An Arab Spring In Turkey?

This time last year we finally had our dream of visiting Turkey fulfilled. We spent a rare, serene week in Istanbul or Constantinople as it was once known. Our hotel was in the old city, which has been a witness to the march of history for centuries and is home to landmarks like Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque – they are mirror images of each other – Topkapi Palace and much, much more.
Much of our time was spent in Taksim Square, exploring its bustling bazaars or simply sitting in its exotic restaurants watching the world go by. My wife with her black burqa seemed to stand out. Shopkeepers and waiters addressed her as hajja apparently taking her to be an Arab. Full of excited western tourists and happy young people, Taksim Square looked like the city centre of any European city.
Today Taksim Square is roiled by the fiercest protests seen since Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power 11 years ago. What began as a minor green protest defending one of Istanbul’s many parks has turned into a massive anti-government agitation.
Clearly, the excessive reaction of riot police provided the necessary spark. But as Financial Times put it, it couldn’t have caught fire so fast if there was no powder trail to ignite. Notwithstanding the three consecutive electoral wins of Prime Minister Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AK) Party, the Kemalist establishment is far from down and out. It sees the Islamists as usurpers of Mustafa Kemal’s legacy.
Erdogan views the Taksim protests as another ‘plot by a fringe of secular extremists and anarchists’. The fact that the protest that began in Istanbul spread to other parts of the country almost in sync suggests there may be something in his charge after all. Many enthusiastic western and Arab commentators have begun to describe this as Turkey’s Arab spring, drawing parallels between Taksim and Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square that saw Hosni Mubarak humbled.
Erdogan is no Mubarak though and Turkey is not the corrupt and long-abused country ruled with an iron hand that was Egypt until three years ago. If anything, Erdogan has restored democracy and people power to its full vigour and glory by reining in the power-hungry generals, judges and bureaucrats.
Ataturk, the architect of modern Turkey, carried his revulsion of the Ottoman caliphs and their incompetence in the face of marching imperialism too far, banishing Islam itself. In the Muslim country that for centuries led the faithful under the Ottomans, belief had become a burden.
Wearing hijab was a crime and use of Arabic even in religious context was a ‘no-no’ as Ataturk went about changing the nation’s qibla, forcing it to look westwards. Rightly or wrongly, Ataturk believed that the west or the west’s way held the answers to Turkey’s woes.
After Ataturk’s departure, the men in khaki assumed his mantle and took it upon themselves to think and decide for the people. For nearly seven decades, the army saw itself as the so-called Deep State and was the lord of all it surveyed, directly or indirectly ruling the country. (This model was heartily embraced by Pakistan, the new Muslim country with a powerful army, multiplying its woes).
The generals called the shots as they casually dismissed parliaments and elected governments, as had been the case with Necmettin Erbakan in 1997. Both Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul cut their teeth under the first Islamist prime minister in a Versace suit and tie.
The generals tried the same against Erbakan’s protégé but ended up severely injuring themselves. One in eight generals today is in jail for that failed coup. The consummate strategist and smart student of history that he is, Erdogan managed to tame the giant who had proved the nemesis of his mentor.
He hasn’t merely defanged the army and strengthened democracy. By bringing in constitutional, political and judicial reforms, Turkey’s tallest leader since Ataturk has given a new sense of direction and charted a new path altogether for the nation that for centuries has acted as the bridge – literally – between Europe and Asia and between Islam and the west.
Erdogan has combined his spectacular electoral success, winning three watershed elections each time with greater mandate, with all-round economic growth and development. From being heavily indebted to the IMF ten years ago, Turkey has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies today. It’s one of the few that have survived the global meltdown and chaos next door in Europe. It has been heavily investing in the Middle East and its backyard in Central Asia and eastern Europe.
In the words of Financial Times, “His achievements – in modernising Turkey’s economy, taming the army and pioneering a politics of Muslim democracy, starting accession negotiations with the European Union and now, in starting a peace process with the Kurds – are extraordinary. In an international landscape of political pygmies, Erdogan stands out.”
One of his key achievements is the demolition of the myth that Islam and democracy cannot coexist. Even as he looks to join the EU and plays an ambitious role in the Nato, Erdogan has successfully revived Turkey’s historical ties with the rest of the Islamic world, asserting the nation’s leadership in affairs of the ummah.
Long before Ankara won hearts and minds in the Arab-Islamic world by confronting the once close ally Israel, Turkey has been admired as a role model for a modern and progressive Muslim society. This may be why Turkish television dramas are such a rage across the Middle East. Turkey has successfully married Islamic spirit and traditions with the demands of a fast evolving world. It has been the first to come out in active support of the cravings for change in the Maghreb and the larger neighbourhood.
It would be such a shame if this formidable legacy is squandered by Erdogan’s own impatience. He needs all his political acumen and extraordinary leadership skills to deal with this crisis in the heart of Istanbul. By using force to deal with protests, he would be playing right into the hands of his opponents, who are trying to turn what is essentially a local civic issue into a national movement against the government.
It is not easy though. Erdogan and the governing AKP remain wildly popular and enjoy grassroots support. The only thing that can lend a new lease of life to the ossified Kemalist elites and legitimacy to their ‘cause’ is the prime minister’s own response. In the end if anyone could bring down Erdogan, it would be Erdogan himself.
Dissent and tolerance are essential to democracy. Turkey’s leaders – and their Islamist fellow travellers elsewhere – have to learn to live with it. They must evolve more tolerant, nuanced ways of dealing with opposition as befits an inclusive democracy. Like visiting Taksim Square and addressing the protesters’ legitimate concerns about the mindless development perhaps? It would instantly take the wind out of the opposition’s sails. A bulldozer approach to development, or anything for that matter, seldom works. The world is watching Turkey. It just cannot afford to fail.