During the seismic shifts in the Arab world over the past few years the question has often arisen as to what an Islamic democracy would look like in Libya or Egypt or Tunisia. Gallons of ink have been spilled in earnest discussions in the West over whether the forces at play in the Arab Spring would bring about “true” democracies — meaning ones that we in the West are comfortable with — or “Islamofascist” pseudo-democracies. Reductionist thinking suggests that those are the only two possible outcomes — either proto-Western satellite states or Islamic theocracies in the throws of religious fervor, along the Iranian model. However, just occasionally you could hear a commentator suggest a third possible alternative — the so-called “Turkish” model of mildly Islamic democracy.
For over a decade an openly Islamic party has dominated Turkish politics, albeit one that promotes a vision of “conservative democracy” and the Turkish state as the guiding principle of government. The Justice and Development Party (JDP) is led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an energetic and (some would say) increasingly autocratic figure who has managed to maintain a popular base in Turkish society, even though the country has a strong secular tradition dating back to the founding of the state at the end of the First World War … until now, that is.
Over the past two weeks, what started out as a simple protest against the development of a small park in Istanbul has grown into a full-fledged national emergency. Thousands of protesters have gathered in Taskim Square, Istanbul to protest not only the heavy handed response from the government to legitimate protests, but also the aggressive suppression of freedom of speech and political opinion. Erdoğan has wasted no time in sending in the riot police; saturating the area in tear gas, arresting hundreds of protestors, doctors, lawyers, and reporters; and strictly curtailing the domestic reporting of the incident. The situation changes so rapidly, that by the time you read this it will have already shifted again into the next phase.
From the safety and comfort of California, it is difficult to see what we as students can add to the analysis of this event — evolving as it does by the hour. However, in an effort to show solidarity with the youth of Turkey who stand together in the face of clear oppression, let us look at the language of Erdoğan and place it in the historical and political perspective it deserves.
On June 7, Erdoğan gave a speech at a mass rally, suggesting that the protestors were violent criminals who should “have their hands broken” and that they were part of a grand conspiracy to undermine the Turkish state by “outside forces.” Who exactly these forces were is hard to pin down, but the inference was that both Marxist/Leninist terrorist groups, and the Western media were responsible for the civil unrest in Taskim Square. He has singled out the BBC as a force bent on meddling in the domestic affairs of the state on the basis that they have devoted extensive coverage to the protests, unlike their Turkish counterparts. The other major foreign influence identified was social media, and in particular Twitter, presumably because it offers the people of Turkey an avenue of self-expression that is not subject to government oversight or control.
As must be clear by now, these claims are becoming something of a trope in the world of desperate authoritarianism. A quick review of the past few years will demonstrate the highly selective company among whom Erdoğan places himself with the use of such populist rhetoric:
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran — during the “Green Movement” uprising of June 2009:
“Bullying powers, including the United States, must correct their behavior, language and thoughts with regard to the Iranian nation…Today, those making accusations against the Iranian nation or other nations have been unmasked.. …Inside the country, their agents were activated. Vandalism started. Sabotaging and setting fires on the streets started. Some shops were looted. They wanted to create chaos. Public security was violated. The violators are not the public or the supporters of the candidates. They are the ill-wishers, mercenaries and agents of the Western intelligence services and the Zionists.”
Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan — during the contested, fraudulent elections of April 2010:
“No doubt, there was huge fraud. There was vast fraud. The fraud is not by the Afghans. This fraud has been done by the foreigners…including officials of the U.N., the European Union and the embassies here in Kabul… this election was occurring during a time where there were threats from the terrorists…It was not only the threat from the terrorists. But seriously, it took place under the threat of foreign interference.”
Muammah al-Gaddafi, “Leader” of Libya — during the “Arab Spring” uprising of February 2011:
“Those who have come on to the streets are under the influence of drugs supplied by al-Qaeda… It’s al-Qaeda. It’s not my people. They came from outside… There is an intention to colonise Libya. And this makes the Libyan people want to fight the new colonisation by the West.”
Bashar Al-Assad, President of Syria — during the ongoing civil war, June 2012:
“What we are facing is a conspiracy of sedition, division and destruction of our homeland … This crisis is not an internal crisis. It is an external war carried out by internal elements… The masks have fallen and the international role in the Syrian events is now obvious.”
Vladimir Putin, President of Russia — speaking to the FSB about expanding the definition of treason and the registration of NGOs, February 2013:
“Any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs, any form of pressure on Russia, our allies and partners is unacceptable… no one has the right to sow hatred, stir up society and thus threaten the lives, well-being and peace of millions of our citizens … Neither does anyone have a monopoly on speaking in the name of Russian society, especially structures financed from abroad and serving foreign interests.”
Quite why leaders in the 21st century still feel able to draw such a fine distinction between the domestic realm and the shadowy powers of “the rest of the world” is something of a mystery. Attempting to hold back the tide of public opinion, especially in the globalized age of social media, internet access to uncontrollable news sources, and widespread diasporas, is as futile now as King Cnut’s attempting to hold back the tide. At least in Cnut’s case, he was making a point about “how empty and worthless is the power of kings,” something the current crop of rulers might want to take into consideration.
During the debacle that was the Gaddafi regime’s response to the will of the people, a wise, respected, senior Islamic politician went on-the-record and stated that, “One cannot establish future, liberty, stability, peace and justice on blood.” That man was Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Let us hope that he is able to take his own advice, not only for the sake of Turkey but also for the sake of the “Turkish Model.”
James Walker is a first year MA student in Political Geography at UCLA, and an Editor for The Generation. He is also a lifelong political activist, and a firm supporter of the Occupy Gezi movement — #occupygezi, https://www.facebook.com/OccupyGezi
All quotes taken from the BBC, MSN, The Guardian, The Moscow Times, and Al Jazeera.