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Turkey's class struggle


NEW YORK – One interpretation of the anti-government demonstrations now roiling Turkish cities is that they are a massive protest against political Islam. What began as a rally against official plans to raze a small park in the center of Istanbul to make way for a kitschy shopping mall quickly evolved into a conflict of values.

On the surface, the fight appears to represent two different visions of modern Turkey, secular versus religious, democratic versus authoritarian. Comparisons have been made with Occupy Wall Street. Some observers even speak of a “Turkish Spring.”

Clearly, many Turkish citizens, especially in the big cities, are sick of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian style, his steely grip on the press, his taste for grandiose new mosques, the restrictions on alcohol, the arrests of political dissidents, and now the violent response to the demonstrations. People fear that sharia law will replace secular legislation, and that Islamism will spoil the fruits of Kemal Atatürk’s drive to modernize post-Ottoman Turkey.

Then there is the issue of the Alevis, a religious minority linked to Sufism and Shi’ism. The Alevis, who had been protected by the secular Kemalist state, deeply distrust Erdoğan, who further unsettled them by planning to name a new bridge over the Bosphorus after a sixteenth-century sultan who massacred their forebears.

Religion, then, would seem to be at the heart of the Turkish problem. Political Islam’s opponents regard it as inherently anti-democratic.

But things are not so simple. The secular Kemalist state was no less authoritarian than Erdoğan’s populist Islamist regime; if anything, it was more so. And it is also significant that the first protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square concerned not a mosque, but a shopping mall. Fear of sharia law is matched by anger at the rapacious vulgarity of developers and entrepreneurs backed by Erdoğan’s government. There is a strong leftist bent to the Turkish Spring.

So, rather than dwell on the problems of contemporary political Islam, which are certainly considerable, it might be more fruitful to look at Turkey’s conflicts from another, now distinctly unfashionable, perspective: class. The protesters, whether they are liberal or leftist, tend to be from the urban elite – Westernized, sophisticated, and secular. Erdoğan, on the other hand, is still very popular in rural and provincial Turkey, among people who are less educated, poorer, more conservative, and more religious.

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