Through all the disappointments that have followed the Arab spring, liberals inside and outside the Middle East have been able to say that Turkey was standing proof that Islam and democracy were compatible. But what has been happening recently suggests a critical examination of this belief is in order.
The harsher side of Turkey’s system was revealed to the world earlier this year when the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, spectacularly mishandled a rally against a mall development in Gezi Park in Istanbul. He turned a demonstration that was initially about conservation and town planning into a nationwide protest against his style of rule, involving millions of people. Throughout the crisis, Mr Erdogan’s comments showed that he neither understood nor respected the views of his opponents. It was left to more moderate and politically sensitive members of his AK (Justice and Development) party to restore a measure of calm; but what could not so easily be restored was Mr Erdogan’s credit with a significant portion of the younger generation.
The Gezi Park affair prompted a wider reconsideration of the changes in Turkey since the victory of the AKP in the general election of 2002. Many good things followed that election. The Kemalist minority who had for many decades unfairly dominated the more traditional majority were put in their place. So were Turkey’s over-mighty armed forces. The economy boomed. Steps were taken toward a settlement with the marginalised Kurdish minority.
This all represented a kind of liberalisation, yet the way it was done sometimes suggested the opposite. The old secular elite was pushed out of the bureaucracy, ministry by ministry. The army was cut down through investigations into coup plots for which the evidence was problematic but which put many officers and journalists behind bars, some for life. The economic boom was facilitated by developments pushed through with little regard for the people displaced by them, or for the environment. The pattern could be seen as indicating a desire to subordinate or pre-empt all forces capable of challenging the government.
Now the AKP’s former allies in Hizmet, a moderate Islamist movement, have been targeted, perhaps because their small share of the vote could nevertheless tip the balance toward the opposition in coming elections. Mr Erdogan meanwhile continues to instruct the nation on everything from diet (brown bread is best) to family planning (every couple should have three children). If he is capable of it, which remains a question, he should hector less and listen more. A new Turkey has emerged during his years in charge. Now he and his party need to learn to live with what they have helped to create.