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
Erdogan and his Islamist-oriented AKP (Justice and Development
Party), first came to power after winning Turkey’s 2002 national
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
particularly brutal police suppression in Ankara, Turkey’s national capital,
demonstrations have spread out from the downtown Kizilay district into the
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
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.
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
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.