Trouble in Turkey

Something unusual is happening in Turkey today that is not eliciting much local interest, mostly because there are not many Filipinos living and working there about whose safety we usually worry.  Since last week, the tail end of May, waves of antigovernment mass demonstrations have rocked this ancient land straddling Europe and Asia.  People have begun talking of a “Turkish Spring”—an allusion to the season of political uprisings from 2011 onward that brought down corrupt and autocratic rulers in the Arab world.

All this is unexpected. Turkey has little in common with the stagnant societies that were brought down by the so-called “Arab Spring.” Its economy is booming. Its government is led by a political party that has been successfully returned to office in the last three elections.  Its modern forward-looking leaders have moved the country, a Nato member, much closer than before to the United States and Europe.  And indeed, the new governments that emerged from the Arab Spring—like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia—look up to Turkey as a model of an Islamic society that is at the same time modern, progressive, and democratic.

So, what is it that proved outrageous enough to spark more than 600 mass actions nationwide in less than a week and caused the arrest of about 1,000 protesters, mostly young people, who fought the tear gas and rubber bullets of the police with bottles and paving stones?  There is no easy answer to this question.  The triggering event was a police crackdown on a few dozen urban activists who had pitched tents in an inner garden within Istanbul’s busiest public square.  They went there to prevent bulldozers from knocking down some trees to make way for a new development project—an Ottoman-style shopping mall and a high-end residential tower complex.  The police burned their tents while they slept and drove them away with tear gas.

The inordinate brutality of the police action contrasted sharply with the benign advocacy of these tree-huggers, some of whom were entire families who had gone there to teach the government a little lesson in ecology.  A news blackout about the violent dispersal in the mainstream media brought out the full force of the social media.  Photos and video footage of the sneaky dawn attack were instantly uploaded on YouTube and Facebook accounts. A thousand tweets summoned hitherto dormant activists to descend on Taksim Square and reclaim this remaining frontier of public space from the state. This show of defiance in Istanbul quickly resonated in Ankara, the capital city, and Izmir, the beautiful city along the Mediterranean coast.  And in a matter of a few days, all of Turkey’s major urban centers turned into rebel cities.

Instead of making an effort to reach out to the demonstrators and soothe frayed tempers, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came out swinging at the young protesters, calling them extremists, and hitting the political opposition he had defeated at the polls, accusing them of paving the way for foreign intervention.  Worse, he heaped the blame on the social media, singling out Twitter as a “menace to society.” One cannot think of a more emotional incitement to youth militancy than this moralistic kind of talk. The autocratic prime minister had clearly misjudged the situation.  The unions have started to mobilize for a general strike.  Turkey hasn’t seen this kind of upheaval in the last 30 years.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government has been, until now, a beacon of Islamic modernity, lighting up a path to economic and social progress anchored on the ethical values of Islam.  That this model of ethical modernity should find its roots in Turkey is a story in itself.  This nation was carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by the secular leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Modern Turkey was accustomed to living under a Westernized secular state fiercely protected by the military and the judiciary—until the emergence about a decade ago of the AKP and the ethico-religious movement known as Hizmet (The Service). The latter is a tightly knit network of middle-class professionals and businessmen who have been inspired by the influential Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen.  This community, which is active in education in and outside Turkey, forms the ethical core of the AKP’s constituency, though it strictly differentiates itself from the party.  The legacy of secularism remains so strong in Turkey that Erdogan himself opposes the activation of religion and ethnicity in politics.  Still, he understands secularism as state guarantee of religious freedom, not state hostility toward religion.

But because it seeks a link between Ottoman-Islamic culture and nation-state-based modernity, the AKP regime is vulnerable to charges of moral conservatism.  And indeed, the recent protests have pointed this out, seeing it as a regime bent on reversing the gains of modern secular culture.  The government has come under fire for banning the serving of beer and wine within 100 meters of a mosque or school, and for restricting the practice of abortion.  None of these complaints may earn much sympathy from the outside world.  But democrats everywhere will never excuse the employment of brutal police action against demonstrators and state control of the news.

It would be ironic, and a great pity, if Turkey goes down as a casualty of the new movements nurtured by the social media.  For there is much to admire in a societal experiment that consciously attempts to carve a different path to modernity by preserving some of the values of a past culture—what Nietzsche calls the “recrudescences of old instincts.”