It would be a mistake to draw a direct correlation between recent protests in Taksim Square and Turkey's larger struggle over secularism and Islam. Initially, it was a small group of environmentalists and apolitical folk who propelled demonstrations to public attention. Over time, however, more diverse constituencies joined the fray, including both secular and Kemalist supporters of Turkey's CHP or Republican People's Party, as well as far left and neo-nationalist groups. According to the Economist magazine, protesters come from widely diverse backgrounds including young and old, pious and secular, gays, Armenians, atheists and even anarchists. Grievances of the demonstrators, meanwhile, also vary considerably with some protesting neo-liberal economic policies and others concentrating on environmental concerns, human rights abuses, crackdowns on freedom of the press and even repression of the Kurdish minority.
Despite such differences, the protests seem to underscore a certain degree of disenchantment if not outright hostility toward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly Islamist tendencies. Many protesters at Taksim have displayed portraits and photos of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of Turkey's secular state. For years, Erdogan's so called "moderate" Islamist-rooted Justice and Development party or AKP has sought to impose Muslim values on society. Indeed, even before he became prime minister, Erdogan railed that "one cannot be a Muslim and secular. For them to exist together is not a possibility." Whilst serving as Mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan also remarked that he was "a servant of Shari'a" and "the imam of Istanbul."
Later, once ensconced in power as prime minister, Erdogan used public funds to construct 17,000 mosques while announcing plans to build a super mosque overlooking Istanbul. The government proclaimed that every shopping mall, theater or public facility in Turkey should sport a Muslim prayer room. Erdogan then decried use of social media as "anti-Islam." In an echo of the recent scandal at the National Security Agency and furor over whistle-blower Edward Snowden, Turkish intelligence has reportedly collected information about the religious affiliations of hundreds of individuals and companies, as well as figures close to the CHP, in an effort to prevent people from acquiring choice jobs in the public sector.
Welcome to AKP Homophobia and Misogyny
In addition, the Erdogan government introduced Koran classes for primary school students and revived clerical training for middle school. Moreover, Erdogan ordered the separation of girls and boys in primary and secondary school and ridiculously ruled that tens of thousands of graduates of Islamic madrassas possess the equivalent of a college degree and therefore can be hired for high level civil service posts. In a further blow to higher learning, the government announced it would select two thirds of the Turkish Academy of Sciences' members. Up until that point, existing members had been in charge of choosing new recruits, and following the AKP's ruling a full one third of the Academy resigned in protest.
Next, Erdogan sought to roll back Turkey's modern social sphere by speaking out against gay rights. When the AKP sought to criminalize adultery, the public grew even more nervous and following severe criticism from the European Union, Erdogan was forced to back off. However, the prime minister advocates separation of the sexes on beaches and wants subway passengers to refrain from kissing in public. Furthermore, in an effort to keep women in the home, Erdogan has opposed day care centers but argues that all Turkish women should have three children. Meanwhile, Erdogan supports policies aimed at compelling women to adopt conservative dress and customs, but the misogynistic prime minister turns a blind eye to Turkey's backward child-bride practices and domestic violence. Moreover, Erdogan has come out against abortion and supports legislation reducing Turkey's legal abortion limit from 16 to 10 weeks. The prime minister says he even opposes abortion in cases of rape.
What really inflamed public opinion, however, was Erdogan's move to ban the sale of alcohol between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and to furthermore prohibit sales near schools and mosques. When Erdogan prohibited alcohol brands from advertising on TV, billboards and sporting events, some began to suspect that the AKP had a stealth agenda to abolish alcohol consumption altogether. When criticism began to mount that the new restrictions infringed on personal freedoms, Erdogan responded flippantly that "anyone who drinks is an alcoholic, save those who vote for AKP." Erdogan has taunted his opponents, remarking that if people want to drink, they should purchase ayran, a traditional yogurt drink, or alternatively eat grapes.
Obama Administration Caught off Guard
Though the mainstream media seems to have woken up to Erdogan's agenda in the wake of the Taksim protests, the Beltway establishment has tended to ignore creeping Islamism in Turkey or to essentially give the prime minister a pass. As the New York Timesrecently noted, "for the past few years, there has been a general optimism about Turkish democracy in Western capitals." Obama meanwhile has held up the Erdogan government as a model for other Islamic nations in the region. Though Turkey has pursued an increasingly more independent foreign policy under Erdogan, particularly on Israel and Iran, Ankara is still a key NATO ally which Washington desperately seeks to keep in the fold.
Like earlier protests in Tunisia and Egypt, Taksim threatens to unsettle the Turkish-U.S. relationship in unpredictable ways. Since demonstrations erupted in Istanbul, the White House has been thrown into a tizzy, with officials urging the authorities' to show restraint while also being careful to avoid direct criticism of Erdogan. Indeed, as recently as May 16 President Obama hosted the Turkish prime minister at the White House and thanked Erdogan for being such a strong and key U.S. ally. Obama even asked the pious and socially conservative Turk for advice on how to raise his own two daughters.
Secular Left's Inconsistent Moral Compass
It's bad enough that the Obama administration has been so cynical and tight lipped on Erdogan's increasingly more anti-democratic tack of recent years, but oddly enough the secular left has been little better. To be sure, some have organized solidarity protests with the Taksim demonstrators in New York's Zuccotti Park, home to the original Occupy movement. Yet, for ten years the left has been pretty silent about the whittling away of secular and modern values in Turkey.
On a certain level, the left's failure to address Turkey is curious. For decades, the liberal left has been locked in a relentless culture war with the Christian right. In many respects, Erdogan's program is not so far removed from the evangelical Christian social agenda, which is also predicated on homophobia and regressive views on women. So, why has the left pulled its punches? Perhaps, because it doesn't want to fall into predictable Islamophobia which is so common on the right. Yet, one can easily criticize bigotry on Fox News while simultaneously standing up for secularism. Unfortunately, however, the left shows no interest in jettisoning its own rigid sectarian and ideological baggage which inhibits critical self-reflection and independent thought.
One of the reasons the left has become so confused on Turkey is that Ankara has pursued a rather ambiguous and eclectic foreign policy which has at times bumped up against "the empire" and its strategic friends. Turkey for instance supported a pro-Palestinian group which sought to end the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip. When a flotilla set sail from Turkey in 2010 with aid for the Palestinians, Israeli commandoes raided one ship, the Mavi Marmara, within international waters. In the ensuing violence, nine Turkish activists were killed and dozens wounded.
In a scathing report, Ankara later accused Israel of excessive and pre-meditated force, tried Israeli military officials in absentia, and withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv. Diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey were only restored in 2013 when Obama personally brokered a telephone conversation between Erdogan and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Turkey has not exactly been so cooperative on Iran, either. Indeed, the Erdogan government brokered a deal with Teheran to export half of the Islamic Republic's low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for enriched fuel for a research reactor. Later, at the United Nations, Ankara voted against UN Security Council sanctions designed to restrict Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs [Teheran countered that its nuclear program was intended solely for peaceful uses].
Such independent moves from Turkey have served to muddle the political debate and confuse leading intellectuals on the left. Take, for example, MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, a prolific commentator on foreign affairs. To his credit, Chomsky has been a leading critic of human rights abuses in Turkey. In 2010, for example, he called for freedom of expressionin Istanbul and greater human rights protections. The academic has also been an outspoken advocate of Kurdish rights and has called on Ankara to halt its repression of this persecuted minority. What is more, Chomsky advocates greater press freedoms and criticizes Turkey for imprisoning journalists. More recently, Chomsky has condemned the recent police crackdown in Taksim Square.
Nevertheless, when it comes to enunciating strong opposition to religious zealots like Erdogan, Chomsky is curiously circumspect. When asked by a Kurdish newspaper what he thought about the relationship between Islam and secularism in Turkey, Chomsky was vague and somewhat evasive. "I am in no position to hand out grades for good and bad behavior," he remarked. "It is for the people of Turkey to make their country a model that others may seek to follow, insofar as it is appropriate for them." During yet another recent discussion about politics in the Middle East, Chomsky was similarly non-committal. When asked what kinds of constitutions were most appropriate for the wider region, Chomsky stated blandly, "we can ask the same questions about the West. The questions are too large, complex, and varied for me to try to address here."
Just why is it so "complex" for Chomsky to offer up a simple defense of secular values and the need to restrain religious fundamentalism? It's all the more befuddling, since Chomsky himself forms part of the Enlightenment tradition which has worked so tirelessly toward a greater secular society since the 18th century. Perhaps, Chomsky has become somewhat constrained by political correctness. During one media interview dealing with the Arab Spring, Chomsky remarked that Erdogan was by "far and away the most popular figure" in the region and Turkey had "taken a pretty constructive role on many issues." At other times, Chomsky has seemed to express tacit approval for Erdogan, since Turkey pursued an independent foreign policy and snubbed the U.S. on both Iran and Gaza.
Promoting a Sensible View on Turkey
Perhaps, there are other reasons why Chomsky chooses to pull his punches. As I noted in an earlier al-Jazeera column, the MIT professor seems to subscribe to a perverse tendency on the left which argues that Americans should avoid expressing controversial views about other foreign countries which have challenged Washington and the right wing media spin machine. To an extent, Chomsky is right to be concerned but one need not agree with Fox News to bring independent judgment to bear on world events once in a while. By adhering to such strict notions of political correctness, Chomsky and others effectively box themselves in when it comes to critical issues like Turkey and Islamic fundamentalism.
The left should sweep aside such obsolete and ideological notions while coming out strongly and forcefully in support of secular values. Yet, in the case of Turkey it's not enough to simply condemn Erdogan and the AKP. If it hopes to promote international solidarity, the left must identify reasonable and non-violent secular elements within Turkish society. Taksim Square is full of such people, yet the Turkish left also sports its share of ideological throwbacks, nationalists and outdated fans of the Kemalist military tradition. In a recent video uploaded to YouTube, Chomsky declares that the demonstrators in Turkey deserve political solidarity. Quite right, but which elements specifically? If Chomsky, a North American, actually believes he has a right to express views on such weighty matters, then now would be a good time to speak up.