Divided republic: A rebellion for Turkey’s soul

Sreeram Chaulia
Dr. Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India. His latest book is ‘Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India’s Prime Minister’.
Divided republic: A rebellion for Turkey’s soul
The battle between protesters and the Turkish government over the proposed demolition of Gezi Park may have subsided, but the war for Turkey’s soul, its form of democracy and its foreign policy is raging across the country’s urban centers.

Cycles of renewed demonstrations and spirited duels involving angry youth and tense police forces continue to keep the country’s major cities on the boil, and to sow doubts about the future direction of what was once hailed as a “global swing state” that would have a decisive impact on Middle Eastern and world politics.

A heavily polarized domestic political scene does not augur well for Turkey to formulate consensus on key policy questions.

Compounding the troubles is a plunge in the Turkish lira, mounting current account deficits and foreign debt, and a flight of capital. The much-touted Turkish “economic miracle” is under a cloud, threatening to deepen the social fissures which are already wide open.

Culture war for Turkish identity

What do the protesters want? I spoke to dozens of college students who are the kernel of the uprising against what they denounce as the “dictatorship” of the popularly-elected Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. I sensed that their demands hark back to the dual identity of Turkey as both a European and an Islamic nation. Some of them listed grievances such as restrictions on personal freedoms; the non-availability of alcohol after 10 pm; the ban on public displays of affection; the lifting of the constitutional ban on the hijab (the traditional Islamic headscarf for women); and the “advice” from Erdogan for Turkish women to have “at least three children.” My enraged interlocutors, who fall mostly in the late teens and early twenties demographic, insist that they have “no freedom in this country.”

A common refrain in the sloganeering that lights up the nights with political sparks and an air of confrontation between the youth and police in all Turkish cities is: “We are the soldiers of Mustafa.” Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the modern Turkish Republic, was a staunch secularist imbued in Western values who instituted the constitutional principle of secularism, and prevented the Turkish state from adopting Islam as the state religion. Most of the angst of the urbanites taking up cudgels against the current Islamist Turkish government stems from fears of Erdogan’s creeping “hidden agenda” to push the country towards a state-approved religious fundamentalist order.

Riot police fire tear gas at protesters during clashes in central Hatay, September 11, 2013. (Reuters / Umit Bektas)

But Erdogan’s supporters have a different take on the culture war. Their first counterpoint is that Turkey has an overwhelmingly Muslim population, which has been subject to deracination by Kemalist civilians and military rulers for decades. For those who decry Erdogan’s permission to overturn the longstanding ban on displaying the hijab in universities and government offices, the traditionalists retort that over 60 percent of Turkish women anyway adorn headscarves and they should be “free” to do so in campuses and public sector locations. Arguably, Turkey is relatively the freest Muslim majority country in the world in terms of personal liberties, and the defenders of Erdogan and his Islamist AKP party contend that the secularists are setting up a straw man by alleging that these historically inherited freedoms are in danger.

Many Turks I have interacted with on the streets detest the ongoing cycle of mass protests by their fellow citizens, and some accuse the protesters of carrying the banner of homosexuality. Prime Minister Erdogan has labeled gay people as “contrary to Islam” and some of his aides have labeled them as carriers of a “biological disorder and disease.” The conjunction between the environmental cause of preserving Gezi Park and the gay rights movement in recent months has drawn ridicule from traditionalist Turks that the park is a “haven for gay couples to consort” and that “immoral acts” should not be tolerated.

The back-and-forth between the secularists and the Islamists has a no-quarter-given quality to it, with little possibility of any midway compromise. This goes to the root of the problem besieging Turkey, which has long nursed ambitions of joining the European Union but is also experiencing a revival of Islamic sentiments based on socially conservative ideals.

With elections scheduled in 2014, Prime Minister Erdogan is unable to relax his foot on the Islamism accelerator owing to fear of losing his traditional base within the AKP party, and that half of the electorate which is pious and expects him to uphold the conservative banner. The great success story of Turkey as a resolver of the dilemma between Islam and Western-style liberal democracy is thus being torn apart as the crisis unfolds.

‘Democracy with Turkish characteristics’

I asked organizers of the protests in Istanbul how they could claim to be fighting for democracy when Erdogan’s AKP party had won convincing majorities in three successive elections since 2002. The protest brigade responds with theories that cast doubts on the fairness of the election results as well as the political maturity of voters in rural Turkey, which is the traditionalist stronghold of Erdogan.

With undisguised contempt, many protest leaders say that vote-buying through AKP inducements is rampant in the politically sleepier Anatolian periphery, and that the patronage networks of AKP politicians ensures thumping majorities in elections by capitalizing on the “ignorance” of the masses. One Kurdish youth, who is active in mobilizing demonstrations in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul, even came up with an estimate of “a maximum of 35 percent of Turks who genuinely believe in the Islamist ideology out of conviction.” The rest of the AKP’s support base, he claimed, were gullible peasants who can be wheedled into voting for it through petty sops.

If sections of the protest movement sound Bohemian and elitist, there is also a leftwing strand among the opposition parties which leads loud group chanting in public squares for Erdogan’s resignation. The social-democratic Republican Peoples Party (CHP), which won 26 percent of the votes in the last election, and the smaller Communist Party of Turkey (TKP), are often vocal in the street tussles with the police, while their banners are prominent there, too. The occasional Che Guevara red flags are in plain sight.

A protestor throws back a gas canister on September 12, 2013 at Kadikoy in Istanbul. (AFP Photo / Bulent Kilic)

These progressives articulate more of an economic critique of the Turkish government’s path rather than its assault on personal freedoms. The high level of inflation, the awarding of lucrative construction contracts to government crony capitalists, and nearly double-digit unemployment are issues that are intermeshed with the disenchantment that started over Gezi Park but has metastasized into something wider. Here, Turkey is no different from other emerging market economies (EMEs), which underwent breakneck economic growth until recently, but incurred costs like rising inequalities and failing social safety nets.

Each of the different sections of the protest movement in Turkey has its own hobby horses and respective leaderships. The absence of a unifying theme or leader (most unaffiliated student demonstrators dismiss the CHP’s Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as “uninspiring”) and the somewhat different conceptions of democratization mean that Prime Minister Erdogan is still the most prominent, recognizable public figure in the country. The fact that he tamed the historically interventionist Turkish military is acknowledged even by those who attack his “authoritarian” tendencies.

Erdogan has become easily the country’s most revered, yet most controversial politician since Ataturk. His determined effort to shift the civilian-military balance of power in favor of the politicians and away from the generals, as well as the growth of the middle class that his early economic reforms engendered, are ironically the propellers of the vast civilian space in which the present anti-government agitation is flourishing.

The “democracy with Turkish characteristics” that Erdogan has shepherded created the openings for a fearless generation of youth who want more civil liberties. Here, the perception that the prime minister is a “victim of his own success” rings true. Some interpret this as meaning that Erdogan lost his sense of limits on authority and allowed electoral success to get to his head. Either way, there are no sparks of revolt without the prior underlying structural transformation – for which all credit goes to Erdogan. 

Sparring over Syria

Although foreign policy debates are limited to the intelligentsia and think tanks in Turkey, the anti-government rallies also contain critics of Erdogan’s unabashed backing of Sunni rebels waging a relentless war to unseat President Bashar Assad in neighboring Syria. Asking anti-Erdogan protesters about Syria, I found that they had little sympathy for the rebels there. Some of them accused the AKP of arming and financing the Free Syrian Army as a “payment to its American masters.” The way in which Washington has adjusted its stance in the Middle East since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt by embracing elected Islamists such as ex-President Mohamed Morsi and Erdogan is understood by more perceptive Turks, however.

I asked the protesters about the refugee inflow into Turkey and the atrocities occurring in the Syrian war, and whether this justifies the AKP’s backing of the anti-Assad rebels. Their response was that Erdogan was selective in denouncing war crimes and crimes against humanity. When the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein was massacring civilians in Iraq, for instance, Erdogan did not denounce it, even though he is now taking “a stand for human rights” against the Alawite Shiite regime of Assad.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.(AFP Photo / Vladimir Astapkovich)

Some protest movement members argue that Turkey is “no longer independent from America.” During the first few years of Erdogan’s tenure, Turkey had set about distancing itself from Washington and formulated its own autonomous blueprint for regional influence through the so-called “Davutoglu Doctrine.” But the war in Syria has brought back Turkey’s older self-image as a NATO member and ally of the West, which sides with America’s regional junior partners such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The protest movement in Turkey includes members of different ethnic minority communities, such as the Kurds (approximately 13 percent of Turkey’s population) and the Alevis (10 percent of the population). Their presence within the opposition has strengthened its rejection of Erdogan’s enthusiastic support for an American military attack on Syria. In their reckoning, the Turkish government is “playing into the hands of the US, which wants to establish control over the Levant region.”

Protest leaders in unison prefer a non-military solution to the Syrian war and warn that fanning Sunni fundamentalism in Syria will boomerang on Turkey’s secularists, who are trying to beat back advancing Islamism at home. 

Imbalanced ‘middle power’

Contradictions abound in Turkish foreign policy. While Ankara may be on the same side as the West on Syria, there is also the “neo-Ottoman” inclination to carve out a distinct Turkish sphere in the former Arab colonies of the Middle East. Ankara is the main staging ground for the Western agenda of toppling Assad, but the AKP has also taken a regional lead in opposing Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The question may have to be rephrased, from “On whose behalf is Turkey acting in world affairs?” to “What is Turkey’s role in the international system?”

I posed the second question to Mitat Celikpala, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s leading Kadir Has University. He responded that Turkey was “a middle power that has lost its balance.” As a medium-sized world power, Turkey cannot singlehandedly change either the regional or the global order. But it enjoyed a special attraction and soft power in the Middle East by virtue of its “European self” that set it apart from its Arab neighbors. Erdogan, says Celikpala, has diminished Turkey’s unique pulling power in the region through his Islamist governance, which negates his country’s status as a free space for Arabs experiencing violence and extremism in their home nations.

A Patriot missile launcher system is pictured at a Turkish military base in Gaziantep on February 5, 2013.(AFP Photo / Bulent Kilic)

The era when the Arab world could look up to Turkey with admiration is thus gone. Turkey’s geographical location and direct intervention in the Syrian war will keep its reputation as a “haven” for refugees, but the sectarian “Sunni mindset” which permeates Erdogan’s vision of the Middle East has damaged Turkey’s quest to assert an economic and cultural variant of neo-Ottomanism. 

Endless cat-and-mouse game

My firsthand observation of encounters between police and protesters suggests that the anti-government agitators are growing in skill at urban guerilla tactics. The manner in which they provocatively taunt the police on the main boulevards, like Istanbul’s Istiqlal Avenue, then vanish into the stone-paved undulating alleyways and side roads, and regroup in an unexpected corner to strew bricks on road to stymy the armored vehicles of the security forces, reveals remarkable agility.

The resilience of the rebellion is etched in the narrow alleyways of urban Turkey, where one finds ubiquitous spray-painted slogans like “Police killed Ahmet” (a reference to Ahmet Atakan, a 22-year-old protester who was recently found dead in the city of Antakya, bordering Syria). The state’s harsh response to the agitation has in itself become a rallying cry triggering fresh protests, producing cyclical disturbances that could become the new normal.

Turks who have decided that they will keep protesting until Erdogan goes are becoming inured to the choking tear gas and water cannons aimed at them to sanitize tourist areas. Every demonstrator I met, while huddling for safety behind shop shutters or concrete pillars as the police tried to retake the streets, said she or he was not afraid.

Mass mobilization and self-belief could dwindle as the euphoria of the Taksim Square agitation fades with time, but Turkish politics is at a historic inflection point. The misguided “children” and “terrorists” whom Erdogan has chastized are hunkering down for a long, nonviolent struggle to reshape the destiny of what used to be a role model in the Middle East. The consensus between Occident and Orient, which underlies Turkey’s legend as a crossroad of civilizations, is on the line.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.