by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 5, Sha'ban, 1434)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s heavy-handed response to Taksim Square protesters has exposed his intolerant streak. Turkey’s claim to being a “role model” for other Muslims has become untenable.
After 18 days of massive protests that brought Istanbul to a virtual standstill, they finally ended with heavy-handed tactics by the security forces. Nobody saw this coming within and outside Turkey since the country was considered an island of stability in an otherwise extremely unstable neighbourhood. During its long-lived one party rule, the Development and Justice Party (AKP) achieved political and economic boom turning Turkey into one of the strongest emerging countries in the region. Yet the unfolding events after the Gezi Park intervention show how fragile Turkey could be when it faces serious crises.
The protests erupted after the brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations against the local authorities’ decision to demolish the green space called Gezi Park, located in Istanbul’s famous Taksim Square. The plan was to replace it by reconstructing the late Ottoman period military barracks, despite a court hearing to halt the project until a ruling was handed down.
On May 28, the heavy-handed tactics of the police in dispersing the peaceful crowd angered many people from different backgrounds and turned the event into perhaps the biggest anti-government protest in Turkish history. According to reports, around 90 different protests took place in Turkey. Indeed, the inflammatory speech delivered by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan further provoked the people who then poured into the streets of Istanbul and some other major cities to express their anger against Erdogan’s remarks. On the third day of protests, Erdogan called the protesters “a few looters” and in an act of defiance announced he would not listen to them.
Both the government and the protesters were agreed on the point that the issue was not about a small lot of green land; it had deeper implications. From the standpoint of the demonstrators they were protesting against Erdogan’s rule which has become increasingly authoritarian. The protesters and their supporters say that after the last general elections in which the AKP secured 49.8% of the vote and formed a third consecutive government, Erdogan has become very arrogant and he has embarked upon a “social engineering” process that has alienated large segments of Turkish society.
The AKP supporters have traditionally been Sunni Turks and some religious members of the Kurdish community, which amounts to a majority in society. The number of Turkish ‘Alawi population is highly contested but it is somewhere between 20–30%. They are usually supportive of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party. The rest support Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, leftists and other smaller parties. Erdogan had initially tried to gain support of the various segments of society but realized the difficulty in achieving it. He thus chose the easier and more rewarding path for his political ambitions. His government policies have been designed to favor his supporters and have further alienated other sections of society, which consist of ‘Alawis, Kurds and secularists.
This AKP policy came under heavy criticism for nepotism in the allocation of civil servant posts and major contracts, and confiscated media outlets that were handed over to his supporters. Further, this involved making symbolic moves to make it clear where AKP’s loyalties lie. The recent naming of the third bridge, which is being built at the Northern end of the Bosporus is a striking example of the AKP government’s partisan stand. In the launch ceremony, it was announced that the $2.5 billion bridge was named the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, in honor of Ottoman Sultan Selim I (1465–1520). Sultan Selim is a much-disliked figure among ‘Alawis due to his persecution of the group. During his reign he ordered the massacre of thousands of ‘Alawis on the pretext that they were heretics, yet his real aim was to suppress the strongest opposition group in the Empire, which he suspected of cooperating with the Safawis in Iran.
The timing of the bridge launch was also interesting. Considering the ongoing civil war in Syria and the sectarian rhetoric that has erupted around the conflict, it was a strong foreign policy statement from Ankara that positioned Turkey on the side of the hardcore Sunni axis. Turkish ‘Alawis are inevitably outraged with the government decision and felt alienated.
However, the events that led to the Gezi Park protests not only angered the ‘Alawis; some prominent Muslim figures in Turkey who have been uncomfortable with AKP policies and practices also spoke out against the government. The Justice and Endeavour Platform, which includes some of the most influential Muslim thinkers, with a written declaration warned the government that its current stance harkens back to the past in which Muslims were persecuted. In addition, many Muslims were involved in the protests, most notably members of a group called Anti-Capitalist Muslims who even performed mass Jumu‘ah prayers in Taksim Square.
The government seems to have its own version of the story. On June 9, Prime Minister Erdogan held five different meetings with the public. In these, he used harsh language and issued threats against the protesters. His identical speeches were inflammatory as he mentioned small details about the demonstrations but ignored the bigger picture. He accused some of the demonstrators of drinking alcohol in masjids, in an attempt to discredit them. However, this information turned out to be false, as Suleyman Gunduz, ex-MP of the AKP and currently a columnist at the pro-government daily, Yenisafak newspaper, revealed in his column. Gunduz visited the Dolmabahce Masjid and listened to the mu’adhdhin of the masjid who was giving account of the incident to a government minister. The mu’adhdhin denied the rumours that the protesters drank alcohol inside the masjid and said that they were only taking refuge there from police brutality. In his piece, Gunduz warned that these kinds of rumours are dangerous as they might cause animosity among different segments of society — advice that Erdogan has rebuffed. Instead the mu’adhdhin was suspended from his post.
Erdogan then turned to another hot-button issue: the headscarf controversy. He reminded people about the difficulties Muslims experienced in the past, and expected those Muslims that participated in the protests to be grateful. However, some Muslim women responded to this on Twitter by reminding him how his party labelled the participants of the popular movement “No vote (for AKP) if there is no headscarved candidate.” Some Muslim women activists launched a campaign during the last election to tackle the isolation of headscarved women. At the time AKP labelled participants of the campaign as collaborators of the secularists who attempted to overthrow the AKP government on several occasions.
The government blamed the “interest lobby ” which consists of private banks that according to Erdogan were upset with recent government interference with interest rates. He also blamed outside powers for staging a plot against AKP rule. Pro-AKP mass media followed the official version of events and labelled the protesters as extremists, marginal groups, or even Iranian spies. In all of these statements Erdogan pointed out that in democracies, streets were not the place for the public to show their dissatisfaction with the government and that they need to wait for elections.
But many activists criticized this approach, especially Nureddin Sirin, a veteran Islamic activist who served an 8-year prison term after the February 18, 1997 military coup. He said Erdogan’s stance was not Islamic and he narrated the example set by the second khalifah, ‘Umar (ra), who was confronted by an old woman and he had to admit his mistake. Also Muslims challenged ‘Umar (ra) while he was on the pulpit that if he became unjust they would correct him with their swords. Nureddin Sirin said nowhere in Islam does it say we have to wait until the election for criticizing a Muslim leader who is treating the people unjustly. He needs to be more tolerant and should not forget that according to Islam leaders are the servants of the people not their masters.
Under pressure, Erdogan agreed to meet the protesters’ representatives. But thanks to the prime minister’s quick temper they could not reach an agreement. An incident during the meeting indicated how much Erdogan is led by his ego. According to the account of an activist woman who engaged in a row with him (Erdogan has publicly acknowledge the row), during the meeting she was upset that the discussion was centred around architectural matters at Gezi Park. She suggested that it was no longer a matter of architecture since the protests had been going on for 17 days and four people had been killed and many more wounded. She asserted, “the issue is rather a sociological matter” and needed to be dealt with accordingly. Upon hearing this, Erdogan got very angry and responded by raising his voice, “How dare you teach us sociology! We know what sociology and psychology are. How dare you tell these to us!” After this harsh response Erdogan stood up from his chair and people around him tried to calm him down but failed. Then his daughter who was also present at the meeting took him outside the room to cool him down.
It needs to be acknowledged that there were elements among the protesters who represented marginal, even terrorist groups, that wanted to capitalize on the opportunity and overthrow the government. Further, some protesters even tried to depict the demonstrations as merely a secular uprising against the “Islamist AKP,” which received a strong backing from the Western media. But considering the overall picture none of these reflect the fact that the protest included different sections of society and in general their aim was not to overthrow Erdogan’s government, rather it was a warning to him about his unjust policies.
What the long-term implications of these protests would be is difficult to predict at this time; similarly whether the protests have tarnished AKP’s reputation irreversibly is difficult to quantify. Five different independent companies carried out opinion polls regarding people’s position on the AKP. The results varied greatly ranging from 35% to 51% among those who said they would vote for the AKP in the next election. It is not realistic but even in the worst-case scenario the 35% vote would be enough for the AKP to retain control of government. Thus it is unthinkable that the protests themselves would prevent another AKP victory. But they were significant in the sense that there is growing discontent among the Turkish public who are being polarized as a result of policies of favouritism and nepotism. The AKP needs to take into account that such a polarized and tense society can become very unpredictable in the face of challenging political and social events.