Friday, June 7, 2013

Mordechai Kedar: A "Turkish Spring" Indeed ?



 


by Mordechai Kedar
 

Read the article in the original עברית
Read the article in Italiano (translated by Yehudit Weisz, edited by Angelo Pezzana)
 For about a week now, Turkey has been in an uproar. Tens of thousands of demonstrators have burst into the streets inf almost a hundred cities all over the country, in noisy, audacious protest against the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A few people have been killed, about 1500 have been injured and about 2000 arrested. The spectacles from the streets of Turkey were reminiscent of the mass demonstrations of January 2011 in Tunisia that eventually caused President bin 'Ali to flee, and in al-Tahrir Square in Cairo, which resulted  in the overthrow of Mubarak, and the demonstrations in the beginning of what was called the "Arab Spring" in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. The question arises - is it now Turkish society's turn to rid itself of Prime Minister Erdoğan and perhaps the religious "Justice and Development Party " as well, which has governed the country since 2002 as a single party, without need for a coalition because it has a majority in parliament.

The answer to the question is "probably not", that is, the rule of Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party does not seem to be in immediate danger, for several reasons:


The first and principal reason is that after all, Turkey is a democratic country, even if its democracy is not perfect, and in a democratic country, the prime minister is replaced by means of elections, not demonstrations. In contrast to the Kurdish minority, the Turkish people, in all of its sectors, sees Turkey as its country, and the government is considered legitimate, despite the substantial criticism about how it functions. There is not an overwhelming desire to overthrow the government, but rather to improve the way it functions and correct the direction in which it is pulling Turkish society. The slogans heard in the demonstrations express the  demonstrators' rage  over the behavior of Erdoğan, and actually, it is his personality that is the focus of the demonstrations. One of the signs in the demonstrations showed Erdoğan next to Hitler, both giving the Nazi salute, and for anyone who didn't understand the image, "Erdoğan = Hitler" was written.


The second reason is that the regime truly wants to turn down the flames, and therefore on most days of the demonstrations and in most places, there were no policemen positioned near the demonstrations, in order to minimize as much as possible the contact with officials and to minimize the potential for people to be injured, and indeed,  by mid-week only a small number of fatalities, about five, was reported, hundreds of injured and about one thousand arrested. Compared to Egypt or other Arab countries that have been afflicted by the "Arab Spring", the situation in Turkey is much better, at least in this phase.


The third reason that Erdoğan will remain in power is that the larger the demonstrations against him, the more justified he will be - if he wants - to bring out millions of Turks to demonstrate in support of him and his performance. His supporters as well as his opposition know well that during the past eleven years he has brought Turkey to a position of economic power, certainly compared with Europe, which gave him a slap in the face when it refused to allow Turkey to join the European Union. He - the Islamist - took the refusal hard, because the real reason that Turkey was not accepted to the Union is because Turkey is an Islamic country, and Europe does not want to grant membership to 80 million Muslims. For these past five years, since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008, Erdoğan has been smiling at Europe all the way to the bank. If Turkey had been a member of the European Union it would have had to support - among others - Greece, and there is nothing the Turks want less than to support the Greeks.


For the sake of comparison: In Turkey the GNP per person is about 14,000 dollars per year, while in Egypt it is less than half of that - about 6000. The distribution in Egypt is much worse than in Turkey; that's why there are millions of people who live on 2 dollars per day, while in Turkey the economic success pervades many strata of the population. True, there are pockets of poverty in Turkey as well, but they do not have the critical mass and their   impoverishment is not severe enough - as in Egypt - to bring millions into the streets to demonstrate against the regime, because of their hunger and their poverty.


Dissatisfaction


The demonstrations against Erdoğan stem from a sense among his opposition that he has crossed the line in Turkey too, in a number of matters.


The first matter is cultural. Turkey is an arena in the battle between Islamic tradition and the secular-nationalist heritage of Mustafa Kemal "Atatürk" (the father of the Turks) who founded modern Turkey after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. With his rise to power toward the end of 1923, he imposed a secular nationalist agenda on the country, encouraged the drinking of alcohol and made "raki" the national drink, despite its being alcoholic. He did away with  compulsory compliance with Islamic Shari'a, imposed civil marriage and divorce upon the Turks, changed the written language from Arabic characters to Latin characters, closed madrassas, dismissed imams, forbade the wearing of turbans, encouraged women to walk in the streets without a head covering, like the women in Europe, and promoted the political and civil rights of women. His successor - President İsmet İnönü - continued in his path until 1950. Thus, for almost 30 years the citizens of Turkey underwent a difficult "educational program" intended to strip them from "Islam" and garb them with a modern secularism that would be liberal in every way, except for religion.


In parallel, the bazaar - the shuk - developed as a result of several factors. These factors include economic stability, a sense of "business first", European markets and travelers who came in hordes to enjoy the pleasant climate, the inviting beaches and the "everything is included" service. The military, the parliament, the presidency and the high court all comprised a system that was expected to "safeguard the constitution", meaning the secular aspect of the state.

This reeducation worked well in the cities, because there, the regime had an effective presence, and the various branches of the regime could monitor the application of the anti-Islamic laws and principles. In the cities, a cultural elite developed that included people of the theater, authors, poets, journalists, politicians, lawyers and doctors, as well as academics, economists and accountants, with an impressive representation of women among this modern, "European" elite. As is the way of the elite in the world demographically, this group has a low birth rate, mainly because women usually have plans in addition to being a wife and mother. Therefore, the average age of marriage is relatively high and the number of offspring is low.


The trend toward secularism was problematic in the villages, because there the regime had a small and marginal footprint and tradition remained the name of the game with them. The farther that a village was from an urban center, the more traditional were its residents, and as a result of this, the birth rate in the villages remains high. Thus, for 90 years - four generations - since Atatürk began the cultural revolution, the secular citizens have become a minority in Turkey and traditionalists have become the majority. This fact was expressed in parliament when Necmettin Erbakan's religious "Welfare Party" won the elections in 1996. The secular sector did not accept their defeat and demanded the high court - a secular stronghold in those days - to outlaw the religious party. The court did so, and Erbakan was forced to quit in 1997.


About six years afterward, in 2003, his student, Erdoğan, assumed power after winning a majority in parliament with his "Justice and Development" Party. Most of the secular sectors were left out of the loop politically, and for Erdoğan and his friends it was a sort of revenge  for the tens of years when the religious were sidelined and oppressed. Since the Islamic party rose to power it has made changes in the Turkish public arena: the Islamic courts were brought back to deal with matters of divorce, women were allowed to enter universities with head coverings and attempts were made to forbid abortions and the drinking of alcohol. The  secular officers of the military were replaced with those who were faithful to the Islamic regime, and parallel changes were made in the high court following a referendum that paved the way for such changes.


The secular sectors object to these Islamic processes, and for the past 11 years they have been trying to stop the process by which Islam is gradually resuming the position that it occupied before the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. The restless youth who burst into the streets a week ago carried  banners that were red, the color of the Turkish nation; in contrast, the banners that the adherents of Islam carried in their demonstrations against the war in Iraq in 2003 were colored green. The red nationalist versus the green Islamic, and in the struggle for the Turkish culture, color indicates your cultural identity.


Dictatorial Traits


The second matter that brought the demonstrators into the streets was Erdoğan's dictatorial behavior: in recent years he has sent almost a hundred journalists to prison because of their criticism of him. The government of Turkey, under his leadership, monitored what Turkish Internet users put on social networks, mostly Facebook and Twitter. The police permits itself to put down demonstrations against Erdoğan ruthlessly and mercilessly, using gas mixed with water and even rubber coated bullets that cause much pain, even if they don't kill. In recent demonstrations one demonstrator lost his eye as a result of being hit by a rubber coated bullet. Erdoğan's crude and raucous style angers many, many Turks, who feel degraded by his arrogance.


The agreement that Erdoğan reached lately with the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, also angered many of those who see the Turkish nation and its rights as overriding principles. They see this agreement as a surrender to Kurdish terror, and from their point of view any surrender to the Kurds harms the Turkish character of the country.


Erdoğan's foreign policy also gets a
significant amount of criticism : his opponents are convinced that his involvement in Syria has worsened the chaos there, and Turkey has lost out in Arab world markets where Syria served as a bridge to them. The Syrian refugees in Turkey - approximately two hundred thousand and most probably more - are a burden on the Turkish budget, and the tension on the border between Turkey and Syria does not contribute to the quiet necessary for economic prosperity. Many secular Turks view with disfavor Erdoğan's support of the Syrian rebels, who identify with al-Qaeda, just as they object to his blatant sympathy with the Hamas movement in Gaza, and they accuse him of creating the Mavi Marmara affair. They do not agree with the Israeli response, which was, in their opinion, unreasonably exaggerated, but in parallel there are more than a few among them who think that the event began as an unjustified provocation by Erdoğan.

Erdoğan's raucous style of speaking, the dismissive way he relates to his political opposition, his attention to religious trappings and his activist foreign policy towards the Middle East arouses concerns among his opposition that he is trying to restore the Ottoman Empire and become a modern-day sultan. These concerns have increased in the past two years as he began to transfer authorities from the prime minister to the president, with the intention that he will be elected president in 2014 having the authority to rule like the president of the United States, France and Brazil, who serve as executive heads of their countries.


The Taksim Events


The Taksim Quarter is the center of Istanbul and the stronghold of the modern nationalist state. In the center is
Ğezi Park with hundreds of ancient trees, which Atatürk liked to walk among. Plans to improve the place include building a mosque and uprooting trees, which seemed to secular citizens like an Islamic blow to the symbols of secularism and Turkish nationalism. This blow was the straw that broke the camel's back, the spark that ignited the secular public and sent it into the streets, to defend Taksim Square with their bodies, to defend the symbols of the nation, the culture, the arts, democracy and the right to speak and express criticism.

There are rumors that among those who benefit from the changes in Taksim Square are two real estate agents who are personally close to Erdoğan . This kind of rumor creates the impression that the regime is rotten and corrupt, and that it gives away the national symbols in exchange for friendship with the prime minister.


Erdoğan blames foreigners for stirring up the masses against him, and uses conspiracy theory in his defense. "Communists", he calls them, and his spokesmen claim that those who are stirring up demonstrations are no more than a handful of people on the fringe, who belong to  the radical Left. The Turkish media minimize their coverage of the events of last week so as not to give free publicity to the initiators of the demonstrations and so that the public will not be encouraged to continue with them. Erdoğan himself transmits a "business as usual" attitude and went out this week for a tour of the countries of North Africa. He is also supposed to go to Gaza during the month, in clear defiance of the president of the United States whose Secretary of State - John Kerry - tried to dissuade him from doing so.


What's  Next?


As things seem now, the demonstrations do not endanger the government in Turkey, and don't significantly damage Erdoğan's image. There are analysts who claim that the demonstrations even strengthen his position among the religious groups, because they fear the resurgence of the secular and their return to power. Here I share with my readers what I heard myself, when I visited Turkey last summer and met with senior people from the ruling religious party. There were those among them who expressed considerable resentment about the crude style of the prime minister, his impulsiveness, the arrogant way he relates to anyone outside of his inner circle, and the raucousness that he has brought into the political discourse of the country. They also disagree with the way he relates to Israel. Some of them even claimed that they are embarrassed by him, but they have no choice but to support him because he knows how to excite the masses; a different leader might be pale and unattractive and the result would be the return of the seculars to power.


Erdoğan will have to draw conclusions from the demonstrations even if they stop, because if he continues to behave as he has behaved until now the demonstrations might continue and even strengthen. If this happens Turkey will pay a high economical price because of reduced tourism, since tourists don't set foot in unstable countries (Look at Egypt, Tunisia and Syria).


It is reasonable to assume that in the near future, Erdoğan will be more responsive to people from his party who disagree with his style of speaking and his control of every small matter. It could be that he will even free some of the journalists from prison. In the situation created following the demonstrations it will be difficult for him to continue with his changes to the constitution that are intended to strengthen the position of president at the expense of the prime minister, because the public is more aware today than in the past of his aspirations to amass power and perhaps become the sultan of the Neo-Ottoman Turkish Empire.


Can Erdoğan make a basic change to the country? To his behavior? To his personality? It is reasonable to assume that he cannot, and therefore,  in the future, the streets of Turkey will probably see more cases of demonstrations, violence, wounded and killed, and each time the questions will arise: Is Turkey really a democracy? Do the ruling elite know how to protect the civil rights of those who are not part of it? Doesn't this country have more peaceful and orderly ways to influence the regime's behavior in a legitimate way ?


It seems that more than a few more years will pass until Turkey becomes an inseparable part of European culture, but until that happens, Europe apparently will become an integral part of Islamic  culture...



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An Alternate Opinion

Those who research Islam have differences of opinion about whether there can be a nexus between the requirements of Islam and democratic values. Islam is divine law, while democracy is based on laws created by a legislative body. Divine law is permanent, while parliamentary law is relatively transitory. Islam determines punishments such as cutting off the hand of a thief while democracy tries to rehabilitate him. In Islam the state is the main mechanism for imposing the commandments of religion (Shari'a) while democracy prefers a separation of religion and state. In Islam the religious figure rules in the name of Allah (as in Iran) and democracy is led by a group of elected individuals in the name of the people.


Despite this, Turkey is an example that shows, especially after 2002, that there is a nexus between Islam and democracy, and the proof is Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party: a democratic ruling party in an Islamic state.


It could be that the events of the past week shatter the Turkish example too, because difficult questions do arise from them: Is the rage of the secular citizens directed against Erdoğan personally or against the Islamic culture that he represents? And if he is so democratic, why does his opposition equate him with Hitler and the Nazis? And why does he need to use such violent and undemocratic means to break up the demonstrations that should be allowed in a democracy? And perhaps all this "democracy" of his was only a means to take control of the state and then to impose Islam upon it? And if he puts journalists in prison because they criticized him, will he allow politicians to criticize him when it is time for the next elections?


All of these doubts are an expression of the fear that actually a nexus
between Islam and democracy is not possible, and even the Turkish example worked for only a limited time period. Meanwhile, an Israeli has written a book on Turkey entitled "Demo-Islam" and it will be interesting to see if the theory will stand up to the test of reality.


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Dr. Kedar is available for lectures


Dr. Mordechai Kedar
(Mordechai.Kedar@biu.ac.il) is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the Syrian domestic arena.

Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav with permission from the author.


Additional articles by Dr. Kedar

Source: The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. Also published in Makor Rishon, a Hebrew weekly newspaper.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the author.

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