Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan_311.
(photo credit: Reuters)
Much as the zeal to compare entices, it would be wrong to liken the disturbances
in Turkey to those of the misnamed Arab Spring.
Foremost, they don’t
spring from the same source.
Although the Islamist government headed by
Recep Tayyip Erdogan is nowhere near as tyrannical as Iran’s ayatollahs, the
protesters in Istanbul have more in common with those who took to the streets of
Tehran in 2009, than they do with the masses who toppled Arab despots in recent
The latter instigated mayhem for a variety of reasons which were
nothing like the yearnings for civil liberties that the West wrong-headedly
ascribed to them. Arab insurgencies were fueled by both Islamic reactionary
fervor as well as by ethnic/tribal divisions. Arab civillibertarians were scant
and soon drowned out in the turmoil.
In Tehran four years ago, the
demonstrators were members of the urban westernized minority who continuously
long to throw off the Islamic theocratic yoke.
largely fall into a similar category.
They comprise Turkey’s better
educated and yuppier upper crust. They are outnumbered by the culturally very
different masses in outlying areas.
Istanbul’s Western-oriented populace
has plenty to bellyache about even if things aren’t nearly as oppressive as in
For them Erdogan, in power since 2002, has gallingly altered their
country’s point of reference from Europe – as per the vision of Kamal Ataturk,
modern Turkey’s founding father – to the Muslim Mideast.
It was a
piecemeal transformation whose cumulative effects are becoming increasingly
intolerable. The return to Islamic garb for women, which Ataturk forbade, the
compulsory Koran classes in schools, restrictions on alcohol sales and even bans
on bright lipstick for flight attendants on Turkish airlines, all add
“Insulting Islam” has become a punishable crime in courts controlled
by the government.
Erdogan’s party, which rose on a strident
anti-corruption campaign, is now perceived as more corrupt than its
predecessors. The Erdogan personality cult – as exemplified in his omnipresent
portraits – only exacerbates the antipathy, as do Erdogan’s vituperative
outbursts, of the sort he has frequently aimed at Israel, but which also
The pugnacious Erdogan, moreover, now aims to
run for president, since he cannot continue for another term as prime minister.
Accordingly, he aims to change the rules of the game and make the presidency
more potent. Those urban Turks who are relatively Europeanized shudder at the
thought, but their country cousins in distant provinces are passive and Erdogan
draws his power from the less upwardly mobile among his state’s
All this makes for a complex picture that is nothing like the
simplistic stories the media prefers. The riots in Istanbul have exposed the
dark seamy underside of his rule that Erdogan prefers nobody see, and they have
revealed his unmistakable anti-democratic inclinations and alacrity to cruelly
This sullies his image and gives the lie to his rhetoric
and impudent lectures to others. But this doesn’t necessarily hasten his
This is a point we mustn’t lose sight of. Internationally, it is
another feather plucked from the Obama administration’s cap. Washington
presented Ankara as its stalwart ally and supposedly a bastion of democracy in
the region. That myth is now largely debunked.
There’s no denying that
the only truly Western democracy in the Mideast is little, maligned Israel,
where freedom isn’t a foreign import but a genuine inherent mindset. Yet it is
this very distinct contrast to its Muslim milieu which not only intensifies
Israel’s isolation but also draws fire in its direction from both assorted
regional autocrats and their hardly liberal opponents.
troubles are guaranteed to only make the already quarrelsome Erdogan all the
more nervous and confrontational. He has always used Israel as a tool to win
influence in the Arab world and rally disparate Turkish constituencies to the
cause of standing up to Israel – the ogre he expediently propagandizes
Such proclivities will not disappear. If anything, the
embarrassed and pressured Erdogan can be counted upon to divert attention from
himself by directing reinvigorated vitriol against Israel, as in his much-touted
plans to visit Gaza.