In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Turkey was often seen as the model for a democracy in the Muslim world. The economic policies of the current government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamic Fundamentalist party AKP have been praised widely in the West, just last week again by star-economist Jeffrey Sachs. So, where is the uprising coming from?
To understand what is happening in Turkey, it makes sense to look at neighbouring Iran. In some ways, Iran could be seen as the prototype of the current regime in Turkey. Former president and revolution-veteran Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in his recent attempt to re-enter political life now turns out to be a billionaire – as do many of his fellow ‘religious’ leaders. But it is not just personal: The main policies of his presidency (1989-2007) read like the script book of the Washington Consensus: liberalization of the economy, creating ‘free’ markets, privatization – Mr. Rafsanjani used the classic toolbox of what often is dubbed ‘neoliberal’ capitalism in the West. The result is rather similar, too. His policies created a new super-rich upper class and made life rather tough for the vast majority of Iranians.
This in itself is surprising and widely overlooked in the Western media. The Iranian revolution, together with the more recent uprisings in the Arab Spring of 2011, had this strong whiff of a grassroots movement, driven by the disenfranchised, poor, working class, common-man-on-the-street. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Turkey is just the more recent example for understanding the way Islamic fundamentalism and a neo-liberal ideology can be the coziest of bedfellows. The current uprising on the streets of Istanbul in fact is then very similar to what we saw in Tehran in 2009. The Islamic aspect of Turkish politics could be overlooked as Mr. Erdogan applied a piecemeal approach to changing the secular foundations of Turkey. Examples are the recent gaffe about a ban of red lipsticks for stewardesses on Turkish Airlines or the attempt to curtail the sale of alcohol. It only became more visible in Turkey’s recent conflicts with Israel in the context of support for the Palestinian state.
For most of his tenure though, Mr. Erdogan was praised in the West for his economic policies. He continued what his predecessor Turgut Ozal started by reducing trade and FDI barriers, liberalizing the economy, privatizing many of the large assets of the Turkish state and creating a new class of Turkish entrepreneurs, the so-called ‘Anatolian Tiger’. Suffice to add, that Mr. Erdogan himself and his wider family is said to have amassed a fairytale fortune over the last decade which puts him just on par with the Ayatollahs next door.
Mr. Erdogan’s base (he won his third term by around 50 per cent) is clearly in the poorer, underdeveloped and more backward parts of Central and Eastern Turkey and the poor, fast-growing neighborhoods of Turkey’s big cities – very much what on the surface looks like a working-class movement. Conspicuously though, under Mr. Erdogan, we have also seen a systematic dismantling of worker’s rights and a trade union movement deeply rooted in the 90-year tradition of a social democratic state.
There were already riots in Istanbul just over a month ago – hardly noticed in the West. On May 1 (the European version of Labor Day), trade union rallies and demonstrations are common on in many larger European cities. This year though, in Istanbul, they were banned for the first time. The hard core of labor activists that still defied the ban and turned up on the same Taksim Square were treated much like the demonstrators last weekend
But this is not just one isolated incident. In 2012, Turkish Airlines fired 300 employees who went on a strike opposing imminent legislation by the AKP targeted at further limiting rights to industrial action. In the built-up to a workout planned for May 15 this year one could read paternalistic messages from the company on large screens in every sales office of Turkish Airlines, encouraging workers to trust the company rather than the union.
This is what makes the current ‘Turkish Spring’ different from the Arab Spring: it is a revolt against an Islamist regime, that implements neo-liberal policies and infringes democratic freedoms to do so. It is more Tehran than Tahrir Square. As much as the rhetoric seems to juxtapose Political Islam against its arch-enemy, the United States as the ultimate capitalist system, the proof on the ground points in a markedly opposite direction.
Islamic fundamentalism is not an alternative to neo-liberal capitalism, which brought the West the ongoing financial crisis. It is exactly the same project, albeit under a different ideological cloak. In Turkey, we now see that people had enough. And despite NATO member Turkey’s geopolitical importance with the current crisis in Syria, Western leaders are well advised to take the current protests on the streets of Turkey seriously.
Dirk Matten is the Hewlett Packard chair in Corporate Social Responsibility at York University’s Schulich School of Business and a visiting professor at Sabancı University in Istanbul