Muslim Light: What's Behind Turkey's Islamization and the Protests Against It

Erdogan has been pushing for an end to alcohol, kissing and other hallmarks of secularization, with disastrous results.
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An anti-government protester shouts for help to extinguish a burning container in Istanbul's Taksim square June 4, 2013.(Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

It has been a long time, ninety years in fact, since Turkey has had its latest facelift. It is about time considering it happens once every nine decades or so: after the modernizing Tanzimat reforms of the 1830s and the Westernizing Kemalist reforms of the 1920s, the 2010s are ripe for a whole new round of social engineering -- this time at the hands of the religiously conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Back when the secular republic was established in 1923, the facelift came in the form of renouncing all things Ottoman and many things Muslim, some benign -- hats instead of fezzes! -- others not as much. The idea being, to paraphrase the old adage, if it looks like a Westerner, writes like a Westerner and even drinks like a Westerner, then it probably is a Westerner. As a country that got stuck in the middle -- too European to be Middle East, too Middle Eastern to be Europe -- Turkey took its symbols very seriously; bars serving fancy cocktails and public displays of affection in one camp, headscarves and a mosque's call to prayer in the other.

Erdogan has waged a shadow war against the visibility of the secular lifestyle. His desire to keep it behind closed doors is only matched by his zeal to erect bolder and bolder monuments to a lifestyle that is more "Islamically appropriate."

The social reforms might have been strict, but each one served to create a secular, homogenous and above all modern nation-state; a republic that could comfortably mingle at any European party. Yet the authenticity of the revolution was questioned since the beginning: in "A Journey to China, or Things Which Are Seen," Toynbee wrote of a 1929 visit to Turkey right at the height of enthusiasm for the revolution. But even then he was distinctly aware of some of its superficiality, such as a tram in Istanbul where a curtain separating the sexes had been removed but men and women still didn't mix -- "The curtain had become invisible, but it was still there, all the same" -- or how hats had successfully replaced fezzes, sort of -- "Many a self-consciously behatted man is still wearing an invisible fez."

Such invisible relics of Islam didn't mean the social engineering failed -- it did pave the way for Western-living, secular Turks after all -- but that even those who couldn't or didn't want to play along were adorned in the trappings of the West. Regardless, for the next 90 years Turkey's genuine secularists saw themselves as spearheading the drive towards Westernization and, perhaps more importantly, wanted the acceptance of Europe -- to mixed results. But just as Turkey may not have been readily accepted by the West, it was also too foreign for the East.

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Many throughout the Middle East perceive Turks as "Muslim Light," the casual semi-faithful. Imagine the frustration of the devout Turk, so full of religious conviction yet never really accepted as part of Club Islam. One only has to hear the indignation of an AKP deputy recounting a visit to Mecca -- where Saudi authorities were so rude as to doubt his faith and tested his knowledge of common prayers -- to see his embarrassment at being indentified with those contemptible secularists. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan picks his crusade of the month, whether againstabortions,adultery or the arts, it is over his frustration of Turkey's image among his fellow Muslims; the same frustration secular Turks felt for decades trying to be accepted by Europe.

And so it is no surprise that it was in Istanbul, a city literally divided between the continents of Europe and Asia, that a nationwide clash over appearances began this weekend. Istanbul's Taksim district on the European side has always been the heart of the country's secular life: its countless bars, nightclubs, bookstores, and galleries stand as testament that there are Turks who enjoy more of life than simply shuttling between work and prayer. As the centerpiece of Turkey's window to the world, the area has been at the forefront of the country's image wars for years, with more religious elements wanting to dress it in mosques and Islamic architecture to show where it really belongs.

The latest chapter of this tug-of-war took place last week, when the government gave start to an urban redevelopment plan to replace Taksim's main green space, Gezi Park, with a giant replica of an Ottoman artillery barracks. What began last Monday as a peaceful sit-in to save the park escalated by Friday into a stand against Erdogan's vision for Turkey. The movement quickly spread to other cities, as did the ubiquitous tear gas; coverage mainly focused on the arbitrarily violent riot policing and the solidarity between the protesters fed up with Erdogan's authoritative style, but beneath it all was a long-standing clash over two very different expressions of Turkey.

Though he had declared his intention to " raise a religious youth " openly, Erdogan has waged more of a shadow war of sorts against the visibility of the secular lifestyle. His desire to limit it to the home, or at least behind closed doors, is only matched by his zeal to erect bolder and bolder monuments to an "Islamically appropriate" lifestyle. And while the Occupy-style protestors have been his villains of the week, Taksim has something else he has always despised: alcohol, one of the most overt displays of un-Islamic activities out there. Prohibited by the religion, alcohol's visibility everywhere is a clear message: Turkey, or at least large parts of it, is indeed Muslim Light.

Presented by

Cinar Kiper

Cinar Kiper is a Turkish writer living in Istanbul. 

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