Sensible commentary on Turkey

June 8, 2013

In Blog

Turkey is no caliphate, Erdogan no dictator

Uprising in Turkey is a democratic protest against the prime minister’s arrogance and hubris.


Turkish protesters chant slogans at Taksim Square in Istanbul on June 5, 2013, as part of ongoing protests against the ruling party, police brutality and the destruction of Taksim park for a development project.

OSMAN ORSAL / REUTERS Turkish protesters chant slogans at Taksim Square in Istanbul on June 5, 2013, as part of ongoing protests against the ruling party, police brutality and the destruction of Taksim park for a development project.

Unlike the Bibles blessing hotel rooms in the U.S., you won’t find Qur’ans in hotels across Turkey. Unlike Ontario Catholic schools, no Islamic school system in Turkey is funded by the state. Unlike the Queen celebrating her 60th anniversary on the throne with an official church service, no Turkish leader dare mark a state occasion in a mosque.

Yet we are being inundated with news and commentary on how Turkey’s “Arab Spring” is a “secular” uprising against the “Islamist” Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, an “authoritarian” “neo-sultan.”

There is no Arab Spring in non-Arab Turkey. The nation has had its spring over the last 10 years under his leadership, as he rightly claims.

Istanbul’s Taksim Square is not Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in appearance or spirit. It is small and ugly, not a Romanesque expanse. It is not the centre of a revolution against an entrenched “dictatorship.” It is only the central site of a democratic protest against prime ministerial arrogance and hubris, which will prove his undoing if he does not learn to control it.

The protesters were brutally mishandled by police. But that was not Erdogan’s doing. He is not guilty of all the sins he is being accused of. Nor is Turkey turning into a caliphate.

He can be heavy-handed but is less so than, say, Stephen Harper, and certainly less secretive.

He has a bigger mandate than Harper, having won three majorities, each with a bigger popular vote: 34 per cent in 2002, 47 per cent in 2007 and 50 per cent in 2011. It’s an unprecedented achievement.

He has asserted civilian control over the military and shadowy right-wing militias; tamped down dangerous narrow nationalism and started recognizing the rights of minorities — Christians, Alevis, Kurds, etc.; and arranged a ceasefire with the Kurdish Workers Party (deemed terrorist by Turkey, the U.S. and Europe) and is negotiating, with wide popular support, an end to a decades-long secessionist war that has taken 40,000 lives. He has tripled Turkey’s per capita income within a decade.

In the face of such historic liberal democratic achievements, it is ignorance or malice to put Erdogan in the same league as Arab autocrats or Iranian ayatollahs.

He is an observant Muslim, an advocate of a conservative lifestyle — but no more than many leading Christian Republicans.

His recent restrictions on the sale of liquor are less onerous than Finland just imposed — no retail sale from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. vs. Finland’s 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. Liquor flows freely around Taksim Square, especially the trendy Istiklal Street, which has more bustling bars than the Queen St. entertainment district. And the limits on liquor advertising are not all that different than the rules and guidelines across North America.

The misleading characterization of the current unrest as a titanic cultural struggle between Islam and secularism comes from three sources: westerners who demonize Muslims or see them only in clichés; Erdogan’s internal opponents who use Islam as a red herring; and Erdogan himself, who portrays his opponents as urban elites undermining the democratic verdict of the majority of (pious, rural) Turks.

The Islamic-secular divide is there but far less so than elsewhere.

When the government balks at “immodesty,” many Turks respond by kissing in public. When Turkish Airlines management wants to ban red lipstick and impose conservative uniforms, it is mocked and forced to back off.

There are other divides.

A growing NGO movement resists developers tearing up historic sites for shopping centres and ugly apartment blocks to cater to urban sprawl triggered by the economic boom.

Labour opposes buccaneer and crony capitalism.

There’s widespread public opposition to Erdogan’s involvement in the Syrian crisis. Turks don’t see it as their fight. They resent hosting 400,000 refugees. They are angry at the unrest in border towns and the bomb attacks.

But the cause of the current crisis is Erdogan himself. It is not just that he is arrogant and stubborn. He is not disciplined. He gets angry and reverts to his scrappy street fighter self, having grown up in a poor and tough Istanbul neighbourhood.

He is intolerant of criticism and leans on the media to toe the line.

For example, some outlets are not covering the current protests. He has jailed too many journalists. While the media, overall, are freer than they were 10 years ago when they obediently toed the military line, his personal interventions are widely seen as vendetta.

He is said to have driven his internal critics out. There’s no one in his office to control his micromanagement and his excesses. He did not have to wade into the Istanbul project on the site of a park, the one that caused the protest. As a former mayor of the city, he railed against the protesters.

This is a crisis of his making. A half-apology by his deputy prime minister won’t solve it.

Youth find his paternalistic lecturing particularly jarring, says Michael Thumann, Istanbul-based correspondent for the German weekly Die Zeit.

“He says, ‘You should have three kids, at least.’ ‘Don’t smoke, don’t be alcoholic, drink milk.’ ‘Our national drink is ayran (salty buttermilk),’ not raki (aniseed-flavoured liquor).

“Turks don’t like to be lectured at, either by the European Union or by their prime minister.”

Erdogan’s demagoguery is increasingly the issue. That speaks well of Turkish democracy.

Haroon Siddiqui’s column appears Thursday and Sunday.