by Robert Ellis
"In the Islamic world, democratization has led to an increasing role for theocratic politics." — Fareed ZakariaThe Turkish Minister for EU Affairs, Egemen Bağış, has declared that Prime Minister Erdoğan is a gift sent by God to Turkey and to humanity. But what do half the Turkish electorate do – as well as the rest of humanity – when the gift is unwanted?
There is no doubt that the Almighty has bestowed upon the world a special gift.
We have ex-Libyan leader Colonel Mohammed Gaddafi's word for that: in November 2010 the Turkish prime minister was awarded with the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights for "distinguished service to humanity."
During the award ceremony Prime Minister Erdoğan declared that Islamophobia was a crime against humanity and that Muslims come from a tradition that also regards anti-Semitism as a crime against humanity. At a meeting of the Alliance of Civilizations in March, however, he added Zionism to the list, together with fascism.
To cap it all, when Erdoğan was in Algeria during his recent North Africa tour, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Algiers, also for his contribution to humanity. On his return, Erdoğan was given a rapturous welcome by his supporters and saluted not only his brothers in Istanbul and Turkey but also those in Sarajevo, Baku, Beirut, Skopje, Damascus, Gaza, Mecca and Medina. There was no mention of Europe or elsewhere.
The crowd shouted, "Let's go to Taksim and crush them," but the Prime Minister preferred to quote the Turkish poet Yunus Emre: "I don't come to fight, my job is for love. The friend's home is in hearts, I come to build hearts." In the meantime, the police in Taksim Square in Istanbul and Kuğulu Park in Ankara got on with the business of winning hearts and minds.
In his speech Erdoğan rejected the notion that he was only prime minister for the 50% and claimed he was the servant of Turkey's 76 million. The great leap forward for the Turkish economy under the AKP that he mentioned is undoubtedly true, but it has come at the expense of civil liberties and a growing division in Turkish society.
Last November, celebrating the AKP's 10 years of government, Prime Minister Erdoğan spoke of a mental revolution; this, again, is true. Religion has played a leading role in Turkish society, both with regard to public appointments and in awarding public contracts, and in the whole conduct of society. Shortly after the AKP came into power, one wag at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs changed his out-of-office reply to, "Gone to namaz [prayer]."
It is often mentioned that the AKP government has been democratically elected. In the 2011 election it garnered 49.8% of the vote. But as Fareed Zakaria pointed out in his essay, The Rise of Illiberal Democracy, in the Islamic world democratization has led to an increasing role for theocratic politics, eroding long-standing traditions of secularism and tolerance. The same applies to Turkey, although it could be argued that the ban on students wearing a headscarf is not particularly tolerant.
Nevertheless, the European Court of Human Rights in its landmark decision, Leyla Şahin v. Turkey (2005), identified the türban (as opposed to the loosely knotted village headscarf) as the symbol of political Islam, and upheld the ban, "seeing that it [the türban] appeared to be imposed on women by a religious precept that was hard to reconcile with the principle of gender equality." (Gender equality is enshrined in Article 10 of the Turkish Constitution.) However, this restriction has since been relaxed at universities, and the government plans on removing the ban for public servants.
When Erdoğan was reelected as party leader in October, he declared, "We have shown everyone that an advanced democracy can exist in a predominantly Muslim country," but the events of the last weeks show that Turkey has fallen short of the mark.
Consequently, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu felt the need to call US Secretary of State John Kerry and remind him that Turkey was not a second-rate democracy. Turkish columnist Burak Bekdil agreed, and added: "Turkey must walk a long way and reform its crippled electoral democracy to earn that title."
As the Turkish Prime Minister has the habit of confusing his personal views with "the nation's will," it is relevant to note what the European Court also said in its judgment. "Pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness are hallmarks of a democratic society […..] democracy does not simply mean that the views of a majority must always prevail: a balance must be achieved which ensures the fair and proper treatment of people from minorities and avoids any abuse of a dominant position."
According to one poll, the predominantly young and previously apolitical demonstrators in Gezi Park were galvanized into action through the social media and had come to protest police violence as well as for fundamental rights and freedoms. According to another, the main cause was the Prime Minister.
Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently stepped back from the brink and agreed to abide by the court decision to suspend the Gezi Park project and later hold a plebiscite on its future. At the same time, the Prime Minister has declared his patience has come to an end and Taksim Square and Gezi Park have been cleared by the police. His Minister for EU Affairs, Egemen Bağış, has also stated that anyone who enters Taksim Square will be considered a terrorist. Woe betide the visitor to Istanbul who loses his way.
Irrespective of the outcome, a new consciousness has been born in Turkey; and as a Turkish lawyer commented, Erdoğan has let the genie out of the bottle. As difficult as it is to mark a gift from the Almighty "Return to sender," the Prime Minister will find it equally difficult to push the genie back in.
Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.