x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 16 December 2017

'Bread and Freedom': young Turkish Islamists turn Left

A radical group that Recep Tayyip Erdogan might have joined in his youth is now a challenge to Turkey's prime minister. Thomas Seibert, Foreign Correspondent,` reports.

Muhammed Cihad Ebrari, centre, meets with his friends and fellow Anti-capitalist Muslims members Zeynep Pekiner, right, and Mehmet Lutfu Ozdemir at a local teahouse to discuss their daily agenda.
Muhammed Cihad Ebrari, centre, meets with his friends and fellow Anti-capitalist Muslims members Zeynep Pekiner, right, and Mehmet Lutfu Ozdemir at a local teahouse to discuss their daily agenda.

ISTANBUL // Young Turkish Islamists have a warning for those who regard Turkey's blend of a free-market democracy with a Muslim identity as a model for a better future after the Arab Spring.

"They should stop seeing Turkey as a dream and start seeing it as a nightmare," said Muhammed Cihad Ebrari, 27, a website editor and host of a meeting of young Muslims in his Istanbul apartment to discuss the injustices of the modern world.

Mr Ebrari and the others are members of a group called Anti-capitalist Muslims. They accuse Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the religiously conservative prime minister, of ignoring Islamic principles by making the rich even richer.

Analysts say the mere existence of the group, which has about two dozen active members and, according to Mr Ebrari, the ability to mobilise thousands through social media, shows the pro-business policies of the Erdogan government have raised serious questions in Islamic circles.

The Turkish Left, weak and divided, has been unable to draw strength from social problems such as youth unemployment, which stands at 18 per cent, or poor workplace safety standards that led to the death of 69 people in work-related accidents in May alone.

The Anti-capitalist Muslims say they can fill that void.

They shot to nationwide media fame when hundreds of them marched in this year's May Day celebrations on Istanbul's central Taksim Square, an event traditionally dominated by leftist groups and trade unions. "Allah - Bread - Freedom," read one of their banners.

Members of the group, mostly students in their twenties, had known each other for some time on the internet before deciding to make their first public appearance as a group at the May Day march. They have taken part in other rallies since then, such as a demonstration by Kurdish women calling on the state to investigate unsolved crimes in Turkey's Kurdish region.

The young men and women gathered in Mr Ebrari's apartment support expanding workers' rights, social justice and autonomy for Turkey's Kurds, and oppose nuclear power and mandatory military service.

"Aspects of justice, freedom and equality in Islam have been ignored for many years," Mr Ebrari said.

Commentators compare the basic ideas put forward by the group to demands made by Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) when it was founded in 2001.

Fehmi Koru, a respected columnist for the Star newspaper and close to the AKP, says Mr Erdogan and other top AKP officials would probably have joined the Anti-capitalist Muslims as young men, had they had the chance. "But I am sure that, as politicians, they are also concerned, thinking: 'Is this something directed against us?'"

Mr Ebrari agrees: "The AKP sees us as a threat." Government officials have made no official comment on the group.

Mehmet Gucer, a sociologist at the International Strategic Research Organisation, a think tank in Ankara, said the Anti-capitalist Muslims had tackled questions that had not been much discussed within religious circles. "Time will tell what kind of impact they have," Mr Gucer said. "But it is a very positive development for Turkey because it shows the pluralism of society."

Members of group supported Mr Erdogan's political reforms in the early years of AKP rule between 2002 and 2005, when freedom of speech and other basic rights were strengthened, but they were put off by other aspects of government policy, including what they see as a one-sided stance in economic and social matters that hurts workers and benefits the rich.

"You can see skyscrapers rising and people sinking ever lower at the same time," said Kadir Kacan, a member of the group. "Everybody says Turkey has big economic growth, but just a few rich people rake in the profit, while hundreds of thousands don't have anything."

Soli Ozel, a political scientist at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said the group's rallying cry of equality pointed to ideological and class divisions within Turkey's Islamic movement. Mr Erdogan's policies have resulted in the rise of a new middle class of pious Muslims, while ideological principles such as equality moved to the background.

"All those radical Islamists became shop owners," Mr Ozel said about the changes under Mr Erdogan. "At the end of the day, it's the inherent contradictions in the policies of the government" that triggered the anti-capitalist group, he said.

Those contradictions are evident in rows that have broken out within the families of some group members. "My parents are nationalistic and conservative," said Mustafa Timucin Ozoguz, 25, whose family was opposed to his being in the group. "They just do what the AKP says. There are big tensions."

The Anti-capitalist Muslims do not want to become a political party, but will try to reach people with the help of the internet, demonstrations, seminars and lectures. "We are revolutionaries," Mr Ebrari said. "We are against this system; we do not want to enter parliament."

Asked what he would do if given the run of the prime ministry for one day, he said: "I would dissolve it."

The group is also critical of Mr Erdogan's foreign policy. It accuses him of siding with the United States in Middle Eastern affairs and of trying to resurrect Turkish dominance in a region ruled by the Ottoman Empire for centuries.

"Fans of Erdogan in the Middle East should remember that there are cemeteries all over the region filled with victims of the Ottomans," Mr Ebrari said.

tseibert@thenational.ae