Analysis | Turkey: Protests offer an opportunity to bridge the secular-religious divide

Recent protests in Turkey could help bridge the country's longstanding religious-secular divide – if both sides are willing to engage with each other.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, June 7, 2013 14:13 - 4 Comments

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Onlookers near a young protester in Ankara. (Picture: AFP)

One observation almost universally echoed by journalists reporting on the recent wave of protests in Turkey has been the broadly inclusive nature of the protests and the wide support that they have received from different societal groups. As Ece Temelkuran put it in an article for the New Statesman a few days ago:

“Teenage girls standing in front of TOMAs [riot control vehicles], … rich lawyers throwing stones at the cops, football fans rescuing rival fans from police, the ultra-nationalists struggling arm in arm with Kurdish activists. … People not only overcame their fear of authority but they also killed the fear of the “other””.

These words speak to the unifying power of the protests, which have given rise to some unlikely political alliances. But while the spotlight remains fixated on the protests’ surprising ability to unite different secular groups, few seem to notice that they have so far done little to bridge one of the country’s most long-standing – and most hampering – divides: That between Turkey’s religious and secular communities.

Indeed, Turkey’s many religious parties and associations – usually very well-organised – have so far seemed hesitant to take to the streets and join the protesters in their demands for an end to Prime Minister Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian governing style. In fact, after yesterday’s tumultuous scenes at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport where thousands of AKP supporters staged a counter-demonstration to show their support for a still uncompromising Prime Minister Erdoğan upon the latter’s return from a trip to North Africa, that prospect seem to grow increasingly unlikely.

This is regrettable because protests did not start out on an exclusively secular, or even anti-Islamic platform – although they may at times have taken on such rhetoric in recent days. What’s more, the country as a whole has much to gain if political liberals on either side of the divide could find a way to join forces in addressing the protesters’ legitimate concerns over the direction that Turkish politics have taken since the AKP’s reelection to power in 2011 – concerns that are shared by many religious liberals.

Before taking a closer look at the benefits that such religious-secular cooperation could foster, let me briefly look at the kind of support we have seen and consider the possible reasons behind the hesitancy of religious Turks to take to the street.

First, I do not mean to say that there has not been religious support for the protests on an individual, or even at times more organised religious basis. Reports and pictures of such support are widely available online, but they remain largely spontaneous and, in the few cases that they have involve concerted action, were dominated by groups like the Anticapitalist Muslims [Antikapitalist Müslümanlar] who belong to the leftist fringes of Turkey’s Islamic scene.

Second, it should also be acknowledged that the country’s leading conservative newspaper, Zaman, as well as its English outlet, Today’s Zaman, have run a number of pieces that were critical of the government’s brutal handling of the protest, and that there are signs that even some leading AKP politicians, including Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç and President Abdullah Gül, are uncomfortable with Prime Minister Erdoğan’s extremely uncompromising stance.

Third, as Emrah Yildiz points out in an interesting article on Jadalliyah, the media’s initial representation of the protesters as “secular” and “middle class” has allowed the government, more specifically Prime Minister Erdoğan to frame this battle as one of the old secular establishment wishing to reverse the rise to power of a newly emerging conservative middle class. But the divisions are not as simple as that – if Turkish politics fail to evolve towards a more participatory model of democracy, Muslims stand to loose out just as much as their non-believing compatriots.

Despite these important caveats, and at the risk of reproducing some unhelpful binary divisions, it cannot be denied that we have not yet seen large-scale religious support for the protests. The conservative mainstream, represented for example by the influential Gülen movement, which provides a large support base for the ruling AKP but has recently become more critical of the government’s failure to listen to its critics, has so far taken a rather ambiguous stance, admitting that some of the protesters’ demands are legitimate, while at the same time referring to them as a “wrecked generation” in need of help.

On some level, such hesitation is understandable. The religious-secular divide still runs deep across Turkish society, and mistrust of the other side’s intentions remains widespread amongst secular and religious people alike. For decades, secular elites and a military fiercely committed to preserving the secular foundations of the Kemalist state have cooperated in curtailing access to education and to positions of political and economic power for those who did not want to relinquish their religious identity in public.

Turkey’s much-criticised headscarf ban has long prevented Muslim women from entering universities, and a total of four military coup-d’états has ousted a succession of democratically-elected Islamic-leaning parties. Add to this the largely secular appearance of the protesters, and a number of reports of head-scarfed women being attacked by secular activists, and it becomes more understandable why some religious Turks may be worried that these protests are somehow directed against them.

Such concerns are regrettable, because Turkey had much to gain if more religious Turks would demand their rightful place amongst the protesters and use the current political juncture to show solidarity with the protesters’ demands. Naïve as this may sound against a backdrop of growing tensions in recent days, there has never been a better moment for a coalition of truly liberal forces to emerge.

If religious liberals, many of whom voted for the AKP in the hope that it would do away with Turkey’s authoritarian tradition, threw their weight behind the protesters’ understandable frustration with the AKP’s increasing  tendency to restrict freedom of speech and pass laws without prior public consultation, this could present a real challenge to the country’s long-standing political polarisation along the “lifestyle divide”.

For years, liberals on either side have been complaining about the lack of alternatives to the two main political parties. While the only substantial opposition, the Republican People’s Party (known by its Turkish acronym CHP) has failed to appeal to anyone outside its own staunchly secular, nationalist basis, the AKP continues to present itself as the voice of an embattled “silent” majority even after a decade of phenomenal electoral success.

In fact, the government has at times used the notion that it is still somehow engaged in a struggle to defeat a Kemalist “deep state” as an excuse to lock-up those whose criticisms it would rather do without. This division along the secular-Islamic divide continues to leave liberals on both sides with few alternatives but to vote for those it believes are more likely to defend their own lifestyle choices.

Yet, while many seculars are fed-up with the CHP’s inability to move on from an out-dated Kemalist rhetoric, many Muslims are equally frustrated with the AKP’s descent into nepotism, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s heavy-handed approach to power, and the government’s utter unwillingness to engage its critics – both within and outside the party.

Today, a group of religious women has announced that they will be marching from Istanbul’s Kabataş district to Gezi Park in order to protest the usage of Islamophobic slogans by protesters and to demand recognition of their contribution to the demonstrations. This is a hopeful sign. If more people like them came forwards and managed to find a common platform with their non-religious compatriots – who knows, we might even see the emergence of a truly democratic “third force” in Turkish politics, which is united by the awareness that the protection of their own liberties and lifestyle choices is intrinsically tied up with their willingness to grant the same freedoms to those that they disagree with.

Critical religious support for the demonstrators would send an important sign to Prime Minister Erdoğan that, contrary to his frequently voiced beliefs, the Gezi Park protests are not the work of “extremists”, “thugs” or “foreign provocateurs”. It would also lend legitimacy to the protesters’ claims that they represent the grievances of all Turkish people, and send a sign of warning to the party’s leadership that it cannot unconditionally rely on the support of those 50 per cent, who voted the party into power, if it does not adjust its definition of democracy to mean more than electoral success.

Most importantly, however, after more than a decade of undeniable reformist achievements, it would send an important message to a secular electorate that perceives itself under threat from recent infringements on secular lifestyles and the Prime Minister’s repeated avowals to raise “a generation of Muslims”, that those who supported the AKP are equally as committed to safeguarding the rights and lifestyles of “the other 50 per cent” as they are to eradicating those illiberal politics that they themselves have long suffered.

Precisely because many secular Turks have been prepared to accept the AKP’s gradual reshaping of the republic’s rigidly secular principles in the name of a more liberal democracy, one could argue that the responsibility to challenge the current authoritarian tendencies within the conservative elite now rests with those who first voted them into power.

At the same time, the recent decision by protesters in Taksim square to join their religious friends in celebrating the religious holidays known as Mihraç Kandili (which commemorates the prophet’s ascent to heaven) was a sign that many secular protesters are willing to include religious elements into their struggle.

After a decade of political success and with no significant political rival in sight, more AKP supporters should now feel sufficiently confident to demand that their party continues what it initially promised to do: To create a state that protects the interests and fundamental rights of all of its citizens, irrespective of their religious affiliation.

Julia Ley

Julia Ley is currently pursuing a postgraduate degree in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford University. Her work has previously been published by Today's Zaman in Istanbul and the German weekly Die ZEIT.

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fuad
Jun 7, 2013 15:08

I dont think its very interesting to use this middle class spectacle of emotionally blackmail sections of the islamic bloc. There is nothing liberal, which i guess you use without irony, about the bulk of the protesters, who have bled the occupy concept of whatever meaning it still had.

Standing against police brutality and the neoliberalism eating away at AKP however, is interesting.

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