The Broad Mind | Turkey and the democracy of protest

by Sarah Farooqui

The worst state of being for citizens of any democracy is the state of apathy- a state where they feel inconsequential to raise a voice to support or oppose the government. Any healthy democracy, no matter how dysfunctional in it psychology, is legitimised when its citizens participate, defend and question its existence.

Over the last few months, the world was starting to fear that Turkey, as a response to its contemporary politics was losing its Kemalist identity. Under the leadership of Turkey’s secular national founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey shed its Ottoman past and caliphate and fashioned a new identity- that of a secular, democratic nation, as opposed to a cleric driven one, imitating its Arab neighbours. This identity appealed to the western world and the new Turkish vision came to be known as Kemalism. Changes in Turkey included establishment of a parliamentary form of a government, promotion of women’s suffrage, conversion of the alphabets from Arabic to Latin and a strong opposition to Islamic fundamentalism long before the world launched its tirade against jihad.

Over the years, Turkey’s current Prime Minister Recip Tayyep Erdogan espoused his Islamic faith freely and the importance he laid to religion became evident across the country and the world. His popularity with the Turks who voted him into power– the religious leaders, clerics, conservative classes, the rural and urban poor, among others– was a result of the alienation felt from the strong, overtly secular and military backed establishment that existed before him. The fact that in the General elections of 2011, Ataturk’s party CHP (Republican People’s Party) drew only 26 percent of the vote as opposed to Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development), which drew 50 percent, portrayed the changes in the country and its society.

Erdogan’s rule has subtly tried to displace Kemalism, and treat it as an outdated ideology, unsuitable for contemporary Turkey. Changes in the country are evident in the strong policy shifts from the past, such as Turkey vying for a stronger position in the Middle East and former Ottoman nations rather than bidding for a membership into the European Union, the public admonishment of the staunchly secular and once powerful military along with its relegation to the barracks since Ataturk’s death. The need to carve out a religious identity and a cultural base outside of the Kemalist narrative can be seen in small but significant changes such as the disappearance of the headscarf ban in academic institutions across Turkey.

The recent protests in Turkey stemmed from peaceful protests by environmentalists in Istanbul, against demolishing the Taksim Gezi Park with a reconstruction of the Ottoman Taksim Military Barracks (demolished in 1940) and a shopping mall. The government use of police force only augmented the protests and turned them violent as the police used tear gas, arrested and injured many. The protests spread across the country and the cause widened beyond the issue of Taksim Gezi Park, expanding into a larger demonstration of the anti government feeling. The protests have been against the changes in the local culture as seen the recent ban on alcohol, the reduction of Kemalist ideologies, Islamicisation, restrictions of the freedom of speech, freedom of press, abortion, right to free assembly along with the Turkish stance on the Syrian crisis.

Locked between Europe and the Middle East, Turkey, with its Kemalist ideology, represented a nation that bridged the divide between the east and the west, standing at the cusp of religion, democracy and secularism. Over the years, fears of slow but noticeable changes in its democracy along with cracks in its secular nature were evident. The dichotomy in the Turkish populations about their past and their future resulted in a skewered perception of what Turkey was and what it would become. A survey conducted a while back showed that almost 90 percent of Turks wanted a secular Turkey and 82 percent wanted it in line with Ataturk’s principles. The present government was slowly challenging this. The recent protests initiated by a small matter– the reconstruction of a park– mirror the sentiments of the people. They throw light on the larger issue– that the Turks are frustrated with these small changes that portray the authoritarian nature of Erdogan’s government and alter the Turkish culture and society. Many, liken him to a Sultan, ruling his nation at his will. In a speech on June 1stErdogan’s strong reaction to the protests raised further question about how he would handle them, if they spread at a fiercer intensity across the country.

Erdogan Yildirim, a sociology professor at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, in an interview told CNN ”Erdogan needs to see that the country needs more “participatory democracy”. People want to influence decisions in public matters … it is ultimately none other than Erdogan who cultivated this anger and who needs to calm it down.” Sule Kulu wrote about Erdogan, in the English-language newspaper Today’s Zaman ”If he does not return to his pro-democracy stance, this would prepare his fall in Turkish politics. ?stanbul, his place of birth in politics, can bring him his political death.”

Like the Arab Spring, these protests are against the government, and towards a reform. But unlike most protests of the Arab Spring, these call for a reform to go back from the present into the past. Whether they sustain and influence a tangible change in Turkey, is something to be seen. At present, they portray the fact that the citizens of Turkey are a part of its politics. That in their dissent and protest, they participate, legitimise and hence strengthen its secular democracy.

Sarah Farooqui is the Assistant Editor of Pragati- The Indian National Interest Review