A “TURKISH SPRING”? TURKEY REACHES HISTORIC BREAKING POINT: MASSIVIE RIOTS RALLY ANTI-ISLAMISTS AGAINST ERDOGAN


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Protests Shake Turkey's Sense of Stability: Victor Kotsev, Gobe and Mail, June 3, 2013—Tens of thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of Turkey’s four biggest cities on Sunday, braving tear gas and rubber bullets on the third day of the fiercest anti-government demonstrations in years. They were protesting a violent crackdown by the government against initially peaceful protesters trying to halt the demolition of a park next to Taksim Square – the heart of modern Istanbul – to construct a new shopping mall.

 

Unrest in Turkey Shows Cracks in AKP's Vision: Yavuz Baydar, The Guardian,  June 1, 2013—Despite the astonishing, far-reaching changes that Turkey has undergone in recent years, clouds of anxiety are gathering over the country. The apprehension has little to do with the economy. The negative energy emanating from Syria has a partial impact. The jitters in public sentiment stem essentially from increasingly pronounced links between politics and religion, interventions in lifestyles and the demands of various social groups going unheeded.

 

'Moderate Political Islam' Leading Turkey to 'Moderate Shariah': Kadri Gursel,, Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, May 31, 2013

Just before the parliament voted on May 24 for the bill that would introduce serious restrictions on the sale, marketing and consumption of alcoholic beverages in Turkey, neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) members added a clause that would also ban the retail sale of alcoholic drinks from shops between 10 p.m. and 6 in the morning.

 

On Topic Links

 

Protests in Turkey Reveal a Larger Fight Over Identity: Tim Arango, New York Times, June 2, 2013

Turkish Spring Update: Erdoğan Doubles Down: Michael Rubin, Commentary, June 3, 2013

Turkey's Velvet Revolution: Cengiz Çandar, Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, June 2, 2013

Istanbul Protesters: 'We Are Here For Our Freedom': Nafeesa Syeed, Al-Monitor, June 2, 2013

Talking Turkey about Obama: Joel J. Sprayregen, Jerusalem Post, June 1, 2013

 

 

PROTESTS SHAKE TURKEY'S SENSE OF STABILITY

Victor Kotsev

Globe and Mail, June 3, 2013

 

Tens of thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of Turkey’s four biggest cities on Sunday, braving tear gas and rubber bullets on the third day of the fiercest anti-government demonstrations in years. They were protesting a violent crackdown by the government against initially peaceful protesters trying to halt the demolition of a park next to Taksim Square – the heart of modern Istanbul – to construct a new shopping mall.

 

In support of the protests, residents honked car horns and banged pots and pans in several parts of Istanbul and Ankara until late Sunday night as clashes between riot police and demonstrators continued. Turkish TV stations reported that a building of the ruling AK Party was set on fire in Izmir.

 

More than 1,000 people have been injured since Friday, dozens of them from tear gas canisters fired at close range, according to Amnesty International, which also reported that at least two people have died. Still, protesters of all ages, political affiliations and socioeconomic status, said they would continue.

 

“Tayyip [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan] is saying, ‘I give you freedom,’ but it’s not true,” said Yasin Keskin, 27, a demonstrator at Taksim Square.

 

The protests have caught Turkish officials and their international allies off-guard: Turkey, a member of NATO and long touted as a bastion of stability and democracy in the region, is suddenly projecting scenes similar to those seen in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab Spring countries to whom Mr. Erdogan has offered guidance.

 

The international image of Turkey’s Prime Minister, champion of the rebels fighting against a brutal regime in neighbouring Syria, is now in question. While the protests initially began late last week as an Occupy-style movement against the building of a mall and a mosque on Gezi Park next to Taksim Square, the reasons for the mass outrage go back years: Mr. Erdogan’s administration has grown increasingly tyrannical in the past decade and, in recent months, his government has moved to roll back liberties Turks have enjoyed for years.

 

Many locals are complaining about the “Islamization” of Turkey, which has secularism enshrined in its constitution. Late last month, parliament passed a law severely restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol. At the same time, authorities warned against “immodest” public displays of affection, triggering a nationwide “kissing protest.”

 

Others express concern that Mr. Erdogan is setting himself up as “leader for life” and increasing a crackdown on dissent while limiting free speech and press freedoms even further. In recent months, a blogger and also a well-known pianist have been convicted of blasphemy for series of tweets deemed “harmful” to Islam. And Turkey has a particularly bleak record for persecuting journalists: The Committee to Protect Journalists has called it “the world’s leading jailor of journalists” – the country jails more reporters than Iran.

 

One original reason that drew protesters to Taksim Square is how the government has pressed on with the gentrification of Istanbul’s centre, recently evicting poor Kurds and migrant workers from the historic Tarlabasi neighbourhood close by. It also announced plans to build a third bridge over the Bosphorus, which will fell many trees and harm the environment, urban advocates say.

 

“The government wants to build up the capital for the bourgeoisie, and to send the workers out of Taksim and the other squares of the city,” said protestor Serkan Gundogdu. “The people have responded against the government and taken Taksim Square for themselves.”

 

Analysts say that the Turkish government is in a bind. The crackdown on protesters could endanger several important international projects such as Turkey’s accession talks with the EU and Istanbul’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. But it is also possible that, as the euro-zone crisis deepens, Mr. Erdogan may be looking in an altogether different direction, soaking in opportunistic Gulf Arab investments and political values. A financial bubble has been growing in the country in recent years, fuelled by investment redirected to Turkey following the Arab Spring. And while instability could threaten the Turkish economy, a heavy-fisted approach to the demonstrations could encourage the Arab investors, wary of asset freezes in the West, analysts say privately.

 

Regardless, Mr. Erdogan, known for his pragmatic and wily political style, backed off the shopping project late Sunday even as he continued to sound a defiant tone, vowing to “bring together” one million supporters of his Justice and Development Party for every 100,000 protesters gathered.

 

“The problem with Erdogan is that he is essentially calling about 40 per cent of the population marginal,” said Aaron Stein, an analyst at the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul, in a tweet.

The more immediate test, however, is whether Mr. Erdogan will be able to subdue the outrage at home. While most protesters did not believe they would topple the government, the crackdown has also failed to disperse the demonstrators so far.

 

In contrast to widespread vandalism on Saturday night in Istanbul, an atmosphere of solidarity took hold Sunday, with volunteers removing trash and distributing donated meals to protesters in scenes that hark back to Tahrir Square in Egypt. Some locals are already calling it the “Turkish Spring,” saying its borne out of a deep sense of frustration with Mr. Erdogan and his ruling party.

 

“It’s a protest against all the things [the government] does – they just say, ‘We want this,’ and proceed to do it but in an undemocratic manner,” said Bak, 42, manning a barricade near the scene of some of the clashes, and who asked his last name not be used. “I think these protests will grow, grow, grow, like a snowball. It’s the first time that you see such protests here – so many people coming together from so many different parts of society.”

 

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UNREST IN TURKEY SHOWS CRACKS IN AKP'S VISION

Yavuz Baydar

The Guardian,  June 1, 2013

 

Despite the astonishing, far-reaching changes that Turkey has undergone in recent years, clouds of anxiety are gathering over the country. The apprehension has little to do with the economy. The negative energy emanating from Syria has a partial impact. The jitters in public sentiment stem essentially from increasingly pronounced links between politics and religion, interventions in lifestyles and the demands of various social groups going unheeded. All attention is focused on the decisive impact that Turkey's Kurds will have on the country's macro politics.

 

Let's first lay out some observations on social unrest. Turkey's economy has continued to grow, and for its allies the country remains a powerful element of regional stability. In domestic politics, however, Turkey has entered a state of limbo as the 12-year-old government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) balks at matching economic growth with political reform, creating a tactical-strategic confusion with distracting machinations and deviations. Certainly, this has a lot to do with the lack of an alternative vision on the opposition side. But still, a powerful, single-party government is supposed to be able to make determined and far-reaching steps. There will be a way out of the limbo at the end of the day. But how?

 

The social unrest is concentrated in three main areas. First, the shortcomings in "public diplomacy" and lack of transparency in the five-month-old Kurdish peace process have led to confusion and anger, especially among Turks. This sentiment has triggered street violence by small groups, but what is more important is that the "silent majority" feels deprived of adequate information about the process. Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan grasped that. When bombings in the border town of Reyhanli raised fears about fanning a Sunni-Alevi conflict, he made a move to kill two birds with one stone. To distract attention, and please AKP's Sunni conservative voters, his party passed a law restricting alcohol sales, and Erdogan went as far as to argue that "the commandments of religion cannot be disputed".

 

Barring statistics on drunk drivers and the argument of "zero tolerance" for traffic violations, all other arguments used to justify the law – health, public order, alcoholism – have been unconvincing. As a result, Turkey's famously rational urban electorate, including the Sunnis, has come to perceive itself as the target of a "lifestyle intervention". The agenda has since been occupied by an issue supposed to be a non-issue.

 

There is more. A pompous groundbreaking ceremony was held last week to inaugurate the construction of a third bridge over the Bosporus in Istanbul, even though the environmental impact was not sufficiently debated. The prospective bridge was given the name of Sultan Selim the Grim, the cruellest adversary of Alevis and Shiites in Ottoman history. Conqueror of Egypt, the powerful sultan is known for the massacres of tens of thousands of Anatolian Alevis prior to and after his war against Iran.

 

The bridge might have well been named after Rumi, the great Sufi thinker who spread the teaching of universal tolerance from Anatolia, or any other Islamic humanist. It is not hard to guess how offensive the choice of Selim's name is for the Alevi community – who form about 10% of the population and are still awaiting an official acknowledgement of their religious identity and worship rights. The great bridge is thus likely to become the symbol not of united continents and cultures but of painful collective memory.

 

The anxieties are not limited to Alevis. A series of giant ongoing and planned construction projects in Istanbul ahead of local elections next year have – like the new bridge – united people of various political convictions and ages in a fresh opposition front.

 

In May alone, the authorities violently suppressed May Day demonstrations, hastily demolished a historically iconic movie theatre to replace it with a shopping mall and gave a forceful go-ahead to controversial construction projects at nearby Taksim Square without proper public debate. The last straw came when they cut down the trees in a park adjacent to the square.

 

The AKP government and local administrations have the means to do whatever they please to centuries-old Istanbul, regardless of how the city's fabric and environment are affected. But if they continue to step up the use of force against passive resistance, as happened in Taksim's Gezi Park, the opposition could speedily emerge as a concrete alternative.

 

The contradiction is obvious: the AKP government continues to speak of reform and repeats promises to usher Turkey from the existing constitutional order, the legacy of a military regime, to a new democratic system, But in only a few weeks it has managed to create two opposition fronts against itself – the Alevi community and the urbanites, who include also moderate religious people. If this polarisation continues, the "reasonable consensus" required for a new constitution will become a distant fantasy.

 

The Kurds remain the most significant opposition dynamic in the country. Even though the pullout of the PKK rebels continues free of controversy, the Kurds, who make up 18% of the population, feel themselves in limbo as they grow impatient to see any major reform. Their demands for rights and freedoms are increasingly coalescing with the demands of Alevis and various urban communities. The difference is in the transformation power of the political dynamic stemming from the Kurdish peace process.

 

One aspect of the social unrest and political uncertainty relates to questions emerging over the AKP's identity. The party is a powerful "social coalition", with a profile that goes beyond any Islamist identity, and has described itself as "Muslim Democrat" over the past five years. But during that same period, doubts have arisen over its "democrat" nature amid a slowdown in reforms, uncertainties in the Kurdish peace process and discriminatory rhetoric. And now the authoritarian and neoliberal attitude displayed in major projects concerning Istanbul's fabric, lifestyle and environment has given food for thought also to those who really know what "conservative" means.

 

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'MODERATE POLITICAL ISLAM'
LEADING TURKEY TO 'MODERATE SHARIAH'

Kadri Gursel

Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, May 31, 2013

 

Just before the parliament voted on May 24 for the bill that would introduce serious restrictions on the sale, marketing and consumption of alcoholic beverages in Turkey, neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) members added a clause that would also ban the retail sale of alcoholic drinks from shops between 10 p.m. and 6 in the morning.

 

If the bill is signed by President Abdullah Gul and becomes  law, which is likely in the absence of any indication to the contrary, alcoholic drinks would be able to be sold only in Turkish bars and restaurants after 10 p.m. My first Al-Monitor article, May 23, on the subject was titled “AKP's Jihad Against Alcohol: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back.”

 

The ruling party's members of parliament had already taken a step back and diluted the extremely rigid clauses of the original bill that required the outdoor spaces of alcohol-serving establishments to not be visible to the public. The bill did, however, take the power to issue alcohol licenses from local administrations and gave it to the central authority.

 

By introducing a ban on nighttime sales, they compensated for the back step and even went further. In my first article, I said that the alcohol restriction couldn’t be based on the public-health concerns of combating the alcoholism we don’t have in Turkey, or of protecting youth from alcohol addiction. My findings were based on Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) figures of per capita alcohol consumption.

 

The AKP government and their media defend the restrictions, saying that similar measures are in place in some democratic and secular European countries. It is not hard to show the invalidity of this argument. According to OECD data, per capita annual consumption of pure alcohol for the above-15 age group is 1.5 liters in Turkey. Let’s calculate this in beer terms: 1.5 liters of pure alcohol means 30 liters of beer with 5% alcohol content. That means 90 cans a year.

 

In Turkey, where, thanks to this law, all advertising and publicity for alcoholic beverages is now totally banned, the sale of alcoholic beverages at night is prohibited and any sale of alcoholic drinks within 100 meters of schools, other educational institutions and religious sites is illegal, the weekly per capita consumption is 1.7 cans of beer. It has almost always been this way. Alcoholic-beverage consumption peaked in 1976-1979. To what? All of 2 liters per capita per year.

 

Also according to OECD data, in 2010, pure alcohol consumption per capita in Sweden was 7.3 liters, 11.9 in Ireland, 10.2 in Britain, 9.7 in Finland, 12.6 in Lithonia and 12 liters in France. It may be understandable for some of these countries to adopt rigid measures to protect public health and to combat alcohol dependency, but we have to see other motives behind the restrictions in Turkey.

 

In Turkey, we are confronted with an ideologically motivated, extremely conservative and oppressive social engineering that is a part of the Islamic agenda of the AKP government. This project has no democratic legitimacy because it is in clear violation of Turkish rights and freedoms. Another proof of this mindset is what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said to his party caucus at the parliament on May 28, when he reacted to those who claimed that alcohol bans are related to the Islamic agenda. He said, "No matter what religion it is, religion stipulates not the wrong but the right. If that is an appropriate stipulation, are you going to oppose [this] on the grounds it is religion-based? For you, a law prepared by two drunkards can be valid, but how come our convictions becomes something to be rejected?”

 

Erdogan, therefore, has openly declared that the alcohol ban is a religious requirement, and that he wants to reshape public life according to religious strictures. He went further and openly called "anti-religious” anyone who opposes alcohol bans on the basis of personal rights and freedoms.

 

The relief felt by those who heard Erdogan say in the same speech, “The arrangements made are not interference in anybody’s way of life,” did not last long because Erdogan immediately added, "If you want to drink, take your alcoholic drink and drink it at home. Drink whatever you want to drink. We are not against that."

 

With these words, the Turkish prime minister has told a significant segment of the population, “Don’t pursue your way of life in public spaces.” This in itself is a grave example of social pressure that goes far beyond the substance and context of existing alcohol legislation.

 

Finally, with this alcohol restriction, the AKP government, not through public pressure but by enacting laws, has sadly provided a negative response to the question that has been waiting for an answer for the past 10  years: Is moderate Islam compatible with democracy? We have consequently reached a historical breaking point.

 

The authoritarian drive in Turkey had already prompted a very negative response to this question on Islam. But the alcohol ban that constitutes a religion-motivated assault on rights and freedoms did serve a useful function by revealing the reality that moderate Islam is not compatible with democracy.

 

The AKP attitude on the alcohol ban and the position adopted by Erdogan in its aftermath are fundamentally in contradiction with the secularism that is indispensable to peaceful and harmonious existence in a culturally heterogeneous country such as Turkey, and therefore an integral part of democracy.

 

Professor Atilla Yayla, one the most prominent defenders of liberal thought in Turkey, wrote in Taraf May 28 why the alcohol ban is critical for Muslim Turkey: "Alcohol is a basic test of freedoms that should given to religious conservatives, and whether we like it or not is a symbol of existence of freedom in Muslim countries. The freedom-drink linkage is this: Freedom is a person’s right to choose between the option of drinking or not. Forcing someone not drinking to drink is a violation of freedom, just as it is a violation to stop someone who wants to drink. In a country of freedoms, alcohol consumption can be regulated for secular reasons but not for religious pretexts, and such regulating cannot reach the point of the outright banning of drinking.”

 

As can be seen, ”moderate political Islam” in a country like Turkey that totally lacks checks-and-balances mechanisms and where there is no questioning by an effective opposition and free media is bound to eventually end up as a "moderate Shariah order." This is what the Turkish experience is teaching the world.

 

Kadri Gursel is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and has written a column for the Turkish daily Milliyet since 2007.

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On Topic
 

Protests in Turkey Reveal a Larger Fight over Identity: Tim Arango, New York Times, June 2, 2013—Across this vast city, a capital for three former empires, cranes dangle over construction sites, tin walls barricade old slums, and skyscrapers outclimb the mosque minarets that have dominated the skyline for centuries — all a vanguard for more audacious projects already in the works.

 

Turkish Spring Update: Erdoğan Doubles Down: Michael Rubin, Commentary, June 3, 2013—One of the more interesting things about the Arab Spring protests in Egypt was that the protestors did not initially seek Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster: Rather, their chief demand was for Mubarak to fire the interior minister. It was only Mubarak’s ham-fisted response that caused both the crowds and their demands to grow.

 

Turkey's Velvet Revolution: Cengiz Çandar, Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse, June 2, 2013—I have been living in Istanbul for 40 years. I have never seen days like the last two in my city. I never thought I would be living through times like these. I am writing these lines as a veteran of revolutionary situations and extraordinary days. Which one should I recall? 

 

Istanbul Protesters: 'We Are Here for our Freedom': Nafeesa Syeed, Al-Monitor, June 2, 2013—For several days, streams of demonstrators filled the streets around the city's Taksim area where plans to build a shopping center on the grounds of Gezi park set off opposition that swelled into mass anger over Erdogan and his government.

 

Talking Turkey About Obama: Joel J. Sprayregen, Jerusalem Post, June 1, 2013 —President Barack Obama welcomed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House last week with warmth appropriate for the leader of a strategically located ally which is NATO’s only Muslim member, enjoys a booming economy, and holds elections which appear democratic. But Turkey brings to this alliance conduct which undermines constructive cooperation between our countries.

 

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