What’s Happening in Turkey?

Thousands Gather To Protest Against Presidential Candidate

By Ian Howarth

The Wests favourite Middle Eastern government is being rocked by massive civil protests that some, (not including the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan) are calling Turkey’s ‘Arab Spring’.  But hang on a minute the Arab Spring was a phenomenon of oppressive corrupt Arab dictatorships, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria are not in the same category as democratic and free Turkey, which furthermore is not an Arab country but a Turkish one.

Well that may well be true, and it probably is wrong to place the events currently unfolding in Turkey into the same category as those which unfolded and continue to do so across the Arab world.  However, something significant is happening in Turkey which is at least potentially revolutionary.  Let us take a step back and just consider Turkey’s particular circumstances.  It is a democratic state and has been through several changes of government at the ballot box rather than through the insistence of the military.  This later point is significant because what in past years was seen as the role of the military to protect the secular ideals of Kemal Atatürk’s Turkish Republic would appear to have devolved to the people stood in the streets of Istanbul tonight.

In 1923 out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and the disaster of the First World War modern Turkey’s founding father Kamal Atatürk declared a secular republic and for the better part of the next 40 years it was run as a one party state under this principle. In the years since 1945 when this effectively ended the country has had a turbulent relationship with multiparty democracy largely as a result of the continued interventions of the military under the guise of protecting the secular constitution established by Ataturk.

The election of Recep Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 was a key moment in Turkish history. It marked the first time since the establishment of the Republic that a publicly avowed Islamic political party was allowed to govern. This is especially significant when one recalls that as recently as 1997 Turkey was subject to a military coup over the very issue of the maintenance of a secular Turkish Republic.    In its early days the AKP was careful to repeat its promises of respect for the constitution and drew a clear line between its Muslim beliefs and its opinions on issues of morality and public life and the responsibilities it held as the governing party of the Turkish Republic.

It has won three terms in open and free elections and yet with this popular success has come an increasing blurring of lines between government and religious beliefs.  Recent ‘changes in legislation have included the ‘prohibition [of] retail sales between 10pm and 6am, a ban on all alcohol advertising and promotion, and will stop new shops and bars from opening within 100m of schools and mosques.’ (The Guardian, 31/05/2013).  Furthermore, the government has been involved in the funding and construction of 17,000 new mosques in the country and the religion of the majority of Turks is far more visible in the streets and public life than at anytime since the founding of the Republic.  It is clear that many in the AKP have a view of Turkey’s future as an Islamic state, which is very different from the secular Muslim state that it officially is today.

What we are seeing on the streets of Istanbul is a clash between a middle class urban vision of modern Turkey and the conservative and Muslim attitudes of the AKP Party and its supporters chiefly beyond the cities.  One vision of Turkey see’s Istanbul and urban life as no different from that of New York or London while the other wants to see the gradual curbing of perceived western excesses and a return to Islamic traditions in public life.

The danger in this confrontation is two-fold.  First the protesters who I am very much in support of are in danger of being characterised as an urban elite out of touch with the rest of their country and if this view is successful then the protesters in Istanbul and the other urban centres of Turkey could become isolated and detached much as the radicals of the 1871 Paris Commune did.  This would bring about the second danger in that consequences of this would probably be a speedy victory for the conservative forces in the government and then a faster pace towards the road of a more explicitly Islamic Turkey.   I feel that this would probably mean a less free and less open country, as Islamic law and pluralism are incompatible and so it would almost certainly become a permanent block on the country ever joining the European Union. It is worth just adding here that the current block on membership placed by France and Germany has only gone to assist the move away from secular republicanism.

If the protesters are to succeed in their basic demands for a preservation of Turkey’s secular state let alone the resignation of the Prime Minister they need to link with a wider movement in the country.  Namely the working classes and the people beyond the cities who are also concerned at the heavy handed police response that has seen two fatalities in as many days; and arguably was the trigger that turned a peaceful protest against a city park development into a national anti-government movement.  If the worries and concerns of these people can find common cause with those manning the barricades of Istanbul then there is a chance that a secular plural Turkey can be preserved.  I hope that this will be the case as otherwise we will see a significant and tragic reduction in the sphere of human liberty.