As every one of us should know, Turks may be predominantly Muslim but they are not Arab. They speak a different language, they originate in another part of the world, and have their own separate history, even if they border and interact over centuries with the Arab world. So the term Arab Spring would not apply to Turkey, even if the country underwent a similar upheaval as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt or Turkey’s immediate neighbour Syria. Beyond semantics, there are fundamental differences of substance between the aforementioned Arab countries and Turkey. The latter is certainly a democracy, sui generis perhaps, like many are, but still a country with a political system that allows a free vote for all and where the government has the support of the majority of the population (unlike in some other democracies, one may note).
Turkey has been undergoing a revolutionary transformation of its own for several springs now, since the coming to power of the AK Party of Prime Minister Erdogan. This may be the most democratic time the country has ever known, with the millions of previously silent or silenced Turks of Anatolia, pious and hard-working people, having a government they can recognize as their own, rather than an overt or covert dictatorship that attempts to impose Western secular values, or at least appearances, on the whole country.
Let it be known, I am mostly a Western secularist myself, although spiritual in my own way. A few years ago I would have felt very uncomfortable being surrounded by women with covered heads, or men with Muslim caps and long beards. I occasionally still wish that they did not do these things and we could all look alike, distinguished by the brands, colours and styles of clothes that we choose to wear. After living for several years in New York, though, and even more recently in multicultural and increasingly Arab Brussels (it is the same Brussels of the European Union), I have to admit that I am more comfortable with all this. I can see that some people feel more confident, dignified and reassured when they follow the customs of their home countries, even in a human environment that has different traditions and may occasionally react. They feel that they continue to belong to a community, and may be lucky enough to still do so, at a time when globalization is tearing apart old identities without having created a new one – unless that is consumerism.
So I could not deny the Muslim faithful of Turkey their right to express their traditional identity and to have it recognized in the laws of their country, without fear of legal or military persecution. At the same time, I would see a revenge unworthy of pious people if now that they are in power reversed things completely and denied the rest of their compatriots the right to express their secularism and Western orientation. It is on this point that the recent protests in Turkish cities can be seen as justified. Combined with an increasing authoritarian streak of a Prime Minister spoilt by solid popular support, and increasing exploitation of developing economic and other opportunities by those around him, the protests may be a good opportunity to stop the earlier necessary rebalancing of the system before it tips to the other extreme.
It takes cool heads, common sense, patriotism and magnanimity on both sides to recognize this as an historic moment of new balance, make the necessary adjustments in positions and expectations, and bury the hatchets. At a time when Western democracies, especially in Europe, are trying to become more tolerant in response to their increasingly multicultural societies, it would be ironic for places from where migrants to Europe originate, like Turkey, to become less tolerant towards part of their own populations. Moreover, Turkey wants tourists, many of whom drink, or are uncovered women, or both. Why should it restrict those options for its own citizens who may want to live that way, and may have been living that way since the end of the Ottoman Empire?
When I was growing up in Greece in the 1960s I felt the pressure of the church and the pious society not to do any work on Sundays, fast on certain days, etc. I also remember the pro-Western dictatorship that we had at the time. Things may have not turned out perfectly for Greece, as it became evident recently, but the emancipation from the church, the ending of the post-civil war right-left divide, and the expansion of the secular middle classes were not by themselves bad things. What was apparently bad was the absolute populism, paternalism and sheer bad public management of people like Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, who may be the unintended model for Prime Minister Erdogan.
Turkey is not Greece, and Mr. Erdogan is not the late Mr. Papandreou, so I will not insist on this analogy beyond the educational parallelism of the above few sentences. What is clear to me is that it would be a great pity if Turkey missed the opportunity provided by this explosion of sentiment by part of its population to rebalance itself, become a more mutually tolerant society, and set itself on a solid path of stability and prosperity for the next fifty years.
The Hague and Brussels, 6 June 2013