Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Explosions in Turkey

Steven E. Meyer


June 28, 2013

By Steven E. Meyer

For the past four weeks, many Turkish cities have experienced a series of often violent demonstrations that have been eerily similar to upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia. The proximate cause has been plans by the government of Prime Minister Recep Erdo?an to reconstruct an Ottoman-era barracks in Gezi Park in Istanbul. But the deeper issue is fed by the same spirit and sense of outrage that has marked the poorly named “Arab Spring.” 

The characteristics of the socio-political wave of violence and change that has swept through much of the Middle East since December 2010 have varied significantly from country to country, but there is one common thread across the region. In each case, the discontent and violence has been aimed at a leadership denounced as anti-democratic, heavy-handed, and even dictatorial. Despite Turkey’s impressive economic growth and increasing strength as a regional power, many of these same complaints have surfaced against Erdo?an and his government.  From the protestors’ perspective, economic strength and political and military power are not the point. Erdo?an and his Justice and Development Party (JDP) have fallen prey to much of the same “woof and warp” found throughout the whole region. 

At the same time, just as with every other country in the Middle East, the Turkish case manifests its own particular characteristics. With about eighty million people, Turkey is among the largest countries in the region (Egypt and Iran also have similarly large populations). It is overwhelmingly Islamic (Sunni), but unlike most of the other countries, it has traditionally followed a “lighter” or “milder” form of Islam. 

The JDP is an Islamic party and one of the complaints of the protesters is that Erdo?an is attempting to introduce a stronger, more influential form of Islam into Turkish society. While it is true that Turkey has become more devout over the past decade, Islamic influence conflicts with the secular nature of the social and political system established by Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s. Consequently, the most far-reaching and damaging consequences of the violence in Turkey likely will be to tear at the fabric of ninety-year-old social contract that has established the pattern of life in the post-Ottoman era. The military, which is the guarantor of the Kemalist tradition, has overthrown civilian governments three times since 1960. While the military would prefer to stay out of politics, it could once again intervene if the generals believe that the delicate balance between secularism and Islam is coming undone.

Moreover, unlike any other country in the Middle East, Turkey is a member of NATO and an aspirant to join the European Union.  While the relevance of both organizations has declined since the end of the Cold War, growing violence in Turkey could have important consequences. The NATO Treaty could come into play if Turkish and Syrian violence overlap and lead to conflict between Damascus and Ankara.  Since it is very unlikely that any other NATO country would be willing to get involved in a cross-border war between Syria and Turkey, this lack of intervention highlights NATO’s overall decline and would increase Turkey’s frustration with the alliance. At the same time, continuing or accelerated violence in Turkey could apply the coup de grace to Turkey’s already faltering ambition to join the EU. 

Violence in Turkey may reinforce and strengthen other trends that were set in place more than a decade ago. As Turkish leaders have come to terms with the near certainty that Turkey will never become a member of the EU, Ankara has expanded economic and political ties with surrounding countries, especially Russia and Iran, thereby further distancing Turkey from the West. All parties have an interest in not letting violence in Turkey get out of hand—the costs simply would be too great. 

The Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Security and Defense states, “Our “shrinking” globe, with its increasing dangers of warfare and terrorism, has led most countries to join a growing number of alliances and international organizations. These alliances aim to settle disputes peacefully; to develop international law; and to foster arms control, mutual security, and the multilateral enforcement of international law and peacekeeping efforts.” In light of this, a US-led effort to engage Moscow, Tehran, and the European Union in a mediation effort could yield substantial results, not only for the sake of peace and justice in Turkey, but in terms of recovering strained relations between the West and Russia and Iran. 

- Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”