Originally Published 2013-07-06 00:00:00 Published on Jul 06, 2013
It's easier to compare the Taksim Square protests in Turkey to an Arab Spring, or a supposed tale of religious dictatorship versus freethinking democracy. But what actually lies underneath is a nation going through a debate over several ideologies and multiple identities.
Taksim Square protests: Can it really be called the Turkish Spring?
At the surface, the similarities between the protests at Taksim and Tahrir Square (or even the Occupy Wall Street Movement for that matter to some extent) stare right at you. A government and its leader acting borderline autocratic, violent clashes between thousands of civilian protestors and police, twitter and facebook acting as catalysts to the entire affair, et al. These protests have invoked feelings of déjà vu to many in the intellectual sphere, more specifically the western media, enthusiastically reminiscing the Arab spring.

An ordinary protest by a group of environmentalists against the proposed demolition of Gezi Park, considered as one of the last few extant green spaces in Istanbul, for building of a shopping mall, snowballed into a civilian protest of magnanimous proportions in a fortnight, leaving hundreds injured and a few dead. It also raised very serious questions about this contentious issue. Although it isn't hard to gather what the protestors are demanding from the defiant government, cries for democratic rights, freedom of expression, salvation of secularism, have flooded the social media. However to understand this issue within this limited purview is to turn a blind eye to the sheer complexity that lies underneath the events transpiring in this dynamic country. Can the ongoing events really be called a political spring or winter? It's highly debatable.

Why Turkey isn't at the brink of a political revolution has a variety of reasons. Turkey has come a long way on the road of political and economic progress. It has become a global hub for economic exuberance, as the 17th largest economy in the world. It could achieve peaceful ties with the minority Kurds, and also acquire a permanent NATO membership, emerging as a major international player. These are accomplishments that are hard for both Erdogan and the nation as a whole to look past. Erdogan at the end of the day is no Mubarak. His legitimacy as the ruler has been granted to him twice in a row by his own people. On the last occasion, half of the entire voting population opted for him. Ignoring and dismissing criticisms of major international actors (including the European Union) on various counts he might be, but continuation of the excesses on the civilians can prove to be costly to the leader of a country awaiting EU membership. Forgoing the long awaited EU membership is a sacrifice Erdogan will never make, after meticulously transforming the country into a zealous and suitable candidate.

There are speculations in the international media about whether this will escalate into a Syria-esque civil war (between the thousands of protestors and equally numbered Erdogan supporters). But Turkey does not resemble Libya or Egypt quite so evidently. The internet cables haven't been tampered with, the police haven't been authorised to kill civilians (though it seems like all else has been sanctioned). There still exist judges in the judiciary who have the ability to oppose the government. The protests in Turkey are far removed from the ones that engulfed entire nations in the Middle East. Here the protests are to be seen only in Istanbul and some strands in Ankara, while the rest of the nation seems to be overwhelmingly unperturbed. Who are the participants of this 'nationwide' protest? Doctors, lawyers, film personalities, artists, students -- the most well to do in the nation, the ones who have benefitted the most from Erdogan's achievements. It is a highly multifaceted crisis, because the layers of the crisis go much deeper and in the past than it might seem or is being shown.

A fully functional model of democracy, free now from military guardianship, wherein governments have come and gone at the will of the people, gives the biggest testimony to the fact that Turkey isn't in the middle of a political spring. There also exist a number of state organisations and NGOs opposing state action, including the Turkish President Abdullah Gul who called out for peace with the protestors. More than anything, the factor that weighs the most is, that unlike the Arabs, the Turks do not wish to overthrow the government, (although their protest chants say otherwise).

Clearly, Tahrir and Taksim cannot be put on the same footing. So why then does the country find itself in deep crisis, with a protest which doesn't seem to lose momentum? Criticism for the situation has poured in from all quarters. The government has gone down to be described as a "human rights offender'' to downright "authoritarian". Erdogan has earned the dubious title of a "dictator". It is safe to not call it a political revolution, but what can't be denied is the conspicuous absence of media coverage of one of the biggest protests the country has ever seen in the initial few weeks, translating to many, as the exercise of heavy government control over media houses. Also irrefutable is the arbitrariness with which police forces are handling the civilians. But the most controversial facet of this matter is the behaviour of the Prime Minister. Erdogan not only has on several occasions severely condemned the protestors, spoken of conspiracies at play, backed with his divisive rhetoric (terrorists, looters likes of such are the terms he uses for the protestors) but also refuses to introduce any form of middle ground or open any channels for negotiation. He adamantly expresses his displeasure through open threats.

This arrogance finds its origins back in 2011, when Erdogan won for the second time in a row, a feat previously not met by any other ruler. He decided he could do whatever he wished to. The over-confidence and arrogance of power disseminated through introduction of many reforms. These were changes that portrayed the true orientation of the AK Party and its core ideologies, which it had kept at a low profile during its first run.

Characteristically, Erdogan and his AK Party are Islamic, fundamentally different from the secularist foundation and identity that the founding father Kemal Ataturk had envisioned and established for his nation. Laws such as prohibition on alcohol consumption after 10 pm, ban on kissing in public, the contentious issue of the hijab, and the general orthodox Islamic orientation that the government's demeanour seems to be acquiring, reverberates a feeling of insecurity amongst the secular Kemalists. For years now in the power equation, the Kemalist elite, westernised and previously militarised shared the larger proportion, as opposed to the Islamic 'religious Turks'. But in the 21st century, the religious Turks, now a class of successful businessmen, dynamic capitalists, with their shared experience of Kemalist oppression have found a new identity, confidence and a new voice i.e. the ruling government. The power dynamics are in a process of change.

In this urbane protest, you find a diversity of people; men and women (with or without hijab), religious secularists, young and old, all embracing the plurality in diversity that the nation has to offer. Each group harbours its own set of fears. Some fear the nation to be inching towards an Islamic replica of its Middle Eastern neighbours. Some fear the favours were meted out to Kurdish minority by the incumbent government at the cost of their nationality. Then there are others who fear the mounting clout of the Erdogan government, at the face of a disunited and non existent opposition. The protests are not about trees, not about a park, not about a shopping mall, not even about Prime Minister's apathy. It is essentially about the Turkish identity and uncertainty about the future of the country.

With its unique geo-political location, the nation finds itself at a crossroads between two very contrasting worlds. Westernised Europe with its model of liberal democracy on its one side and Islamic Middle East with its orthodox authoritarian model on its other side. It stands at a crucial point, hence explaining the immense international media attention it is drawing. To have a West friendly democratic government in Turkey holds of incontrovertible importance to the Western countries. Turkey is their only link to the otherwise hostile and alien West Asia.

To Erdogan all of the protests are backed and funded by these foreign agents, (ironical case, since many call Erdogan a major US ally, and highly West friendly). He speaks of conspiracy theories and the vested interests of the western media. Whether or not there are truly conspiracies at play here, Turkey is certainly not in a midst of an Arab Spring, and the propagators of such theories bear a special reluctance towards the idea of an Islamic Turkey.

For peace to prevail, there are certain pressing matters that need foremost attention. The police brutality needs to end, press freedom needs to be restored, and the fundamental qualities of a democracy need to be upheld. Then only can one dig deeper and move on to the core issues such as the problem of effective representation that this diverse country lacks. The protests are an outcry of frustration against a weak opposition that is far from articulating the growing sensitivities of Turkey's burgeoning middle class. A robust opposition will be the only effective answer to the arrogance that has taken over Erdogan and AK Party.

The country which was once lauded as one of the most successful democracies with a majority Muslim population, especially when crisis submerged its neighbouring countries, now faces the poignant question of whether Islam and democracy can be working combination. The answer to which the world eagerly awaits. It's easier to compare the Taksim Square protests to an Arab Spring, or a supposed tale of religious dictatorship versus freethinking democracy. But what actually lies underneath is a nation going through a debate over several ideologies and multiple identities.

(The writer is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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