Turkey's George W. Bush?

AP Images/Gerald Herbert

In February 2003, massive rallies were held worldwide— including one of some 200,000 people in Washington, DC—to protest the impending invasion of Iraq by a United States-led coalition. President George W. Bush’s response when asked whether the protests had influenced his thinking at all was to scoff at them, saying “It's like deciding, well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group.”

It was standard Bush. The decider had decided. And he had his political mandate: Polls consistently showed that a majority of Americans supported the war. The views of the minority could therefore be dismissed.

I was reminded of Bush’s dismissal of protesters’ opinions this weekend, when I read of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s remarks on the protests that have engulfed his country over the past several days. Dismissing the protesters as “a bunch of looters” without a coherent message, Erdogan declared, “We will build a mosque in Taksim and we do not need the permission of the CHP [Republican People's Party, Turkey’s main opposition party] or of a few bums to do it.”

Erdogan’s arrogant response to what began as a relatively small demonstration against the destruction of green space in a small park near Istanbul’s historic Taksim Square helped them mushroom into more generalized and widespread protests against the prime minister’s high-handed governing style, which gives minority views little if any credence as Erdogan’s dominant Justice and Development Party, or AKP as it is known, continues to push its socially conservative agenda.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard echoes of Bush in Erdogan’s rhetoric. He often speaks of his country’s role in delivering justice to the region in terms that resemble Bush’s democratic evangelism.

“It is in our hands to turn the 21st century into a century of peace,” Erdogan said in a speech at the Mayflower Hotel during his visit to Washington, D.C. last month. “The principle of justice and humanity lie at the epicenter of the Turkish foreign policy.” The words could have been drawn from Bush’s second inaugural address. “It’s Erdogan’s Freedom Agenda,” I thought to myself.

It’s important not to push this comparison too far, though. Turkish police have acted brutally against protesters. And Erdogan’s crackdown on political criticism (Turkey has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world) far outstrips anything we’ve seen in the U.S.,or any modern democracy, in decades.

Thus far, Erdogan has continued to cite his election victories as the ultimate trump card against his critics, a justification for his efforts to cow the media into submission (the failure of Turkish media to cover the weekend’s protests was a sad sign of how successful those efforts have been). What's fascinating about the current unrest is how Turkey’s secular liberal minority, many of whom initially supported Erdogan’s AKP against the military-dominated old order, seems to have finally announced that they're mad as hell and not going to take this any more. “This” being Erdogan's “I–won-elections-so-screw-anyone-who-disagrees-with-me-and-my-social-conservative-base” majoritarian style of governing. The ability to engage with and address the demands of an aggrieved minority is an important test of any country’s democratic development. Thus far, Erdogan’s response has not been encouraging.  

Particularly troubling was Erdogan’s attempt to turn the debate from a political to a religious one by highlighting his intention to build a mosque on the contested site. “Now trying to shift the debate from building a shopping mall in Gezi Park to the building of a mosque instead is a prime example of how religion is used to cover up and generate popular support in Turkey,” wrote columnist Ihsan Dagi. “The ruling party seems to have been aware of the discontent in its grassroots and is trying to unite them behind the idea of building mosque in Taksim.” Whether in Turkey, the U.S. or anywhere else, deploying religious symbols in a transparent and cynical attempt to fire up one’s political base doesn’t honor religious faith, it insults it.

A decade after the U.S. invaded Iraq, it’s clear that the protesters were right, and President Bush was wrong. Had he taken their concerns more seriously, it’s possible (however unlikely) the U.S. might have been spared one of the worst foreign policy disasters in its history. Whether Erdogan takes a more accommodating stance toward the Turks who didn’t vote for him, or who otherwise oppose his agenda—that is, whether he changes course and endeavors to become Prime Minister of all the Turks, rather than just those in the “red states”—will have significant implications for his own political future, and for Turkey’s.

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