If Kemal Ataturk, the visionary reformer and founding father of modern-day Turkey, could see the bloody shenanigans going on in downtown Istanbul he’d be spinning in his grave with the velocity of a deranged power drill.
Back in 1923, following the corrupt Ottoman Empire’s humbling in The Great War, he decreed a new nation must rise from the ashes of ruination, one unfettered by religious, Dark Ages dogma, but a state closely mirroring Western values.
So out went the sultan, the autocratic Caliphate, repressive sharia law and its stultified education system. Visible symbols of Islamism – headgear, like the turban and hijab – were banned from public display and even the language was re-written, a Latin alphabet replacing the ancient Arabic script.
Ataturk’s liberal sea-change also saw women’s rights respected and restrictions on alcohol curbed, so that seductively potent raki, an anise-based liquor, became the people’s preferred tipple.
Apart from the blips of occasional military coups punctuating national serenity, for nine decades Turkey was proudly cited as the cuckoo in the Muslim world’s nest; the exception to the rule where a secular, pluralist democracy flourished and people were free to speak their minds.
In tandem came economic progress and a boom in living standards, especially spectacular under the stewardship of prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Justice and Development Party, the AKP.
Lately, however, justice and development have been overtaken by the leader’s religious zeal more reminiscent of the old Ottomans, as Erdogan flexes his muscles with brazen arrogance.
Despite having seen a pack of dictators – Mubarak in Egypt, Tunisia’s Ben Ali and the Libyan lunatic, Gaddafi – tumble like dominoes in the whirlwind Arab Spring (or Winter, as it’s transpired) and Assad’s savage defiance of change in Syria, Turkey’s premier appears to harbour a growing lust to join their dwindling ranks.
Melding Islamic fervour with nationalist expansionism, he has whittled away the pillars of the nation’s liberty, persecuted secular opposition leaders, imprisoned military top brass – mostly on trumped-up charges – censored the media and jailed more journalists than in any other country.
‘Democracy is a bus ride,’ Erdogan is disquietingly reported to have told Jordan’s King Abdullah. ‘And, once I get to my stop, I’m getting off,’
Following a decade of moderately benign rule, clearly that stage is being reached. The wheels on Turkey’s freedom bus are coming off and the man in the driving seat is increasingly exhibiting the megalomaniac tendencies of the pre-Ataturk old guard.
As one fearless local commentator noted, Erdogan’s ‘mandate to rule seems to have been interpreted as a blank cheque to transform the identities and lifestyles of the people.’
Unsurprisingly, then, cronyism is rife and political accountability bang out of fashion.
If further proof was needed, the brutal crackdown on environmental protestors, peacefully demonstrating in downtown Istanbul against the building of a shopping mall in Gezi Park, is it in spades.
One of the city’s few, remaining green spaces, it needs an H&M, Zara or Tesco like Bill Gates needs job-seekers allowance. But Erdogan’s apparatchiks waived through planning permission, so there’s no reprieve.
Meanwhile, thanks to the heavy-handedness of riot police, what started as a tree-huggers’ fiesta turned nasty and spread farther afield into a popular uprising against what many believe is Erdogan’s creeping despotism.
Water cannon, pepper spray and tear gas – dropped from helicopters – has resulted in several deaths, over 1,500 injuries and 2,000 summary arrests, all of which cast doubt on Turkey’s democratic credentials and highlight its leader’s true ambitions.
In the finest traditions of Arab despots, Erdogan poured petrol on the flames of dissent, outrageously slandering the activists as ‘communists’, ‘looters’ and ‘hooligans’, under ‘foreign influence’.
For good measure, he dubbed social media, such as Twitter, ‘the worst menace to society.’
And just to rub in his ruthless hunger for power, Erdogan even threatened the demonstrators by saying, ‘Don’t compete with me. If you can gather 100,000 people, I can gather a million.’
What’s more, he can.
Because Turkey isn’t one country, but two: the urban, secular, liberal middle class and rural, Sunni conservatives, whose votes shaded him three election victories.
The AKP faithful likes the notion of a hard-line leader and backs his aim to turn the premiership into a US-style presidency. They also applaud his crackdown on the metropolitan elite, by restricting the sale of booze as part of an agenda to reintroduce sharia law and outlaw abortion.
Most particularly, they favour his regional, super-power aspirations and a face-off with the mad mullahs of Shiite Iran.
Becoming a bosom buddy of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and a cheerleader for Hamas in Gaza, Erdogan’s gambit is met with glee by religiously-traditionalist country folk, but deep dismay by the liberal city dwellers.
And, while many across the Arab world admire the verbal skirmish he deliberately engineered with Israel – once Turkey’s closest Middle East ally – consternation is growing abroad, where Erdogan’s Islamic leanings and foreign policy misadventures are viewed as reckless.
Patience is wearing particularly thin in Washington, where the Obama Administration fears he wants to drag the West deep into the Syrian conflict, by arming and abetting the Al Qaeda-inspired rebels against the Iran-backed Assad regime.
Yet the last thing the Middle East – and the world – needs now is another, unhinged loose cannon with a yen to be a latter-day sultan-despot.
As a NATO member – and a wannabe recruit to the European Union (much against the better wishes of Germany, which doesn’t want 75 million Turks as members of the club) – Erdogan’s is in dire danger of becoming exactly that.
Ataturk would grieve over the chaos his crude and impulsive successor has created, plus the man’s utter disdain for democracy.
But, so far, no-one seems capable of stopping Erdogan the Turk becoming a turkey.