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What's Really Fueling The Turkish Protests?

In a photo adopted by protesters as a symbol of their struggle, a Turkish policeman uses tear gas against a woman during a rally in Taksim Square in central Istanbul on May 28.
Ostensibly, the protests rocking Istanbul now are over the government's plans to raze one of the city's remaining parks to build new commercial properties.

But beneath that issue lie much deeper tensions that account for the rapidly escalating violence.

Many analysts see the clashes -- the most violent since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took office in 2002 -- as an explosion of frustration among Turkish secularists against his leadership style.

At issue is his perceived authoritarianism in pushing his own view of Turkey as a modern but conservative Muslim country with little regard for the views of his more liberal, but divided, opposition.

Barcin Yinanc, the opinion page editor of the English-language "Hurriyet Daily News" in Istanbul, says that the protesters "are saying, 'You should not rule this country according to the world views of the 50 percent of the voters that you got [in the last elections]. There is another 50 percent that has a different world view, and you have to respect that world view, too.'"

She says the protesters see Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) increasingly seeking to impose its own Islamist-rooted agenda on officially secular Turkey.

"The prime minister's statements are becoming more conservative every day," Yinanc says. "For instance, during the latest alcohol regulations, he said that the government has [passed the law] because it is ordered by religion.

"Now, in secular countries, you don't make rules and regulations because religion tells you to. It is because of their rationality that you pass rules or regulations. So, these messages have been creating concern as far as the secular practices in Turkey are concerned."

Uproar Over Legislation

Last month, the Turkish parliament rushed through strict legislation that, once approved by the president, would prohibit the selling of alcohol between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and the opening of any new alcohol shops or bars within 100 meters of schools and mosques. The law has created an uproar not only among consumers but also many businessmen who fear its impact on the tourist industry.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, flanked by deputies Bulent Arinc (left) and Bekir Bozdag, calls for calm during a news conference in Istanbul on June 3.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, flanked by deputies Bulent Arinc (left) and Bekir Bozdag, calls for calm during a news conference in Istanbul on June 3.
Similarly, Erdogan in recent months has spoken out against women's access to abortion, has encouraged larger families, and praised the values of natural childbirth (without a Caesarean section).

At the same time, Erdogan's government has been criticized for its crackdown on opponents, including journalists, the military establishment, and Kurds, adding to the fragmented opposition's sense of powerlessness.

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All of this has made secularists feel increasingly embattled as the AKP now moves through its third consecutive term in power.

The two sides have clashed in increasingly violent showdowns for four days in Istanbul, and sporadically in Ankara and Izmir, as tensions keep rising.

Erdogan, who referred to the protesters as "a few looters," has warned them that "if they gather 100,000 [people], I will bring 1 million from my party."

Rights groups, including Amnesty International, have denounced the police response as "disgraceful" for its heavy-handed tactics, including the use of massive quantities of tear gas and pepper spray on June 1. Two deaths have been attributed to clashes between protesters and police.

Flip Side Of The Coin

The outbreak of violence strikes a vivid counterpoint to Turkey's image as a country that has made rapid economic progress since the mid-1990s and today is more prosperous and influential on the world stage than it has been in decades.

PHOTO GALLERY: Protests Rock Istanbul

But James Ker-Lindsay, an expert on Turkey at the London School of Economics and Political Science, says the same strong leadership style that Erdogan has shown in leading Turkey's transformation now seems to be fueling his opponents' fears of him.

"Anyone under about 30, realistically about 32 or 33, is probably not going to have a great recollection of just how confused and chaotic things were [in Turkey in the mid-1990s]," Ker-Lindsay says. "The trouble is that the leadership style that allowed Erdogan to introduce that stability is now becoming a problem for him."

As secularists go through a major test of wills with Islamists over Turkey's identity and the place of religion in it, one player who has weighed in heavily in the past -- the military -- is conspicuously absent.

"It's not really an issue these days," Ker-Lindsay says. "Except insofar as generals getting called up before the courts on...conspiracy charges. There was a time before when [Erdogan] introduced certain measures and the military sort of just quickly came in and said, 'No, hold on, you are not going to do that.' They are no longer seen now."

That leaves the protesters to fight their battles against the police with little chance of outside forces stepping in to call for a halt.

For now, the best hope that the violence will subside rests in the reluctance of established political leaders on both sides to call on supporters to take to the streets in mass demonstrations.

President Abdullah Gul on June 3 called on people to remain calm and said the "necessary messages" from the protests had been noted. He said illegal groups should not be allowed to get involved.

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