Turkey’s Secular Awakening

The protests across Istanbul aren’t about Islamism, the elite, or even religion writ large -- they're a call for a real liberal democracy.

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.

From my experience, many Turks manage inevitable differences of opinion with their elders through what might politely be termed prevarication. This tendency, beginning in childhood, has long retarded the competition of ideas at the heart of liberal political cultures.

The cumulative effect of such conflict avoidance is that many Turks have not experienced the constructive potential of conflict that plays out within civil bounds. In Turkey's political life, the lack of experience with constructive, civil conflict takes a number of reactionary forms: Party leaders assume a paternalistic posture toward their supporters, who reciprocate with a loyalty that survives even humiliating electoral defeats. Turks have traditionally displayed an easy tolerance of state restrictions on civil liberties, and share their leaders' inability to consider political compromise or admit misdeeds, such as the Armenian genocide.

But things are changing in Turkey. These days, signs of growing liberalism are everywhere: Ten years ago, I was struck by how rarely anyone on the buses or trains were reading. Even fairly decent hotels often didn't have a reading light next to the bed. In the years the AKP has been in power, book sales in Turkey have tripled. Much of this boom comes from educational books, thanks to the flourishing economy and the funds invested in schools. An unprecedented number of young Turk are now reading novels, which both reflects and nourishes curiosity about the world beyond their own social environment.

Years of fairly steady economic growth under the AKP have vastly expanded opportunities to make a good life without depending on any patronage network -- a form of autonomy that seems to be a precondition for individual liberty.

My friend Mehmet exemplifies the liberated Turk. He grew up in a pokey concrete apartment in a small city in central Anatolia. His father, a former butcher whose only formal education was in a school for prayer leaders, taught him to calm animals before slitting their throats for the annual ritual sacrifice of bayram. He won a scholarship to study tourism in Istanbul, learned English, and now supports his passion for travel and wine with a senior marketing job in a German company. Mehmet has never been much interested in politics, but he has made his own luck in the world and he'll be damned if he's going to sit by quietly while the prime minister and his friends contrive new ways to inflict their values on him and his beloved city.

Turks like Mehmet expect to be treated with respect -- and that includes being consulted on matters that directly affect their daily lives. Such consultation has been entirely absent from the project to bulldoze Gezi Park outside Mehmet's office, and replace it with a faux-Ottoman shopping mall.

President Abdullah Gul -- a gentler, more sophisticated man than Erdogan and the obvious alternative to lead the AKP -- has said the government needs to listen to the people. "The message has been taken," Gul told the protesters, in a statement imploring them to return home. "Democracy is not only about [the] ballot box."

This is a hopeful moment for Turkey. All Turks have been raised to revere the father of the nation, Ataturk, who set Turkey on the path toward becoming a European-style state. Ataturk died in 1938 having made revolutionary changes to Turkish political life, but without having created a liberal political culture. A leader who manages to use the current crisis to help Turkey embrace the constraints on state power at the heart of liberalism would earn himself a place in the country's remarkably sparse pantheon of political heroes.

But if the events now taking place in Turkey come to be regarded as a landmark in its evolution as a liberal European society, as may well happen, their hero will not be a great leader but the thousands of Turks, like my friend Mehmet, who refuse to be dictated to by anyone.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images


Palestine's Nothing Man

The new prime minister in Ramallah is a political novice -- and that's exactly why President Mahmoud Abbas chose him.

"President [Mahmoud] Abbas has asked me to form a new government and I have accepted," said Rami Hamdallah, the president of Al-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus, on Sunday.

In many ways, the announcement was a surprise. After all, Hamdallah is a relatively obscure academic with absolutely no hands-on experience in governing. He was never viewed a frontrunner in the Palestinian prime minister derby -- a horserace that began with the April 13 resignation of reformist premier Salam Fayyad. If anything, Abbas was expected to tap his economic advisor and close ally Mohammed Musafa. And if he didn't make that move, some expected the Palestinian president to name himself. 

In the end, Abbas probably realized that tapping Mustafa or himself might cause some uneasiness in Washington. Mustafa's appointment would have looked like an extension of power for Abbas, who is currently four years past the end of his legal presidential term, with no elections plans in the making. And if Abbas had named himself prime minister, the move would have looked like a naked power grab.

But if the appointment of Hamdallah is not an extension of Abbas's presidential power, it is undoubtedly a consolidation. Whereas Fayyad was an independent figure, Hamdallah is a Fatah loyalist, described to me by one former Palestinian advisor as simply a "nice guy who will not make waves." In other words, unlike Fayyad, whose bitter disputes with Abbas over fundamental governance issues led to his departure, Hamdallah should not be expected to lock horns with the president.  

Hamdallah has never run a government -- or even a government ministry. A look at his biography reveals that he has held a number of academic positions and that he has penned academic journal articles with titles like, "A contrastive analysis of selected English and Arabic prepositions with pedagogical implications" for Papers and Studies in Contrastive Linguistics.

To be fair, Hamdallah is the president of al-Najah University, the largest university in the West Bank, with 20,000 students. He is also the secretary-general of the Palestinian Central Elections Committee and the chairman of the Palestinian Securities Exchange (PEX). But none of that qualifies him to take the reins of an interim government that has been running on financial fumes in recent years and has been in political crisis since at least 2007, when Hamas overran the Gaza Strip, splitting the Palestinians into two mini-states.

The new premier undoubtedly has some smarts -- he holds a PhD from the University of Lancaster in Britain. But it's hard to explain how he is an improvement over Fayyad, an accomplished economist with practical hands-on experience, and a leader who inspired confidence among the international donor community as a tireless champion of institution building and transparency.

The truth is, Abbas wants a weak premier. And he may make another move to weaken Hamdallah further. A former Palestinian official tells me that Ramallah is abuzz with rumors that Mustafa may be appointed deputy prime minister. Should this occur, Hamdallah could effectively be taking orders from his number two. 

The real bad news here, then, is not the appointment of a benign academic with no political power base or any realistic chance of advancing in the Palestinian political system. Rather, it is the weakening of the institution of prime minister.

Ironically, it was Abbas who served as the first Palestinian prime minister. The position was essentially created in 2003 by the West to dilute the ironclad and centralized power of the presidency, then held by Yasir Arafat. With the peace process in a state of gridlock and allegations of corruption mounting, one New York Times editorial declared that the appointment of a new prime minister was "the most important reason there is renewed hope for progress in the Middle East." In the ensuing power struggle, however, it didn't take long for Arafat to force Abbas's resignation. But when Abbas became president in January 2005, his early behavior suggested that he wished to maintain a political balance his predecessor had eschewed. 

Eight years later, however, Abbas has become the quintessential Middle East strongman. From the restriction of press freedoms to the quashing of political rivals, Abbas looks increasingly like a jacket-and-tie version of Arafat.

Sure, West Bankers sporadically voice their displeasure with the political status quo, notably on Facebook and other social media outlets. But between widespread skepticism over U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's new peace initiative, the failure of a six decades-old struggle to gain independence from the Israelis, and the inability to iron out a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, the ossified Palestinian political system is just one challenge among many. 

As one local journalist tells me, rather than debating the qualifications of their new prime minister, many Palestinians appear indifferent, adding that one Ramallah resident quipped, "the big question is who will be Al-Najah's [next] president."