The original, modest protest over the redevelopment of Istanbul’s Gezi Park has – largely due to a foolishly heavy-handed police response – mushroomed into a much wider manifestation of discontent. This discontent is not just economic and it certainly seems to have very little to do with the revolutions of the Arab Spring. It is something else again: a democracy which sees itself slipping backwards, its gains in freedom and human rights being reversed. And that is something which should concern all of us.
It is not just the brutal way the regime has suppressed the demonstrators with liberal use of tear gas and water cannons, although that is something in itself; the Turkish doctors’ association said that at least six protesters had lost eyes through the police throwing of tear gas canisters.
No, it is as if the country’s youth has suddenly woken up to what is currently going on, and they don’t like it. It is early days still, but it seems symbolic of a latent battle for the soul of modern Turkey which has been going on for some years.
While it is true that this did not preclude other kinds of tyranny for Turkey later on, we might also reflect that if our own country had had the same good sense a few hundred years earlier, many millions of deaths through religious persecution might have been avoided.
That is not to say that the Turkey of today has an exemplary political history; indeed, it is well-known that its failure to join the EU has been mostly down to its disappointing human rights record. It also has a history of military-led governments, installed by coup.
But the thing that struck me most about central Istanbul, during a visit in 2004, is just how strong an impression it leaves of both economic development and liberal-mindedness, especially when you compare it with many of its immediate neighbours such as Iran or Syria.
And despite Turkey’s evident failings in some areas, it has still served as a beacon to other states with majority Muslim populations, of how Islam can both modernise and maintain tolerance towards the non-observant, other religions and cultures.
Until recently, that is. Its current “moderate” Islamist government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is gradually changing its secular status. Admittedly, not yet in sweeping ways, but it is the subtle insidiousness of the changes that make them particularly chilling.
A few weeks ago the state airline banned its air stewardesses from wearing red lipstick or nail varnish. The airline pretended it was to keep their staff “unpretentious”. It was not. It was a gentle cave-in to prudish Islamists, after an earlier attempt to insist on ankle-length coverage for those same stewardesses was outright rejected. That is not to say that previous military administrations had not discriminated against veiled women – they did, and some of those laws are still in place. But both cases are equally wrong; in the end, both involve men dictating what women can and can’t do.
An alcohol ban is also coming into force during certain hours, which is proving unpopular. Erdogan’s reaction to the unrest was typically an implied threat to free speech: “There is now a menace which is called Twitter”, he said. State media barely reported the riots. And don’t forget that old resort of the instinctively authoritarian:constitutional tinkering. Erdogan wants to become executive president. Always, always beware the leader who wants to award himself increased power.
The BBC reports Erdogan’s claims to be “committed to Turkey’s state secularism.” He is not. If you are committed to secularism, you do not implement creeping change in this way.
Those who would defend Erdogan as a Muslim traditionalist typically forget that many of the protesters are Muslims too, moderate Muslims who do not like the new restrictions on the way they live or the power grab, by stealth, of the ruling AKP.
It is easy to forget all this. The biggest victims of Islamism – in either the early or the late stage of ideological rollout – are, inevitably, Muslims, especially women. That is not to mention the substantial number of secular Turks who no more accept an imam dictating their daily lives than a secular Briton would accept a vicar dictating theirs – less so, ironically, when you consider that the C of E does have a constitutional role here, which Islam does not there.
Fascinatingly, but not entirely surprisingly, today’s Guardian editorial rightly criticises the threat to democracy. But there is no hint whatsoever that Islamism might just be part of the problem. It is, again, the elephant in the room; the left’s blind spot.
In short: although they should take great care to stop their protests degenerating into violence, looting or even revolution, the Turkish demonstrators should not stop.
And that is because they are saying something important about democracy: it needs protecting and it has, even in the quite imperfect form it exists in in Turkey, served them pretty well. Their continued presence is an overdue slap-down for Erdogan; a message to both him and future leaders that in a democracy the people, and not the politicians, are the masters. Above all, that religion needs to be free and tolerant, not a behavioural tyrant imposing itself on the masses.
The young Turks seem to have suddenly realised that they largely already have what their counterparts in North Africa were protesting for. The last thing they need is for it to gradually slip away without a fight.