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Turkish Youth Uneasy With Leadership

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, October 11, 2011.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become a hero of the Arab street, a leader determined to raise his country's profile in the region. He speaks of a balance between Islam and secularism, and praises Turkey's model of democracy. Not everyone, however, is comfortable with his leadership.

Istanbul is a hip, largely secular city in this Muslim-majority nation. The youth here smoke, drink, get tattoos, and like Berk Erkogan, skateboard in the city's parks. But when it comes to politics, the conversation stops.

"I do not want to talk too much, but we are going more Islamic than secular. Nowadays, we can even be punished for our thoughts," said Erkogan.

Prime Minister Erdogan commands respect and popularity among many at home and abroad. His ruling AK party spokesman Huseyin Celik dismisses the idea that Erdogan's conservative agenda is repressive.

"Talk of an autocratic leader or heading toward a totalitarian regime in this country has nothing to do with what we have here," said Celik.

Student Cansu Ergun and her friends live comfortably in a global world connected through the Internet. They buy jewelry on eBay, write blogs, DJ at local clubs. They tend to ignore politics.

Ergun believes people would protest, though, if those freedoms were taken away.

"But in Turkey people are very silent actually, they do not protest too much, like because they are like very used to being shutted up, because government does not let people speak too much. But if there were a big radical change backwards people would do something for that, I believe, I want to believe," said Ergun.

Faruk Logoglu of Turkey's opposition Republican People's Party agrees that people are too frightened to speak out. He said Turkey's democracy and Western lifestyle are under threat by Erdogan's ruling party.

"They have in mind reducing the scope of secularism in favor of a more religious outlook," said Logoglu.

He said the government has thrown dozens of journalists in jail, and blocked sites like YouTube. He said the result is an atmosphere of fear.

"People are not just afraid to talk to you, but they are afraid to talk to each other, because there is widespread wiretapping in this country and this is a problem that unfortunately affects all of us," said Logoglu.

Turkish youth are proud of their country. Where their future lies depends on how well Erdogan navigates the path between a conservative ideology and outspoken freedom.

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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.