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Reflections on Turkey

Reflections on Turkey

In 1972, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath sent me to Florida to organize Jewish students protesting the Vietnam War at the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami. In 1989, my wife, my father and I travelled through China just a few months before Tiananmen Square.

In both situations, the moral passion and democratic hopes and aspirations of the young people we encountered were palpable. Infused with the belief that by using non-violent methods they could   transform their lives, their nation, their world for the better, they set about with courage and confidence to change their future.

That was exactly the feeling I had as I spent two lengthy visits with the protestors in Gezi Park in the Taksim area of Istanbul over the past  few days.  There is something special happening in Gezi Park – and it is inspiring.

I am travelling for several weeks.  I began speaking at one of the sessions at the U.S.–Muslim World Forum held in Qatar this year (an annual State Dept, Brookings Institution, Qatari Gov’t undertaking – fortunately underwritten by them).  I will be joining many other Jewish leaders in Israel at the Annual “Israeli Presidential Conference” hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres, this year celebrating his 90th birthday, supplemented by  a series of meetings with Knesset and Reform leaders (coordinated by the Israel Religious Action Centeron Reform Jewish rights, women’s rights and peace process issues. Not to mention – Barbra Streisand’s first concerts in a generation in Israel. (The Union for Reform Judaism's president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, will have an even more intense agenda of meetings with a side trip to our new community efforts in Kiev.)  And then, with Rabbi Rick Block, new president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Rabbi David Sandmel, the Senior Advisor on Interreligious Affairs for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, we travel on to Rome to meet with the new Pope, Pope Francis, who has captured the moral imagination of the world. We will be part of a delegation of experienced Jewish professionals in interfaith work who will meet with the Pope and later other Vatican officials on Jewish-Catholic relations.

But the unexpected events on which the attention of the world is focused made this visit to Turkey different and made me determined to add Turkey to my trip.  I suspect it will be among the most memorable experiences in this trip of memorable experiences.

Prime Minister Erdogan is a fascinating figure.  Many have hoped he would show a successful synthesis of modern Islamism and democracy, as he tried to rebalance religious/political life in this heretofore  scrupulously secular, yet  99% majority Muslim, nation. Many fear that a failure to succeed would leave only two alternatives for Muslims: a secular state or a fundamentalist non-democratic state – exactly when a successful, moderate, tolerant version of political Islam feels so desperately needed.

Yet what many feel is his autocratic style with what appears to be a deaf ear to how to respond to those who feel disempowered has fueled this confrontation.  Out of fairness, there seem to be many structural sources of that frustration beyond the government’s policy or style. There is a lack of the kind of robust civil society or NGO institutions that people can get involved in (institutions like this are often the norm in many other democracies).  In Turkey’s top down political culture, there are sharp limits on grassroots engagement with politics. These have added to deep resentments that were triggered by, but far transcend, the protests over the building development of the park.

It should be clear: in general over the past decade, PM Erdogan enjoys support from a majority of Turkish citizens, as his electoral successes reflect. But he evokes deep distrust and frustration from a very large minority who feel he is changing the entire nation for the worse and who are growingly disenchanted with their prospects for a non-religious democracy and culture, in which individuals make their own religious life-style choices, which they believe is every Turkish citizen’s birthright.

The young people I spoke with, most in their twenties and early thirties, are less concerned with the particular spark to these protests – the commercial development of the popular Geza Park– than with the broader themes.  Those I spoke to were mostly well-educated people, primarily Muslim, as were almost all the protestors – although I met one Jew who indicated that he had Jewish friends there. And what struck me as interesting was the depth of amorphous resentment of the government. When pressed on what human rights were most threatened and what action most needed, the responses were all over the place. Some spoke about concerns about the growing Islamization of the nation. Yet, his supporters and even some among his critics, commend his enhancement of religious freedom in the face of secular constraints, e.g. the easing of restriction of the long-time ban on wearing of headscarves in public buildings. But critics cite with alarm the changing tone in the society with things ranging from the requirement, new this year, for women to wear head, shoulder and leg coverings when entering as tourists into Turkey’s famous mosques – even when no services were taking place, to greater restrictions on alcohol purchases. To many in the park, these were indications of a growing effort to trade core freedoms for Mr. Erdogan’s view of proper Muslim behavior. Mostly the protestors I spoke with simply felt that the government just doesn’t care sufficiently about core civil liberties and human rights and was too autocratic. And they feared for the direction the nation is moving in.

Of course the global outcry is less about the precise grievances of the protestors and more about the heavy-handed crackdown on peaceable protestors.  On that level, I was struck by the sheer courage of those who in reaction to the police attacks on protesters were more determined than ever to return in yet larger numbers to assert their rights.

So long as Mr. Erdogan enjoys majority support and stays in power, we hope that his long term reaction to these events will be to find that moderate, tolerant path that would mean so much to the world.  What seems clear is that without an effective political response from the government, this crisis can turn into a political watershed for this influential nation, which means so much not only to its own people but to America’s interests, Israel’s interests, regional stability and the future direction of political Islam.

Rabbi David Saperstein is the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

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