The protests that have roiled Istanbul, Ankara, and several other cities in Turkey over the weekend have caught most observers by surprise. But the conditions that led to them—and shaped the government’s reaction—have been building for some time. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has emerged out of decades of a particular Islamist experience in Turkey, which has shaped its understanding of democracy and the role of government. The party’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems to have internalized this experience to an even greater degree. All this makes the demonstrations in Turkey a particularly difficult thing for the United States to respond to.
Turkey is important to several key American interests in the region: Ankara’s dialogue with the PKK; Turkey’s still-growing economy; the delicate reconciliation with Israel; the Syrian civil war; social, political and security problems in Iraq; and the continuing issue of the Iranian nuclear program.
As a result, Washington will need to account for the domestic developments in Turkey and find a way to encourage a reduction in government repression while accounting for the unique development of democracy in Turkey. Although Taksim is not Tahrir, there are lessons to be learned from the latter—most importantly, that the United States cannot ignore protests against the government and hope they’ll just go away.
The Islamist experience in Turkey is one of repression, more so than in any other of the regional Muslims states. After Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led the nationalists to victory over the Allies in the aftermath of World War I, he engaged in a multipronged effort to remove all traces of Islam from the public sphere.
More than that, Atatürk and the Kemalists, as his followers and supporters became known, enforced a collective memory on the population that “remembered” the pre- and non-Islamist nature of Turkish society. They also “forgot” the role of Islam in creating the Ottoman Empire, which contributed to its becoming the most feared military power—and the most advanced in governance and administration—in Europe.
Islamist parties were allowed to function, but under close supervision of the Kemalist establishment (composed of most political parties, the military, the security and intelligence agencies, the judiciary, the civil service, and leaders of most public institutions like universities). Whenever they were perceived to have overstepped their “legitimate” activities, they were shut down. There were four military coups, the last being the ouster of the first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, in 1997.
Erdogan was socialized under these conditions. He has long firmly believed in Islam’s contributions and benefits: The story is told of him being the only student in primary school to volunteer for prayer when the headmaster allowed it. He went to an imam-hatip (prayer-leader) school, where he refused to shave his beard in order to play soccer. As a budding politician, he is remembered for having said on several occasions that expanding space for Islam’s principles was one of his key goals.
The freedom from repression and constraint that came with the Turkish armed forces’ decision to let the AKP (first elected in 2002) govern without interference, followed by Erdogan’s decimation of the military’s senior ranks, has left the AKP able to express itself without fear of being overthrown. Yet a sense of siege has continued to mark its politics; at moments of criticism the tendency is to hunker down in a defensive position and accuse others of various perfidious activities rather than accept responsibility.
Erdogan genuinely believes in democratic practices, but he has a distorted sense of who he represents and his understanding is based on what he considers majority rule: if you get elected, you’ve got the support of a “majority” of the people and therefore your decisions are democratically appropriate.
Turkey’s electoral process is clearly democratic, but the government has engaged in some illiberal practices, and Erdogan’s increasing personalization of the party and the government has fed an ego and sense of entitlement that undermines the ability of the public to participate in traditional non-election democratic procedures—like public hearings on government decisions and the right to protest.