Erdogan’s Problem

Fighting for front page attention are the demonstrations and the Turkish government’s response.  Protesters have been driven from Taksim Square after riot police applied sufficient force.  Erdogan has not been asleep while Tunis, Libya, Egypt, and now Syria enjoyed the Arab Spring.  Erdogan is not going to let these protests get out of hand.  Or have they already?

The Turkish cause is much different than that of those other uprisings.  Erdogan caused this one and he can fix it.

Turkey lies between Europe and the Middle East.  Within its borders reside very wealthy, very poor, Christians, Muslims, educated, not educated, progressives, and conservatives.  A true mixture and probably not a melting pot.

Strategically, Turkey is an important US ally.  It’s secular history (since the founding of modern Turkey) brings needed balance to the more conservative Islamic States which lie nearby.  Turkey has also maintained a supportive position towards Israel unlike its neighbors.

So why all this fuss?

Prime Minister Erdogan has been democratically elected three times and seems to want to be elected again.  Unfortunately along this path, he has appeased the conservative Muslim faction (in return for votes) with “small step by small step” hoping to reintroduced Ottoman Empire relics.  Each step seemed insignificant but in total are threatening to swallow the secularness of modern Turkey.

Last August, following Ramadan, during the two day national holiday, I witnessed in Istanbul, modern Turkey.  Everywhere one went, thousands of citizens, dressed in their best, were out and about.  Mosques, museums, parks, the Golden Horn, and public transportation were flooded with holiday enjoyers.  Dressed neatly in both western garb and traditional modern ethnic Muslim coverings, the Turks I saw were polite and respectful.  They were able to enjoy the holiday and demanded nothing of me or any other Western visitor.

The ironic aspect of Erdogan’s pro=Muslim policies (like with alcohol limits, dress, and women’s rights) is that in secular Turkey, 99% of the citizens are Muslim.  No one is required to drink alcohol or wear western dress (even though most men do).  Traditional dress for women, long skirts or pants, kerchiefs, and modest blouses and coats can be seen everywhere.

It is one question why, as a personal choice anyone would seek to reintroduce ultra conservative muslim dress, but the more telling question is why would Turkey step back in history by allowing Islamic clerics to specify what others should wear?

If Erdogan is to be remembered as a great leader, he will take this Taksim Square demonstration as a wake up call.  Young, modern, and entrepreneurial Turkey is saying “enough”.  Supporters (and there are plenty) tend to be the far less educated.

The loss of secularism will deal Turkey a severe economic blow and cement Erdogan as the anti-Mustafa Ataturk anti-hero.

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