Turkey’s Secular Awakening

The protests across Istanbul aren’t about Islamism, the elite, or even religion writ large -- they're a call for a real liberal democracy.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

The protests that have been convulsing the center of Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the last several days are more than the comeuppance of its intolerably high-handed prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both the diversity of the protesters and the nature of their grievances show that Turkey has become a much more liberal society over the decade the ruling AK Party (AKP) has been in power. Turkey has a democracy — now protestors are demanding a liberal democracy.

Turkey has witnessed big demonstrations before, of course — but they’ve always been staged by a single group, defined by either ethnicity or ideology. This is the first time that people from all walks of life have joined forces to constrain the power of their country’s leaders.

The changes occurring in Turkey are evident in its new, up-and-coming middle class, whose members have formed the core of the protest movement. A friend of mine — let’s call him Mehmet — works near Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the center of the demonstrations. Mehmet had always been a pretty typical yuppie, more interested in wine-tasting than politics. But since the demonstrations erupted, he has been consumed by them and vows to carry on until Erdogan backs down. Another friend, who teaches at a private college in the coastal city of Izmir, says his best students, all from conservative, prosperous families, were exhausted from their nightly clashes with police. He tells me that taxi drivers and shopkeepers who hail from the Black Sea, like Erdogan’s family, have told him they voted for the AKP but have been turned into the party’s enemies by the brutality of the police and the prime minister’s contemptuous rhetoric. 

Those who have opposed the AKP since it won power in 2000 have always believed that Erdogan and his cohorts are thinly disguised Islamists, intent on using the mechanisms of democracy to impose their values on the rest of the country. Their fears have been bolstered in recent days, as the government has seemingly tried to force them to conform to its religiously inspired conservatism — most notably through a new raft of laws regulating alcohol. However, the problem with the AKP has never been that it’s Islamist — but that, much like every other party that’s ruled Turkey, it’s illiberal.

Erdogan has become a caricature of this illiberal style. He has opined that if people want to drink, they should drink ayran, a traditional yogurt drink. He has spoken about building a canal through Istanbul to replace the Bosphorus Strait as a shipping channel, which even he describes as his "crazy project," as if only to underscore that no scheme is beyond his power. More ominously, a record number of journalists have been imprisoned under his watch. He has blamed the current protests on drunks, extremists, and foreign agents. Such behavior has helped the protesters to clarify what it is they actually want — which is for the power conferred by Erdogan’s undeniable electoral mandate to be constrained, as it would be in a liberal democracy.

Turkish governments have always been happy to dictate how to behave in areas that liberal political cultures would regard as off-limits to state intrusion. The state’s predilection for intruding into people’s private affairs reflects the illiberalism of the wider society. Despite pockets of social liberty, until recently Turkey has remained what political anthropologists have called a "segmentary" society — individuals are expected to rigidly conform to the mores of their group, while other members of the group are happy to intrude into others’ lives to enforce those norms.

When I first moved to Istanbul in 1998, manifestations of this group-oriented conformism were ubiquitous. Though the state has licensed the production of alcoholic drinks since the founding of the Republic, 83 percent of all Turks today are still teetotallers — a vivid measure of Turkey’s cultural distance from Europe. Before the economic growth of the past decade, both credit to buy an apartment or launch a business were in short supply. For almost all Turks, the only way to get access to either was through family connections or by supporting a powerful political party. This fact of life required people to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid offending their prospective patrons.

From my experience, many Turks manage inevitable differences of opinion with their elders through what might politely be termed prevarication. This tendency, beginning in childhood, has long retarded the competition of ideas at the heart of liberal political cultures.

The cumulative effect of such conflict avoidance is that many Turks have not experienced the constructive potential of conflict that plays out within civil bounds. In Turkey’s political life, the lack of experience with constructive, civil conflict takes a number of reactionary forms: Party leaders assume a paternalistic posture toward their supporters, who reciprocate with a loyalty that survives even humiliating electoral defeats. Turks have traditionally displayed an easy tolerance of state restrictions on civil liberties, and share their leaders’ inability to consider political compromise or admit misdeeds, such as the Armenian genocide.

But things are changing in Turkey. These days, signs of growing liberalism are everywhere: Ten years ago, I was struck by how rarely anyone on the buses or trains were reading. Even fairly decent hotels often didn’t have a reading light next to the bed. In the years the AKP has been in power, book sales in Turkey have tripled. Much of this boom comes from educational books, thanks to the flourishing economy and the funds invested in schools. An unprecedented number of young Turk are now reading novels, which both reflects and nourishes curiosity about the world beyond their own social environment.

Years of fairly steady economic growth under the AKP have vastly expanded opportunities to make a good life without depending on any patronage network — a form of autonomy that seems to be a precondition for individual liberty.

My friend Mehmet exemplifies the liberated Turk. He grew up in a pokey concrete apartment in a small city in central Anatolia. His father, a former butcher whose only formal education was in a school for prayer leaders, taught him to calm animals before slitting their throats for the annual ritual sacrifice of bayram. He won a scholarship to study tourism in Istanbul, learned English, and now supports his passion for travel and wine with a senior marketing job in a German company. Mehmet has never been much interested in politics, but he has made his own luck in the world and he’ll be damned if he’s going to sit by quietly while the prime minister and his friends contrive new ways to inflict their values on him and his beloved city.

Turks like Mehmet expect to be treated with respect — and that includes being consulted on matters that directly affect their daily lives. Such consultation has been entirely absent from the project to bulldoze Gezi Park outside Mehmet’s office, and replace it with a faux-Ottoman shopping mall.

President Abdullah Gul — a gentler, more sophisticated man than Erdogan and the obvious alternative to lead the AKP — has said the government needs to listen to the people. "The message has been taken," Gul told the protesters, in a statement imploring them to return home. "Democracy is not only about [the] ballot box."

This is a hopeful moment for Turkey. All Turks have been raised to revere the father of the nation, Ataturk, who set Turkey on the path toward becoming a European-style state. Ataturk died in 1938 having made revolutionary changes to Turkish political life, but without
having created a liberal political culture. A leader who manages to use the current crisis to help Turkey embrace the constraints on state power at the heart of liberalism would earn himself a place in the country’s remarkably sparse pantheon of political heroes.

But if the events now taking place in Turkey come to be regarded as a landmark in its evolution as a liberal European society, as may well happen, their hero will not be a great leader but the thousands of Turks, like my friend Mehmet, who refuse to be dictated to by anyone.

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