For the past week, major anti-government demonstrations have swept across Turkey. Beginning as a fifty-person protest against the razing of trees in an urban park in Istanbul, protests have spread to over 60 cities and towns, reaching every region of the country.
Chanting "Hukumet Istifa, Tayyip istifa" (‘Government Resign, Tayyip, Resign'), the protestors are demanding that Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan step down after 12 years in power.
Erdogan and his Islamist-oriented AKP (Justice and Development Party), first came to power after winning Turkey's 2002 national elections.
To counter the political impact of the demonstrations, which continue despite brutal police suppression, the prime minister is appealing to Islamic populism and employing the politics of polarization.
With bellicose defiance, the Erdogan has attempted to portray the conflict as a struggle of the secular versus the religious or, more accurately, the ‘white Turks' (non-religious, upper-class, urban elites) versus the ‘black Turks' (socially conservative, lower-middle and working class Sunni-Turks from Anatolia). If Erdogan's tactics ultimately prove successful, it will signal the final demise of an Islamic discourse of civic pluralism and the failure of Turkey's Islamic politics to protect the integrity of democratic citizenship rights.
The consequences for Turkey - as well as Islamic politics in the Middle East as whole - will be profound. The AKP's successful 2002 election campaign employed an Islamic-based political discourse calling for greater government accountability and greater civic pluralism in Turkish society. The AKP's neo-liberal agenda appealed to secular liberals who opposed the Turkish military's heavy-handed interference in domestic politics and the insensitive, statist elite which had mismanaged the nation's economy.
For the AKP's core constituency, the alienated lower-middle classes hailing from the countryside and smaller cities, arrogantly neglected by that same statist elite, the same agenda offered an opening for them to the economy and political empowerment.