For the past week, major anti-government demonstrations have swept across Turkey. Beginning as a fifty-person protest against the razing of trees in an urban park in Istanbul, protests have spread to over 60 cities and towns, reaching every region of the country.

Chanting “Hukumet Istifa, Tayyip istifa” (‘Government Resign, Tayyip, Resign’), the protestors are demanding that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan step down after 12 years in power.

Erdogan and his Islamist-oriented AKP (Justice and Development Party), first came to power after winning Turkey’s 2002 national elections.

To counter the political impact of the demonstrations, which continue despite brutal police suppression, the prime minister is appealing to Islamic populism and employing the politics of polarization.

With bellicose defiance, the Erdogan has attempted to portray the conflict as a struggle of the secular versus the religious or, more accurately, the ‘white Turks’ (non-religious, upper-class, urban elites) versus the ‘black Turks’ (socially conservative, lower-middle and working class Sunni-Turks from Anatolia). If Erdogan’s tactics ultimately prove successful, it will signal the final demise of an Islamic discourse of civic pluralism and the failure of Turkey’s Islamic politics to protect the integrity of democratic citizenship rights.

The consequences for Turkey – as well as Islamic politics in the Middle East as whole – will be profound. The AKP’s successful 2002 election campaign employed an Islamic-based political discourse calling for greater government accountability and greater civic pluralism in Turkish society. The AKP’s neo-liberal agenda appealed to secular liberals who opposed the Turkish military’s heavy-handed interference in domestic politics and the insensitive, statist elite which had mismanaged the nation’s economy.

For the AKP’s core constituency, the alienated lower-middle classes hailing from the countryside and smaller cities, arrogantly neglected by that same statist elite, the same agenda offered an opening for them to the economy and political empowerment.

For this more religiously conservative constituency, the AKP’s opening of the Turkish public sphere to Sunni Islam was part and parcel of the neo-liberal opening of political and economic opportunities denied to them by the secular elite.

After his third consecutive election victory in 2011, Erdogan began to abandon civic pluralism. He instead focused on empowering his core constituency through a crony capitalism and pushed through a series of polarizing measures for state enforcement of conservative religious mores. In the month prior to the outbreak of massive demonstrations, Turkey witnessed the banning of Turkish Airways flight attendants from wearing red lipstick, legislation restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol and the Ankara subway authorities using closed-circuit television surveillance to prevent passengers from kissing.

Most egregious has been Erdogan’s program of grandiose construction projects designed to enrich AKP-affiliated businesses and artificially boost the Turkish economy. Imposed over objections by local residents, many of these heavy-handed projects also attempt to erect edifices glorifying the Ottoman Empire and Sunni triumphs instead of Turkey’s pluralist heritage.

Turkey’s demonstrations began on May 28 in Gezi Park near Istanbul’s central Taksim Square. Protestors attempted to prevent an AKP government development project from removing trees from one of the city’s last green spaces. In response to riot police firing tear gas canisters and water cannons on the protestors, tens of thousands of demonstrators flooded nearby Taksim Square on June 1, to express their outrage at what they perceived as the increasingly arbitrary exercise of power by Erdogan and his AKP government.

After seven days of nationwide demonstrations, over three thousand people have been arrested and over 500 in Istanbul treated in area hospitals for injuries sustained from tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets and police violence. Human Rights Watch estimates casualty figures to be considerably higher than official government reports.

Despite the particularly brutal police suppression in Ankara, Turkey’s national capital, demonstrations have spread out from the downtown Kizilay district into the suburban areas.

The protestors represent a wide range of Turkey’s political spectrum. Despite a virtual news blackout by the AKP dominated media, citizens have been mobilizing through the use of social media sites such as Twitter. Chanting “united against fascism,” the Istanbul demonstrations find Turkish nationalists marching alongside communists.

Supporters of rival football teams have been protesting together, wearing the colors of their “mortal enemies” as a sign of solidarity. The demonstrations have also included Turks from across the religious spectrum. Despite the prominent presence of anti-capitalist Muslim organizations chanting “God, bread, and freedom,” it is still difficult to gauge if significant numbers of practicing Sunni-Turks have joined the protests.

Turkey’s Kurdish minority, 20 percent of the population, has remained largely on the political sidelines, although the Kurdish BDP party has been present at various protests. With no credible political opposition figure or party around which a movement could galvanize, Erdogan may be able to outlast the demonstrators. However, the police brutality and Erdogan’s incendiary rhetoric in response to the crisis itself continues to bring outraged citizens to the streets.

Instead of acknowledging the protestors as aggrieved citizens, Erdogan flippantly referred to them as “çapulcular” (plunders, looters). Refusing to recognize the existence of any legitimate grievances, Erdogan blamed social media for the demonstrations, declaring “There is now a menace which is called Twitter. The best examples of lies can be found there. To me social media is the worst menace to society.”

In his inflammatory remarks, the AKP leader threatened that for every 100,000 protestors he would mobilize a million AKP affiliated youth to take to the streets. Eyewitnesses from Istanbul, Izmir, and Antalya have reported vigilante youth assisting the police in attacking the demonstrators. Erdogan’s statements prompted outrage from an even broader spectrum of Turkish society which has joined the demonstrations.

Two of Turkey’s four labor union confederations have announced that they will go on strike in solidarity with the protestors. If the protest movement can sustain or even increase its momentum, then Erdogan will face pressure from within his own AKP.

While embodying the AKP for 12 years, Erdogan does have potential rivals, particularly President Abdullah Gul who will face the electorate in 2014.

So far, Mr. Gul has remained above the fray and expressed his sympathy for those injured. With the Turkish economy hurt by the on-going protests, pressure may mount in the AKP to replace the prime minister.

Thus far, the Turkish military has remained silent about the demonstrations taking place. However, in a telling sign, military personnel from the small army base near Taksim Square distributed gas masks to protestors to help them withstand the riot police assault. A more conciliatory AKP politician may be able to restore a sense of civic pluralism to the AKP’s Islamic discourse and end the crisis. If Erdogan outrightly defeats the demonstrations, the complex mosaic of Turkish Muslim traditions that favor accommodation and civic pluralism will give way to the complete instrumentalization of Islamic political discourse as a tool of state control.

At stake – in the confrontation which is playing itself out in the streets of Turkey’s cities and towns – may be the future direction of Islamic politics in the greater Middle East.

The writer is a fellow at the Hebrew University’s Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace and the Department of Middle East and Islamic Studies at Shalem College in Jerusalem where he conducts research on Islamic pluralism and democratization. He also teaches Islamic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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