Middle East Lessons from Turkey

by David Pryce-Jones

The rioting in Turkey has a great deal to teach about the Muslim Middle East and the way they do things there. A protest about the development of a park in Istanbul was the starting point. Open space is to be replaced with a shopping mall, a mosque, and the reconstruction of an Ottoman-era barracks. In other words, another incremental step towards Islamism is masked by commerce. Everyone also knows that cronies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be enriching themselves by means of the construction contracts.

A Western prime minister might well find himself caught like this. In which case, he would be obliged to back-pedal and come to terms with the protesters. Either the development could be justified or a scandal might ensue that opens the prime minister to inspection. Muslim culture rules out such a process. Real or even implicit criticism shames a Muslim leader and therefore cannot be allowed. Reversing reality, the leader attributes shame to the protesters, and at the same time he has to make a show of strength.

Erdogan played exactly according to these values. Unable to admit that the protesters are ordinary people with a reasonable demand, he insulted them as riffraff, looters, vandals, and even terrorists – a keyword these days. He could see no inconsistency in fantasizing that they are foreign agents or speculators out to harm the stock market. Since this was bound to make him look ridiculous, he sent in the police to prove that he is really a strong man. Five thousand people have been treated in hospital, according to the latest figures, and nearly 1,000 arrested. It is great good fortune that he has not taken the next step of ordering up live ammunition instead of tear gas and water cannons.

Of course it is unintentional, but Erdogan’s conduct in Turkey is parallel to Bashar Assad’s in Syria. He too responded to a reasonable demand for reforms by trying to shame and then kill protesters real or imaginary. Throughout the Muslim Middle East, the culture predetermines the violence.