Turkey’s middle class taking a stand for secularism

Increasingly polarised society has become a battleground between those who believe in secularism and those behind a tilt towards modern Islam

Melih Sezer in his pharmacy in the  Moda district of Istanbul: “When people beat pots and pans are they anarchists, are they terrorists?”

Melih Sezer in his pharmacy in the Moda district of Istanbul: “When people beat pots and pans are they anarchists, are they terrorists?”


Melih Sezer’s 81-year-old body did not stop him from protesting in Istanbul’s Gezi Park – not until riot police used tear gas to drive demonstrators from the occupied park last Saturday night.

A pharmacist from the wealthy Moda district on Istanbul’s Anatolian side, Sezer has watched, for well over half a century, the Turkish state evolve from a nascent secular republic to what it is today. Now, he believes, the country’s identity hangs in the balance.

Sezer is proud of the history behind his pharmacy, which has been on this nondescript street since the 1930s, and has changed little since then. But his ire with Turkey’s Islamist-leaning government is clear.

“When people beat pots and pans are they anarchists? Are they terrorists?” he says referring to the nightly round of noisy protests that reverberate from homes around Istanbul and beyond in support of the Gezi Park sit-in.

Turkey has increasingly become a battleground between those who believe in the tenets of historical secularism, such as Sezer, and those behind a tilt towards modern Islam, led by the government and backed by many, particularly communities in Turkey’s eastern provinces.

A 12-year-old organisation with little political history, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has crafted Turkey’s most successful government in decades. Its leader, and Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has helped to modernise the country to the extent that its largest city, Istanbul, is a close second-favourite (behind Tokyo) to host the 2020 Olympic Games.

March elections
In spite of the recent unrest, many Turks expect the AKP to easily win general elections next March. In addition to being able to draw huge crowds in Ankara and Istanbul, which he did last weekend, Mr Erdogan has broad support in the countryside.

And whereas the Arab world’s 2011 protests were intrinsically linked to the economics of the poor, Turkey’s recent round of dissent has been advanced by the middle class.

For many protesters, a chief concern was not so much the destruction of trees, but the government’s encroachment into civilian life.

The AKP’s talk of curbing abortion, a recent law restricting access to the morning-after pill as well as openly encouraging families to have at least three children, have angered secular Turks.

But talk is one thing, says Turkish journalist, Abdullah Ayasun. “If you look carefully, you’ll see Erdogan’s rhetoric is very different from his actions. He says he has planted far more trees than government projects plan to cut down [for a new Bosphorus bridge and airport in Istanbul],” he said.

“When he went to Egypt two years ago he shocked people there by advocating the secular way of governing – not an Islamist one.

“He sometimes introduces conservative policies but when they are opposed by the public or other political parties he allows them to die. We need to look at his track record closely.”

Although protesters forced from Gezi Park last weekend have regrouped in parks and squares elsewhere across Istanbul, the movement is clearly flailing.

What’s left is an increasingly divided Turkish society led by a prime minister whose fiery public speeches add to that polarisation.

But not in pharmacist Sezer’s middle-class neighbourhood.

Here in Moda, expensive cars and jeeps are lined up outside waterfront restaurants. Children are given sailing classes in a Marmara Sea cove.

Alcohol is sold and consumed widely. Though few are in want, suspicion of Erdogan and his AKP government is common.

A law introduced last month banned the sale of alcohol after 10 o’clock at night, but off-licences in Moda regularly sell beer and spirits for half an hour after that. Cans of Efes beer are openly drunk on the streets.

When asked what he thinks of how the AKP government has driven infrastructural development and reduced poverty over the past 10 years, Sezer says: “Erdogan’s own business contacts are the ones benefiting.

“In any case, whichever government ruled Turkey during this time would have built the same infrastructure.

“You have to look at what he doesn’t do, too,” he adds, sitting in his pharmacy among large old brass chests.

“People want secularism here and that’s what the government is changing.”