Seeking the true face of Turkey
The following blog was contributed by Humeyra Pamuk:
It was like the explosion of a thousand fireworks in the night sky over Istanbul.
When Tayyip Erdogan returned home after publicly haranguing Israel’s President over the Gaza offensive, supporters hurried to praise the Turkish Prime Minister’s pointed language (“I know very well how you …killed children on the beaches”). Turkey’s Western-oriented elite – the so-called White Turks – seemed to balk at the same direct and undiplomatic flourishes.
This cascade of emotion illuminated the unease White Turks may still feel about Erdogan, six years after his election. Many have suspended a suspicion that, for all his denials, as a child of political Islam what he seeks is a different, religious state, ‘another Turkey’. The clash with Shimon Peres, the direct language (even if the Israeli President had himself been emotional in lecturing Erdogan with wagging finger) and the scenes of jubilation when crowds welcomed him back at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport seem to have given some pause for thought.
Commentators less sympathetic to Erdogan examined the events in detail over the weekend.
Many rallied against what they have described as an insult to their prime minister, and thus to their national pride; but their disagreement over Erdogan’s “ways” highlighted the divisions within the society.
They pondered the anatomy of anger and the psychology behind the words of a man renowned for his distaste for being publicly criticised. They asked, and then answered, their own questions on why a prime minister – particularly one who has stepped up to the role of mediator in the Middle East at a very critical time – should storm out of an international panel discussion while thousands watched. His criticism of Israel may have been shared by many Turks but it was not so much what he said. It was how he said it.
They played down the enthusiasm of the crowd that welcomed him back from the World Economic Forum in Davos, waving Turkish and Palestinian flags, chanting, “Turkey is proud of you”.
Not that Erdogan’s actions found no resonance in the mainstream press.
“The prime minister was right”, ran the headline of veteran commentator Fikret Bila’s column in Milliyet. Bila argued the Israeli President’s manner was provocative and aggressive, repeatedly asking Erdogan how he would feel if rockets fell daily on Istanbul. If Erdogan had not reacted, then he would be open to criticism. “Israel can do whatever it wants, with the wind of the U.S. at its back. Noone reacts or can react, noone can touch Israel. Someone had to do it.”
Hurriyet columnist Oktay Eksi dismissed the admiration Erdogan enjoys on what he calls “The Street”, writing:
”They will applaud you today, because they act with “emotion” rather than reason. But for the very same reasons they could just dump you the next day.”
“We understand why no diplomats come out of Kasimpasa” was the headline over commentator Semih Idiz’s more gentle treatment in Milliyet daily. Kasimpasa is the neighbourhood where Erdogan grew up – a working class part of Istanbul known for a culture of bravado.
Erdogan made no apology for the ‘rough edges’ that many supporters see as refreshing directness.
“I don’t speak the language that some retired diplomats understand. I don’t come from a diplomatic background, I come from politics. I don’t know the ways, traditions of those diplomats, especially the ‘mon-chers’,” he said, slipping into a mocking Turkish- French that was taken amiss by some of Turkey’s older generation of diplomats.
“And I would not want to know.”
Erdogan, without diplomatic niceties, has pushed Turkey’s campaign for EU membership, although entry remains a distant prospect. He has won some respect among White Turks for economic progress. But the fear of the Other Turkey – a Turkey more conservative, with its roots in Anatolia rather than the boulevards of Istanbul — remains, embodied for some by the crowd at Ataturk Airport. The military, above all, see him as a possible danger to secular government and has tried to have his party banned for Islamist activity.
Millions will vote across Anatolia in municipal elections in March when the popularity of Erdogan, re-elected with a landslide in 2007, five years after he first came to power, will be put to the test.
A former Islamist espousing a European future for Turkey, Erdogan marks a break from the traditional secularist parties who had governed the country for decades and collapsed in 2002 polls as voters deserted them. Supporters saw him as straddling the social divides in Turkey. Many in the secularist middle classes, whatever their reservations, contributed their vote in confirming him in power with increased support in 2007.
Are they now taking fright over the man from Kasimpasa? Are the fault lines showing in the secular state created eight decades ago out of the theocratic Ottoman Empire? Or are the two Turkeys, the White and the long silent Brown Turks, simply learning to come to terms with each other?
Turks will be looking to the March elections for some clue.