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.

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.

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.

The AKP's crusade against alcohol over the years has included a set ofrestrictions passed in 2011, an official crackdown during Ramadan banning outside seating at cafes and bars, an abrupt last-minute cancellation of alcohol licenses for a music festival in 2012, not to mention years of exorbitant taxes on alcohol that have succeeded in turning off many from drinking. But the AKP took its latest great leap towards a less "Islamically embarrassing" society just two weeks ago, with parliament passing yet another comprehensive set of restrictions on drinking. The 17-hour marathon session featured harsh insults, parliamentarian-on-parliamentarian kicking and a walk out in protest by almost every non-AKP deputy -- a level of tension and tantrum that captures the determination of the religious and the anxiety of the secularists.

The AKP's harshest critics, from the opposition parties to secular journalists to the involuntarily sober, all note how it is engineering a conservative Islamic society. It's a claim the AKP frequently denies, though its arguments aren't very believable when so much of its legislation so neatly aligns with Islamic sensibilities. Often picking and choosing the Western laws and restrictions that suit its values, the government has argued for years that its alcohol policy is one of public health, despite numbers that indicate no such health problem exists in Turkey. OECD data shows Turks only consume 1.5 liters of alcohol per capita, way below the 10.7-liter average of the EU. Similarly a 2010 WHO report shows that number hasn't changed much since 1961, and adds that Turkey has the highest rate of abstention among the countries listed; four-fifths of men (83.6 percent) and nearly all women (97.1 percent) abstain from alcohol, with 65 and 92 percent respectively having never had a drink in their lives. As for the young people -- "we don't want children drinking night and day and wandering around tipsy; they are going to be alert, their minds full of knowledge" Erdogan has said -- 83.9 percent of Turks aged 15-24 have never once consumed alcohol, according to data from the Turkish Statistical Institute.

In the end, Turkey's alcohol restrictions are simply about Erdogan's personal biases. Defending the ban of campus sales at the Global Alcohol Policy Symposium in April, he argued "of course [students] who imbibe alcohol will get intoxicated, pick up a knife and charge their friends; they'll forget all about their computers and books." Given that he thinks the only thing standing between academic success and a stabbing spree is happy hour, Erdogan's surreal perception of alcohol's capabilities would rival even the most devout Christians of the Temperance movement. Meanwhile, back in reality, alcohol is rarely the culprit in the countless cases of violent bullying for not fasting during Ramadan or the groups who chant Islamic slogans as they attack random people for kissing in public .

Just on Sunday, during a live interview with channel Haberturk, Erdogan fumbled a couple responses on alcohol -- first declaring anyone who ever drinks an alcoholic, then suggesting those who enjoyed the occasional cocktail but voted for him didn't count. He would later try to save it by reiterating they were not banning alcohol. To be fair, there seems to be no reason to do so: it's effectively a tax on a Western lifestyle -- the kind enjoyed by those least likely to vote for the party in the first place -- and a useful source of revenue. Erdogan isn't against drinking as long as no one can see it; "if you are going to drink, then drink your alcohol in your own house" he told the nation last week . Just as secularists once sought to sweep Turkey's religious element under the rug, it is now the AKP's turn to do the same.

Many of his opponents, including the Gezi park protesters, warn of the Islamization of Turkey. But as the party of those left behind by the 1923 revolution, it doesn't really need to socially engineer much. The party keeps winning elections in landslides, and its values are already shared by the majority of Turks . If he is trying to gain converts, he's already halfway there, as he so graciously pointed out earlier this week when he reminded the nation how he's keeping his supporters from intervening against the Taksim protests on his behalf.

Back at the alcohol policy symposium in April, Erdogan had dismissed how the "top-down, domineering modernization mentality" of the government back in the 1920s "encouraged and incentivized alcohol consumption with a copycat mindset of modernity and civilization." But he of all people should know how such a mindset doesn't work: "fortunately social values, the societal fabric, resisted the government's attempts to encourage alcohol, keeping it in check." It is this patriarchal attempt to impose a lifestyle on those who disagree that is fuelling much of the Gezi protests.

And just as secularists weren't able to secularize all of the religious, it doesn't seem likely the religious can convert most of the secular-ish Turks ... but it doesn't mean they can't be swept under the rug. The lesson to be learned from Erdogan's statements in April, and the nationwide protests still going strong, is just how much resentment and antagonism can arise from having a lifestyle forced on people who don't want to play along. Marx once wrote that history repeated itself "first as a tragedy, then as a farce." If Erdogan is able to point out the mistakes of 1923, he shouldn't be repeating them again in 2013. Maybe in the 2100s, when the time for the next facelift rolls around, the country will have finally learned to coexist ... or at the very least learned to be farcical about it.