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Talking Turkey

| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON

There are certain clues in foreign coverage that journalists overseas look for. Some of them are serious concepts or funny quotes or just plain words. But you know them when you see them and you know that something has changed.

So it is with the simple word “alcohol,” which as good readers know is capable of evoking both the extremes of hatred and the extremes of loving indulgence. Particularly when you see it derided or denied by a politically or religiously authoritarian government, watch out.

In Turkey, a country with Islam at its religious heart but secularism at the political heart that the great independence leader Ataturk willed his people a century ago, alcohol has always been available and respected as part of the culture. So when I began to hear the anti-alcohol statements of Turkey's Islamist party several months ago, I realized something was afoot.

There was nothing to be surprised about when, in the last week of May, small groups of demonstrators gathered in one of the few green spots of Istanbul, Gezi Park. The first ones were enraged that the government was chopping down beautiful old trees in the historic section. It would have ended there, had the government not reacted with police employing water cannon and arrests.

Nor did it help when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, elected three times for the Islamist Justice and Development Party and becoming known more and more as the “majoritarian president,” stood up forthrightly to the use of Twitter by the demonstrators. Twitter, used to share ideas among the unhappy, was a “menace” to society, Erdogan said, and the demonstrators were “bums.” Then he went off on a trip to northern Africa, letting the riots spread to 60 cities.

After his third election as head of state, Erdogan compared himself to the 16th-century Ottoman architect Sinan, who created Istanbul's most glorious monuments and, indeed, Erdogan's accomplishments have been many. In his three terms, he has made Turkey a force in the Middle East. He put one of eight of the country's generals in prison for one thing or another, and he has given Europe and America what they thought was an “Islamist democratic state” that could be an example for others. He wants to host the 2020 Olympics, and he has been planning for Turkey to be one of the world's 10 top economies.

But even as he proposed to dig a “second Bosporus” to connect the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and other grandiose plans, that was not what was irritating so many in the society.

For the first time in history, there is a true middle class in Turkey, outside of the Islamist entrepreneurial business class that supports the prime minister. And it simply does not want to be told like children what to eat, what to drink or what to think.

Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years (gigi_geyer@juno.com).

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