A small non-violent protest against the development – some would say over-development – of Istanbul’s Taksim Square has turned into the Turkish equivalent of the Tahrir Square protests in Cairo, Egypt, that brought down Hosni Mubarak, that country’s pro-US dictator. What do the Taksim Square protesters want? Or, rather more to the point in this case, what don’t they want?
Initially, the protests were over the plans by the Turkish government to turn over a public park and surrounding small shops to its crony capitalist allies. Politically-connected “entrepreneurs” got the green light from authorities to destroy one of Istanbul’s last green spaces to build a shopping mall and a historic recreation of the old Ottoman military barracks in what is the epicenter of Istanbul’s crowded urban scene.
A spontaneous protest grew up over the plans, with a non-violent resistance campaign launched on the site by locals fed up with the transformation of their city into a combination tourist trap and symbol of Ottoman revivalism. The response of the authorities was immediate and violent: water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets, nightsticks, and armed soldiers clearing the streets. One would think the demonstrators were calling for a revolution – and by the time the protests had reached their second or third day, indeed they were.
“Erdogan resign!” is the rallying cry, referring to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the gruff-spoken Turkish Prime Minister and head of the “moderate” Islamist ruling party, which calls itself Justice and Development (AKP). Erdogan, for his part, has blamed the protests on “drunks, extremists, and Twitter,” declaring that he has the support of the Turkish majority and refusing to deal with the protesters’ demands. “He’s not been behaving rationally at all,” says Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul resident and academic affiliated with John Hopkins University. “He appears to be becoming almost delusional and refusing to accept the reality that these protests are mainly spontaneous and are being organized by small groups of people who’ve never engaged in politics before.” Erdogan is apparently taking the Turkish equivalent of the old Richard Nixon “silent majority” line, disdaining the tens of thousands who have taken to the streets across the country as “bums,” and, inevitably, referring to them as “terrorists.”
Those “bums” may bring him down yet.
What started out as a local protest against the crony capitalist schemes of the municipal Istanbul government has now turned into a nationwide rebellion against the increasingly repressive policies of the AKP national government, which started to take a turn toward a more robust form of Islamism after Erdogan’s 2011 election. A month before the protests, laws restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol were put on the books: the state-owned Turkish Airways issued a new rule forbidding stewardesses from wearing red lipstick (other colors are presumably okay). And if you’re riding on the Ankara subway, and you find a sudden urge to kiss your Significant Other, forget it, bud – because closed circuit TV is watching you, and you’re busted.
What has particularly stuck in the person-in-the-street’s craw, however, is the scale and intent of a series of landscape-changing construction projects, such as the building of a replica of the old Ottoman barracks, that a) project the past glory of the old Ottoman imperium, and b) enrich the well-connected corporate cronies of the AKP. Erdogan’s arrogance hasn’t helped, either, and the government’s reaction has given the protests a very broad character, with leftists shoulder-to-shoulder with right-wing nationalists and Kurdish separatists, all of them standing united against the baton-swinging water cannon-shooting police.
Another point of contention has been Turkey’s support to the Syrian Sunni jihadists waging a terrorist campaign in neighboring Syria. The upfront declarations by Syrian rebels that they want to create an Islamic state has provoked opposition to Erdogan’s “pro-American” (i.e. pro-jihadist) foreign policy, which has the Erdogan government providing the rebels with bases inside Turkey as well as arms and military training. This is seen by worried secularists as merely an extension of the AKP’s policies of increasing Islamization at home.
Turkey has long been held up as a “model” for the region by US policymakers. On a trip to Turkey during her tenure as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton enthused over the country’s value as a role model:
“I think across the region, people from the Middle East and North Africa particularly are seeking to draw lessons from Turkey’s experience. It is vital that they learn the lessons that Turkey has learned and is putting into practice every single day. Turkey’s history serves as a reminder that democratic development depends on responsible leadership, and it’s important that that responsible leadership helps to mentor the next generation of leaders in these other countries.”
Whether this will be seen as an echo of her praise for and support of Mubarak– a “friend of my family” – even when the Tahrir Square protests were in progress remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t blame her for merely reflecting the conventional wisdom in Washington when it comes to the Erdogan regime. This Brookings Institution paper holding up the AKP and Erdogan’s Turkey as “pragmatic” (i.e. good) Islamists, as opposed to the baddies we’re supposedly battling, is a perfect example of how boilerplate BS substitutes for real thinking about foreign policy in the Imperial City. In the author’s view, the AKP, rather than being Islamist, is a “passive secular” force, whatever that means: except now, it appears, the “passive” AKP is getting aggressively Islamist. The Turkish regime, we are told, represents a “middle ground” between the Iranian theocracy and the “assertive secularism of Turkey’s past.” This is an odd formulation – putting the Turkish and Iranian regimes on the same Islamist continuum – since the militantly Sunni AKP considers the Shi’ite mullahs who rule Iran to be heretics. Indeed, Turkey is the northern linchpin of the US-brokered Sunni anti-Iranian alliance, and, as a member of NATO, will no doubt be an eager participant if and when the Western powers strike Tehran.
The whole thrust of US foreign policy in the Middle East since George W. Bush’s second term has been the “Sunni turn,” that is, the attempted creation of a countervailing force to the so-called Shi’ite crescent, a region at the epicenter of the Middle East where Muslims of the Shia sect are in the majority. It was Jordan’s King Abdullah who raised the alarm in a 2004 speech, warning of the “destabilizing” effects of rising Shi’ite influence from Beirut to Baghdad. Integrate this with the news that the US has just sent a Patriot missile battery and a squadron of F-16 jet fighters to Jordan – where US “advisers” are training Syrian rebels – and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Washington is readying itself to massively intervene in the Muslim world’s increasingly vicious religious civil war.
Syria is the latest theater in that war, and Western backing of the Sunni Islamist brigades fighting the Ba’athist regime is but the latest manifestation of longstanding US policy in the region. This harebrained policy is a continuation of the Bushian strategy, conceived at the height of the Iraq war, to engage with Iraq’s Sunnis, bribing and otherwise cajoling them into turning against Al Qaeda-in-Iraq. This was the whole strategy behind the “surge,” and it supposedly worked – except for the fact that Iraq is being torn apart by renewed sectarian conflict. But that’s not a bad thing if your strategy is to divide and conquer.
The animating idea behind America’s machinations in the region is to romance the “moderate” Sunni jihadists, use them as an instrument in the ongoing regime-change campaign against Iran, and compete for Al Qaeda’s base of support. The big problem of this too-clever-by-half grand strategy – which bears all the hallmarks of a classic neoconservative delusion – is that it invariably brings us into the position of supporting the very people we are supposedly fighting, the vaunted “terrorists” of Al Qaeda, against whom we launched the Global War on Terrorism in the first place.
The “Sunni turn” was not only continued but pursued even more aggressively by the Obama administration: in Libya, where we installed a jihadist regime and wound up with Benghazi: in Egypt, where we threw Hillary’s dear friend Mubarak overboard and cozied up to the “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood, and now in Syria, where we are providing the lung-eating jihadist rebels with “non-lethal” aid.
The turmoil in Turkey undermines this strategy, hopefully fatally. For the demonstrators in the streets of Istanbul are raising the flag of the founder of the Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk, whose “Young Turks” took the rotted corpse of the decomposing Ottoman Empire and turned its Anatolian trunk into a modern state, preserving Turkish sovereignty against the vultures of European colonialism in the wake of World War I. Fiercely secularist, Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk, razed mosques, banned women from wearing the hijab, and dragged Turkey, kicking and screaming, out of the Middle Ages and into the Europe of the twentieth century.
The Kemalist conception of democracy was something we would not recognize: upon the establishment of the secular Turkish republic, there was only one party, and that was the Kemalist party. Turkey had the forms of democracy – elections, a parliament, a constitution – but none of the reality. Little has changed since those days, except now the anti-Kemalists are on top, using the power of the Turkish state to smash their opponents and raise the old Ottoman symbols over Istanbul.
This rebuilding of the old Ottoman barracks is important symbolically. Mustafa Kemal fought against both the Europeans and the Ottomans in the country’s war for independence: the defeated sultanate and the victorious Europeans had teamed up to divide traditionally Turkish lands and feast on the spoils of the Great War. The Kemalists raised an army, crushed the Ottomans, drove back the invading Greeks and Bulgarians, and – with aid from Soviet Russia – forced the Europeans to sign the Treaty of Lausanne, which recognized Turkish sovereignty. To rebuild the Ottoman barracks is to raise the banner of the Kemalists’ ancient enemies in the middle of Istanbul. No wonder they’re rioting.
The Kemalist rebellion in Turkey represents a direct challenge to American policymakers, who revel in the conceit that they’re bringing a regime of tolerance and “civil society” to the Middle East and North Africa. Yet the implementation of the “Sunni turn” has allied the US State Department with the worst Islamist extremists in the region. Until now they’ve been able to pass off Erdogan as a paragon of the “moderate” Islamists they hope will triumph in Syria, but that myth will surely not survive the week as demonstrators are brutalized in the streets, with one already killed.
Turkey is a key link in the chain of alliances we’ve been building as a counter-weight to Iran: it is the launching pad for the Syrian regime-change operation, and a key facilitator of arms and cash to the rebels. If the Erdogan government should fall – or, if, say, the Turkish generals once again play out their historic role as the guarantors of public order, and stage another coup – Washington’s Syrian gambit is over.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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