Demonstrations in Turkey: The trouble with democracy

A protester holds a portrait of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk during a protest in Istanbul on June 6.
6 June 2013 – Project Syndicate (Prague)

Protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square are taking on the Islamism that came to prominence with Erdogan’s government and which they see as a threat to secularism and civil rights. But that’s the natural outcome of the end of Kemalist authoritarianism, writes Dutch author Ian Buruma.

One way to see the anti-government demonstrations in Turkish cities is as a massive protest against political Islam. What began as a rally against state-backed plans to raze a small park in the centre of Istanbul to make way for a kitschy new shopping mall quickly evolved into a conflict of values. The fight appears on the surface to represent two different ideas of modern Turkey, secular versus religious, democratic versus authoritarian. Comparisons have been made with Occupy Wall Street. People even speak of the “Turkish Spring.”

Clearly, many Turkish citizens, especially in the big cities, are sick of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style, his steely grip on the press, the restrictions on alcohol, the taste for building grandiose new mosques, the arrests of political dissidents, and now the violent response to the demonstrations. People fear that secular laws will be replaced by shariah law, and that the fruits of Kemal Atatürk’s secular state will be undone by Islamism.

Then there is the issue of the Alevi, a religious minority linked to Sufism and Shi’ism. The Alevi, who had been protected by the secular Kemalist state, deeply distrust Erdogan, who further put their backs up by planning to name a new bridge over the Bosporus after a 16th Century sultan who massacred Alevis.

Religion, then, would seem to be at the heart of the Turkish problem. Political Islam is regarded by its opponents as inherently anti-democratic.

Religion, politics and class

But of course things are not quite so simple. The secular Kemalist state was no less authoritarian than Erdogan’s populist Islamist regime, if anything it was more so. And it is also significant that the first protests on Istanbul’s Taksim Square concerned not a mosque, but a shopping mall. Fear of shariah law is matched by anger at the rapacious vulgarity of developers and entrepreneurs backed by Erdogan’s government. There is a strong leftist bent to the Turkish Spring.

So rather than dwell upon the problems of modern political Islam, which are certainly considerable, it might be more fruitful to look at Turkey’s conflicts from another perspective, now distinctly unfashionable: class. The protesters, whether they are liberal or leftist, tend to be from the urban elite, Westernised, sophisticated, and secular. Erdogan, on the other hand, is still very popular in rural and provincial Turkey, among people who are less educated, poorer, more conservative, and more religious.

Despite Erdogan’s personal authoritarian tendencies, which are obvious, it would be misleading to see the current protests purely as a conflict between democracy and autocracy. After all, the success of Erdogan’s populist Justice and Development Party, as well as the increasing presence of religious symbols and customs in public life, are a result of more democracy in Turkey. Habits, such as women wearing headscarves in public places, suppressed by the secularist state, have reappeared because rural Turks have more influence. Young religious women are turning up at urban universities. The votes of conservative provincial Turks count.

The alliance between businessmen and religious populists is hardly unique to Turkey. Many of the new entrepreneurs, like the women in headscarves, are from villages in Anatolia. These newly rich provincials resent the old Istanbul elite as much as businessmen from Texas or Kansas hate the liberal elites of New York and Washington.

‘Incompatibility of equal goods’

But to say that today’s Turkey has become more democratic does not mean that it is more liberal. This is also one of the problems revealed by the Arab Spring. Giving all people a voice in government is essential to any democracy. But those voices, especially in revolutionary times, are rarely liberal. What we see in such countries as Egypt, but also in Turkey, and even in Syria, is what the great liberal British philosopher Isaiah Berlin described as the incompatibility of equal goods. It is a mistake to believe that all good things always come together. Sometimes equally good things clash.

So it is in the painful political transitions in the Middle East. Democracy is good, and so are liberalism and tolerance. Ideally, of course, they coincide. Right now, in most parts of the Middle East, they do not. More democracy can actually mean less liberalism and tolerance.

It is easy to sympathise with the rebels against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria, for example. But the upper classes of Damascus, the secular men and women who enjoy western music and films, some of them members of religious minorities, Christians and Alawites, will have a hard time surviving once Bashar is gone. Baathism was oppressive, dictatorial, often brutal, but it protected minorities and the secular elites.

Is this a reason to support dictators, just because they keep Islamism at bay? Not really. For the violence of political Islam is largely a product of these oppressive regimes. The longer they stay in power, the more violent the Islamist rebellions will be.

This is no reason to support Erdogan and his shopping-mall builders against the protesters in Turkey either. The demonstrators are right to oppose his haughty disregard of public opinion and his stifling of the press. But to see the conflict as a righteous struggle against religious expression would be equally mistaken. A greater visibility of Islam is the inevitable result of more democracy. How to stop this from killing liberalism is the most important question facing people in the Middle East. Erdogan is no liberal. But Turkey is still a democracy. It is to be hoped that the protests against him will make it more liberal too.

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