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Understanding the Turkish Demonstrations

June 13th 2013

Barricades Taksim Sq

Turkey, although nominally part of the West, is in most ways culturally closer to the Middle East. Turks live with pent-up grievances -- as do we all -- but with virtually no way to resolve them. People in a supposedly democratic Turkey are reluctant to air their grievances even in public surveys out of fear their government might take revenge on them. During the past few years, people in Turkey have been saying that they are petrified to speak to others, write things, or talk freely on the telephone for fear they will be arrested. At present, Turkey has more journalists in jail than any other country.

The ruling AKP government has set up countless apparatuses to monitor dissent; these cause those who disagree with the government to fear not just arrest but interrogation. People and groups have therefore chosen largely to suffer in silence. Moreover, in the culture of the Middle East, there is no such thing as a win-win compromise. Turks, like their neighbors, consider backing down or apologizing dishonorable.

Consequently, they spend much time blaming each other and looking for scapegoats -- but almost never admitting responsibility for problems. As a result, tensions -- with no means of being put to rest -- constantly seethe below the surface. This is the context through which to understand the riots and demonstrations against the government which have spread across Turkey.Before Erdoğan came to power in 2002, with his unspoken promise to reinstate Islam as a central part of the state, many observant Muslims complained that the state discriminated against them. Under Islam, there can be no separation of religion and state. The state must be ruled by Muslims, and must be guided by Islamic law and culture. Observant Muslims felt oppressed by the secular Kemalist government in place since the 1920s, after the Ottoman Empire had been disbanded and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had come to power. Atatürk established policies condemned by Islamic fundamentalists such as education for women, separation of religion and state, and Western dress. His supporters and he said they wanted to relegate Islam to the realm of the private, and teach individuals make decisions for themselves instead of blindly following religious leaders.

Those who wanted the state to remain Islamic said they felt under constant pressure to keep their views to themselves; doing otherwise, they feared, might bring down on them the wrath of the secular state. Some of Atatürk's people were personally religious, but kept their religion separate from activities related to the state. Atatürk did not invade the realm of the private -- unlike what Erdoğan has been trying to do. Since Erdoğan and his AKP ["Truth and Reconciliation Party"] came to power, they have slowly but resolutely done their best to dismantle the secular apparatus of the state and have been trying to impose their version of Sunni fundamentalist Islam on everyone, especially the non-Sunni Alevis who make up approximately 30% of Turkey's population.

As soon as Erdoğan came to power, he started systematically dismantling Atatürkist institutions. These included recognizing religious elementary schools as equal to regular Turkish government secular schools, massive building of new Sunni mosques, even in areas where there are no Sunnis, a huge attempt to indoctrinate the young people in Sunni Islam, weakening the secular military though fraudulent accusations followed by show trials, and creating a media that followed his orders without questioning. The Turkish state secretly videotaped people it regarded as opponents in compromising situations or arrested them for fabricated crimes, including accusations that they were members of conspiratorial groups planning to overthrow the government.

Erdoğan's re-Islamification program entailed removing Atatürk and secularism from as many aspects of Turkish life as possible. Now the secularists and non-Sunnis felt oppressed. The Alevis, for example, have undergone an aggressive, imperialistic attempt to coerce them into abandoning their religion and become Sunnis. Even though, for example, the Alevis do not attend mosques, the regime ordered them to be built in Alevi towns and villages and then began forcing Alevi children to undergo Sunni religious instruction, which became mandatory in schools. Erdoğan also tried to make Turkey's Kurds, already overwhelmingly fellow Sunnis, a partner in his plan to build a Sunni union, apparently part of a plan to form the basis of an eventually reconstituted -- culturally; and later possibly politically -- Ottoman state from which Sunnis would, he hoped, again run the entire Middle East. Turkey's Kurds, however, apparently injured once too often by the Turks, clearly preferred other arrangements, in which they would have more control over their destiny. Other social and political groups such as the Greens and the Communists also felt discriminated against by Erdoğan, who seemed constantly to be limiting their freedoms.

Unlike some other Middle Eastern societies, Turkey is, by and large, orderly. People line up for the bus and usually patiently wait their turn to board. The moment, however, someone pushes and tries to break into the line, what one moment looks completely orderly can instantly descend into unrest -- like one lit match igniting all the others. As with the fruit seller in Tunisia, who set himself on fire out of frustration at not being able to obtain a license to sell fruit, an outside observer might get the impression that actions often seem disproportionate to the provocation and that people are avenging deeply held grievances that have little to do with the subject at hand. Turkish governments have historically known this to be a possibility, and have therefore created strong security apparatuses to handle these situations.

To understand whether or not a revolt has staying power, one might ask if a regime has the will and ability to do what is necessary to restore calm. In the past, this was relatively easy. There was no easy access to the international media. Tyrants, dictators, and other strongmen such as Erdoğan could get away with violently suppressing riots and demonstrations, while the outside world had no way of knowing what was happening. Leaders had a free hand to act as they wished. Where Turkey's demonstrations will lead depends much on the reaction of Erdoğan's friends and allies, most notably U.S. President Barack Obama's Administration. Secretary of State Kerry publicly chastised the Turks for using too much force against "the demonstrators, most of whom are law-abiding citizens," although it is not apparent how the American administration could judge whether or not was true. In response, the Turkish Foreign Minister publicly criticized his American counterpart Kerry for interfering in Turkish internal affairs.

What one can know is that the U.S. Administration's reaction seems to have emboldened the demonstrators; they know that the outside world is watching Erdoğan, and that even his closest ally, the current U.S. administration, has criticized him. Will Turkey descend into chaos like most of its Arab neighbors? In terms of security forces, Turkey is better organized than its Arab neighbors -- even Egypt -- so it is difficult to see Turkey in a similar chaotic situation. Nevertheless, there are sectors inside Turkey who are fed up with Erdoğan; demonstrators keep chanting, "Erdoğan resign! Government – resign!" Erdoğan responded by labeling the demonstrators Çapulcus [pronounced Chapulju] meaning "lowlifes," vandals, looters. The demonstrators have now turned this epithet into a badge of honor.

In short, the events of the past few weeks have forced onto the Turkish agenda all sorts of issues the government had pushed underground. Whatever happens, Turkey has shown that it is not the stable island of calm and democracy its allies had hoped it to be. Iran and Russia will certainly benefit here, as will Assad of Syria: all three have become adversaries of Turkey. The Kurds could also benefit: if the Turkish state proves weak, its weakness could help Turkey's Kurds on the their way to establishing a more autonomous region within Turkey, possibly to join in the future an independent Kurdish entity. The Turkish people could be the biggest beneficiaries: they might even once again have the chance to make decisions for themselves instead of being forced to follow Islamist leaders and Shari'a-oriented laws that many do not want.

The author, Harold Rhode, received in Ph.D. in Ottoman History and later served as the Turkish Desk Officer at the US Department of Defense. He is now a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.


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