The protests that have been convulsing the center of Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the last several days are more than the comeuppance of its intolerably high-handed prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both the diversity of the protesters and the nature of their grievances show that Turkey has become a much more liberal society over the decade the ruling AK Party (AKP) has been in power. Turkey has a democracy -- now protestors are demanding a liberal democracy.
Turkey has witnessed big demonstrations before, of course -- but they've always been staged by a single group, defined by either ethnicity or ideology. This is the first time that people from all walks of life have joined forces to constrain the power of their country's leaders.
The changes occurring in Turkey are evident in its new, up-and-coming middle class, whose members have formed the core of the protest movement. A friend of mine -- let's call him Mehmet -- works near Istanbul's Taksim Square, the center of the demonstrations. Mehmet had always been a pretty typical yuppie, more interested in wine-tasting than politics. But since the demonstrations erupted, he has been consumed by them and vows to carry on until Erdogan backs down. Another friend, who teaches at a private college in the coastal city of Izmir, says his best students, all from conservative, prosperous families, were exhausted from their nightly clashes with police. He tells me that taxi drivers and shopkeepers who hail from the Black Sea, like Erdogan's family, have told him they voted for the AKP but have been turned into the party's enemies by the brutality of the police and the prime minister's contemptuous rhetoric.
Those who have opposed the AKP since it won power in 2000 have always believed that Erdogan and his cohorts are thinly disguised Islamists, intent on using the mechanisms of democracy to impose their values on the rest of the country. Their fears have been bolstered in recent days, as the government has seemingly tried to force them to conform to its religiously inspired conservatism -- most notably through a new raft of laws regulating alcohol. However, the problem with the AKP has never been that it's Islamist -- but that, much like every other party that's ruled Turkey, it's illiberal.
Erdogan has become a caricature of this illiberal style. He has opined that if people want to drink, they should drink ayran, a traditional yogurt drink. He has spoken about building a canal through Istanbul to replace the Bosphorus Strait as a shipping channel, which even he describes as his "crazy project," as if only to underscore that no scheme is beyond his power. More ominously, a record number of journalists have been imprisoned under his watch. He has blamed the current protests on drunks, extremists, and foreign agents. Such behavior has helped the protesters to clarify what it is they actually want -- which is for the power conferred by Erdogan's undeniable electoral mandate to be constrained, as it would be in a liberal democracy.
Turkish governments have always been happy to dictate how to behave in areas that liberal political cultures would regard as off-limits to state intrusion. The state's predilection for intruding into people's private affairs reflects the illiberalism of the wider society. Despite pockets of social liberty, until recently Turkey has remained what political anthropologists have called a "segmentary" society -- individuals are expected to rigidly conform to the mores of their group, while other members of the group are happy to intrude into others' lives to enforce those norms.
When I first moved to Istanbul in 1998, manifestations of this group-oriented conformism were ubiquitous. Though the state has licensed the production of alcoholic drinks since the founding of the Republic, 83 percent of all Turks today are still teetotallers -- a vivid measure of Turkey's cultural distance from Europe. Before the economic growth of the past decade, both credit to buy an apartment or launch a business were in short supply. For almost all Turks, the only way to get access to either was through family connections or by supporting a powerful political party. This fact of life required people to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid offending their prospective patrons.