Turkey’s Mideast connection
However, that categorization can be used practically to determine the geopolitical importance of any part of the world in relation to central Europe, i. e. the center and the periphery. Consequently, North African countries, specifically Morocco, Algiers and Tunis, have the most direct contact with Europe in terms of geography and ultimately history, along with Turkey in Asia Minor.
Thus, it can be argued that the Near East resides at the heart of the West, whose culture continuously influences its people. The Near East is the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Turkey has direct borders with Europe which makes it the gate to the Near East. Besides, its historical and political relationship with Europe was marked by the dominance of the Turkish Ottoman Empire over small neighboring European political entities.
Ironically, with the collapse of the Islamic empire and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s ascendance to power as the first president in 1923, Turkey began employing Western political thought and social values and witnessed the first intellectual debates in the Near East over the functionality of Islamic values as opposed to Western ones in societal progress and development. The debate is continuing but on a different idea that attempts to incorporate the ideas of Western democracy and Islamic governance. It is a debate over the procedural mechanics of governing rather than a set of substantial principles.
Today, Turkey has made significant progress under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Nonetheless, in the past few days, most observers were surprised by the protests against Erdogan, who has brought about economic success that led to Turkey being ranked as the world’s fifteenth largest GDP and expanded its political influence in the Middle East. Erdogan was also elected for three terms, and is therefore perceived as an Islamic hero and a charismatic leader.
Normally in the political culture of the Middle East, it is unthinkable to challenge the authority of a phenomenally successful leader, but Erdogan was challenged when he announced his plans to raze the Gezi Park to construct a historical monument in its area. The Turkish people protested, called for his resignation, and even demanded a court hearing for the death of two people killed and those hundred injured by the police in the protests. This is surprising for the most revered leader in the Middle East.
The primary cause of these protests which spread in over 60 cities was transformation or change. Of course, everyone seeks a positive transformation. But, apparently the term “transformation” is perceived differently from one generation to another.
Evidently, the younger generation perceived the transformation sought by their government as an attempt to change the country’s secular identity into a purely Islamic one without consulting with them.
They fear that Erdogan will alter the constitution next year to change the Turkish political system from a parliamentary representative democracy to a presidential republic. The change would give the president, who has a ceremonial role, the authority to dissolve the Parliament, to call for elections, and to send the military to war.
The youth further voiced concerns that Erdogan might entirely change the social milieu by prohibiting alcohol sales after 10 pm, resisting access to abortion, and controlling the media, which would threaten the very foundations of their democracy.
Thus, it was not protection of the environment which caused the Turkish people to come out on the streets in Taksim but the symbolic notions of razing the Gezi Park to construct a mosque and a replica of Topcu Kislasi, a military barracks of the Ottoman era.
This is coupled with the government’s plans to demolish Istanbul’s opera house and Ataturk cultural center. These together indicate that the government is regressing to the past, specifically to the Ottoman Caliphate era, in complete opposition to the youth’s desire to move forward. In recent years, Turkey has returned to the Middle East to play a vital political role and to seek better economic prospects. However, though Turkey’s attempts to find economic opportunities are practical its political engagement in the region could run counter to its interests in the end.
The protesters have made it clear that their social movement is not anything like the Arab Spring. This indicates their awareness of the negative consequences of the Arab uprising that took place in Tunis, Egypt, and Libya, which they want to avert from happening in their country, especially now that the newly established governments in these countries share similar ideology with the Justice and Development Party.
Hence, the youth want to maintain the Turkish political status quo, while protecting freedoms. In other words, they do not seek a revolt aimed at toppling the current government, but rather to have their options open to choose their favorable way of life.
The content of the social media, a medium which was not available a decade ago, helps greatly in the understanding of the generational gap. Here is the social scene in Taksim Square: guys with guitars under their arms and singing with their girlfriends, photos being taken and posted on social media applications, food and drinks distributed free of charge.
Another scene: On Erdogan’s official visit to Tunis recently government opponents expressed their concerns that Turkey’s restrictive policies might influence Tunis, which is led by a similar government. The youth constitutes the majority of the population in the Middle East, including Turkey. What happened in Turkey could happen at any given time in any Middle Eastern country, including the GCC. To weather out the wind of change, governments ought to respond to the instruments of change — the youth.
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