The huge demonstrations that engulfed Istanbul over the weekend were initially prompted by a small grievance: the government’s decision to build a shopping mall and a replica of Ottoman military barracks in an old, much beloved park where I played as a child. The impending destruction of Gezi Park and Taksim Square, an important civic space with beautiful water fountains and flower stands, has touched a nerve because it seems an effort to erase the face of the old, majestic Istanbul, which has largely disappeared in recent years in favor of shallow, gaudy, stupefied consumerism.
But the protests are not just about protecting urban greenery; they reflect a much deeper resistance to the political path being taken by Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his increasingly Islamist Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials, A.K.P. Mr. Erdogan was re-elected for a third term in 2011 and he has used the mandate to pursue an authoritarian agenda that many see as an assault on the secular republic that emerged after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
In the weeks preceding the Taksim demonstrations, tempers were already flaring around new curbs on serving alcohol in public places passed hastily by the A.K.P.-dominated Parliament but not yet signed into law. The real problem, in a country where alcoholism is minimal, is Mr. Erdogan’s “culture war” against the country’s secular classes and the illiberal form of democracy that he is advancing. I’ve heard many Turks, both devout and non-observant, say: “If consuming alcohol is a sin, let me reckon with my own maker. The government cannot force us not to sin.”
Mr. Erdogan’s attempt to forge a Muslim moral majority is evident also in his government’s stance on abortion, which, until recently, had prompted no theological or political controversies. Islam, like Judaism, gives priority to the mother’s life and health over that of the fetus, but Mr. Erdogan, borrowing a page from America’s Christian right, has introduced legislation to curb the availability of abortion through Turkey’s national health insurance system. And he has compounded such measures, which would hurt poor women more than the wealthy, with nationalistic calls to increase the population of the great Turkish nation by recommending that all women have at least three children.
This moral micromanagement of people’s private lives comes amid an increasingly strident government assault on political and civil liberties. Turkey’s record on journalistic and artistic freedoms is abysmal; rights of assembly and protest are also increasingly restricted.
The highest political stakes involve a proposed transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Mr. Erdogan’s model would give a newly empowered president the prerogative to dissolve the legislative assembly. Coupled with other reforms of Turkey’s Constitutional Court, Mr. Erdogan’s proposal portends the most extensive refashioning of the political system since the establishment of the secular republic in 1923. If a constitutional referendum is approved and Mr. Erdogan is elected the new president next year, Turkey could find itself with an authoritarian, charismatic presidential system resembling Russia’s or Venezuela’s much more than that of the United States or France, where a strict separation of powers defines and limits the president’s authority.
Mr. Erdogan is playing shrewdly with the prospects of peace with the country’s Kurdish separatists by seeking to conclude a three-decade-old war by co-opting them into his presidential vision. The legislative wing of the militant Kurdish movement has become a junior member of the parliamentary committee on constitutional reform, giving Mr. Erdogan the numbers he needs to eviscerate Turkey’s parliamentary system. It is widely believed that he has promised the imprisoned Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan some regional and cultural autonomy in return for this support.
For Turkish progressives who have supported some form of Kurdish autonomy for decades, it is bitterly ironic to see their old allies becoming pawns on Mr. Erdogan’s chessboard as he seeks to fulfill his presidential ambitions.
Not all of the proposed reforms are objectionable. The 1982 Constitution, which remains in force, still bears marks from a military coup, and Mr. Erdogan’s proposals would rightly establish a more representative Constitutional Court, not dominated by the old secular elite. What is irritating and bewildering to most Turks is the speed with which both good and bad reforms are being undertaken.
This power grab has struck chords of alarm and anger deep enough to suggest that Mr. Erdogan may have miscalculated his strength. Some factions of his own party oppose him. Even President Abdullah Gul has urged moderation in response to the demonstrators.
The people who have now taken to the streets all over the country represent a new majority of observant and non-observant Muslim Turks, as well as some Kurds who had supported Mr. Erdogan’s government because it seemed tolerant, pluralistic and cosmopolitan. But a new opposition, not only secularist and nationalist, is stirring. So far Mr. Erdogan has arrogantly dismissed his critics. If he continues to ignore their voices, the danger is that Turkey will descend further into violence and see its much-trumpeted experiment in Islamic democracy fail.
Seyla Benhabib, a professor of political science and philosophy at Yale, is a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy.