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In Turkey's pious heartland, protests seem world away

Turkish felt artist and a whirling dervish Celalettin Berberoglu performs a Sama practice in his shop in the central Anatolian city of Konya
Turkish felt artist and a whirling dervish Celalettin Berberoglu performs a Sama practice in his shop in the central Anatolian city of Konya

By Jonathon Burch

KONYA, Turkey (Reuters) - "This Nation Is With You" declares a small billboard in the center of this conservative central Turkish city, the words emblazoned on an image of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and a sea of his flag-waving supporters.

Cosmopolitan Istanbul or the avenues of the capital Ankara, rattled by weeks of anti-government protest, seem a world away from Konya, an industrial city in Turkey's pious Anatolian heartland, where support for the premier appears resolute.

The wave of riots has highlighted an underlying tension in Turkish society between a modern, secular middle-class, many living in Istanbul or on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, and a more conservative, religious population that forms the bedrock of support for Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party.

Konya, a city of 1.1 million with a dynamic economy steeped in Islamic tradition, epitomizes Erdogan's reformist vision.

Few restaurants serve alcohol, the Islamic headscarf is more in evidence than in the main cities, and tourists are drawn to the tomb of Rumi, a 13th century Sufi mystic, rather than to any wild nightlife.

But it is also modernizing fast. One of the "Anatolian Tigers", cities whose small industries have flourished under a decade of AK Party rule, Konya's highways have been widened and a fast train line has put Ankara less than two hours away.

There is little sympathy here for the protesters of Istanbul, Ankara or Izmir, the country's three biggest cities and the main centers of unrest.

"There is no other party to vote for but the AK Party. Eighty percent of Konya thinks the same as me, go and ask them," said Yasar Bilen, a central heating salesman who has seen business thrive over the past ten years.

A pious self-made entrepreneur, Bilen, in his 60s, has prospered like many of Erdogan's grassroots supporters.

"I have changed the car I drive, I have changed the house I live in, I have changed my lifestyle, I have changed the education of my children, I have changed the shoes and clothes I wear," he said, a black and white picture on his wall of himself with a young Erdogan in 1974.

"The AKP has worked hard and lifted us out of a quagmire."

ECONOMIC BOOM

Erdogan could hardly have put it better himself.

His forceful, emotional style and common touch have won him unprecedented support in the conservative heartland, enabling him to dominate Turkish politics like no leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern republic 90 years ago.

He has made many democratic reforms, taming a military that toppled four governments in four decades, starting entry talks with the European Union and forging peace talks with Kurdish rebels to end a near 30-year war.

Per capita income has tripled in nominal terms and business boomed, with the Anatolian Tigers reaping much of the benefit.

On the electoral map, nearly all of Turkey - apart from the Aegean coast, the mainly Kurdish southeast corner and a small region on the European continent - is AK Party orange.

So Erdogan takes the protests as a personal affront.

But even in AK strongholds, his domineering leadership style and what is seen as his meddling in private lives is beginning to grate - from his declaration of a non-alcoholic yoghurt as the national drink over the potent aniseed spirit raki, to his suggestion that women should bear three children.

There were two or three small protests in Konya in the early days of the unrest, but unlike demonstrations elsewhere, the police stepped in not to break the group up but to protect the protesters from stick-wielding gangs.

"Am I completely happy with Erdogan? Of course not," said Sinasi Celik, 46, a waiter in the city of Nevsehir, some 200 km (120 miles) east of Konya. "I don't like his 'I do what I want' style ... There's been too much pressure over personal things like how many kids we should have.

"But I'll tell you, the election outcome here, it wouldn't change. Because before, there were no roads, no proper hospitals. It's different now, people are better off."

OVERBEARING

A small-scale environmental protest in late May over government plans to develop an Istanbul park quickly spread into the broadest show of public defiance against Erdogan's government during his decade in power.

Police fired teargas and water cannon to disperse stone-throwing protesters night after night in cities including Istanbul and Ankara, unrest in which four people died and some 7,500 suffered injuries ranging from cuts to breathing difficulties, according to the Turkish Medical Association.

The protesters saw his plan to build a replica Ottoman-era barracks on one of central Istanbul's few remaining green spaces as symptomatic of an arrogant and overbearing government, the final straw after restrictions on alcohol sales and a police show of force to prevent May Day demonstrations a month earlier.

Those who took to the streets were from all walks of life - doctors and lawyers to leftists and nationalists - but they were predominantly young, often too young to remember the series of military coups and crumbling coalition governments that preceded the AK Party, when Turkey was an economic backwater.

"They want to take our nation back to the dark ages," said Naci, a 77-year old retired civil servant and resident of Nevsehir, a smaller central Anatolian town.

"I want to ask those protesters: let's say Erdogan is gone. Who will replace him? That (Kemal) Kilicdaroglu? He can't even manage a building, let alone govern a nation," he said of the leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP).

It is a question even the Istanbul protesters have struggled to answer. The AK Party's dominance derives, at least in part, from a lack of robust opposition. The center-left CHP has been largely sidelined from government since the 1970s and now holds just 134 seats in the 550-seat parliament.

For the protesters of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, that leaves the AK Party free to impose its will, which many fear includes an agenda of creeping Islamisation.

In Konya, there is little sense of such a threat. Instead, many see in Erdogan a liberator after decades of militantly secularist rule in a nation of 76 million people, the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslims.

"If there's interference in anyone's life then it is the Muslims of this country that have suffered ... Headscarved girls could not go to university, bearded men could not get employment in state institutions. On the other side, anyone wearing a mini skirt and high heels, no-one said a word," said Bilen.

"Those that say there is oppression are lying."

(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Nevsehir; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Peter Graff)

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