I’ve referred to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan as the "king of the Islamists" because of his ability to swoon the West, make Israel bend and maintain popularity while implementing Sharia using the doctrine of "gradualism." He now faces his biggest internal challenge as protests against him enter their fifth day in what one expert compares to the “eruption of a volcano.”
The unexpected spark was Erdogan’s plan to redevelop Gezi Park in Taksim Square. Reuters explains that Taksim honors the secular legacy of Ataturk, while the other squares in the capital reflect upon the days of the Ottoman Empire. When Erdogan planned to transform the park into an Ottoman-theme shopping center with a mosque, apartment complex and model of Ottoman-era barracks, it was seen by secularists as a washing away of Ataturk.
Opponents of Erdogan had been looking for an opportunity, angered over the government’s new restrictions on alcohol sales and advertising, the morning-after pill, the rejection of a gay rights law, and other moves towards Sharia governance. About 100 Turks publicly kissed in a subway station after officials said passengers must “act in accordance with moral rules” regarding public displays of affection.
A recent poll found that 35% of Turks consume alcohol, an act that is forbidden in Islam. It did not flatly ask respondents whether they oppose the new restrictions, but 61% felt it was an intervention in personal lives. Interestingly, a 2009 poll that found high levels of hostility towards Christians, Jews and atheists also found that 54% of Turks don’t want “Sharia supporters” for neighbors.
The protest at Gezi Park began as a small sit-in at the park, with participants planting trees and reading books. It quickly grew as the demonstration took on broader meaning. Tens of thousands joined and protests spread to 67 of Turkey’s 81 provinces.
“We are Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers,” chanted some protesters, referring to Ataturk.
The police’s reaction, by Erdogan’s own admission, was excessive. At least two have died, one at the hands of an unidentified gunman, perhaps a police officer. About 1,700 have been arrested and thousands more injured, including a young boy who lost an eye because of a plastic bullet. The Turkish opposition claims that detainees have been forced into signing testimonies and are being refused access to lawyers.
The protests are bound to get larger in the coming days as they garner international attention. One of the country’s four major unions, the 240,000-strong Public Workers Unions Confederation, is launching a two-day “warning” strike on Tuesday.
Erdogan reacted as Islamists usually do. He claimed that the protestors are extremists allied with terrorists and are part of a foreign conspiracy. He said, “The thing that is called social media is the biggest trouble for society now,” setting the stage for restrictions on the Internet.
Contrary to Erdogan’s insistence that the protesters are part of a fringe group, The Atlantic observes that “all of Turkey was represented: the young and the old, the secular and the religious, the soccer hooligans and the blind, anarchists, communists, nationalists, Kurds, gays, feminists and students.”
Erdogan’s Islamist agenda has become more aggressive as he’s tallied up political victories since coming to power in 2002.
Recently, the Turkish government sentenced writer Sevan Nisanyan to one year in prison for allegedly “denigrating the religious values.” This comes shortly after the conviction of pianist Faisal Say for his exercising of free speech. In July, the government suggested limits on free speech for the sake of “public morality,” “public order” and to “prevent pro-war propaganda, discrimination and hate.”
Under Erdogan, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism has skyrocketed. The government is said to have bought 40% of the media and has more imprisoned journalists than any other country. It also has the highest rate of honor killings and 17,000 new mosques have been built. Erdogan has overseen the largest crackdown on the military in the country’s history, protecting himself from being the next example of a Turkish leader overthrown in a coup.
Turkey’s move into the Islamist camp does not only have strategic implications for the West. It has direct affects for America. The Turkish Fehtullah Gulen network is under FBI investigation. The Turkish government is building ties with Native American tribes. And, most recently, Erdogan spoke at an event celebrating his government’s construction of a $100 million Ottoman-themed mega-mosque in Maryland.
Yet, President Obama calls Erdogan a “friend.” If you go to the websites of the major Muslim-American organizations, not a word is said; a sharp contrast to their rapid responses to the “offenses” of “Islamophobes” and Western governments, especially Israel.
Just as they were when Muslims challenged the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, these groups are absent. Turkish activists even had to fundraise online to take out a full-page advertisement for their cause in the New York Times. A group like the Council on American-Islamic Relations or the Islamic Society of North America could cut a check for it without skipping a breath.
Dr. Daniel Pipes reacted to the landslide victory of Erdogan’s Islamist party in 2011 with a dire warning: “Elections taking place today are likely to be the last fair and free ones in Turkey. With Turkey’s leading Islamist party controlling all three branches of the government and the military sidelined, little will stop it from changing the rules to keep power into the indefinite future.”
We shouldn’t be surprised when an Islamist acts like an Islamist.
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