As the Arab Spring unfolded in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East, Turkey was held out as a model for how Islam and democracy could co-exist. This week's massive civil unrest in Turkey, erupting over the destruction of the Gezi Park in Istanbul's center, raises the broader question of whether that model is viable.
The response to the protests has been harsh. Police liberally used tear gas and water hoses in a counterproductive attempt to quell the unrest. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was dismissive of the protesters' demands and, showing his characteristic pugilism (he is a former boxer), called the protesters "bums."
Not unlike other leaders who've fallen recently in the Middle East, Mr. Erdogan dismisses the legitimate concerns that sparked the protests, which quickly spread to the capital, Ankara, and half of the country's provinces. Mr. Erdogan is increasingly seen as autocratic and conducting what many in Turkey regard as a premeditated assault on its secular democracy.
Mr. Erdogan and his party, AKP, have enjoyed popular support, winning 50 percent of the vote in the last election and providing the prime minister the ability to impose his outsized will on the nation. To gain and hold power, Mr. Erdogan gave voice to the Turkish peoples' latent Islamic leanings that had been suppressed by Kemalism — the strict separation of religion and state promulgated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey. As Mr. Erdogan's government led constitutional reforms allowing the religious freedom long denied in modern Turkey, the hope was that Mr. Erdogan, a pious Muslim, could show Turkey and the world that blurring the lines between mosque and state and empowering its Islamic identity would not undermine Turkey's democracy.
For a while, it worked.
Up until the protests that broke out last weekend, the booming Turkish economy masked Mr. Erdogan's broadening assault on civil liberties that has included intimidating Turkey's press by jailing journalists critical of his policies, and his increasingly blatant, Islamist-influenced actions, exemplified by restrictions on the public consumption of alcohol. Mr. Erdogan's neo-Ottoman foreign policy has attempted to position Turkey as a leader in the Middle East. Initially a source of nationalistic pride, that policy is now wearing thin as Syrian refugees flood the country.
The protests in Istanbul have brought to a boiling point the discontent that has simmered below the surface. Many Turks have come to realize that Mr. Erdogan is willing to trample on democratic principles to achieve his larger goal of remaking Ataturk's secular democratic Turkey into his own vision of an Islamic democracy. With Mr. Erdogan's uncompromising ways however, the idea of an "Islamic democracy" is increasingly looking like an oxymoron.
Mr. Erdogan's sudden vulnerability is not good news for the White House, which has looked to Turkey as an ally as it navigates the treacherous politics of the Middle East and presented it as a model for the transition to democracy in the region. The careful reaction by the U.S. to the protests reflects a desire not to alienate the volatile Mr. Erdogan, whom the U.S. needs in dealing with Syria and Iran (and whose antipathy toward Israel the U.S. hopes to moderate).
With Mr. Erdogan's vision leading Turkey away from the founding secular, democratic principles of the Turkish Republic, the demonstrations suggest that Turkish democracy is approaching a crossroads. The sudden spread of protests to include tens of thousands of Turks all over the country has brought into the open the widening rift between those who want Turkey to evolve as a liberal, secular democracy and those who only would use the framework of democracy to advance Islamic tenets.
Other Muslim nations in the Middle East have looked to the Turkish model to gauge whether Islam can co-exist with democratic principles. Ironically, today that question is one Turks are asking themselves.
Oz Bengur is a Baltimore businessman and former Democratic congressional candidate. His email is bengur.oz@gmail.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun