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Pious youthful Turks push for social justice 10 mai 2012

Posted by Acturca in Economy / Economie, Religion, Turkey / Turquie.
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International Herald Tribune (USA) Thursday, May 10, 2012

By Susanne Güsten, Istanbul

Young people protest government’s promotion of a pro-capitalist stance. For the Turkish youths who set out to change the world last week, May Day began with prayers.

Prostrating themselves outside the mosque in Istanbul’s pious neighborhood of Fatih, hundreds of young men and women prayed for the souls of the workers killed in Turkey’s all too common industrial accidents. Then they picked up their placards and marched across town to join the leftists and labor unions at their rally in Taksim square.

A roar of surprise and delight went up from the red-flagged masses in Taksim when the column marched into the square under a black banner bearing the slogan « God – Bread – Freedom. »

« It was an emotional moment, » Mem Aslan, 29, one of the organizers of the Anti-Capitalist Muslim Youth march, said last week, recounting how an aged Communist had embraced him with tears streaming down his face. « It proved that we can overcome the division of the people into left and right, created by our common enemy, the ruling class, to pit us against each other and enslave us all. »

It was the first public appearance of a movement that has been brewing at universities and in social media, where young Muslims have been critiquing the reign of the mildly Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as « capitalism with ablutions. »

After almost 10 years in power, Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., is coming under pressure from a new generation of Muslims calling for more social justice and democracy, in a trend that could change Turkey and offer new perspectives to societies in the Middle East searching for ways to combine Islamic values with a modern pluralist state, analysts said.

« We organized the whole thing within 10 days, » Mr. Aslan said about the prayer and march, which drew more than 1,000 participants and made headlines on every news program that night. « That is because its time has come. »

The march heralds a generational conflict within the Islamist movement, said Murat Somer, a political scientist and expert on political Islam at Koc University in Istanbul. « The A.K.P. was born of the marriage between moderate Islam and global capitalism, » he said in a telephone interview this week. « The younger generation of some Islamists has a different take on social justice. They focus more on economics and a class-based understanding. »

« There is a basis for this movement. It did not come out of nowhere, » he said.

The angry youths matter to the A.K.P. because they come from the party’s electoral grass roots, he added, noting that the A.K.P. « cannot disregard it. »

In Fatih, Mr. Aslan and Murad Icoz, 26, a university student and co-organizer of the march, detailed their criticism of the A.K.P. and the rapidly rising Muslim middle class it represents.

« We have a government that calls itself Muslim, but since they came to power, the number of banks in this street has risen from 10 to 25, » Mr. Aslan said. « Some people have become rich, while others struggle to survive. We are talking about people who are sucking our blood. »

Since vaulting to power 10 years ago on religiously inspired demands for social justice, the A.K.P. has lifted millions out of poverty, more than doubling the gross domestic product from €244 billion to €551 billion in 2010, according to European Union figures. Per capita income in purchasing power standards rose from €7,400 per annum to €11,800 during that period, according to those figures, bringing it from 36 percent to 48 percent of the E.U. average.

The economic boom created by a generation of pious Muslim entrepreneurs, nicknamed the « Islamic Calvinists » for their religiously inspired capitalist work ethic, has brought forth a Muslim middle class that today includes almost 60 percent of the Turkish population by the definition of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development of having $10 to spend per person per day, according to a study by the KMG polling firm published this week.

But the minimum wage for workers remains at 700 Turkish lira, or $395, per month, with a six-day work week, and many workers labor 70 hours a week for even less pay in the gray market that accounts for a third of the Turkish economy, according to the Finance Ministry.

Occupational safety is abysmal, with lax laws and even more lax controls. Seventy-five workers died in industrial accidents in April alone, according to the Workers’ Health and Safety Council, a nongovernmental organization that tracks such deaths, bringing the total of workers drowned, crushed or burned to death in the first four months of this year to 239.

Labor laws remain almost as repressive as they have been since the military smashed the labor unions after the 1980 coup d’état, requiring workers to register their wish to join a union with a notary public, with a resulting rate of unionization that remains well below 10 percent and workers left at the mercies of their employers.

The economic upswing and social realignment have caused a new chasm to open within the pious masses that carried the A.K.P. to power against the secularist elites in the military, bureaucracy and judiciary a decade ago.

« Now that there are many rich Muslims, they have begun to regard themselves as a separate class, » Mr. Icoz said. « They live in their new suburbs, far away from the poor, to comply with the admonition of the Prophet against ‘sleeping sated while one’s neighbor goes hungry.’ That’s how low they have dragged Islam.

« They think it is enough to perform the rituals of Islam, like praying, fasting, the Hajj, » he added. « They exploit the workers and then go to prayers. They give no thought to the spiritual, moral side of Islam. »

Mr. Aslan said it was the quest for a just society under those moral imperatives that triggered the anti-capitalist Muslim movement.

« We want to take the Prophet as a role model for our time and ask the questions he would ask, » he said. « Why do workers in this society work such long hours, why are they oppressed, why are they scorned? Why are the Kurds treated as they are, why are the Alevi treated this way? These are questions the Prophet would ask, because this society is very far from the ideal society of the Koran. »

The movement does not strive for an Islamic state, both men stressed, but for social justice in a secular state.

In their march, the youths brandished placards demanding an end to nuclear energy, a right to conscientious objection, a lifting of the head scarf ban and more rights for Kurds and Armenians.

« All Property Belongs to God, » proclaimed one sign; « All Oppressed Are Equal, » said another. A large banner read « Freedom From Slavery » in Kurdish, Armenian and Arabic as well as in Turkish. Some of the female marchers wore head scarves, while others went bareheaded. An impromptu manifesto read out at the rally included quotations from the Bible and the Torah as well as the Koran.

« They are very open and inclusive, » Ihsan Eliacik, a theologian whose writings have influenced the students, said in a telephone interview last week.

« They are also very courageous, » he added, alluding to the fate of former Turkish youth activists such as the iconic Deniz Gezmis, who was hanged at the age of 25 exactly 40 years ago this week, or Erdal Eren, executed at age 16 along with other young activists after the 1980 coup.

Mr. Eliacik, who provided the youths with a basement from which to organize the march, but insists he plays no leading role in the movement, advocates a liberal and humanist, if not socialist, interpretation of Islam comparable to Christian liberation theology.

« Capitalism is teetering, and people are searching for alternatives, » he said. « Communism tried to provide an alternative without religion, but that didn’t work. Now people are looking for faith-based alternatives to capitalism. Islam has the capacity to offer that alternative. »

The emergence of the anti-capitalist Muslim movement has galvanized observers on both sides of Turkey’s political scene.

The left-wing columnist Oral Calislar wrote in the Radikal daily, « Since most workers are pious, this new movement could open new doors to the organization of the workers. »

In The Star daily, the columnist Fehmi Koru, a staunch supporter of the A.K.P., warned the government to heed the movement’s message. « The nature of power, with its daily decisions and constraints, can drag politicians far from their original positions, » he wrote. The appearance of the Muslim anti-capitalists should serve the A.K.P. as a reminder of its roots and as a warning to adjust its policies, he added.

Mr. Eliacik, the theologian, believes that will not be enough. « This movement will grow, in Turkey as well across the region, » he said, pointing out that young protesters in Egypt or Syria had rallied under similar slogans. « God, Bread and Freedom – those demands express the soul of this region and its societies, » he said.


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