The Turkish protests are not the Arab Spring

Don't confuse Taksim with Tahrir -- what's going on in Turkey is nothing less than a battle over national identity

Topics: Religion Dispatches, Turkey, Arab Spring, Tayyip Erdogan, Taksim Square, Islam, istanbul,

This article originally appeared on Religion Dispatches.

Religion Dispatches If you drive north toward Istanbul’s Huqqa lounge you’ll pass Dolmabahce Palace on your right. Inferiority complexes coincide with interminable fiscal crises. Built to proclaim the Ottoman Empire’s European identity, the Palace instead accomplished the Empire’s bankruptcy—leading to its disappearance some decades later. It was buried by the most famous man to die in that palace, Kemal Ataturk.

Then there’s Huqqa, which, I’ll argue, imagines a Turkey in which he didn’t happen, or at least one in which the most caustic aspects of his legacy have been erased.

You’ve probably read a lot about the Turkish protests. But they’re not about trees, not about a park, not about a shopping mall, not even about the current Prime Minister and resident bull in the china shop, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but about stories. Who Turks think they are, how far back they trace their history, what they make of Ottomans and Ataturks, and what that means for their future.

Ataturk marshaled the last Ottoman armies to hold off Greek and Italian invasions, but it’s what he did next that created modern Turkey, and the crisis of identity that is at the heart of the recent protests. For Ataturk, a Turkish Republic was not enough. 1923. Year Zero, or a fresh start, depending on your take. New dress. New calendar. New mode of government.

Ataturk even gave the new, secular republic a new script, ditching Arabic for utilitarian Latin, then erasing as much evidence of Persian and Arabic as he could. Going through the dictionary with a black highlighter. Even snipping out subversive letters. There is, for example, no ‘q’. But there would be, if he’d faithfully transliterated from Arabic.

So a Shari’ah-compliant lounge called ‘Huqqa’? With fantastic views of the Bosphorus, situated on the far edge of Europe and facing the far edge of Asia—not some geological marvel, but a manufactured conceit, mind you—this trendy spot in Kurucesme offers no alcohol to go with its ample supply of nargile. Also: No mint tea, which I consider heresy. It’s pretty bourgeois, high-end, and happening; plenty of women in hijab, plenty not. A parking lot with Range Rovers, Audis, and a high-end Benz, the kind with gull-wing doors.

I cannot afford this world.



But I get it.

The patrons of a place like Huqqa don’t venerate Ataturk. His regime persecuted them, drove them into hiding, forced them to dissimulate, and punished those who dared raise their heads. This, more than anything, shapes how Erdogan continues to see the protests—or, rather, his failure to see. But not just Erdogan. The Kurds wanted no part of an agenda of Turkification, and were brutally persecuted for their recalcitrance.

Indeed, the only party that’s shown a real willingness to include and engage the Kurds is Erdogan’s, and the new constitution his party was set to propose was rumored to include significant changes in favor of Kurdish rights and identity. An irony, then, that these supposed protests against authoritarianism may derail the most serious effort to correct Turkey’s greatest failure of democracy.

Of course, that’s not how the protests have been packaged and sold.

It’s easier to compare them to an Arab Spring, or a supposed tale of religious dictatorship versus freethinking democracy. What these protests actually reveal is a far more complicated country, which you can find out if even you pay a little attention to the sentiments of ‘religious’ Turks. I hate the adjective nearly as much as I am offended by the conceit that Europe is a continent—who can hold a straight face when told that an arbitrary line through the Urals constitutes the stuff difference is made of?—but I have to use it.

Too much trampoline journalism.

Bounce into Taksim and bounce out.

Out of the Echo Chamber

As early as the 1960s, religious Turks began to come out into the open. By the early 21st century, Erdogan, onetime mayor of Istanbul, had come to power and seemed to have secured it. Time and again his Justice and Development Party (AKP) stared down the Kemalist elite, with their privileges and provincialisms, and won.

Erdogan even embraced the European Union, overseeing dramatic economic growth, presenting Turkey as a more welcoming model for aspiring Muslim democracies than Iran, which grew ever more sclerotic and paranoid. In desperate need for showpieces, the West, and especially America, championed Turkey too, a NATO ally and potential EU candidate that seemed to have successfully mixed Islam and freedom. Seemed.

Turkey became bolder, challenging the United States over Iraq, from the war to the Kurdish region, and Israel over its blockade of Gaza. Even after Netanyahu apologized for the deaths of several Turkish citizens, Erdogan dragged his feet—though business ties between the two continue to grow. It’s often that way with Turkey. Crisis on top, but dynamism within.

Tensions belie the massive investments in education, which cannot but pay off. Pull a Thomas Friedman and park yourself in front of the arrivals and departures board at Ataturk airport. This place is still booming. What I saw in Istanbul during two separate visits to the city in the past month didn’t match the descriptions that made it onto the BBC or clogged up my Twitter feed. (Which is a kind of echo chamber, great for sharing information and great for getting stuck in it—many Turks, after all, are not Tweeters.)

So I went ahead and out of my way and talked to as many folks as I could, especially the religious Turks, those for whom Islam mattered and Ataturk’s legacy (had) meant trouble. There’s a bias at work, of course, but I’m admitting to it—and redressing an imbalance in Western media coverage. So, yes, I have little in common with Kemalists, a secularist elite. And, yes, it’s easier for me to get religious Turks to open up to me. But what I found? That speaks to all of Turkey.

There are at least three kinds of religious Turks. Aligned firmly with Erdogan’s AKP, there are big businessmen, dynamic capitalists, those in the pursuit of faith and free enterprise. Then there are the Turkish shopkeepers, who we in America might call ‘Joe the Plumbers’. And finally the kind influenced by Sufism. These are impressions of course, with no hard data behind them, but the differences I encountered speak to the diversity of religious identity.

In the past these very different folks had come together because of the shared experience of Kemalist oppression, but AKP’s very success may have made those alliances less vital. Which might be why Erdogan has chosen to respond so harshly, and with such divisive rhetoric. He knows how to build coalitions. And maybe now he’s hoping to save one. In his favor? There is no safe haven, politically speaking, for such religious Turks. The Kemalists, like our Republicans, are busy imploding.

And the far-right nationalists? As you’ll see—not happening.

It’s AKP or nothing.

Some AKP supporters I spoke to insisted that the Kemalists, with anarchists and the help of outside powers (Russia because of Syria, Israel because of Gaza) were promoting a sustained, organized effort to besmirch Turkey. These various forces, they said, could not stand the idea of a powerful Muslim democracy, and had long waited for this chance to take Turkey down. For a country especially dependent on foreign investment, they argued, it was a brilliant move.

Other AKP supporters took a different tack. ‘Stop crying over spilled milk.’ To them, winning elections was a mandate, and you did with that mandate whatever you wanted. The only way out was by winning your own election, which seemed unlikely at the moment. But then, I wondered, would they want to be treated in the same way? Then I read in The Economist of “anti-capitalist Muslims” joining the protesters, a whole class of religious Muslims that, as Mustafa Akyol has reported, disagree with Erdogan. I didn’t get to meet any so described.

But their very presence underlines what I found.

I met lots of religious Turks unhappy with Erdogan.

Many Turks who expressed sympathy for, or were members of, Sufi orders believed that Erdogan had gone too far—not just with the protests in the park, but from before then. One academic I spoke to discussed the urgent need for a peaceful resolution of Kurdish grievances. He challenged the state narrative on Armenians and Alevis, a significant and frequently marginalized Shi’a population. He even argued that because some Turks consider alcohol consumption part of “their identity,” the religious “must respect that.”

This ‘live and let live’ turned out to be more generous than I thought.

On a boat ride over to Uskudar, on the Asian side of Istanbul, I met a family of religious Turks, one of whom was carrying an AKP flag. Were they going to the rally, called that night to demonstrate unity in the face of the protests? “No,” one of them said, “we’re going to a cultural show.” Why the flag then? They supported Erdogan—but had better things to do that night.

“Our Brothers and Sisters”

Late the next night, I and some friends headed over to a Sufi lodge in Fatih, a deeply conservative neighborhood. For a good hour we became a single lung, fiercely and desperately exhaling God’s name, in an ascending wave of spiritual fervor. Allah, Allah, Hayy! God, God, the Living. Hours of stunning Ottoman music and rapt devotion were concluded by a Shaykh huffing and puffing on a chain of cigarettes. If it bleeds, it leads. Where there’s smoke, there’s Islam.

Better than tear-gas, yes. But worse than nargile.

Several decades ago, these gatherings would have been prohibited outright. It’s hard to imagine how terribly quickly Ataturk changed Turkey, and though it’s clear many identified with and embraced some of those changes, many more did not—or simply would have been appreciative of a consultation or two. Not surprising, then, that the AKP feels itself to be redressing an undemocratic wrong.

The question is: Will Erdogan stop seeing opponents as subversives? Because that’s how Turkish democracy has gone for most of its history. But it’s not just Erdogan. Running from a cloud of tear gas, and then some more, I will not forget returning to a main street very close to Taksim to applause—the open mockery of protesters by local residents, some of whom dismissed the protesters, some of whom paid them no mind, and some of whom wanted to join the cops.

To beat them up.

The Sufi Shaykh spoke through his own smoke, a pleasing metaphysical affect. “The Alevis,” he said, and I leaned in closer, trying to make out his words, “are our brothers and sisters.” In a time of rising Middle Eastern sectarian tensions and blowback from Turkey’s involvement in a brutal Syrian civil war, this Sufi leader stressed the importance of good neighborly relations and due regard for the other. And not just any other.

Alevis are a long-mistreated minority, with uncomfortable relations to the state. Here, and not in shopping malls or business deals, did I find Islam. In the modest ambitions and deep reservoirs of spirituality that are translated into poetry, art, etiquette, praise, music—and community. When I’d met with some of the protesters near Taksim, angry at a ridiculously heavy-handed police response, they talked angrily about Erdogan’s divisive politics and rhetoric.

Did you know he was going to name Istanbul’s third suspension bridge after Sultan Selim, an Ottoman monarch who’d massacred many Alevis—and, by the way, conquered much of the Middle East? (From Baghdad to Algiers—what have you done with your life?) Sitting, or more accurately pinned, against a wall in this lodge, I wondered if the protesters knew that religious Turks frequently echoed their concerns and shared their worries.

When Erdogan had turned to partisan politics in response to widespread protests (though not nearly as all-encompassing as our media has made it out to be), the very day after his major Istanbul rally reminding his base of Kemalist oppression, this Shaykh spoke of embracing those who had been dismissed and derided by the state as “terrorists”—Kurds, and those condemned for having a different Islam—Alevis.

There’s no way he said this unintentionally.

There were dozens of folks there. Not a single person grumbled. Not a single seemed upset. (One of them, for good measure, looked like a resurrected Janissary. The congregation hung on his words, which rejected Ataturk’s provincial nationalism and equally undermined what Erdogan has used this crisis to do. The man has already been in power for well over a decade. Turkey’s most influential leader since Ataturk. But all the same, do not underestimate him.

These many different religious Turks, after all, will not forget what it was like to be at the wrong end of the state, and maybe this unrest will allow Erdogan to once again champion that narrative of the resistance of the people to an undemocratic, secular elite—and this story brings many other religious Turks along, on the thinking that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Or maybe the many religious Turks I talked to, unhappy with Erdogan, will drift away.

To where, though?

Islam and Democracy, Or, Why AKP Needs to Lose an Election

On my last afternoon, I strolled down a street in a neighborhood of Istanbul that could be confused for Paris, except I passed people in vexillological consternation—some stores flying plain Turkish flags and others with Ataturk’s face stamped over them. In front of me, a young woman with a headscarf helped a woman who I assumed was her mother—no headscarf—sit. They were drinking cappuccino and water, respectively.

Across from me, a young couple probably on a date. She looked bored.

This is not the end of Turkish democracy. Don’t underestimate the Turks. They contributed to one of the world’s most powerful empires ever. “But the Ottomans had become too corrupt,” a Turkish-American academic told me, right after we walked out of a mosque. “They had to die.” He had little love for Ataturk, though, whose nationalism had divided people against each other and destroyed the cosmopolitanism and generosity of the classical Muslim world.

And then, in the same monologue, “I wish Erdogan would shut his mouth.”

Years of investment in education and the careful rehabilitation of their cultural and spiritual heritage means religious Turks are quite confident. They can stand on their own two feet.

The Economist has put Erdogan in Ottoman dress on its recent cover. Some search his life for evidence of authoritarianism. This is pointless. Elect almost any politician back to power enough times, and he will become authoritarian—don’t give me comparisons to George Washington, who knew when he stepped down power would continue to be in the hands of his kind. Erdogan’s recent overreach is the expected result—he has won too much and he still fears the deep state.

‘You can march triumphantly into your grave,’ the Germans say.

The way forward lies in the organization of a robust opposition, and a collapse of crude boundaries—Europe or Asia. Ottomanist or Kemalist. Many held that the election of AKP would settle the question of Islam and democracy once and for all. But AKP needs to lose an election, and not just lose, to ‘settle’ a question that cannot be settled, but ever negotiated, fought for, and balanced—just like democracy. For now, the very idea of an Islamist party needs to die.

Not right away, mind you. But soon.

In a state that openly discriminated against the religious, a religious party is part of the healing. But Turkey has come far enough. Kemalism is a spent force. (Though Erdogan’s intransigence may revive it; how’s that for irony?) The religious have asserted their rights, and reshaped Turkey so that it more accurately reflects itself. At this juncture, identity politics is not irrelevant—but is outright harmful, backwards-looking, and pointless.

In one of his major speeches to an admittedly rubberstamp National Assembly, Ataturk defended his 1924 elimination of the Ottoman Caliphate, at the time a deeply troubling move. The powers vested in him, he argued, now devolved to the Turkish people. To them. Not to a President or a Prime Minister. But to a democratic body.

Erdogan’s embrace of democracy, and Turkey’s rejection of Ataturk is in many ways a strange confirmation of the latter’s hopes—he is fulfilled in his marginalization. So too has Erdogan, having fulfilled the role dialectical materialism would have assigned him, were I to believe in it. Good work, in other words. Step aside, I mean to say. But where is the next generation?

To settle the question of Islam and democracy, then, we must see transcendence. That a person of faith can vote where her faith takes her, that faith and party come apart, that religious Turks are welcomed by opposition parties, or create alternative parties, or otherwise Turkey will be doomed to culture wars.

“Only God and the Prophet are perfect,” a cab driver told me. We who interpret them are not. There’s your Islam and democracy.

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