The protests in Turkey, which now involve an extraordinarily diverse group of people, illuminate an altered political landscape. Yet, much coverage of the demonstrations betrays an intellectual lag — worse than the one that plagued many journalists and pundits when anti-Hosni Mubarak protesters filled Tahrir Square in 2011.
Hasty proclamations of a “Turkish Spring” have given way to sophisticated-sounding but shallow dualisms, which seem to come straight from Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas. The conflict is now cast as a battle between secularists and Islamists, between authoritarianism and democracy.
The presence of Turkish neo-nationalists at the demonstrations even prompted the liberal-left Guardian to go soft on Kemalism. “At issue,” the newspaper claimed, “is whether Turkey should be the progressive, secular European nation-state that Ataturk originally envisaged and shaped from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire or a more explicitly religious country.”
Never mind that secularism in Turkey was brutally imposed, and that many Islamic practices were violently eradicated by Ataturk. That Istanbul’s long-standing, cosmopolitan communities of Jews and Greek Catholics were chased out during the heydays of secular nationalism. Or that the long-persecuted Turkish Kurds suspect — rightly — that they may get a better hearing from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan than from fans of Ataturk.
Simple ideological oppositions also obscure a more revealing irony: The Islamist Erdogan expediting, with the help of crony capitalists, the touristification of Istanbul. This highly lucrative beautification campaign requires the destruction of familiar landmarks, such as Gezi Park.
However, it should not be forgotten that Ataturk, beloved of modernising despots from the Shah of Iran to Pervez Musharraf, presided over a cultural inferno more extensive than Erdogan could ever dream of — one that turned Turkey’s greatest writers, from Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar to Orhan Pamuk, into melancholy private archivists of an officially scorned Ottoman culture.
Those conditioned to see Erdogan’s cultural vandalism as a fall from a golden age or as evidence of his latent Talibanism, should recall Turkey’s long history as a country with plenty of rich and powerful secularists, but no democracy and human rights. Like Meiji Japan, Kemalist Turkey wanted to achieve civilisation and enlightenment on terms defined by the West, yet only managed to violate the values of both.
As Orhan Pamuk wrote in 1997: “The ban on criticism by pro- western thinkers at a time when the country was in the process of westernisation, and the contemptuous rejection of traditional culture, while attempting to inculcate a new nationalistic Turkish identity, are striking examples of the contradictory and confused political and cultural attitudes which plagued Turkey’s efforts to modernise.”
Those contradictions and confusions are now more apparent as top-down modernisation slowly gives way to bottom-up democratisation. Indeed, well before a few environmentalists started a defence of Gezi Park, the Kurdish minority, often found demonstrating in Taksim Square, had invigorated some long-standing questions about citizenship in Turkey: What rights does it consist of, what kind of belonging does it define?
Citizens of a secular republic may seem equal in the abstract. However, whoever establishes the norms of citizenship also sets up an invisible hierarchy, entrenching the power of the dominant groups of the moment. This is even more apparent in Turkey, where republicanism proceeded by dictatorial fiat, than in countries like France and India.
Ataturk, for instance, simply ignored Turkey’s diverse population, enthroning Turkish as the national language and decreeing all Sunnis to be Turks. In this exclusive conception, those calling themselves Kurds were seen as deluded and backward people who had forgotten their Turkish origins.
In actuality, this notion of citizenship was paradoxical to the point of incoherence. It combined French republicanism with German-style ethnic nationalism. It could only be held together by brute force, and it was for much of the last century.
Since moving to representative government, Turkey has witnessed the unfreezing of Kemalist verities. The devout Anatolian masses that Ataturk and his hard line secular successors despised, have become politically much more assertive. They have loosened the stranglehold of secular urban elites over the bureaucracy and big business.
The Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, under Erdogan has been the prime beneficiary of this political awakening and entrepreneurial ferment. The party has used its huge electoral majorities and political capital to force the military and the Kemalists onto the defensive. It has also presided over a period of rapid economic growth.
The party’s success, combined with Erdogan’s clear failure to shake off Turkey’s traditions of authoritarian governance, has bred new challengers: Among others, displaced and disgruntled older elites and a young generation of globalised Turks with their own ideas of dignity and freedom.
Turkey is not alone in suffering the conflicts unleashed by the twinned dismantling of old hierarchies and emergence of mass politics. The street fighting between yellow and red-shirters in Bangkok, the stone throwing of Kashmiri youth in Srinagar, the anti-Chinese demonstrations in Hong Kong — all these are battles over political identity, rights and belonging.
Their religious identity, or lack thereof, should not confuse us into simplifying complex events into gratifying morality tales about secularists and Islamists. Erdogan is a cunning practitioner of the politics of resentment and an exponent of majoritarian rule and authoritarian capitalism — but in the mould of Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, rather than the Ayatollah Khomeini.
And Erdogan has a bigger struggle ahead of him. Timeworn ideas of citizenship — in Turkey as much as in Thailand, India, or Indonesia — can no longer reconcile differences of class, region, ethnicity and, increasingly, income. As the latest demonstrations in Brazil show, politicised elites, as well as masses in the age of globalisation, want to rewrite their compact with the domineering old state.
In Turkey, the first major step towards revising the social contract was taken by the AKP. But the recent eruptions of political discontent show that the party no longer exclusively controls this process. Erdogan’s instincts for demagoguery will now provoke silent minorities into loud opposition while causing unease within his own party.
Commenting in 1997 on Turkey’s prolonged and weird isolation, Pamuk held out a bleak prospect: “Since people have lost their memories and their relationships with their cultural neighbours,” he wrote, “the entire country has acquired the crudeness, inflexibility and slovenliness which often occur in those who live alone.”
Both Erdogan and his neo-nationalist opponents manifest many of these tendencies. The difference is that in the age of global capital flows and rapid communications, Turkey no longer lives alone. In many ways — and this may be their enduring significance — the recent protests have rancorously shattered Turkey’s almost century-long solitude.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of ‘From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia,’ and a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India.