Some Turks fear culture clash with Erdogan is about to get worse
By DONNA ABU-NASR AND CAGAN KOC | Bloomberg | Published: June 2, 2018
It's the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but in Istanbul smokers huddle outside offices, couples sip beer and sex workers call out to young men from balconies.
The contrast with some Arab countries that penalize people for publicly breaking the dawn-to-dusk abstention from food and drink couldn't be more striking in and around the city's central Taksim Square. And supporters of that Turkish way of life want to keep it that way.
The collision between secular Turkey and Islamic Turkey is nothing new. Under the 16-year leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Islam has been playing a wider role in the country and moving it closer to its religious roots in the Middle East and away from the more European secular state founded a century ago. But the clash of those two Turkeys is being overshadowed by a more pressing confrontation between authoritarianism and democracy, with secularists feeling that their culture is more at risk than ever.
Erdogan, who overturned the ban on headscarves, removed the theory of evolution from school textbooks and prohibited alcohol advertising, is seeking to tighten his grip on the country in elections on June 24 after jailing thousands of dissenters.
"I know that I will look back at today with nostalgia," said Efsun, 55, who declined to give her last name because she works for the government. "I am a Muslim, but I eat and drink alcohol during Ramadan," she said as she finished off a lunch of meat-stuffed aubergine and rice with creme caramel. "Some of the Islamic rules made sense in the Arab deserts centuries ago, but they are not applicable to today."
The political battle over the next few weeks will be fought on the economy after the lira recently hit an all-time low. It lost 16 percent against the dollar this year and the country is plagued by inflation and a swollen current account deficit. The looming concern for some, though, is Erdogan's pledge to raise a "more pious generation."
Most polls show Erdogan far ahead of rivals in the presidential race, though still short of the 50 percent needed for a first-round win. That would mean a runoff against an "anyone-but-Erdogan" candidate.
A broad coalition, meanwhile, is running against Erdogan's AK Party in parliamentary elections, including Islamists who say the president has betrayed their principles on corruption.
Secularism has long set Turkey apart from its neighbors to the east. Under the constitution, lawmakers and the president are required to swear allegiance to the "principles and reforms" of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He founded the secular state, abandoned the Arabic alphabet and granted women full universal suffrage before countries like France or Italy.
Inside Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, one of the the world's oldest, carpet seller Cemal Aydin said it's vital Turkey defends its heritage. He fasts during Ramadan, but drinks alcohol the rest of the year.
Aydin, 37, said he will vote for Erdogan's opponents because the president has "ignored those of us who didn't elect him." "I respect religious people but they don't respect me and it's because he's sending that message to them," said Aydin, who sported a trim, light brown beard.
"My vote will be based on the lifestyle I want to maintain – the culture of Ataturk," he added. "Erdogan is forgetting one thing: We are Turks. We are not Arabs. He can't turn the country into an Islamic Republic."
A walk around some areas of the sprawling city of Istanbul, with its Roman, Byzantine and then Ottoman history, suggests that's not happening as quickly as some critics claim.
"Erotik" shops, banned in the Arab world, are clearly marked with blinking red lights. At least half of the clients are Arab, mainly from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, according to salesmen at two stores. Prostitution is legal and regulated by the government. During Ramadan, some restaurants in conservative areas close because business is slow or out of respect for cultural traditions, not by law.
In Jordan, a relatively liberal Arab country compared with the Gulf states, the Interior Ministry orders restaurants to close during the day and liquor stores for the whole fasting month. Those caught eating and drinking in public are penalized.
The Ottoman implementation of Islamic law was always different, according to Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, who runs the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund, a think tank. Turkey has had a century of secularism and there's also its orientation toward Europe and membership of NATO, he said.
"When we talk about the erosion of secularism in Turkey, we are talking by Turkish standards," said Unluhisarcikli. "I don't think that Turkey will ever become similar to other Muslim nations in the Middle East."
Erdogan and his AK Party, which rose from the nation's Islamic political movement, first won power in 2002 in the wake of a financial meltdown that got people out on the streets.
His government repealed laws that kept covered women from attending universities or working for the state and has since allowed headscarves for military personnel.
There have also been changes in education, with a proliferation of religious schools called Imam Hatip. There were 1.3 million students enrolled in 2017, up from 71,000 when AKP came to power. Many graduates are struggling to get into university and in science, said Ilter Turan, emeritus professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University.
The Education Ministry also removed the teachings of Darwin's theory from the curriculum, he said. It compromises Turkey's ability to ensure its students keep up with the skills needed during an era of technological change, he said.
"To have a teaching that places submission and conformity at its center is highly questionable," said Turan.
AK Party Deputy Chairman Mustafa Atas said secularists have spread "all sorts of lies" since Erdogan came to power, such as he would ban mixed-gender buses and women who don't wear a headscarf would be thrown out of trains.
"For God's sake, which one of these has happened until today?" said Atas. The AKP "hasn't discriminated against anyone because of their belief. It hasn't treated anyone who is not an AKP supporter negatively," he said.
Ebubekir Ozturk, 27, an Erdogan supporter who works as a mechanical engineer in the textile sector, said devout Turks were oppressed for years by secularists, especially with the ban on women covering their hair. "Now there is a conservative government, but there are no restrictions," he said.
Speaking with Turks in the city's liberal financial district of Levent and the conservative Fatih Carsamba neighborhood show just how divided Turkey is over religion.
Outside the blue-gray domed Fatih Mosque, most women wore headscarves and a few walked around in Saudi-style black cloaks.
In a turban and dressed in a dark, knee-length robe worn by devout Muslims, Omer Serhat Adiguzel, 19, said he wants the government in Ankara to impose sharia law. He also would like legislation that would force restaurants to close until Iftar, the meal Muslims eat to break their Ramadan fast.
"Back in the Ottoman era there used to be very few incidents of theft and rape thanks to sharia law," said Adiguzel.
About 13 kilometers north across the city, computer engineer Ugur, 29, sipped beer on the terrace of a bar overlooking a busy street in Levent. Few women were covered. Some women wore tiny shorts. Couples walked past with arms around each other.
Ugur said he would never go to Fatih, especially at night. "We live in bubbles. I hate going outside mine," said Ugur, who declined to give his last name because he was a critic of Erdogan's government. "The country has never been so divided."
Bloomberg's Benjamin Harvey and Firat Kozok contributed.