On occasion, the banal manner in which news is reported in the media makes it easy to forget political distinctions which are highly salient. The example which comes to mind is the reporting of the outbreak of widespread protests in Syria, in 2011. The BBC’s coverage failed to capture the fact that intervention in Syria would be a completely different ballgame to intervention in Libya, owing to its vastly superior conventional forces, its enjoyment of Iranian and Russian support, and various other factors. If they were mentioned at all, these crucial considerations were hardly prominent in the basic coverage. It is unsurprising, then, that Western governments were accused of holding a double standard: why did they intervene in Libya, but not Syria?
In a similar vein, we would do well to bear in mind when considering the large-scale protests which have erupted in Turkey (1) over the past few days that political factors differentiate Turkey very strongly from those Middle Eastern countries which have been part of the Arab Spring. Turkey is a democracy with a moderate Islamist government. It is therefore a beacon which other Middle Eastern countries are striving to move towards. The protests in the country are so widespread, numerous and strongly critical of the incumbent government that they naturally invite comparison with the Arab Spring movements. Just as young Egyptians protested against Mubarak in Tahrir Square, young Turks are now demonstrating against Erdogan’s government in Taksim Square. Yet this comparison, while superficially appealing, does not survive reasoned analysis.
The image of Turkish protests brandishing Greenpeace banners (see below) suggests that this wave of protests is bourgeois in nature. The protests began with opposition to the plans of Erdogan’s government to build over a park in Istanbul. The Turkish public taking issue with Erdogan’s urban planning policy could not be more different in nature from the Arab Spring protests, which were driven by anger at economic stagnation and corrupt, undemocratic governance. The fact that Turks are ready to protest about the environment and urban planning itself shows that Turkey is free from those fundamental problems which plague other nations in the Middle East.
Of course, the recent protests in Istanbul, Ankara and elsewhere concern more than just a small detail of urban planning. Turks are concerned that Erdogan is governing too autocratically. I do not want to downplay the significance, or potential significance, of the current protests. I would argue, though, that these developments are hallmarks of the inevitable struggles of democratization, rather than signifying any particular problem with Turkey’s form of mildly Islamist democracy. It is true that the police reaction to the protests has been heavy-handed. Yet the history of democratization in Britain is littered with examples of brutal police retaliation to mass demonstrations. It is true that Erdogan decided to bypass the order of an administrative court to press ahead with his original policy. Yet judicial legitimacy and influence is one of the slowest-evolving features in any democracy; it takes decades of precedent and tradition to build (recall the arrogance of early US Presidents such as Andrew Jackson to the decisions of the Supreme Court). Erdogan’s actions, and his initial arrogant, dismissive attitude towards the protests, are the mark of a leader naively resting on the laurels of his democratic mandate. These are hardly issues which are unique to Turkey as an Islamic democracy, but rather, they are the kind of problems associated historically with all democracies. Yet the Western media continues, in some respects, to treat Turkey as a suspicious outlier. The Times leader, entitled “Creeping Islamism: Turkey’s latest law on alcohol is an ominous portent of the nation’s direction” (2) criticising the Erdogan government’s rather unliberal alcohol policy reform is best offset by noting said policy’s similarity to that of some more conservative Western areas, such as Texas (3). We ought to desist from treating Turkey as more “Other” than it truly is.
The upshot of all this is to say that we still have grounds for looking at Turkey with optimism, despite these recent protests. The protests are already serious, but Erdogan is likely to react in a conciliatory way, as the rhetoric of he and his ministers is already indicating. We ought not to use the problems that Turkey will inevitably face as it consolidates secular democratic institutions as an excuse for discrediting its potential international role or its potential bid for European Union membership. Writing in The Times last October, (4) Norman Stone argued that Turkey ought to solve its internal problems, particularly the problem of Kurdish nationalism, before pursuing an adventurous foreign policy agenda. Again, it is true that the Kurdish problem is a severe one, but let’s not lose sight of historical comparative perspective. What historian ever argued that Britain could not pursue an adventurous foreign policy in spite of its perennial struggle against Irish nationalism? A dose of rational optimism is all that is required to recognise the hugely beneficial role Turkey can play in the Middle East, particularly with regard to the Syrian crisis, in the short term, but also in its capacity for acting as a beacon to all democratic-leaning Middle Eastern countries, in the long term. In spite of its problems, Turkey is the bastion demonstrating that liberal values can be compatible with Islam.