Unrest in Istanbul: Turkey's Season of Struggle

By Eissenstat, Howard | The Christian Century, September 18, 2013 | Go to article overview

Unrest in Istanbul: Turkey's Season of Struggle


Eissenstat, Howard, The Christian Century


EVERYTHING SEEMED to be going so well in Turkey--until this past summer when popular protests broke out and were met by a violent government crackdown.

The country is in many ways the Middle East's success story. Under a charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the ruling Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials as the AKP) has enjoyed a level of electoral success not seen in Turkey since the 1950s, and its political achievements have been remarkable.

The AKP tamed the hyperinflation that haunted Turkey for decades, while managing a period of strong economic growth. Turkey has weathered the global economic slowdown better than most countries. The AKP also faced down Turkey's arrogant military elite, forcing them out of political life and back into the barracks. It initiated an important series of liberalizing legal reforms and opened up greater avenues for expression of Kurdish cultural identity. While the government still engages in a massive public campaign against recognizing the Armenian genocide during World War I, discussion and even commemoration of the genocide is now commonplace, at least in some cities.

Though the AKP's efforts at asserting a greater role for Turkey internationally has had a number of serious setbacks--most notably its newly sour relations with Israel and its early resistance to NATO intervention in Libya--the overall trajectory has been positive. Turkish businesses have played a major role in rebuilding Iraq and are showing a willingness to venture further afield. Africa, for example, has become a new focus for Turkish diplomats and businesses.

Under the Obama administration, U.S.-Turkish cooperation is probably as close as it has been at any time since the cold war. Obama and Erdogan have a strong working relationship, which has only intensified since the beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011. Turkey is arguably the most important American ally in addressing the crisis in Syria, for example, and Turkish cooperation with the United States on Iran seems to be considerably stronger than it was a few years ago.

American officials have frequently spoken of Turkey as a democratic model for the Middle East. It is easy to see why. Turkey's development is fueled not by oil but by a strong educational system and an aggressive market sector. Unlike the oil-driven wealth of much of the Middle East, Turkey enjoys a diverse and vibrant economy. And unlike most of the region, it is solidly democratic. The AKP clearly has Islamist roots, but the party believes that power comes from the ballot box, and it has been committed to working within secular institutions. In Turkey, where more than 99 percent of the people are officially listed by the state as Muslim, being a good Muslim does not mean calling for Islamic law.

But the popular protests that began in June in Turkey reveal some of the deeper problems the country faces. The protests may have been sparked by attempts to demolish Gezi Park in Istanbul, but the deeper cause can be found in long-standing failures on the part of Erdogan and the AKP. Religion plays a role in this unrest, but Islamism is not the core of what has gone wrong in Turkey.

The AKP displays a kind of illiberalism that has marked Turkish political life since the modern state was founded in 1923. As Kerem Oktem has shown in Angry Nation, a history of modern Turkey, the violence of Turkish nationalism at the time the state was founded was retained in efforts to create a hegemonic national culture. Ethnic, religious and cultural diversity have been regarded with disdain. The AKP has amended this approach in small ways, but it remains a very strong feature of the ruling culture.

As the AKP consolidated power, it became more traditionally "Turkish" in its rhetoric and tactics. It engaged in a particularly brutal crackdown on Kurdish nationalists until peace negotiations, now apparently running aground, were begun last year. …

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