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In America, the cultural divide that defines politics is between red and blue states. In Turkey, the divide is between “black” and “white” Turks. This is not a reference to skin colour but to social attitudes and class. The “white” Turks tend to be secular, relatively well-off and more urban. The “black” Turks are pious Muslims and tend to be poorer and more provincial. Think of the scorn and mutual mistrust between red and blue America – then triple it – and you will have an idea of the depth of the divide separating the two camps in Turkey’s culture wars.
The demonstrations in central Istanbul are very largely the preserve of the white Turks. These rallies have faded from the news, as the government has regained control of the centre of the city, but they are still going on. On Tuesday night, several thousand people gathered in Taksim Square, Istanbul’s symbolic heart, for a fresh protest – provoked by the release on bail of a policeman, who had shot dead a demonstrator in Ankara and was deemed to have acted in self-defence.
The crowd in Taksim would have blended right in at Zuccotti Park in New York or a student demo in Paris. There were red flags for the hard left, rainbow flags for the gays, green flags for the environmentalists, many students and a few professionals, who seemed to have come from the office. The young women, who often led the chants, were typically wearing shorts or vests. Some sat on their boyfriends’ shoulders, with their dark glasses perched fashionably on their heads. The only woman in a headscarf I saw was an old lady, on the fringe of the crowd, who was selling water to the demonstrators. And yet the ruling AK Party – against which many of the chants were aimed – is run by pious Muslims. The wives of both Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, wear headscarves. The crowd in Taksim was dominated by the secular, urban middle classes. The core vote for Erdogan is more devout and more socially conservative. It is these loyalists the prime minister is appealing to when he condemns the demonstrators as looters and tools of a foreign plot and claims – without any evidence – that they drank beer in an Istanbul mosque.
It now takes a certain amount of courage to turn up for a Taksim demonstration. The crowd was carrying posters of the three young men who have been killed in Turkey since the demonstrations began over a month ago. Many more have been seriously injured. It has become routine for Taksim rallies to be broken up with tear gas or water cannon. On Tuesday night, all public transport to the area was shut down to minimise the number of demonstrators. The thousands who still made it were herded into a corner of the vast central square and ringed by hundreds of police in riot gear and armoured cars. Yet I felt strangely invulnerable in the middle of a boisterous, chanting crowd. And on Tuesday night, the police stayed their hand. Later Dan Dombey, the FT’s bureau chief in Turkey, congratulated me on attending the first big demonstration for quite a while that had not been tear-gassed. I was not sure whether to be disappointed or pleased. On balance, pleased I think.
It was plans to redevelop Gezi Park, a block-sized patch of green just off Taksim, that provoked the original protests. My hotel was just opposite Gezi. The park has been cleared of demonstrators and is now cordoned off by police tape. Nonetheless, there were some young men sitting on the benches chatting late into the night. On closer inspection, they turned out to be policemen. Some were in uniform, some were in civvies, but they were all cops – as became clear, when Dan and I tried to enter the park and were politely sent on our way. Once again, there is a culture clash between secularists and Islamists, lurking beneath the Gezi dispute. Erdogan’s plan for the park was to build a replica of an Ottoman barracks that once stood there, and that was the base for a rebellion by Islamist officers in 1909 – before being razed by the secular republic, established by Kemal Atatürk.
The prime minister also wants to rip down the massive Atatürk cultural centre, just up the road in Taksim, and to replace it with a neo-baroque opera house. And he thinks a mosque should be built on Taksim. To many of his opponents, these suggestions all look like part of a co-ordinated attack on Turkish secularism.
Alcohol is another front in the culture wars. About a week before the Gezi demonstrations broke out, the Turkish parliament passed a new law that will forbid the sale of alcohol from any outlet that is within 100 metres of either a mosque or a school. Nobody is quite sure how strictly the new law will be interpreted – and whether there will be exceptions for the tourist trade, or for stores that are already licensed to sell the demon drink. But, since there are rather a lot of mosques and schools in Istanbul, the implications are potentially drastic. At this time of year, one of the great joys of life in the city is to sit out, overlooking the Bosphorus, and to have a beer or a glass of white wine. The real alarmists think Erdogan – who regularly derides Turkey’s whisky-sipping, Bosphorus-gazing elite – has that simple pleasure in his sights.
Perhaps it is the bucolic weather in Istanbul, but most Turkish liberals do not seem too depressed by the current state of affairs. The standard line is that, even if the demonstrations ultimately fizzle out, Turkey will have changed for the better. Some even argue that the country is outgrowing its culture wars. Suat Kiniklioglu, once an MP for the AKP but now disillusioned with the party, argues that most Turks are now neither “black” nor “white” – but somewhere in the middle. It is a nice theory and he should write a book about it. Fifty Shades of Grey would be a good title.
Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator