Where is the alternative to Erdoğan's Islamisation?
Tayyip Erdoğan's war on secular life and democracy has gone too far. But can the Turkish opposition transform into an organised political movement?
Clouds of tear gas, brutal beatings, and fiery anti-government chants calling for Erdoğan’s resignation marked the start of sustained protests against Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (JDP) – protests once unimaginable.
The extent of outrage comes as a shock for the populist former Mayor of Istanbul who has enjoyed increasing support during each of his three election campaigns. But while Erdoğan has enjoyed high levels of popularity, he has also brought Islamisation to Turkey, an increasingly dictatorial style and general disdain for democratic norms.
Since Erdoğan took office in 1994 as Mayor of Istanbul, one of the biggest metropolises in the world, he has been a key figure in renovating the city and creating the Istanbul of today. Before Erdoğan took office, as a Turkish friend put it, “the pollution was so bad you could not wear a white t-shirt”.
What seemed to be Istanbul’s permanent problems – access to clean water, lack of housing, rampant pollution, widespread traffic chaos, a lack of basic infrastructure and overflowing garbage – were largely remedied by then Mayor Erdoğan. Despite all his victories, Erdoğan was forced to give up his Mayoral position when he was handed a 10-month prison sentence, of which he served four, for “inciting religious or racial hatred” with a speech in 1997.
During the speech he proclaimed: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers” – an alarming statement to many in a country whose modern foundation is built on the strict secularism of Atatürk.
Islam’s influence on Tayyip Erdoğan and his political agenda has been feared since he first entered the public arena and can hardly be labeled an epiphany. But the extent to which he has succeeded in slowly stifling the secular way of life has been startling. Erdoğan has shown himself very capable, and for seculars, very dangerous.
Since Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party took power more than 10 years ago much has changed. He has enacted measures to raise a “religious generation”, sought to solve the Kurdish issues based on a shared Islamic identity, and transformed Turkey’s military from a formidable vanguard of its secular character into a far more subservient body.
While several of Erdoğan’s Islamist reforms, such as his 2007 attempt to permit the headscarf in public institutions, have had wide public support, others have proved to be more troubling.
These more controversial positions include his party’s attempts to discourage the consumption of alcohol, discontinuing public transportation at night, and even a brief attempt to criminalize adultery in 2004.
Further, while Erdoğan has made attempts at resolving disputes with the Kurds during his time in office, his approach contradicts the Kemalist ideology that promotes a highly unitary national identity. This new paradigm was echoed by PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in his March peace proposal: “Turkish people who know ancient Anatolia as Turkey should know that their coexistence with Kurdish people dates back to a historical agreement of fraternity and solidarity under the flag of Islam.”
Perhaps most worryingly, Erdoğan seems to have brought the military, the guarantor of Turkish secularism, further under his control. An article from this February quoted top Turkey expert Andrew Finkel as claiming that an astounding 15 percent of all top Turkish army officials were on trial with scores choosing resignation over prosecution. The offenses include a host of conspiracy cases against the state and several top generals have been handed over twenty year sentences for allegedly plotting a coup.
Whether the accusations are true or not, the consequences remain. The door has been opened for the JDP and Erdoğan to potentially have a free hand in pushing increasingly ambitious Islamic reforms. But the events of Taksim Square have acted as a catalyst for significant portions of the population to push back against attempts to weaken Turkish institutions and secularism as well as Erdoğan’s increasingly dictatorial conduct.
Erdoğan and the JDP have shown themselves to be effective in suppressing voices of dissent, ranking among the worst nations in the world. Turkey received a deplorable ranking of 154th out of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index’s 2013 report. To put this ranking in perspective, Afghanistan ranks higher at 128 and Pakistan ranks only slightly lower at 159.
This strong-handed and uncompromising approach has been on full display throughout the recent protests. During the start of the protests Erdoğan dismissed giant crowds as a “handful of looters and vandals” and even filed a lawsuit against a newspaper editor for alleging an “assault on rights.”
While the outcome of the protests is still unclear, the protesters seem to possess staying power. The protesters met with Erdoğan despite his issuance of a “final warning” and subsequently received a rare concession: an offer to suspend redevelopment of Gezi Park pending a court case.
This concession is being received with cautious optimism by the protesters, though the rhetoric of the protests, as well as the duration and turnout, suggests that Erdoğan’s compromise addresses the symptom, not the cause.
The struggle for real change in Turkey is a different fight to the Arab Spring as the government retains a significant amount of support. While the street clashes have put Erdoğan in an uncomfortable situation, some polls suggest that many of the protesters are young, secular and do not belong to a political party.
The coming days, weeks, and possibly months will almost certainly witness further protests, bloodshed and even deaths. But while riots, demonstrations, and sheer numbers may garner attention at home and abroad, the greater test will be the ability of the opposition movement to transform into an organized political movement.
To stand any chance of success, this movement will need to be a force that can offer a viable alternative to the troubled yet troublingly charismatic personality that is Tayyip Erdoğan.
Magnus Frank is a Danish student living in Israel, and Joel Strauss is a recent M.A. graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from the U.S.
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