In the last hundred years, Turkey went through a series of political standoffs between the secular and Islamist/Muslim Conservative groups. For many years the Turkish Armed Forces undemocratically implemented secular domination in upper society and government organizations. Secularism was made an official state ideology. Even though Turkish elites, who were educated with Western values disapproved military intervention in internal politics, they felt that their life style was secured with the military backed state secularism. This proved to be a great problem since the majority of the population was comprised of less educated religious conservatives. AKP (Justice and Development Party), a right wing soft-Islamist conservative party, became the representative of this majority. The party used populism and an ambitious neo-liberal economic agenda to fuel their ideological stance. Augmenting their tone with vindictiveness, the current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan united voters from all historical right wing factions and dominated the Turkish politics. AKP became the majority in parliament for every election since it’s formation in 2001. The secular, nationalist and social democratic opposition party, CHP, failed to show much resistance and got stuck to a limited 25% of votes.
Yet AKP was the target of serious accusations such as Islamic radicalism and reactionary agendas. This was mainly the case in around 2007-2008. The seculars showed a ‘pre-emptive fear’ of ‘becoming Iran’, even before the level of cultural and political authoritarianism we see today.
Even though Prime Minister Erdoğan from time to time stressed for peace, had good relations with the EU and was far from turning Turkey in to an Islamic Republic, since 2010 it has become clear that democracy, freedom of press, cultural respect and European values meant less. Turkey has managed to solve many economic problems during Erdoğan’s era yet the ideal democratic environment is far away. The current interpretation of democracy is simply the amount of votes a leader or party gets, an opinion Erdoğan repeats a lot in his defensive speeches. This vision and the effects of this vision make Turkey a hybrid regime of authoritarian tendencies. In relation to this, the opposition criticizes Erdoğan for becoming a democratic dictator.
Erdoğan’s increased cultural conservatism with authoritarian measures was the true turning point for the secular opposition. Laws against alcohol consumption, the prime minister’s raging remarks against non-religious life styles, his opposition to abortion, ban on alcoholic beverage advertisements, implementation of religious influence in primary and secondary education, attempts of banning atheist scientific figures like Richard Dawkins on internet, and so on. There is an undeniable government-backed social pressure on individuals. Unlike the unsupported accusations against the government in 2007, these recent issues realized the fear of losing freedom of being secular or irreligious. To make matters worse for the seculars, unlike the political environment in 2007, now the government is in full control of the country.
But as always, pressure produced stauncher opposition. The secular masses joined the environmentalists in the Gezi Riots. Though the Gezi Opposition was comprised of many different social and political groups, majority of the protestors were the urban seculars. The seculars managed to peacefully ally with left leaning Islamists, anti-AKP conservatives and Kurds. This allowed the protest to be seen much more ‘civilian’ than ideological.
Yet the bulk of the protestors were seculars. From the left or the right, nationalist or liberal, they all feared this growing cultural conservatism. As Erdoğan and his government’s many reckless actions and remarks became more frequent, this fear transformed into anger and eventually courage. Moreover the seculars were quite unsatisfied with the main opposition party, CHP. For the first time in eleven years they felt that they had to fill the streets and show civilian resistance. Even though the masses had many other political, environmental and social reasons for filling the streets, we can safely say that secularism is the hidden motivation.
The driving force of this secular mass were university students who had not yet become a part of Turkish economic system, thus they had no jobs to lose, no pressing responsibilities such as families. They were members of socialist parties, nationalist circles, football club fan groups etc. The middle-aged men and women followed them as they grew in size. These people are not all the best ranking students, brain surgeons, brilliant lawyers or charming businessmen. Many of them are simply those who somehow managed to have a taste of secular Western values and education. Rich or humble they want to safeguard their way of life.
Even though many other environmental, democratic and social issues can be seen as the tenets of the civilian Gezi Riots, the historical struggle between the secular and Islamic conservative groups of Turkey and the motive of safeguarding secular lifestyle can be seen as key reasons. The riots have secular roots. However unlike history, rather than expecting a military intervention to protect and preserve a certain lifestyle, the opposing multitude filled the streets and used civilian methods to fuel this great struggle for democratization.
We must hope that, this movement clears the road to a balanced and truly democratic Turkey, an understanding from both seculars and religious to live side by side.