjoy the popular legitimacy it needs to succeed.
While Occupy Gezi must reassess its message, the AKP government, and Erdogan in particular, must understand, and quickly, that there are many in the country who lead very different lifestyles from the one the party may itself prefer.
Ironically, the AKP does not seem to have grasped the importance of this reality. Democracy does not equate to a tyranny of the majority, rather it is about how the minority is accommodated. Rather than blaming ‘extremists’ and social media for these protests, Erdogan must accept that there is something rotten in his administration.
Hopefully, this scenario will not come to pass, although the Prime Minister’s personality seems to suggest otherwise. Tayyip Erdogan has many strengths as a politician, but amenability and admitting failures do not appear to be among them. He may continue on as he has so far, stubbornly sticking to his own policies and point of view.
In response, some protesters may possible harden their positions, and continue their calls for his resignation. The country’s political center will dry up and Turkey, having taken so many strides forward in the past decades, politically, economically, and socially, may return to the former days of repression, and us v them mentality.
Each side must step back from the abyss, and break this divisiveness. Each side has a duty to accept the other, to realize that while there are many Turks, there is but one Turkey. Only then can the Turkish people live together as one nation and prevent a slide into the past.