The young Turkish artists clustered on a dark edge of Istanbul’s Taksim Square are prepared for war. They ready workshop goggles and respirators to fend off tear gas, and tape small plastic bottles to either side of their hard hats, hoping to protect ears from flying gas canisters and stones.
They are ready. But for what? Of that, they are not quite sure, beyond battling police to protest Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “fascist” ways of imposing Islamic strictures.
This fight has exposed the depth of Turkey’s social and religious fault lines and competing visions for its future. The increasingly Islamic hue of Turkey’s democracy – along with the “us versus them” divisiveness of Mr. Erdogan’s own rhetoric – is under unprecedented scrutiny.
Erdogan’s ruling party has increasingly stepped into Turkey’s virulent social debates, sparking criticism for everything from new alcohol restrictions to launching skyline-changing construction projects with little outside input.
“We just want freedom,” says filmmaker Yigit, holding his makeshift helmet during a long midnight stint in the square. “They are imposing on us all their view of this religion. We are religious – we are all Muslim, we believe in God – but we can drink alcohol, too.
“They are separating people ... and you can so easily separate people with religion,” he says.
How Yigit’s “freedom” can be achieved is what those protesting on the streets hope to define. Their prime minister, who dismissed them as “wild extremists” acting on behalf of foreign agents, hopelessly outnumbered by his own supporters, seems unwilling to compromise.
“This is a new social movement, concerned about its liberties,” says Ihsan Dagi, a columnist with Today’s Zaman newspaper. He notes that the crowds include some Islamic groups and those there are not all simply against Erdogan’s Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has ruled for a decade and won three elections so far, most recently with 50 percent of the vote.
Erdogan has proved to be a charismatic politician who has guided Turkey’s transformation from economic basket case to growth engine and provided a period of unprecedented stability. Turkey often portrays itself as the model for successfully blending democracy and Islam in a modern state.
In the process, Erdogan’s government has also trampled civil rights by imprisoning scores of journalists, opposition writers, and others while systematically weakening the military – once the all-powerful protector of an elite secularism that freed Turks from religious strictures but prevented others from outward expressions of piety like wearing head scarves in government offices.
“People do not want an excessive state, a state that is interfering in their daily lives and imposing moral codes on the rest of society,” says Mr. Dagi, also a professor at the Middle East Technical University. “They want to make clear that there are some limits to the power of the majority; they just want to be left alone.”
Analysts speak of Erdogan believing in a “majoritarian democracy,” in which the party with the most votes behaves as it likes, and the opposition affects change only at the ballot box – if it can.
Erdogan warned the protesters that if they brought 100,000 people to Taksim Square, he could find 1 million of his own supporters to counter them. Few doubt he has the numbers.
But that self-assessment carried little weight with protesters who covered Taksim Square and nearby storefronts and walls with graffiti labeling Erdogan a “fascist” and “murderer.”
The eruption was sparked by a heavy-handed police raid on a small sit-in to prevent the razing of Gezi Park, adjacent to Taksim Square, to make way for a shopping arcade. Protests quickly spread to 200 locations in 67 cities.
“His critics find him intolerant of opposing views,” says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the Chatham House think tank in London. “He definitely is pushing Turkey toward social conservatism, a euphemism for increasing restrictions on lifestyle choices such as alcohol, access to abortion rights, and how women and men act in the public space.”
Erdogan has been “far more assertive” with that agenda in the past three years, says Mr. Hakura, noting that the trend coincides with Turkey’s 2011 economic growth rate of 8.8 percent slowing to a “quite stagnant” 3 percent for 2013.
“This [protest] is a unique event, and it’s been very difficult for [Erdogan] to adjust to it,” says Hugh Pope, the Turkey analyst for the International Crisis Group. “Let’s see if he can be a bit more empathetic. The majoritarian style is clearly not going to carry Istanbul in the future. There are a whole series of elections coming up. Erdogan has enjoyed liberal support in the past. He’s going to need it in the future, too.”
While Erdogan remained defiant, President Abdullah Gul sought to ease the anger, saying that “the message [the protesters want to convey] has been received.” After five days of protest, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc apologized for the excessive force, but only against the initial peaceful protesters, not the “marauders” – Erdogan’s word – who later clashed with authorities and vandalized the streets.
It was a costly and uncommon miscalculation, noted Mr. Pope in a blog post: “How did a polls-obsessed government misjudge the mood so much?”
When the AKP pushed through alcohol restrictions recently, Erdogan called anyone who drank an alcoholic. Last month officials admonished subway riders in Ankara after a couple were caught kissing by security cameras, telling them to “act in accordance with moral rules.”
“Tayyip Erdogan [believes he] represents morals in Turkey,” says Dagi. “He thinks that the people should have a set of moral codes, generated from religion and Islamic culture, so those people who are not part of this moral code are seen by him as immoral, as inferior ... and not really proper citizens, not a proper part of the nation that he imagines.”
The situation is the opposite of the Kemalist era of the last century. For decades after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the staunchly secular republic in 1923, religious people “were regarded as second-class,” Dagi says.
Turkey’s social divide has not disappeared, and some who back Erdogan do not subscribe to the divisive talk that has exacerbated the chasm. They remember how the prime minister promised after his 2011 election victory to be more “humble” toward the other half of the electorate who did not vote for him.
“The people who vote for AKP do not necessarily share this [us versus them] vision [with] Erdogan,” adds Dagi.
Still, there is plenty of support for Erdogan among AKP officials and on the streets.
“It’s natural to criticize the prime minister, but the [protesters’] position right now is not just criticism, it’s partly insulting, and then even beyond insulting, it turned into violence, [which] is not acceptable in any democratic society,” says Giyasettin Gergin, head of the AKP Istanbul youth branch. He estimates $12 million in damage caused by the protests.
“A lot of our [AKP] friends asked, ‘Why are they being so unjust against us?’ and wanted to fight back,” Mr. Gergin says. “But we told our friends, our business is keeping calm, behaving fairly, and not to be fooled.”
The AKP didn’t not order a counteroffensive, but anger was palpable in some quarters.
“It’s a natural right for the people to demonstrate, but they’re not distancing themselves from the protesters, who are wrecking everything. The people who are leading this protest need to stress that this is not a civil war,” says Saliha Eren, a head-scarved media manager in a neighborhood far from the protests.
“The Western media just wants and loves pictures of people clashing with the police,” she says. “They’re trying to show the world that there is a civil war.”
Erdogan is up for a vote again in 2014, this time for the presidency. In a bid to extend his rule beyond his tenure as premier, the AKP has proposed expanding the presidential role in the Constitution that is being written to replace one voted into law under a military junta in 1982.
The AKP proposal “grants enormous powers to the president, to dismiss the government, appoint ministers ... without the checks and balances” typical of some other presidential systems, says Hakura of Chatham House. Erdogan wants to become president “with the ability to control the agenda,” Hakura says.
That is an influence the protesters aim to limit.
“People do not expect a [Erdogan-toppling] revolution,” says student Arda, who gave only her first name. “But it’s very important for people to know they can do something, that in the future it is easy to come out and be heard.”
The protests reflect the “deep ideological polarization that exists in Turkey,” Hakura says, noting that, put off by Erdogan’s tough talk, even some groups that once voted AKP are backing the protests.
“I think the prime minister is incapable, or unwilling, to reconcile the ideological rift that exists in Turkey,” Hakura adds. “But ironically, his open defiance and uncompromising stance seems ... to bring the different groups together, because he is seen as pushing this way too far, even for his own supporters.