Monday, June 17, 2013

Big State or Big Discussion? The Fight for Turkey's Soul

I thought there was something to be hopeful about before the past weekend, but now I'm not so sure. It seemed that finally Recep Tayyip Erdogan had deigned to listen to some voice other than the one that echoes around the inside of his skull, and that a rapprochement was possible.

Then he went completely Fruit Loop.

The result? The Police re-take Gezi Park, rip it up, re-plant it with several hundred trees and thousands of flowers (in order to show that the AKP, unlike the protesters, is a truly Green party), plants that will have to be ripped up again once the shopping mall/'Ottoman-Style Barracks'/luxury flats/Spaceport for Turkey's first spaceship has been given the go-ahead, scatter protesters, arrest lawyers, doctors and the few independent journalists still working in Turkey, steal a man's piano, fire tear gas into buildings including hospitals and (allegedly) the Dutch Consulate, mix some chemical irritant with the water fired at protesters from the TOMA water cannons, and basically the whole world outside of AKP-land gets the blame.

All for the sake of a tree?

Well, that's how some would still have it. In fact, it's part of an ongoing debate that has been in Turkey for a long time, one that has two parts:
The emergence of democracy as a social construct;
and the role of government and religion in private lives.
This is nothing new. It could be argued that in the UK, much of our history since the Reformation has been about the same subject - for example, what the precise role of the monarch is, what is the relationship between Crown and commoner, what rights do we have to the enjoyment of privacy etc. The American Constitution is very much built on the notion of individual rights and the responsibility of the individual within society. Of course, whether it works in practice or not is a very different thing, but the principles are there. And again and again over the course of the last two hundred years, we have seen societies being united and/or riven by the possibilities and fragilities of democratic process.
What is fascinating is watching it happen in real time in Turkey, thanks to the heroes of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and beyond. Gezi Park itself has been an incredible melting pot of possibilities, and what has been truly notable is the fact that people of so many political and religious persuasions, people who would not normally see eye to eye on a single thing, have found a commonality and a capability to work together. It may not be easy, it may not be quick, they may not be able to agree entirely, but they have sought to compromise and to work together - the very idea of what a community and a society is.They are living refutation of Erdogan's idea that democracy comes but once every election time.
The other issue that is important here is how closely should government interfere with personal liberties, rights, and responsibilities? Turkish people are quite rightly pissed off at Erdogan's incessant micro-management - you half expect him to turn up behind your shoulder while you're having breakfast, and he starts saying 'No, eat the EGG FIRST, then have THE HONEY. Hold your tea LIKE THIS...' - but he is hardly the first Turkish Leader to do this. As I said in an earlier post, Turkish politics is pretty paternalistic, and an awful lot of politicos hear love nothing better than the sound of their own voice, dispensing wisdom: Unfortunately, there are a lot of voters out there who love this sort of thing. Interestingly, an AKP politician today said that the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to vote AKP, or indeed vote at all.
Again, this is nothing new - look at any country's history, and you will see that people have protested and rioted for similar reasons - but the protests in Turkey are important because this must be the most widely-disseminated and witnessed protest, thanks to social media platforms, in history. And looking at it, the message is clear - these people love their country deeply and care deeply about what happens to it, but they also want the right to live without the government sticking their noses in where they don't belong. If someone wants to buy a beer after 10 pm, let him. If someone wants to wear a headscarf to university, let her. If two lovers want to kiss in public, whose business is it but their own?
This, however, is a debate for everybody in Turkey, not just the elected few - how much is private conscience a matter of public concern, and to what depth sould government be involved in the affiars of the individual?
For myself, I believe that issues of conscience and faith are essentially private matters, not state ones. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk wisely decreed that the Turkish Republic was a secular state, but of course a politician's personal concerns and outlook will always colour the interpretation of the meaning of 'secular' - you just have to look at the USA for examples of that.
The question is this - what kind of state will emerge from all this? A Republic full of parks, piano recitals and discussion, or a Republic patrolled by the iron hand of a man standing behind your shoulder, telling you how exactly you should brush your hair?

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