Saturday, June 15, 2013

TURKEY: Handling of protests may make or break legacy

Thousands of protesters march through the streets of major cities of a European nation. They complain about the apparently autocratic style of their democratically elected leader who ignores their concerns. Police have used fairly brutal force to quell protests, including tear gas, water cannon and rubber-coated bullets.

Had this been Spain or Greece, it would almost certainly have been related to EU-imposed austerity measures. Europe's economic woes have provided plenty of fodder for protest. Spanish workers have been laid off by the thousands, and its unemployment is at record levels. A neo-Nazi party is attracting tens of thousands of disgruntled Greeks. In Cyprus (at least the non-Turkish part), people have had substantial portions of their savings shaved from bank accounts.
But in Turkey, scene of the mass protests that started in late May, protesters have few such fundamental worries. Instead, their worries began with the survival of Gezi Park in Istanbul, to be levelled in favour of a residential and shopping development.

Such environmental and heritage concerns are important. But one has to wonder what those in more economically depressed European nations must be thinking. "Oh, if only we had the luxury of protesting against the destruction of a park," and, "if only we had a few housing and shopping centre developments in our town".

And the majority of Turks who did not hit the streets of Istanbul, Ankara and other cities must be wondering why Western media have made such a fuss about what the ruling party (which gained over 50 per cent of the vote in the last elections) claims is a tiny handful of radicals. It doesn't help the protesters' cause domestically that they don't present as a united group, some having concerns limited to environmentalism and others seeking nothing short of regime change.

No doubt, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hasn't handled the crisis terribly well. Even people in his party, such as his President Abdullah Gul, have openly stated that a softer touch would have been preferable. "If they have objections, we need to hear them, enter into a dialogue. It is our duty to lend them an ear." The protests could have been limited to Istanbul instead of turning into a national phenomenon.

But some would have you believe that Turkey's current government wants to see the country become a full-fledged sharia state, with former criminals walking armless and perhaps even headless through the streets. A recent issue of the Economist showed a cartoon of Erdogan dressed in the outfit of an Ottoman Sultan, as if he was ready to lead a jihad and conquer Constantinople all over again.

Writing for CNN, Fadi Hakura complains of "the Government's recent enactment of tight restrictions on the sale and promotion of alcohol". He claims that "many secular Turks complain that the Islamist-rooted Government is intolerant of criticism and the diversity of lifestyles."

Such sentiments would seem laughable to other secular Turks who don't see secularism as the imposition of a militant nationalist religion built around the cult of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic. Turkey's past leaders, in cahoots with the military, have inflicted the grossest and most ridiculous forms of intolerance on its people.

Erdogan has not sought to ban alcohol consumption completely. His government seeks to curtail it at certain times. Compare this to the attitude of previous Turkish governments to women's dress. Until 2010, women who chose to wear headscarves were barred from attending universities. In 2007, Emine Erdogan, the PM's wife, was barred from entering a military hospital for failing to remove her scarf.

Perhaps the most notorious example of secular extremism was seen in 1999 when an elected MP, Dr Merve Safa Kavakci, was prevented from taking her Parliamentary oath simply because of a traditional piece of clothing she wore on her head. In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights found her expulsion from Parliament was a violation of human rights.

Erdogan's tactics in relation to the recent protests have been heavy-handed. But one wonders what would have happened if this kind of protest had taken place under previous Turkish governments. Erdogan knows what it is like to be on the wrong side of a dictatorial regime. In 1997, he was jailed for merely reciting a poem during a speech.

This may be Erdogan's last term in office. But for the sake of his successor, his party and his nation, Erdogan needs to recognise that a small but influential and highly articulate mass of protesters could leave his legacy of electoral triumph, political reform, economic success and international respect in tatters. A devout Muslim like Erdogan should recognise the value of humility.

• Irfan Yusuf is author of Once Were Radicals. This column was first published in the NZ Herald on Friday 14 June 2013.

Words Copyright © 2013 Irfan Yusuf

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