Saturday, July 20, 2013

Turkey's Identity Crisis On The Brink

Turkey is clearly at a cultural crossroads.  On one hand, its political elite has clearly moved the country in a more Islamic direction and taken steps to mute the military's role as guardian of the government's secular orientation.  On the other hand, the recent demonstrations against development of Taksim Gezi Park reveal that a remnant of the society is not willing to go peacefully into an ultra-conservative future.

Modern Turkey had all of the outward trappings of a tolerant society and reliable Western security partner throughout the second half of the 20th century.  Turkey has sought EU membership for over a quarter-century.  The Erdogan government's embrace of conservative moral codes that align explicitly with Islam jeopardize its pursuit of that membership.  Turkey even developed security ties with Israel; it threw that productive relationship away with tacit support for Gaza blockade runners.  Turkish-Israeli reconciliation is still a possibility, and unofficial cooperation against common threats (Syria, Iran) is always a possibility.

The reconstruction plans for the park involve erecting a shopping mall modeled after the Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks.  This is more than a post-modern tribute to Turkey's Ottoman past.  Every major policy initiative of the Erdogan government, from its stance on public morals to its support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria, is a step towards Turkey's reassertion of its pre-Ataturk identity as the center of the Caliphate.  Turkey's political elite is ready to embrace Islam and regional interventionism and is willing to drag its secular professionals along for the ride.  The national identity crisis is ready for resolution, one way or the other.

The Erdogan government's forceful handling of the protestors has not yet carried the day for order.  It remains to be seen just how much of Istanbul's educated, secular middle class will continue to suspend their economic lives and risk arrest or injury.  Sustained popular uprisings usually begin with widespread labor or bourgeoisie economic grievances in provincial areas and eventually encroach upon a national capital.  These protestors have cultural grievances but are economically secure.  There is some evidence their protests are spreading to the rest of Turkey.  Arab Spring protestors wanted cheaper food staples and more jobs.  This protest has little in common with the Arab Spring.  Turkey ranks higher than the world average on the Heritage Index and Turkey's GDP growth in recent years has been very healthy, although FDI is dropping precipitously and inflation is rising.

Erdogan's statesmanship on peacefully resolving the Kurdish issue has probably endeared him to many Turks who are weary of years of unrest.  Turkey's international standing and internal business climate will be enhanced by stability in its Kurdish regions, park protests notwithstanding.  Secular Turks outside Istanbul would be hard-pressed to ignore this significant diplomatic progress just to continue sympathizing with protestors.

The protestors in Istanbul have a limited window of opportunity to make their case for moderation to the rest of Turkey's secular middle class.  The Erdogan government has demonstrated its willingness to disperse the protestors and the rest of Turkey probably won't mind so long as the economy delivers prosperity.  The race between worsening economic data and a government determined to bring order is still on.  The Erdogan government can make non-fatal concessions on cultural issues that would address several of the capital protestors' grievances and split much of the national opposition.  That may be enough to calm things down without a hard crackdown that would further damage the economy.