Erdogan has won yet another election, but he’s losing the culture war

Millions of secular Turks were forced to swallow a bitter pill on Sunday when the results of the local election became clear. Erdogan’s AKP — besieged by corruption allegations and a nasty power struggle with Gulenists — emerged triumphant once again, holding on to Istanbul and (appeals not withstanding) Ankara.

Cue hysteria on social media and much soul searching on the left. However, many fail to look at the bigger picture.

One of the questions I get asked most often about Turkey is: “Isn’t Turkey going backwards, becoming more Islamic, more conservative?”

Erdogan has spoken of his desire to nurture a ‘religious generation’ – and his government’s policies are aimed at bolstering such a notion. For several years now, Erdogan has toured the country encouraging newly-wed couples to have ‘at least 3 children’. Taxes on alcohol have risen astronomically. The availability of abortions has become more limited. Television has been subject to increasing censorship, and lest we forget the bans on various websites including Twitter and YouTube.

Creeping Islamisation has long been a fear of the secular middle class, but is it all a bit skin deep?

First of all the birth rate in Turkey is decreasing steadily. According to official statistics and projections, it will fall to 2.02 in 2019 from its current rate of 2.08. What does this have to do with secularism? Well, for the government it’s all about promoting a conservative family model in which the mother is less likely to join the workforce.

Despite numerous restrictions on the sale of alcohol in the past decade, consumption is not falling. Most advertising of alcohol is now banned, it can no longer be bought in shops after 10pm but perhaps most strikingly, the government has hiked taxes to a point where a drink in Turkey often costs more than in Scandinavia. Tellingly, while tax on alcohol accounted for approximately 1 percent of the government’s total tax revenues in 2006, last year this reached 1.5 percent. Wine is performing particularly well.

While popular Turkish soap operas have a tough time with censors, actors and producers push the boundaries broaching controversial subjects in unedited online episodes and through the art of cinema. Minorities, sexuality, honour killings, corruption are some of the myriad of subjects addressed. In 2002 when AKP came to power, rock music was a largely amateur space with just 2 or 3 big names. Today, many bands vie for attention through TV, numerous venues and university campuses.

Let’s not forget the 11 year olds singing Justin Bieber and Rihanna’s songs in flawless English when they performed in Istanbul last summer. 20 years ago such a scene would have been unthinkable as Turkish pop almost solely dominated the airwaves.

The number of women who cover their heads, often cited as anecdotal evidence of ‘Islamicisation’ has remained steady since the late 1990s.They can now work in public bodies, but this isn’t something seculars should fear and the opposition has done much to come to terms with it.

The AKP refuses to add ‘sexual orientation’ to the list of protected groups in society but Istanbul’s gay scene is more open and commercial than ever. Several LGBT rights associations have won legal status after challenging the government in court when it tried to close them down and such organisations were very visible during the Gezi Park protests alongside liberals, anti-capitalist Muslims and a whole host of new, vibrant groups.

Much like Thatcher in 1980s Britain, opening the flood gates to free market economics, global integration and bottom up civil society will most likely be the ultimate undoing of Erdogan’s designs on society.

Perhaps most importantly, young people are becoming politicised. Since the 1980 coup, parents discouraged their children from speaking about/becoming involved in politics for fear of a return to the political violence of the 1970s. A couple of years ago a school teacher friend in Istanbul told me ‘I don’t expect anything from this generation; all they’re interested in is shopping and having a good time’. 18 months later many of those were on the streets of Istanbul, waving placards demanding censorship free Internet or an end to police violence. During the local election, for the first time, independent initiatives were set up, sending thousands of observers to polling stations to ensure fair elections.

The stains on Turkey’s record in recent years are well documented. Many now expect further crackdowns on political opponents, the media and sections of civil society but it may all be futile in the end. This is just the beginning of a wider awakening. Rome wasn’t built in a day and Ankara won’t be won easily but there is room for optimism about Turkey’s democratic future, despite conventional wisdom.

About the Author
International Affairs for the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Fluent Turkish speaker and LGBT rights advocate.