Class considerations help us grasp what is happening in Turkey

One interpretation of the anti-government demonstrations that have been roiling Turkish cities is that they are a massive protest against political Islam. What began as a rally against official plans to raze a small park in the center of Istanbul to make way for a kitschy shopping mall quickly evolved into a conflict of values.On the surface, the fight appears to represent two different visions of modern Turkey: secular versus religious, democratic versus authoritarian. Comparisons have been made with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Some observers even speak of a “Turkish Spring.”

Clearly, many Turkish citizens, especially in the big cities, are sick of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style, his steely grip on the press, his taste for grandiose new mosques, the restrictions on alcohol, the arrests of political dissidents and now the violent response to the demonstrations. People fear that Shariah law will replace secular legislation, and that Islamism will spoil the fruits of Kemal Ataturk’s drive to modernize post-Ottoman Turkey.

Then there is the issue of the Alevis, a religious minority linked to Sufism and Shiism. The Alevis, who had been protected by the secular Kemalist state, deeply distrust Erdogan, who further unsettled them by planning to name a new bridge over the Bosphorus after a 16th-century sultan who massacred their forebears.

Religion, then, would seem to be at the heart of the Turkish problem. Political Islam’s opponents regard it as inherently anti-democratic.

But things are not so simple. The secular Kemalist state was no less authoritarian than Erdogan’s populist Islamist regime; if anything, it was more so. And it is also significant that the first protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square concerned not a mosque, but a shopping mall. Fear of Shariah law is matched by anger at the rapacious vulgarity of developers and entrepreneurs backed by Erdogan’s government. There is a strong leftist bent to the Turkish Spring.

So, rather than dwell on the problems of contemporary political Islam, which are certainly considerable, it might be more fruitful to look at Turkey’s conflicts from another, now distinctly unfashionable, perspective: class. The protesters, whether they are liberal or leftist, have tended to be from the urban elite – Westernized, sophisticated, and secular. Erdogan, on the other hand, is still very popular in rural and provincial Turkey, among people who are less educated, poorer, more conservative, and more religious.

Despite Erdogan’s personal authoritarian tendencies, which are obvious, it would be misleading to regard the current protests purely as a conflict between democracy and autocracy. After all, the success of Erdogan’s populist Justice and Development Party, as well as the increasing presence of religious symbols and customs in public life, is a result of more democracy in Turkey, not less.

Customs that the Kemalist secular state suppressed, such as women’s use of headscarves in public places, have reappeared, because rural Turks have more influence. Young religious women are turning up at urban universities. The votes of conservative provincial Turks now count.

Likewise, the alliance between businessmen and religious populists is hardly unique to Turkey. Many of the new entrepreneurs, like the women in headscarves, are from villages in Anatolia. These newly rich provincials resent the old Istanbul elite as much as businessmen from Texas or Kansas hate the East Coast elites of New York and Washington.

But to say that Turkey has become more democratic is not to say that it has become more liberal. This is one of the problems revealed by the Arab Spring. Giving people a voice in government is essential to any democracy. But those voices, especially in revolutionary times, are rarely moderate.

What we see in countries such as Egypt and Turkey – and even in Syria – is what the great British liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin described as the incompatibility of equal goods. It is a mistake to believe that all good things always come together. Sometimes equally good things clash.

So it is in the painful political transitions in the Middle East. Democracy is good, and so are liberalism and tolerance. Ideally, of course, they coincide. But right now, in most parts of the Middle East, they do not. More democracy can actually mean less liberalism and more intolerance.

It is easy to sympathize with the rebels against Bashar Assad’s dictatorship in Syria, for example. But the upper classes of Damascus, the secular men and women who enjoy Western music and films, some of them members of the Christian and Alawite religious minorities, will have a hard time surviving once Assad is gone. Baathism was dictatorial and oppressive – often brutally so – but it protected minorities and the secular elites.

But keeping Islamism at bay is not a reason to support dictators. After all, the violence of political Islam is largely a product of these oppressive regimes. The longer they stay in power, the more violent the Islamist rebellions will be.

This is no reason to support Erdogan and his shopping mall builders against the protesters in Turkey, either. The demonstrators are right to oppose his haughty disregard of public opinion and his stifling of the press. But to see the conflict as a righteous struggle against religious expression would be equally mistaken.

Higher visibility for Islam is the inevitable result of more democracy in Muslim-majority countries. How to stop this from killing liberalism is the most important question facing people in the Middle East. Turkey is still a democracy. It is to be hoped that the protests against Erdogan will make it more liberal, too.

Ian Buruma is a professor of democracy, human rights, and journalism at Bard College, and the author of “Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.” THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 12, 2013, on page 7.




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