It first begins with a peculiar, bitter smell. As you inhale, it starts to burn your throat, your eyes get red and you start to cry. Then it becomes difficult to breathe. You feel suffocated. Get sufficiently exposed, and you may faint or even die.
These are the effects of pepper spray, the chemical that was used by the Turkish police against peaceful sit-in protesters who tried to protect one of Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces against a controversial reconstruction plan in Taksim Square on May 28. Undercover police then proceeded to set fire to the tents left behind by escaping protesters — with all their belongings in them — despite the protesters’ pleas.
For many people, this was the last drop in the glass, which took many years to fill. The unprovoked attack against the environmentalists urged people from very diverse backgrounds to pour into Taskim Square to support them. Most of the supporters were well-dressed, well-spoken, decent people representing no particular political party, or ethnic or sectarian group.
What had brought people from so many diverse backgrounds together?
When you talk to protesters, you understand. They are secular-minded (yet almost exclusively Muslim) pacifists; their slogans and chants revolve around only one person: Erdogan. The anger and contempt felt for him is the common denominator. Secular people are rising up against Erdogan’s style of governance.
This must be puzzling from a Westerner’s point of view, as the West still portrays Erdogan’s Turkey as a model for the Muslim world.
To date, his Turkey had been put forward as a political and economic success story for Muslim countries to emulate. Turkey is a considerably more powerful country than it was ten years ago, but beneath the surface a different picture emerges.
From the moment they took power in 2002, the Erdogan-led coalition of ex-Islamists under the AKP umbrella worked hard to convince the West and liberals that they had left their desire for an Islamic state behind. In addition to this extensive window dressing, they were instrumental in finding strategic targets for which they would receive the support of the Western world and liberals — they cracked the code of the West’s wishful thinking.
The power of the military has been rebuked, including that of the Western-oriented secularists within it. They emptied out Turkey’s secular judiciary with an induced retirement plan, and recruited their fellow supporters instead. Success in the economy was accompanied by a huge transfer of governmental resources to their supporters. According to observers, media owners are brought into line with huge tax fines or with governmental contracts as reward, while journalists are being suppressed via threat of getting fired or getting jailed. Telephone tapping by the government-controlled police is a common practice.
There are no checks and balances left in the Turkish state to stop this abuse of power. Critics say that the police, state prosecutors, and judges have all come under the control of Islamists, and that this setup is used to dismantle secularists from key posts in the Turkish state. In order to prevent any questioning or pressure from the West, they cunningly accuse the defendants of anti-democratic charges, and portray them as anti-Western.
What the West has so far refused to accept is that Turkey has been facing a network in symbiosis with the AKP, which has excelled in the manipulation of truth and the art of disguise thanks to their accelerated evolution under pressure from the Turkish secular system for many decades.
Many of the leading figures in opposition parties have been eliminated using sex tapes serviced to the media. In the absence of an effective opposition and benefiting from the growing economy, Erdogan’s party received more votes in each successive election.
The more power Erdogan gained, the louder he railed against the secularists and their way of life. Unrivaled, Erdogan feels no pressure in revealing this. He declares that he wants to bring up a pious youth. He insults the man on the street, and nobody dares to challenge him. He criticizes the separation of power and praises the “unity of power,” which he wants to hold as “the president” of Turkey.
Irritated liberals have begun to depart from the AKP’s autocratic course, or have been dumped by the AKP as they are no longer needed. A number of schools have been converted into Imam-Hatips (religious schools) in spite of the objections from the local communities. Restrictions on a secular way of life have increased, be it regarding alcohol, abortion, male-female relations, and TV content. The list goes on and on.
As a result, people felt the same way as they did upon inhaling pepper gas: suffocated, they took to the streets.
Erdogan’s fierce response to them — which resulted in casualties — revealed two things: the protesters were right; and Erdogan lacks the key qualities needed to successfully manage the delicate national and international balance of new Turkey. His imbalance and incompetence to realistically assess the situation peaked when he threatened to unleash his supporters onto the field. Two weeks after his return from Washington, where he was warmly welcomed by President Obama, he chose to suppress dissent by force and censorship.
The West should see that the attitude of Erdogan and his apparatchiks is shaped by the power they have, not by liberal principles. It is true that Turkey has become a model for the rest of the Muslim world, but what kind of a model is it? It is turning its back on secularism and it has an authoritarian leader who bashes Israel and the EU, which leads to better economic relations with Muslim countries and the West’s support. Is this really a model that the world needs?
Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies pose risks to the stability of this important country. Considering this and his willingness to use power on his own people, Washington and Brussels should be wary of appeasing Erdogan and his political sect anymore. This has been a sure way to antagonize his Western-oriented, urbanized, secular-minded opponents.
As for Erdogan, to re-qualify as a partner of the West and to gain the respect of his people, he needs to decide whether to stay on as a wannabe leader of the Sunnis or to act like a real leader of the Turkish people and genuinely embrace her centuries-old diversity. There is little hope that he will choose correctly.