Until last week, Turkey would have seemed like the model modern Muslim country. Its historic cities and pristine beaches were full of tourists. Istanbul, Ankara and other cities were bustling with activity, cafés and bars overflowing, shops and restaurants doing brisk business. Politically, it seemed stable. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a decade into his uncontested rule, had just met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, where he reiterated Turkey’s commitment to Western standards of human rights and rule of law.
Then all hell broke loose. Taksim Square, Istanbul’s heart, burned. In Ankara and Izmir, protests pitted rock-throwing youths against water cannons and tear gas. The spark for the chaos was innocuous enough: a peaceful sit-in in a park in Taksim, protesting against a planned renovation that would see the park replaced with a shopping mall and a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks.
Environmentalists had been planning the sit-in for weeks, calling together Istanbul’s growing number of jugglers, hippies and artists for what was supposed to be a kind of festival-cum-occupation. Being a part-time juggler myself, I was invited in those early days and for the time I spent there, it was the kind of protest that could be easily transplanted to Canada or anywhere in Europe – colourful and creative, attracting well-educated and environmentally aware young people.
Then, the police attacked.
What’s played out since has shocked much of the world. But as knows anyone who’s lived in Turkey for any period of time over the past decade, it was inevitable.
These protests are the most visible incarnation of a recent rise in discontent over the increasingly authoritarian style of governance of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Last year, residents of Cirali, a small holiday village on the Mediterranean coast, rose up against government plans to turn their idyllic retreat into another five-star resort. Others, mostly farmers, marched in nearby Antalya, angered over land reforms that they said would open up protected forests to hotel developers, many of whom have strong links to the government.
While some have tried to link the current violence to growing tensions between the Islamist-rooted AKP and secularists, the reality is not so ideologically clear-cut. It’s no accident that Turkey’s environmental movement is at the forefront of the challenge to the AKP. Over the past decade, Turkey has experienced a massive construction boom. The country’s robust economy and inherent physical beauty have launched a tourism industry with lucrative potential.
But the push forward on the construction front has inspired push back. Young Turks have watched in horror as their historic neighbourhoods and green spaces have been demolished in favour of the glitzy vision of a New Turkey harboured by the AKP and its supporters in big business.
Many are beginning to realize that Islam is a red herring. A recent ban on the consumption of alcohol in public places, for example, only brings Turkey’s liquor laws more in line with Western countries. Even with that law in place, Turkey remains wetter than most of Canada, with corner stores overflowing with alcohol and restrictions on sales only very loosely enforced. Even legally underage Turks can buy booze more or less at any time, day or night.
Other social restrictions, including a proposed ban on kissing on buses, have been announced but then faded away.
Most observers of Turkey’s development under the AKP agree that Islam is a guiding principle for Mr. Erdogan in much the same way that Christian values guide U.S. Republicans. So while he may be pushing the country toward a more socially conservative outlook – making it harder for women to have an abortion, for example – fears of Islamization in the form of the implementation of sharia law are overblown.
The real concern is more economic than religious. The AKP is clearly ideologically bound to free-market capitalism. This, more than Islam, is what irks many of the protesters. Over the past decade, the AKP has exhibited increasing signs of crony capitalism. Its supporters, largely from the religiously conservative business community, have benefited from Turkey’s economic boom, but opponents have been sidelined.
There have been benefits: The average Turk’s yearly income has more than tripled under AKP rule to about $10,000 (U.S.). Turkey remains the fastest-growing economy in Europe and its powerful geopolitical position in a region with far-reaching global consequences has been assured.
On the dark side, however, press freedoms have been greatly eroded (according to a 2012 Reporters Without Borders report, Turkey has become the “world’s biggest prison for journalists”), allowing the AKP to push forward its domestic and foreign-policy agendas with little or no independent criticism. Mr. Erdogan’s disdain for independent media borders on callous – Sunday, he called Twitter “the best example of lies” and social media in general “the worst menace to society.”
Turkey’s youth, some of the most digitally connected in the region, obviously take offence to such overtones. The protests in Taksim Square have evolved into an emphatic renunciation of Mr. Erdogan’s patriarchal stance and his apparent belief that he alone knows what is best for his country.
Whether he’ll listen to such voices is less certain. Mr. Erdogan’s public announcements in the wake of the protests haven’t inspired confidence. He has repeatedly said the construction of the shopping mall and Ottoman barracks will go ahead, despite large-scale public opposition, and referred to protesters as “wild extremists” and “looters.” He also warned that “if this is a social movement, where they gather 20, I will get up and gather 200,000 people. Where they gather 100,000, I will bring together one million from my party.”
It’s unclear whether Mr. Erdogan has become deluded by power or utterly lost sight of how an inclusive democracy works. The growing scope of the protests should be a wake-up call; many who have previously voted for the AKP have come out in support of the protesters.
Turkey’s rapid rise under single-party rule has produced a leadership that feels free to do as it pleases. Those days, however, may be coming to an end.