Secularism and state policies toward religion are a fundamental contradiction in Turkey. This contradiction has affected both Turkish lifestyle and governance.
Last week Erdoğan announced that the government had suspended plans to redevelop Gezi Park, the spark point of current protests, but demonstrations in Istanbul and across Turkey continue. In order to truly understand Turkey today, we must study the events preceding the Gezi Park protests. What happened in Gezi Park was evidently only the tip of the iceberg.
A good starting point would be to look at Turkey's recent history. On February 28, 1997, Turkey’s National Security Council (MGK), consisting of President Süleyman Demirel, Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, three ministers and six generals, held its monthly meeting. The summit resulted in a soft coup d'etat against the premiership of Erbakan. Several decisions were made regarding secularism and Islam, including the termination of Qu'ranic courses and the closure of Imam-Hatip schools (vocational religious institutes) that taught students who did not finish the eight grades of schooling. The MGK’s declaration explained their rationale: “secularism in Turkey is not only the assurance of political regime, but also ... a way of life.”
It is clear that Turkey has changed since 1997. The era of the generals is over, and Turkey is unlikely to witness another military coup in the near future. But this does not mean that the issue of secularism in Turkey has been settled for good.
One obvious example can be found in the tourism industry. Tourism is one of the main sources of revenue in Turkey's economy; last year almost USD 30 billion of Turkey's income was generated from tourism. If the Turkish government implements the planned social and religious prohibitions, including a ban on the late-night sale of alcohol and restricting public displays of affection, then they might lose a significant portion of their tourism revenue.
The opposition groups concentrated on the environment. They demanded protection of the trees in Gezi Park. They sent a modern message to Erdoğan, but his response was far from wise. Sadly, Erdoğan failed to use the opportunity to establish a bridge of trust between the demonstrators and the government. As a result, the demonstrations are still alive and well and the youth have become the focal point of the protests.
Erdoğan is at a crossroads now. He has to make up his mind and choose one personality over another: does he want to be a new sultan, or a modern leader? Modern leaders do not slam down their iron fist when talking to their citizens, especially when dealing with the younger generation. The youth want to protect their national and cultural heritage and protect Gezi Park, and it is a monumental mistake on the government's part to destroy that and build a shopping center in its place.
One of the secrets behind China's economic and political success lies in the way Chinese leaders rule the country. In China, the president remains in office for a maximum of two fixed terms, the equivalent of ten years. Xi Jinping, the president of China, has just begun his job at the age of sixty, at the most he will leave office at the age of seventy. What I would like to say to Erdoğan is that now might be the right time to leave the political scene, and consequently make room for the growth of a new generation of politicians. A brilliant actor knows when it is time to leave the stage, and this is something Erdoğan would be wise to think about.