x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A battle for Turkish identity takes root in Taksim Square

Although the protests in Turkey were primarily sparked by the government's plans to redevelop a park near Taksim Square, the crucial and underlying reasons behind these uprisings are rooted in more complex factors.

The spark that ignited protests in Istanbul, which have now spread to the capital city of Ankara, has been linked to the Turkish government's controversial plans to replace a park in Taksim Square with an Ottoman-era, army barracks-replica that would house a new shopping mall.

The underlying grievances of the Turkish educated and middle class, however, are rooted in more complex factors.

Under the leadership of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist-founded Justice and Development Party (AKP), has been attempting during the last few years to depict Turkey as a model nation and an alternative to other Middle Eastern and Muslim countries, especially those that underwent revolution and massive uprisings. The image AKP has been seeking to project to the world is that Turkey is a nation that has successfully married Islam with secularism; a Muslim, yet modern and secular country.

But many people of Turkey are feeling a different sentiment than the one being projected by their government. And as the last week has demonstrated, there are key grievances against Mr Erdogan's AKP that are boiling under the surface.

There is a perception in Turkey that Mr Erdogan and his party are shrinking the political spectrum of the Turkish government, centralising power into the hands of AKP, turning the country's democratic governance into an authoritarian system, and lastly, mismanaging and spilling over the war in Syria.

Yet, these grievances are not felt consensually across the country. In fact, the country is divided between factions. On one hand is the young, urban and educated of the country - the middle class. The overwhelming majority of this social base strongly opposes the current government. They argue that several laws have been passed by AKP that firmly favour Islamic-orientated morals and Sharia jurisprudence, one example being the banning of alcohol in public spaces.

The young Turkish people have responded to this new law, as we witnessed during the protests, by raising bottles of beer in the air; a message to the government that they refuse to accept the new laws.

In addition, while the young people smashed the windshields of the bulldozers that had started rolling into Taksim Square, they carried a red flag bearing the face of modern Turkey's secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and draped it over a police car - another reflection of the tensions between Islamism and secularism that are brewing in major modern Turkish cities.

As Mustafa, a 22 year-old university student studying architecture who participated in the latest protests in Ankara, explained: "First I voted for Tayyip Erdogan thinking that he was different from the previous military-linked rulers. We thought he wanted to further democratise the country. But he is turning it into a dictatorship and a country like Iran by banning everything fun that young people can do."

On the other hand, in smaller and rural cities, especially in the eastern region of Turkey, several major and influential Islamic organisations as well as smaller parties still hold a considerable amount of support for the Islamist-rooted AKP. Referring to this support-base, and in what appears to be a mockery of the recent protests, Mr Erdogan wrote a message via Twitter stating he could easily mobilise a million people to show their support for him in Taksim Square.

The second major reason behind the grievances and anger being demonstrated in the streets is linked to the criticism of the economic policies practised by the government.

Economists point out that Turkey was able to emerge unscathed from the global financial crisis and even perform better than European countries and many other nations because the government heavily relied on the state to be the sole economic generator, mainly pursuing economic projects involving construction and new housing.

The long-term consequence of such state-orientated policies, however, is that only a few people from the middle class benefit. This puts Turkey at risk of falling into a financial bubble - similar to the one that occurred in the United States and that led to the country's economic free-fall in 2008.

Finally, many Turkish people have expressed criticism towards Mr Erdogan's policies regarding the uprising and conflict in Syria, the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad and the various rebel groups operating in the country.

Many young Turks argue that the prime minister and AKP's inefficacy and uniformed polices in handling the civil war in Syria - particularly by sheltering the Syrian rebels in several Turkish cities, holding conferences for opposition groups and dragging Turkey further into the conflict - has jeopardised Turkish security. They point to Syria's repeated firing of rockets into Turkey, which have killed several Turkish citizens, as evidence.

Although the widespread protests in Turkey were primarily sparked by the government's plans to redevelop a park near Taksim Square, the crucial and underlying reasons behind these uprisings are rooted in the country's struggle between Islamism and secularism, the Turkish people's perception that their government is shrinking the political spectrum and turning authoritative, and a belief that AKP has completely mismanaged the foreign policies towards the crisis in Syria.

Bulldozers sparked this recent wave of unrest, but quelling the anger will not be as simple as directing them to leave.


Dr Majid Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council on the Middle East

On Twitter: @majidrafizad