OpinionTaksim is not Tahrir

Stories of the Turkish 'unrest' have been rampant and confusing in the past two weeks. They've been interesting to some extent. I thoroughly enjoyed the pictures of the whirling dervish in a gas mask; he was unequivocally iconic. The pictures of the colorfully dressed yogis at Gezi Park were equally intriguing. 

However, equating the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square with those held two years ago in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and calling the Turkish unrest a "Turkish Summer" comparable to the "Arab Spring" is ridiculous. The Turks are not uninstalling a totalitarian despot; rather, certain social groups are voicing their concern with their Prime minister’s alleged authoritativeness. These groups are not necessarily representative of the country’s mainstream political sentiment, but they are nonetheless entitled to speak out.

Taksim by Alan Hilditch
Police shooting tear gaz canisters at protesters near Taksim Square in Istanbul on June 1, 2013
(Photo by Alan Hilditch, Flickr/Creative Commons)  

I am no specialist of Turkey’s internal politics, and I don't intend to delve deep into a debate that is probably more complex than meets the eye. However—and I am speaking here from the perspective of a pro-democracy, Arab Spring supporter—there is no doubt that Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a democratically elected leader. He was jailed for reciting poetry deemed offensive to the authorities in the late 1990's. One might disagree with his government’s town planning policies, but there is no doubt that Istanbul was gentrified, converted back from the giant slum it was a decade ago, to the majestic city history has cemented it to be.

Let us not forget that under Erdogan, Turkey’s GDP has tripled, pulling millions of Turks out of poverty and boosting a thriving middle class.  Last but not least, Erdogan made his country a regional and international powerhouse, by creating a revolutionary foreign policy that rendered his neighbors' joke worthy—one that rattled the offices of the US State Department, European Foreign Ministries, and taught Israel that its actions do not go unscrutinized. I would personally cheer up to any Arab leader with half that record.

What happened in Gezi Park was obviously unfortunate. The projected destruction of the park is indeed a debatable matter, and police forces must be held accountable of the unnecessary brutality with which they met peaceful protesters. Yet taking the plunge right away and calling Erdogan on that ground an illegitimate, autocratic leader is ludicrous.

Some Kemalist secular activists in Turkey claim that the protests that followed the Gezi Park fiasco were an expression of long-standing frustration over Erdogan’s rule. They accuse him, and arguably rightfully so, of dealing with the crisis carelessly and with a large ego, as his statements indicated. But they are also quick to let you know that the protests have “grown beyond Gezi Park.” They accuse Erdogan, the “Islamic boogeyman”, of having a master plan of trying to abolish alcohol consumption in Turkey. They cite the law that alcohol cannot be sold after 10 pm—among other laws—as evidence. The sale of alcohol is prohibited within 100 meters of a mosque, church or school, and alcohol brands cannot advertise on TV, billboards, or sporting events. And Erdogan and the AKP are against abortion.

Those who pinpoint Erdogan as the archenemesis of secular democracy are blindsided. Sometimes, secular advocates can be their own worst enemies. 

I don’t know whoever perpetuated the pipe dream that Erdogan is a liberal. He and his party, the AKP, are undeniably right-wing. They are a conservative party within a multi-party secular democracy. There are similar laws on alcohol in Pennsylvania; and in the United States, conservatives tend to be “pro-life” and less lenient with alcohol sales, especially late at night and near schools. Alcohol is legal in Turkey, and little indicates that it will ever cease to be so. To cite alcohol regulation and the Gezi Park incident as grounds for Erdogan’s impeachment is beyond unreasonable.

I adhere to secularism—as a set of values that enshrines individual freedoms, including freedom of expression and conscience—; but radical secularism is a disease. It is guilty of what secularism initially set out to correct by separating Church and State: dogmatic blindness, intolerance, and almost cultic aversion to pluralism.

I posted on Facebook that “Erdogan will always remain a legend”, because he is one of the very few democratically elected leaders in a country with Islamic heritage who guaranteed secular freedoms while presiding over tremendous economic growth and social empowerment for millions of his compatriots (notwithstanding the foreign policy achievements I underlined earlier). That is my opinion, one that I am entitled to and that anyone else is entitled to disagree with. Yet it was marked as spam or as “inappropriate” by those who did not agree. My Facebook post was deleted 7 times, and I still cannot post it. My friends had to post it on their own walls so that I may share it on mine.

Those who deleted my status did so because they thought I did not understand their struggle for “freedom” and civil rights. They were fighting a “dictatorial” Erdogan who “stood in the way of (their) civil liberties”, yet they had no qualms with stripping me of my own right to freedom of speech. I cringed at Erdogan’s comments on social media being a place for liars and extremists, yet after I was blatantly censored for voicing my opinion, I find it difficult not to tentatively agree—to some extent and without generalization—with his characterization.

Sometimes, secular advocates can be their own worst enemies. What is certain is that, by pinpointing Erdogan as secularism’s archnemesis, they dogmatically blindside themselves. And they miss an opportunity to remind the world of what secularism is first and foremost about: balance and reasonableness. 

*Mohammed Khalid Alyahya is a Philadelphia-based Saudi political commentator, focusing on Middle Eastern affairs. He tweets as @7yhy


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#2 Manaf Zarei 2013-06-13 14:48
Thanks. I think there’s such a current that can be identified as “radical secularism”, as manifest in government’s restriction of individual religious freedom, as was the case with the veil ban. But it can be argued that this is contrary to the essence of secularism as strictly the separation of state and religion so as to neutralize theocratic tendencies and the state’s ability to either enforce or curtail religious beliefs & practices.
I agree on the distinction between AKP & autocratic Arab regimes overthrown by popular revolutions. Erdogan has been elected repeatedly & is associated with relative political stability. But it’s valid to question his commitment to democratic ideals, as opposed to just a means to rule, in light of his imperious undertones, heavy-handednes s, intolerance for media freedom, & paternalism that have come to the surface with Taksim. Hence, to portray Erdogan & his AKP as champions of the so-called “Arab Spring” & model for the freedom-seeking revolutions usurped by Islamists is more preposterous than associating Taksim with Tahrir. In fact, he’s been more of an leading member of the unofficial counterrevoluti onary alliance of the GCC & the West, as typical of a conservative.
As to the economic wonders he’s credited with, there’s another, less frequently heard viewpoint that deems it a “delusory success story”, like this one
#1 Abdulrahman Alkurdi 2013-06-10 05:31
Great piece Mr. Alyahya. Well written.