Turkey's Moment of Tumult

Muslim Nation's Pluralistic Tradition Faces Crisis on Street

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By Marcy Brink-Danan

Published June 06, 2013, issue of June 14, 2013.
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Weeks before Turkish protesters took to the streets, alcohol fueled the flames of revolt. It was not drunkenness, however, that turned up the political heat; rather, it was government rhetoric that denied alcohol’s Turkishness.

First, the conservative government initiated bans on selling alcohol. Then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pushed for constitutional reform in order to increase his power.

He recently justified the introduction of a bill restricting late night alcohol sales by calling the authors of Turkish liquor laws — Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and Ismet Inönü, Atatürk’s successor — “drunks.” Just a decade ago, it would have been impossible to imagine an elected official slurring Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, despite the fact that he certainly liked the bottle. With all this talk about alcohol as a moral fault line, one wonders: What do Turkish Jews — whose religious tradition sanctifies alcohol rather than eschews it — make of the protests?

In the early 2000s I conducted ethnographic research on Turkish minority citizenship, focusing on Jewish life in Istanbul. In anticipation of the 2002 national elections, Turkish Jewish friends worried that a win by the conservative Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym AKP, would bring democracy’s demise. I played the American liberal, asking innocently: ”If the majority of Turks want a government that better reflects their (Islamist) ideals, why shouldn’t they have it? Isn’t that what democracy is about?”

References to Hitler’s popular election quietly reverberated among Jewish community members, who watched the polls predict AKP success. A friend informed me of Erdoğan’s win with the following text: “I AM TERRIFIED”; secular Turks melodramatically predicted that Turkey would soon resemble Iran. Over plentiful glasses of raki, and Efes beer, they reassured each other that no matter what AKP politicians preached, their hands were tied by the knowledge that secular army generals stood waiting for their cue to coup.

The coup never came. At the time of Erdoğan’s ascent to power, a representative from the Turkish rabbinate told me that it had a “good, proactive, relationship with AKP” and that it was “wise to keep lines of communication open between us; we live in the same country and should give them a chance.” There was a sense, then, among some Jews that AKP’s neo-Ottomanism might benefit the Jewish community. Unlike the secularist ideology, which erased citizens’ religious identity, Ottoman nostalgia meant that Jews could again represent themselves communally.

Over the past decade, AKP has made sweeping changes in Turkish policy. Through privatization of national spaces, anti-abortion legislation and confrontations with Israel, AKP put its ideology into practice. AKP’s ascendancy came with diminished freedom of expression; journalists, for example, are now arrested in record numbers. (When I asked Turkish Jews what they wanted the Forward’s readers to know about the protests, they universally mentioned a surreal lack of local press coverage about the events.)


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