A Country Divided: Where Is Turkey Headed?

By Daniel Steinvorth and Bernhard Zand

Photo Gallery: A Divided Turkey Photos
REUTERS

The uprising against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan clearly shows the deep divide between modernity and tradition in Turkey. Economic growth had long disguised the cleft. But now, the country must decide what its future will hold.

The first thing a visitor sees after passing through passport control in Istanbul is a monument to cosmopolitanism, consumption and the pleasures of drinking: a giant display shelf, 25 meters (80 feet) long, containing gin, vodka and whiskey, as well as wines from France, Italy and the US. Sales at the duty-free mall in Istanbul's Atatürk Airport are among the highest in Europe.

This would have pleased the man for whom the airport was named. Mustafa Kemal Pasha, known as Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, liked to drink Raki, the Turkish anise-flavored brandy, even on Muslim holidays.

Turkey's current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, believes drinking alcohol is a sin. Even as mayor of Istanbul, he bullied bar owners and banned the serving of alcohol on government-owned property. Four weeks ago, he pushed through a new alcohol law that prohibits both the selling of alcoholic beverages after 10 p.m. and advertising for beer and wine. "The old alcohol law," he told the parliament, "was passed by two drunkards. Shouldn't we prefer the law of God instead?" One of the drunkards he was referring to was Atatürk, and the other was apparently Atatürk's successor, Ismet Inönü.

The Turks don't have a particular problem with alcoholism. But the seemingly minor change to the country's alcohol laws touches on a fundamental issue nonetheless. The country's very identity is at stake -- just as it is when it comes to social norms on clothing, beard styles and family planning.

The protests that began four weeks ago over a controversial construction project at Istanbul's Gezi Park revealed to the astonished leadership in Ankara and a surprised global public how open the identity of modern Turkey remains. It is a country that has always had its sights set firmly on the West, ever since its founding 90 years ago, its accession to NATO more than 60 years ago and its application for admission to the European Union 25 years ago. This country, which has experienced a remarkable economic boom for the last decade, is now confronted with the same question it faced 90 years ago: Who do we want to be? Where does Turkey want to go?

Provincial Simpletons?

The recent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations have served to highlight the two fundamental currents that drive Turkish society. There is the progressive, urban, Europe-oriented current on the one hand. And the conservative, rural movement that is deeply influenced by Islam, on the other.

They couldn't stand it anymore, say Turkish activists, that their prime minister and his fellow Islamists were trying to dictate to them how they should dress, how many children they should have and whether they could engage in public displays of affection. They are tired, say the supporters of Erdogan's conservative Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), of being patronized by a westernized elite and being berated as provincial simpletons.

Both sides claim to be speaking for the majority of Turks. This is possible because Turkey today is a far more complex entity than the backward country of soldiers and farmers that Atatürk encountered beneath the ruins of the defunct Ottoman Empire.

The urbanization of the 20th century and the economic boom of the early 21st century have blurred and even confused traditional divides. During Erdogan's first term, in which he was supported by an overwhelming pro-European majority, it seemed as if a pluralistic democracy were developing. In 2005, the European Union embarked on accession talks with Turkey.

The altercations of recent weeks seem to belie the confidence of those years. The conflict shows that political differences in Turkey have actually intensified under the cover of the economic boom. The sense of outrage has increased and the divide running through Turkish society has deepened.

There are two social groups: the urban "white Turks" (beyaz türkler), who look down on the rural "black Turks" (kara türkler). Both groups have expanded their influence in the last 10 years. While Turkey's real per capita income has increased by a factor of one-and-a-half, Turkey has become both more cosmopolitan and more religious, more progressive and more conservative, more urban and more provincial.

Long Ignored

This divide is especially evident in Istanbul, a city of 14 million. It is one of the top travel destinations for young people from all over Europe today. Istanbul attracts international DJs, filmmakers and performance artists, and the city's museums and galleries exhibit works that would never have been seen under the secular governments of the 1980s and 90s. A Picasso exhibition in 2006, when Istanbul was named the European Capital of Culture, attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers. Exhibition posters depicting nudes were still hanging on walls four years later.

Patrons of the arts, like the heirs of the Koç and Sabanci Turkish industrial dynasties, support a local cultural scene that no longer has anything in common with the dry Kemalist state-sponsored art of decades gone by. Many of Turkey's most creative artists were among the demonstrators in recent weeks, including performance artist Erdem Gündüz who, after Gezi Park was cleared last week, stood in front of a portrait of Atatürk for hours without moving or saying a word. His solo vigil confused police officers and inspired hundreds of copycats within hours.

The self-confidence demonstrated by the opposition in Gezi Park is confronted with a self-confidence expressed in other places and in other ways. It is the confidence of Turks who have long been ignored by the Kemalist establishment, who congregate at the AKP rallies, and who express, with disarming openness, that they are now in power. "We are the silent majority, not the rabble that is trying to scare us," says Erdogan supporter Ruveyda Alkan at a pro-AKP demonstration last Monday. Murat Arslan, a vendor from the Islamist neighborhood of Fatih, said: "The opposition is trying to provoke people, cause trouble and win votes. It wants to overthrow the government, but it won't succeed."

Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bagi was equally clear last Thursday in rejecting the criticism of the German government: "If Ms. Merkel takes a closer look, she will see that those who mess about with Turkey do not find an auspicious end." In response, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said: "Unfortunately, the reaction to the protests was not very European, especially the exaggerated, strident rhetoric. Those who see themselves as part of a community of values should protect peaceful protests and not perceive them as a threat. Nevertheless, I am in favor of not scaling back dialogue with Turkey, but instead working toward strengthening communication, especially on the subject of the rule of law."

'Dirty Whores'

Soon afterwards, Bagi upped the ante when he said that Merkel should withdraw her concerns over Turkey's surly behavior and how it affects EU accession. He even imposed an ultimatum of Monday, saying that there would be consequences if it were not met.

The self-confidence of AKP supporters is also evident in the bearing of those conservative and economically successful Anatolians and Black Sea Turks who have done well in Istanbul. They have established a zone of mosques and minarets in their neighborhoods, creating a different Istanbul, a city where bikini ads are painted over and store owners are called upon to stop selling alcohol. It is a city where members of the new Muslim bourgeoisie are building mansions in the neo-Ottoman style so that their wealth doesn't look European. In districts like Fatih and Sultanbeyli, there is growing pressure on residents to behave in ways that reflect religious norms. "From one day to the next, all female kindergarten teachers were wearing veils," says a mother who was dropping off her children at an Istanbul daycare center. "They call us dirty whores, just because we're wearing short sleeves and short skirts," two female pupils from Pendik, an Istanbul suburb, reported last week.

Modern Turks feel as out of place in these areas as conservatives feel in the liberal quarters in the western part of the city. When a foreign TV crew pointed its camera at a rural family at the Kabata boat landing below Taksim Square a few days ago, a young Turkish woman wearing modern clothing berated the journalists in English, saying: "You shouldn't constantly be filming these people. That's not the real Turkey."

The search for what, exactly, the definition of "real Turkey" is began decades ago. The revolution that Atatürk visited on the rump state of the Ottoman Empire was one of the radical cultural shifts of the 20th century. He replaced Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, and Islamic law and the sultanate with Western ideas. He introduced voting rights for men and women, created a secular education system and barred Turks from wearing Turkish trousers, headscarves and the traditional fez in government offices and universities. His methods were often heavy-handed, but his contribution to modernization is undisputed.

First-Term Successes

The controversial question that Atatürk left behind for the country was that of the relationship between state and religion. The army intervened against politicians, including those who were religious conservatives, three times, in 1960, 1971 and 1980. After the fourth, bloodless military coup directed against the Islamists, then Istanbul Mayor Erdogan was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

It was a turning point that played an important role in the charismatic politician's rise to power -- and also informs the crisis in which he currently finds himself. After the sentence, Erdogan parted ways with his radical mentor, ousted Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, and embarked on a path toward the political center. It was an inspired strategic shift and one that later allowed him to capture the kind of lasting majorities that had been unheard of in Turkish politics to that point.

Erdogan's achievements cannot be denied. While Atatürk modernized the country, Erdogan developed it into a respected regional power. While Atatürk secularized Turkey, Erdogan democratized it. No foreign observer ever voiced doubts over his election victories. But his lasting successes -- liberating Turkey from the military's grip, bringing prosperity to broad segments of the population and the beginning of accession negotiations with the EU -- all occurred in his first term.

Journalists and former associates who have observed him over the years date the shift in his career to the period following his second election win in 2007, when the first signs of high-handedness appeared. He dragged cartoonists into court who had portrayed him as a cat, a horse or a cow, he persecuted the Dogan press group, which had fallen out of favor with the prime minister, and his courts sent hundreds of military leaders to prison. Two personal setbacks -- the death of his mother in October 2011 and a serious illness -- seem to have hardened him even further.

The prime minister is no longer the gifted politician who turned Turkey upside down 10 years ago. He is no longer the tactically clever Machiavellian he was when he was released from political imprisonment in 1999, who would first size up his opponents and then confidently put them in their place.

Time to Talk

Erdogan gave a remarkable speech to his party's parliamentary group last week. After having previously described the protesters as "scallywags" and "extremists," he now called them "traitors" and held "their partners abroad" responsible for the unrest. "We haven't heard a speech like that in a long time," says a journalist who reports on the parliament in Ankara. "It was the kind of speech we last heard in the days of the military dictatorship."

"He speaks like a dictator," says Veli Agbaba, a member of parliament for the Kemalist opposition party CHP. "He apparently views half of the Turkish people as his enemies. He is stirring up people against each other."

Lawmaker Altan Tan, a member of a pro-Kurdish opposition party, is also worried, even though Erdogan's AKP is the first governing party that has introduced a peace process with the Kurds and has negotiated a cease fire with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish separatist group PKK. There is currently no real separation of powers in Turkey, says Tan, because the heads of all major institutions -- the judiciary, the military, the police and the bureaucracy -- are members of the AKP. "Erdogan behaves no differently than the Kemalists, who view the state as their property."

It is difficult to discount Tan's diagnosis. Erdogan, who broke up the fossilized Turkish state, now rules with the methods of those who once persecuted him. He makes the same claim to sole representation with which the Kemalists prevented true democratization for decades.

For the demonstrators who were initially driven out of Gezi Park, it may be painful to realize that a large portion of Turkish society does not share their goals. But it will be even more painful for Erdogan to recognize that he needs more than parliamentary majorities to be a legitimate leader.

There will be no winners and losers in the struggle for Turkey's identity. The "black" and "white" Turks will ultimately have to speak with one another.

Editors Note: A Turkish-language version of this article is available in this week's SPIEGEL.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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1. Islam and democracy cannot co-exist!
dustindirkwood 06/24/2013
So this is the "mildly Islamic" guy whose policies the Western Press has praised in the past? Religion has no place in the democratic governance of any state. Once a group believes it has a divine endorsement it will assume extraordinary powers based on that blind spot: God is on our side. His actions against the Army, a development that needed to be made, was nonetheless completely out of touch with legality. Using extremely repressive military era laws, he had the top brass (and others) found guilty in a process that completely failed to protect their right to a fair trial. All based on eyerollingly absurd conspiracy theories. The defense has even proven that most of the fabricated documents dated 2001 were created on a PC in 2010 with Microsoft Office 2010. Instead of questioning the methods, most of the Western press seemed more intent on cheering him on. It is only now, that the repressive power of the state is weighed too heavily on people who are very obviously not what he claims them to be, that everyone has woken up. Unfortunately, these events have proven that the West was fooled by Erdogan. Remember, Erdogan is the guy who once has infamously said: "Democracy is a train and it's ok to get off it once we reach our destination (goal)". It's clear that Erdogan is no democrat, as a democracy needs many more than an election, such as freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom from unwarranted searches, freedom from detention without charges, separation of powers, checks and balances on power, etc. Unfortunately, once again, Erdogan's government has failed in all these areas. Turkey at the moment occupies the top spot in the following areas: #1 in number of human rights violations #1 in number of jailed journalists #3 in income inequality #3 in corruption It is also not true that AKP, the ruling government got 50 percent of the votes. They received 10,848,704 / 31,510,007= 0.34 (34%) (the ones voted for the AKP/the total number of legitimate votes), but AKP, the ruling government has 66 percent of the seats in the Parliament (365/550= 66%) due to the 10% threshold for representation in the parliment. We should not forget that just before the elections they distributed, coal for heating, washing machines and food to voters (paid by government funds of course) and by these means they bought some people´s votes as well. Apart from that, AKP issued too many ballot papers, even using the names of some dead family members. Last but not the least, the higher election committee did not keep the voting ballots after the voting period but demolished them, making it impossible for a proper investigation. The West have unleashed him on the stubborn secular Turks who wouldn't yield on issues like the Turkish identity of a nation-state, Kurdish problem, Cyprus, Iraq war, etc. Erdogan came to power fully backed by the West to "sort out" these issues and the pathologically arrogant West never even thought Erdogan could be capable of implementing his own Islamist agenda along the way. Don't forget Hitler also 'won' the German national election through very similar methods. Well enjoy now.
2. optional
spon-facebook-699340320 06/24/2013
If Ronald Dworkin could read this article published in the Der Spiegel, he would turn in his grave in joy and sorrow. Joy because what is happening in Turkey validates his theory and sorrow because he was such a staunch supporter of freedom and individual liberty. During his lifetime, he warned about the autocratic tendencies of many politicians who come to power using the democratic means and mechanisms. If utilitarianism promotes the happiness of the maximum number of people in a given community or country, Dworkin's theory provides a policy for ensuring the very democratic values and freedom, which autocrats and theocrats are all too happy to trample upon. Using people's religious sentiments for narrow political gains has always marked the career of many a men and women in the developing world. Unfortunately, for Turkey, a country that has come to be known as a citadel of modernity, its incumbent president is slowly implementing the very policies which will eventually turn the country backward because of the overt and covert use of religion. The words he is using against the founding father of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataurk, the very man who ensured Turkey's victory over many formidable foreign powers, proves what a bigot Erdogan is. He should also realise that the recent economic success of Turkey did not happen in a vacuum and is on account of the contributions made by Turkey's secularists and liberals. It would also not be an exaggeration to say that Turkey would still be a country resembling Afghanistan in many ways had it not been for the great Ataturk and his zeal to implement modern values at any cost.
3. Correct it
Bora 06/25/2013
To say that Ataturk drank alcohol during Islamic Holidays is presumptuous and insulting. Please correct this wildly inappropriate remark! Ataturk was always protective of Religious Values as long as they weren't used for Political Purposes..
4. optional
spon-facebook-10000617230 06/25/2013
First of all, this is a great article that sheds light onto what's going on in my home country Turkey these days. It also sums up the social and political make-up of the state. I am one of the Capulcu's Erdogan dismissively called the activists who turned the insult into an everyday name for ''fellow'', ''brother'', ''dude''. This automatically makes me think about the infamous N-word which was started as a insult but it's a common word for ''friend'' within the community. As a 24 year old woman from Turkey that lives in New York, I do not think AKP and its supporters are the black Turks here. Even though I do find the term offensive and insensitive, this comparison and metaphor is another strategy to further polorize the people of Turkey so we can stay divided. The Black Turks would be the Turkish citizens who can't win a contract from his/her government because they are simply ''not one of them.'' Black Turks of this country cannot buy a personal SHIP because it was on sale. But a White Turk, especially if he is the son of the PM, can, buy one. If these Black Turks can't just get a medical report that states he is not capable of fulfilling his military duty just like that unless he is , again, PM's son A black Turk cannot just get behind the wheel without a license then run over a woman to death and not get punished for that but then, if your father is Erdogan, it is very possible. A Black Turk doesn't make $50,000+ a month like Erdogan's daughter. Black Turks in this country don't trust their votes are being counted correctly. Black Turks today get jailed, beaten to death, get mistreated by the cops in Turkey for doing basically nothing but being against the corrupt system Black Turks in Turkey today are actually in jail see: Ergenekon* The list goes on This ugly comparison is not only ugly but also WRONG Erdogan and his supporters are his fans because he makes sure his supporters get a reward for being loyal. Erdogan believes in rewarding obedience. These people in power places are only there because of their obedience They are richer than ever and their egos are higher than ever now They are the real White Turks and they know it
5. Islam and Democracy can co-exist!
sher-hisirli 06/25/2013
Don't forget that St Muhammed and Other Caliphates were selected by Muslims.Muslims but not same these akp's muslims.These muslims is not same real muslims...?!!!
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