It all began on 31 May, 2013, when a group of environmentalists had gathered in Istanbul to voice their opposition to building of a military barracks and a shopping mall on Gezi Park near Taksim Square in Istanbul city square. The police acted violently “against protestors who had been sitting reading books and singing songs,” as reported by the Guardian. From that day on until Monday, 17 June, demonstrations have continued and spread to Ankara, Izmir, and other major cities. Now Prime Minister Erdogan is threatening to use the army for quelling the spreading riots.
Thanks to the French online daily Le Monde, a detailed account about the “mosaic of the opposition groups in Turkey” was posted on 4 June, 2013. The following is a digest of the report, followed by my analysis and comments.
The first group is the Alewis who belong to a religious minority in Anatolia, (Eastern Turkey). It is an off-shoot of a Shi’ite Islamic sect, known for being heterodox and liberal; they number between 10 and 15 million adherents. Beginning in 31 May, they descended massively into the streets of Istanbul, and the following day, in Ankara, Izmir, Tunceli, and Mersin. Due to their peculiar cultural practices such as not participating in pilgrimage to Mecca, nor fasting in Ramadan, and not abiding by the rules of Halal food, place them in a rather delicate situation vis-à-vis the Turkish State. The Alewis consider themselves as victims of discrimination. Their fear of an Islamist government in power is anchored in Turkey’s history. They were severely persecuted during the 16th century; they suffered massacres in 1937 and 1978. In 1993, thirty- seven Alewi intellectuals, who had gathered at a hotel in Sivas, died in a fire that engulfed the place, believed to have been caused by arsonists. This incident has become an integral part of the collective memory of Alewis.
The second group is the Kemalists. They maintain a deep reverence for the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic in 1923. They consider these demonstrations against the regime as a payback for the policies of the AKP (the party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.) In 2007, they demonstrated in Istanbul and Ankara against the nomination of an “Islamist” candidate for the position of president of the republic. The Kemalists consider themselves the “guardians” of the secular values; usually they vote for candidates of the CHP (People’s Republican Party), known in Turkish as Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, which was founded by Ataturk. They live primarily in Istanbul, Ankara and the Aegean region.
The third group is the Extreme Left. They are several splinter groups that originated from the old Turkish Communist Party. They regard the Erdogan government just as repressive as the former the military regimes.
The fourth group belongs to the circle of Artists. While they tend to be less politicized, they have participated quite early in the demonstrations. They are environmentally conscious, and have been very critical of Erdogan who served as Mayor of Istanbul between 1994 and 1998. He is held responsible for such projects as a third bridge on the Bosphorus, the changes at Taksim Square, and the destruction of Gezi Park.
A fifth group is the youth. The academic year is scheduled to end on 8 June for the university students. On Monday, the 3rd of June, they joined en masse the demonstrations having been harshly treated by the government when it had recently arrested several of their fellow-students. The police had recently assumed responsibility for keeping order on the university campuses. Furthermore, the government was considering the building of mosques within the universities, a move that doesn’t please the majority of the students. It is estimated that about 50% of the 75 million people in Turkey are less than 30 years old. They are demonstrating because they consider that neither the ruling AKP, nor the totally fossilized opposition, represents them!
Finally the sixth group consists of the Confederation of Labor Unions who announced a 48-hour strike in order to “denounce” the police’s terror unleashed against the demonstrators, and“the fascism of the AKP” Another labor organization, the “Confederation of Revolutionary Workers of Turkey” joined also in the protests against the government.
The demonstrations across major cities of Turkey against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan prove that notwithstanding his economic policies that contributed to the rise of per capita income since 2002, several segments of the population, especially the youth, don’t like his policy to gradually re-Islamize Turkish society. Attempt of the authorities to change Gezi Park brought crowds to Taksim Square, where they registered their strong disapproval of any attempt to stifle free speech and the freedom of peaceful assembly. The brutal attack of the police was totally unjustified. That manifested the slide into a dictatorial regime, which may end up as being more repressive than the military regimes that had marked the history of the Turkish Republic since its inception.
As mentioned in my opening paragraph, the demonstrations in Istanbul and Ankara are still going on, with the government now threatening to call in the army to enforce the decision of the government. This may surprise some people in the West. Why is Prime Minister Erdogan unwilling to engage in an open dialogue with the protesters? However, quite early in his career as prime minister, there were clear indications that he was not going to be a democratic leader of Turkey.
Back in 2006, when he had been in power for four years, there were clear signs that Erdogan was planning the elimination of the legacy of Turkish secularism in all aspects of Turkish society. This brings me to an article I had posted on the FFI website seven years ago (2 April, 2006), where I pointed to Islam’s incompatibility with Western civilization. The title of the article was: “Turkey: A Case Study in the Impossibility to Permanently Secularize Islam.”
Here are some pertinent sections of the article that may help us understand the authoritarian and uncompromising attitude of a “democratic” Turkish Prime Minister’s vis-à-vis his opponents’ demonstrations:
“On 22 March, 2006, the Italian online magazine, Chiesa gave a much-needed exposition of the nature of Turkish secularism:
“[…] in fact, Turkish secularism has little in common with the liberal, Enlightenment-inspired doctrine of the so-called separation between Church and state in the public arena. In Islam, whether fundamentalist or radical or moderate, there is no distinction between the religious and the political arena; the two realities interpenetrate each other. [...] In the Christian world, on the contrary, there are two powers, that of God and that of Caesar; these can be associated or separate, they can be in harmony or in conflict, as has often been the case in history – but they are always two powers, distinct from each other and autonomous in their respective areas of competence.”
“But Turkish Islam, expelled from the public sphere, survives and prospers in civil society: in the numerous Sufi confraternities and in the pro-Islamic political movements that have emerged in recent decades. This complex Islamic movement includes various tendencies within itself, both the fundamentalist tendency inspired by the radical movements present in almost all the Islamic countries that preach jihad against the “atheist and corrupt” West and want Shari’a to be the law of the state, and the moderate tendency that is eager for dialogue with modernity and interested in forming friendly relationships with the Western world. [...]”
“Four days prior to the appearance of the Chiesa article, the Wall Street Journal published an interview with Mr. Erdogan. The title of the article was: After Ataturk: Talking Turkey with Ankara’s Islamist prime minister... It was conducted by Robert L. Pollock, a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.
“After exchanging some pleasantries, Mr. Erdogan remarked about a Turkish movie, “Valley of the Wolves – Iraq” that Mr. Pollock had seen, and said, “They might ban you from re-entering the United States.”
“When the interviewer asked the Prime Minister whether he had seen the film, he did not answer directly but asked in return: ‘What did you think of the movie?” “To which I replied that it made me sad. While there are many things one might criticize about U.S. policy in Iraq the suggestion that U.S. troops are murdering and dismembering Iraqis to facilitate a Jewish organ-selling scheme isn’t one of them.”
“As one who has mastered the art of evasion, Prime Minister Erdogan retorted that Mr. Pollock himself had written an article in the Wall Street Journal that made him sad, because it was not based on facts!
“Actually, the opposite was true. Mr. Pollock’s article dealt with a wave of ‘anti-American madness.’ There were headlines in Turkish newspapers ‘calling U.S. soldiers, Murderer Johnny’ and newspaper articles describing imagined atrocities such as the use of chemical weapons–and, yes, organ theft—“committed against civilians in Iraq. And rather than express his disapproval of such reports, the Prime Minister went on a tangent, by claiming that ‘These kinds of things happen in the world. If it’s not happening in Iraq, then it’s happening in other countries.’ And when cornered to be more explicit, he weaseled out of his spot: ‘I’m not saying they are being killed. . . . There are people in poverty who use this as a means to get money.’
Reflecting on this interview, Mr. Pollock ended with these words:
“Ever since Mr. Erdogan’s Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party swept to power on 35% of the vote in 2002 elections (amazingly, only one other party passed the 10% threshold for parliamentary representation), people have questioned whether his smooth manner wasn’t cover for a more radical agenda to fundamentally change the secular character of the Turkish Republic established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
“No, if there is any cause for concern here, it would be the undeniable fact that Turkey’s first successful overtly Islamic prime minister has cultural and foreign policy compasses different from those of earlier Turkish leaders, who have inclined steadily toward the West. I sense a deeper estrangement at work than mere disagreement over Iraq, and whether or not to use force to remove roadblocks to democracy in the Middle East. ‘When we took office there was a Turkey which was not having talks with its neighbors. Now Turkey is having a dialogue with all of them. That’s why we don’t want any bombs to fall anymore in our region’ Mr. Erdogan says.” [End of quotes from the WSJ]
“I fully share the concerns of Mr. Pollock regarding Turkey’s future relations with the West under the leadership of an Islamist Prime minister who has mastered the art of Kitman (Concealment). I have no doubt that Mr. Erdogan imagined that his duplicitous style would persuade a representative of the WSJ, that nothing was to be feared about the future course of Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies.
“When I look back at the tumultuous events that followed the end of the Great War (WWI) and taking into account the tenacity of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk as he sought to modernize his country, I can understand how his efforts were initially successful. As a brilliant military leader he did his utmost to modernize Turkey according to his deep-seated secular worldview. However, he underestimated the strong allegiance that most of the Turks of Anatolia held for Islam. Thus, gradually Ataturk’s legacy was being undermined by the resurgence of Islamic political parties after decades of economic and political upheavals. The Islamists took advantage of the outward and structural aspects of democracy, and “legally” gained power. But from that point on, the chipping away at Kemalism, as Ataturk’s legacy is known, continued. Nothing can stop it, as far as I can see. In the rural areas of Turkey, the population is increasing at a faster rate than in the metropolitan areas of Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, and other cities near the Mediterranean. This indicates that the Islamists have a greater pool of voters coming from committed true believers who dream of reviving the glories of the Ottoman past.
“Even when the Kemalists ruled Turkey, their secular ideology was never similar to the Western European kind that tolerated pluralism and true democracy. Ataturk’s regime had no use for non-Turks living within the republic, and did his best to expel them as happened to the Greek population of Smyrna (Izmir.) Most Christians that had lived for centuries within the heartland of the Ottoman Empire eventually immigrated either to nearby countries in the Middle East, or to the Americas. In other words, the Turkish Republic, as created by Ataturk was never a genuine democracy. And yet its leaders keep knocking at the door of the European Union seeking full membership! One wonders what would become of the European Union should seventy-million Turks, under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, become full citizens of this Union!”
I have no idea how the present crisis in Turkey would end. But I must confess that Mr. Erdogan, who has managed to clip the wings of the Generals and eliminated them as the guardians of the Kemalist legacy, will ultimately overcome the challenge coming from the disparate groups of the “Turkish Spring” and continue in his course to re-Islamize all aspects of Turkish society. I just checked the latest news about Turkey, it’s not encouraging at all about the future of democracy. This is the headline I read on the online Wall Street Journal, (Monday afternoon, 17 June): “ISTANBUL—Turkey’s fractured opposition has been unable to capitalize much on the biggest outpouring of public anger in decades, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has exploited their divisions to strengthen his personal standing over the three weeks of street protests.”