A Modern Turkey Could Yet Emerge From The Protests

After turmoil erupted in the Arab world in 2011, a number of western analysts argued that “the Turkish model” could be an example for other majority Muslim countries. So the demonstrations that began at the end of May have sent a very different picture to the world from that of a country with a well-functioning democracy under the leadership of a conservative party rooted in political Islam. They have shown that a significant part of Turkey’s society is unhappy with the paternalistic style of leadership and with the increasing pressures and constraints on secular lifestyles.

So is the Turkish model falling apart? Will the faultlines running through society lead to more instability, violence and repression? A grim scenario is possible. But I believe that it is also possible that a real Turkish model will emerge from recent events.

First, the social movement that spread from the big cities to the entire country has been broad and inclusive. The protests have unleashed a feeling of empowerment. A core of secular but largely apolitical youth was joined by observant Muslims, mid-career professionals, factory workers and many others. A muezzin at a mosque near Istanbul’s Taksim Square told the police they could not arrest any of the young people who had taken refuge there.

The demonstrators have remained largely peaceful and many have tried to clean up the streets after each day of action. On June 4, the holy Kandil night of the Muslim calendar, many non-practising young activists prayed with the practising ones. Moreover, the picture of a couple who had just got married, the bride in a beautiful white dress, walking down a street to the applause of protesters, was one of happiness, not despair. The central message of the activists has not been that they want to topple the government or impose anything on anybody. They want to be free to live the way they see fit, drinking or not drinking, holding hands in public or not, dressing the way they want to dress. An impressive respect has been shown for individual freedom, diversity and nature.

President Abdullah Gul issued conciliatory statements, stressing that democracy is not a regime that consists of simply winning elections and imposing the will of a majority on all.

Second, some senior members of the governing Justice and Development party quickly admitted that excessive force had been used. President Abdullah Gul issued conciliatory statements, stressing that democracy is not a regime that consists of simply winning elections and imposing the will of a majority on all. Bulent Arinc, deputy prime minister, apologised for the aggressive use of tear gas by the police. While some conservative columnists called the young people hooligans manipulated by foreign agents, other conservatives called for restraint and understanding for some of the demands of the demonstrators.

There is now the opportunity to build what could turn out to be the real Turkish model. A large proportion of secular young people have shown that they respect the beliefs and style of living of their more religious sisters and brothers – something previous generations often failed to do. They do not want a return to the period when young women were barred from universities for wearing headscarves. If conservatives and observant citizens, in their majority, truly accept that many others want to live their spirituality in their own independent way, and if the ruling party realises that it cannot govern effectively without consent of a much larger majority, then Turkey will finally produce a conservative party that is a Muslim equivalent of European Christian Democrats. The left-of-centre opposition too has to embrace fully the diversity that makes up the country, and become a vibrant alternative. If that happens, Turkey could truly set an example for others.

The coming years are crucial. I am optimistic because recent events show a young country looking forward, but also because of the deep-rooted message of tolerance and universalism carried across centuries in the memory and writings of great figures of Anatolian Islam such as Mevlana Rumi, Yunus Emre or Haci Bektas. Finally, the continued respect shown to the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, reflects the great progress on the difficult road to modernity, women’s rights and prosperity that the republic has already achieved.