In the comfortable residential streets near Istanbul’s protest-scarred Taksim Square, you won’t see a lot of Islamic headscarves. You’ll see people drinking beer on patios, and inside the expensive, crumbling apartments are portraits of Kemal Ataturk, the secular revolutionary who founded modern Turkey in the 1920s, and almost none of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the economically liberal, socially conservative politician who has been Turkey’s Prime Minister for 10 years. Speak to the residents and you will hear nostalgia for the days of a proudly secular, officially uni-ethnic Turkey whose state-owned economy gave this old middle class a security and status it has not since enjoyed.
Cross the Bosporus into the bustle of Istanbul’s Asian side, and the headscarfed, mosque-attending residents are supporters of Mr. Erdogan. These are the “Islamic Calvinists” whose potent combination of religious piety and capitalist zeal is the fuel behind Mr. Erdogan’s success. Their embrace of entrepreneurship, private-sector capitalism and European Union membership have propelled Turkey’s decade of rapid economic growth, and their conservative values have threatened the secularism that was central to the country’s founding identity.
What is important about the protests in Taksim Square is that they emerged from neither of these worlds, and are in many ways opposed to both of them.
Step a few paces back from the tear gas and violence and you’ll see the gestation of a new, previously unseen political generation.
Much of the recent history of the Islamic Middle East has been defined by similar struggles between these two traditional blocs: There’s the old, “downtown” middle class, which fared well under the nationalist movements that took power in the 20th century, winning secure employment under the state-run economies of these secular regimes in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Tunisia and Turkey. And there’s their historic opposition, the rural-origin religious believers, who were excluded from the economic and political life of those regimes. These new classes relied on Islamic political movements to provide their schools, health care, welfare and small-business support.
The outcome, when the secular regimes collapsed in failure (Turkey) or were overthrown (Egypt) was the Muslim parties that have shot to power. The tension between these secular and religious classes is the core political conflict in much of the Middle East. What we’re seeing in Istanbul, however furtive and awkward, is the rejection of this entire conflict.
The protesters are overwhelmingly young, middle class, educated and above all secular. Their rage is directed at the acts of religious asceticism imposed by Mr. Erdogan’s government (including a ban on the sale of alcohol in shops between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. and tolerance of crackdowns on press freedom), and the slow drift of his rule into petty demagoguery, in the midst of his third electoral majority.
But these protesters are not the secularists of old Istanbul. True, some are Marxists or anarchists or professional protesters, but at their heart, these protests are the throat-clearing gesture of a new voice, one that has no interest in either Islamic politics or the economic and ethnic nationalism – and Middle Eastern identity – of the old secularists.
“The main opposition parties are stuck in a time warp, their mindsets incapable of understanding the present protests,” Prof. Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University told reporter Emre Peker.
Notably absent from these protests, except for a few token gestures, has been Turkey’s secular opposition party, the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), which was taken entirely by surprise by the movement. The protesters are alienated from this century-old establishment party, wrote protest supporter Aslan Amani, because its leaders “have been anti-minority rights, have sided with the military and have even resisted civil-rights reforms.” In order to regain the support of this generation, he continues, “the CHP has to shun the anti-Kurdish, isolationist and statist elements of its platform.”
The Istanbul protesters are not going to form a major new political party – at least not yet. They are too few in number and too factionalized. And unlike Egypt or Syria, there is a small chance that the old secular party could adapt. (CHP leader Kemal Kilacdaroglu claims to be a reformer).
But it’s more likely that this movement will lie dormant until disgruntlement with the authoritarian secularists and the angry religious parties becomes a dominant voice in Turkey. Theirs is the anger of the future.