06/19/2013 12:22 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2013

Lessons From Turkey: Dangers of Market Fetishism

As international media cover the demonstrations in Turkey, even the
most seasoned in policy circles are shocked to witness the flagrant
human rights violations, including demonstrators of all ages who are
beaten and gassed by the police on a daily basis. The news agencies
and political commentators write passionately about what is going on,
usually representing the protests as the result of the tension between
religious policies of the AK Party government and the secular Kemalist
opposition who are frustrated with the Islamists. Other analyses have
included the symbolic importance of the Taksim Square (where the
demonstrations started), Erdoğan's personality, and comparisons with
the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the so-called "Arab Spring."

What we do not see in the western press is a call for introspection
and self-criticism. The Gezi Park Protests, as the countrywide
demonstrations are called, are not about the tension between the
Islamists and the secularists, but between crony capitalism and a
segment of population who dare to question the personal profits that
were made from their country's heritage. In other words, the protests
represent the tipping point of the frustrations of the informed public
with a government that has treated forests and historical buildings as
private property, constructing luxury residences and shopping centers
through contracts given to family and friends. These authoritarian
policies have long been deliberately ignored by business and political
circles in the West, in favor of the seemingly positive economic
indicators and the increasing attractiveness of the Turkish market.
Such tunnel vision has kept the West from wondering how sustainable
this growth will be, let alone forecasting that deficiencies in the
country's democracy would inevitably lead to instability. In terms of
arrests and imprisonment of journalists, under the AK Party government
Turkey long ago surpassed Iran and China (there are almost no
reporters or journalists left to cover the protests in the mainstream
media, and the Turkish people followed the demonstrations from
international outlets). Still, Turkey remained the Muslim-majority
political model of choice for many pundits.

These figures have not bothered analysts since they did not have any
immediate market effects. Although there are serious ethical issues
with treating a country as a stock market bond, even from a pragmatic
neoliberal perspective such optimism was naïve, to put it mildly.
Demonstrators from all walks of life, ethnicities and degrees of
religious observance are demanding transparency, real information
about new construction plans and their stakeholders. The protestors
are not against new construction projects per se; if anything, their
requests are very conservative. Ironically, they are trying to correct
a market failure that the short-sighted neoliberals have been
consolidating in Turkey. Protesters and those who support their
movement are aware that there will be no sustainable economic progress
if families are instructed to have at least three kids regardless of
their economic status, if people cannot talk or write freely, or if
the country is ruled by a "scientifically political" elite that has
withdrawn its full membership from the European Organization for
Nuclear Research -- the entity recently credited with the discovery of
a particle believed to be the basis of universe.

One can find hundreds of speeches and articles in the international
press that romanticize the AK Party government and even portray its
critics as paranoid. What is going on in Turkey should be a good
lesson for those who have seen the country merely as a stable holiday
destination, an emerging market or a political model for the
Muslim-majority countries. The next time we evaluate the economic and
political feasibility of a model, we should look at the whole picture,
not only the parts we like. Even if the government manages to brutally
suppress the demonstrations, this movement tells us that the real
profit lies with the freedom of the people, not with the whim of the
rulers. Nothing can stand against water cannons and tear gas, not even
the most promising markets.