On May 28, it looked like the Arab Spring, under which the entire Middle East had been simmering for two and a half years, had finally caught up with Turkey. Protestors gathered in Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul’s happening Beyoglu district to protest urban redevelopment plans for the area, but harsh action by the police sparked a conflagration that engulfed all of the country’s major cities. So far, over 640,000 people have come out onto the streets to protest against the Turkish government, and there have been at least six deaths, over 5,000 injured, and at least 3,000 arrests.

Yet Turkey is not, contrary to asinine prognoses, headed towards its own bloody convulsions. For one, the country is not a totalitarian state like most of its neighbours; the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has won three successive national elections in 2003, 2007, and 2011, gaining almost 50% of the popular vote and nearly two-thirds of the seats in parliament the last time at the ballots; and Turkey has seen impressive economic growth and become a regional power under his tutelage.

What are the protests about?

It has been alleged by some that the protests are anti-Islamist; after all, Erdogan’s premiership has recently seen a turn towards the authoritarian. In the last two years, the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) has increased restrictions on free speech, freedom of the press, internet use, television content, and even the right to peaceful assembly. Educational reforms have strengthened Islamic elements in school, a once meritorious civil service has become grounds for political patronage, alcohol sales have been severely restricted, and smoking in public places banned. The AKP has attempted to make abortion virtually impossible to access, opposed the extension of homosexual rights, and jailed people for blasphemy. Not only does this fit within a broad religious agenda, the Prime Minister has also expressed his desire to raise a “pious generation.”

There are other issues which have caused some concern, though Ankara’s roadmap on further progress on these issues is not clear. Chief among these are Turkey’s (relatively) new nuclear ambitions, the uncertain peace plan with the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), the constitutional conundrum, and the constant threat of the Syrian crisis spilling over into Turkey. Taksim, however, was not about any of these in particular nor did it mark the birth of a vocal environmental interest group.

The protests in Turkey are, as many regional experts have stated, more about a general dissatisfaction with Erdogan’s paternalism than any one issue – the prime minister has seen it fit to even comment on how many children Turkish families should have and the kind of bread they should eat (!). For his part, Erdogan repeatedly stresses on his nearly 50% mandate to bring the country in line with the majority’s wishes.

Conservative grievances

This is not mere rhetoric – few experts are willing to bet against an AKP victory in 2015, and Erdogan is cleverly playing the conservatives against the Kemalist elite. While many praise Turkey’s secularism despite its Islamic heritage and hold it up as an example to other Arabs, perhaps ill-advisedly, the fact remains that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk secularised the Anatolian stump of the Ottoman Empire by force. Traditional Islamic headdresses were banned, the hijab made illegal in public buildings, and even the weekend shifted away from including Friday, the traditional Islamic day for prayer, to be in line with the European Saturday and Sunday. Islamic education was severely curtailed, religious endowments seized, hundreds of mosques shut down, and the Shari’ah advisory council dismissed. Atatürk even changed the script in which Turkish was written from Arabic to Roman and had the adan translated into Turkish, thereby cutting every possible connection to the Arab heritage of Islam.

TurkeyConservatives in Turkey also remember vividly the saga of Adnan Menderes in 1950 and Necmettin Erbakan in 1996 – both were democratically elected prime ministers who were overthrown by the military, partly because of their Islamic platform. Aaron Stein writes that “it would be unwise to discount the resonance” of the idea of a “Turkish democracy” with the AKP voter base. Halil Karaveli predicts that the real opposition to Erdogan in 2015 will come not from the electorate but from within his own party – Turkish president Abdullah Gül has opposed the prime minister’s proposed constitutional reform to make the presidency stronger (in time for Erdogan to seek the office). Furthermore, as Mustafa Akyol notes, the powerful Gülen movement is more and more critical of Erdogan but not of Gül.

Who are the protestors?

The AKP might have done a decent job of cementing its credentials with its base, but it may well have polarised the rest of the electorate against it. A quick scan of the crowds on the streets reveals environmentalists, liberals, Alevis, secularists, communists, the LGBT community, and even a few Islamists under the banner of a group called Anti-Capitalist Muslims. Women in headscarves marched right alongside these disparate groups, challenging the lazy assumption that Turkey’s “Spring” was about Islamism versus secularism. As Sinan Ulgen observes, Erdogan’s style of majoritarian governance and eschewal of consensus, or even dialogue with his opponents on sensitive issues, has made Turks increasingly disaffected with the top-down, non-inclusive style of decision-making of their government.

The Turkish miracle

Western media, particularly in the United States, has consistently portrayed Turkey as a liberal democracy in a sea of autocratic, Islamic states, and compared to some US allies in the region, this is indeed true. By reaffirming its ties to NATO after the attacks on the United States on September 11 and by ratifying several (but not all) constitutional amendments that brought Turkey closer to European Union accession, Ankara was able to keep international attention focussed on its bloom.

On the domestic side of that bloom, things were not as sanguine. Michael Koplow and Steven Cook have raised thorny issues of journalists being jailed for trivial reasons or trumped up charges, business owners harassed if they disagreed with the government, and a series of social and judicial reforms that have concentrated power in the hands of the AKP. Women have borne their share of oppression too – between 2002 and 2009, the number of women murdered each year had shot up by 1,400% (!!) as officials who had attained their posts through patronage sympathised with Islamic notions of honour.

As Koplow and Cook argue, much of this was ignored due to the economic boom country experienced – between 2002 and 2011, the Turkish economy trebled, inflation plummeted from 34.9% to 5.7%, the public debt to gross domestic product ratio went from 74% to 39%, and foreign companies in Turkey ballooned from 6,700 to nearly 30,000.

However, the recent slowdown and the increasing loss of freedoms reached the tipping point at Taksim, exposing the festering “outrage over crony capitalism, arrogance of power, and the opacity of the AKP machine.”

Erdogan’s mistake

What might have been some irksome protests exploded into a country-wide outpouring of dissatisfaction with Ankara because of the police’s heavy-handed measures. Teargas, water cannons, plastic bullets, and molotov cocktails (by undercover police) crystalised in the minds of Turks everywhere as symbols of what had gone wrong with Turkey’s Kemalist experiment. Erdogan’s statement that he could muster a million supporters for every 100,000 protestors was a public relations disaster, as was his later comment that the protestors were nothing more than çapulcular (looters and bums).

Perhaps indicative of the battle lines for the 2015 elections, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç criticised the use of teargas and apologised for the use of excessive force. Gül also urged moderation. In an attempt to backtrack from his gaffe, the Turkish prime minister blamed foreign agents for fostering the violence, which has so far only opened him to more ridicule. Claire Berlinski makes it quite obvious in a poignant piece from Ground Zero that Erdogan tragically misstepped when he converted a peaceful protest of tree-huggers into enraged demonstrations across Turkey.

#Occupy what, exactly?

Ultimately, what may save the AKP is that the demonstrations so far have been disorganised, and the protestors are surer of what they do not want than what they do. Furthermore, opposition parties have not been able to make political hay for they are just as divided amongst themselves as the protestors. The protestors have not yet resorted to vandalism, which has kept the situation simmering and simultaneously denied the authorities an excuse to crack down harder and put an end to the unrest.

It is difficult to say what change will come out of this all; given the weakness of the opposition and the cluelessness of the protestors. A lot can happen in two years, but for now, it seems like Erdogan’s project of a more authoritarian government and a stronger presidency have had a setback while his opponents in the AKP have been given new political bases.


Most people, when told of the Khilafat Movement that broke out in India in 1919 to protest against the dissolution of the Caliphate in Turkey (1924) are dumbstruck. Despite the painfully thin rhetoric of Islamic brotherliness, Islamdom has never acted in a united manner. Why would Indian Muslims, who have their own heritage and cultural influences care about a moribund institution that maintained only in name what it originally was meant to be? The same question could perhaps be asked of the situation today – why should Indians pay attention to what is going on in Turkey?

The differences between the two states are many and obvious. The dynamics, however, are not entirely alien. India, too, is an old civilisation struggling to come to terms with modernity. Like Turkey, it also stands at a fork in the road between Western discourses of modernity and an ethos based on its own traditions. Again like Turkey, India also has a suppressed yet vibrant traditional majority (though, unlike Atatürk, the Indian National Congress has only been anti-tradition and not secular).

Is there a lesson to be drawn from the experience of the Kemalists and Turkish conservatives for India on the limits of secularism? To what extent does a majority mandate give the government to reform the structure of government and society? Where is the balance between liberty and paternalism in a traditional society? What are the ramifications of forcing a legalistic, modern paradigm of order upon communities deeply interwoven and accustomed to spontaneous order? These are just some of the questions Indians would do well to ponder upon as they look upon the events in Turkey.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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