Turkey’s Parody Coup d’Etat
I was in Naples on 15 July 2016, due to return to Istanbul the following day. I spent that afternoon wandering the deserted streets of the Italian city, where Vico and Raimondo had once discussed the unearthed papyruses discovered at Herculanum, and where Pliny the Younger had once mourned his uncle, Pliny the Elder, killed in the ashes of mount Vesuvius. I was thinking of the fire and smoke of Pompeii when my brother called me from Ankara. Strange things were happening which, for anyone who knew Turkey, could only mean one thing: a coup d’Etat. Turning on the television in my hotel, I discovered that indeed, soldiers had blocked the bridge over the Bosphorus strait.
But something wasn’t right. It was 9:30 on a Friday night—rush hour—and the rebels were only able to block one lane of traffic. As I thought about it, I began to wonder why they were even on a bridge that had no geostrategic importance in the first place. In Turkey, everyone knows how a coup is supposed to go. The revolution starts early in the morning, with tanks and soldiers stationed at every intersection. By the time most people wake up, the leaders are under arrest and martial law has been declared. This time, it appeared that either something had not gone according to plan, or that I was watching some sort of parody of a coup d’Etat. It had the feeling of theater, a farce even, but was nonetheless quite real. Starting around 11:00, the first gunshots began. Fighter planes bombed the National Assembly with the parliamentarians inside. Tanks rolled over the bodies of civilians, while civilians lynched soldiers in the street.
Turkey is nothing if not a land of contradictions. In February 2016 five months before the coup, a puppy fell into a well in Beykoz, an Istanbul neighborhood the Asian side of the Bosphorus. For nearly two weeks, and the entire country watched with suspense as news stations covered firefighters’ round-the-clock efforts to rescue the dog. Not far from the scene of the action, in a village outside of Istanbul, municipal employees could be found at the same time chasing down stray dogs with rifles. As a historian of modern thought in both Turkey and Europe, I had these sorts of contradictions very much in mind during the failed coup d’Etat and the wave of repression that followed at the hands of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, in which hundreds were killed and thousands injured, and untold numbers of soldiers and politicians kidnapped and tortured.
In order to understand what took place in July 2016, one has to go back to the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. The Young Turks—admirers of the West and the positivist spirit of the age—believed that progress must be attained at all cost, and that in order to construct the New Turkey, the old one must be eliminated (seeing them as a symbol of the old country, the Young Turks also massacred tens of thousands of Istanbul’s famous stray dogs). This zeal for the new has run throughout the country’s history, from Atatürk to Erdoğan, but at the same time has coexisted with a negation of individual liberties. True democratic representation has only existed sporadically in Turkey, which has never taken completely seriously the idea that the people can govern itself.
This contradiction runs throughout Erdoğan’s political career. Originally a fellow traveller of Islamist movements, he had once wrote and performed a play about the “Masons, Communists, and Jews” working behind the scenes in Turkish politics. His candidacy for mayor of Istanbul in 1994, however, not only united various Islamist factions, but also earned him the reputation as a champion of individual liberties. By the time he ran for the premiership in 2002, he had even spoken out in favor of LGBT rights. Under his leadership, Turkey became a serious candidate for membership in the European Union, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) adopted a series of constitutional amendments eliminating the death penalty, ensuring equality between men and women, and limiting the role of the army. His government renounced torture and reinforced individual freedoms, and allowed universities to speak honestly for the first time about the Armenian Genocide in 2005. It was at this time that I decided to return to Istanbul after making a career for myself as an academic in France. Having helped found Turkey’s green and social-democratic party, I had never voted for the AKP, and my friends and colleagues and I all knew it was a conservative Islamic party. But the prospect of joining the European Union was something I and many other liberal intellectuals strongly supported.
Turkey’s EU membership, however, was finally blocked by Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel in 2006, leading to the end of the country’s democratic reforms. This was when Erdoğan began stacking elections in his favor and seeking to change the country’s political system entirely. The conversion from a parliamentary to a presidential system that will take effect in 2019, handing Erdoğan all the powers he could ever need. At the same time, he began cultivating relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and courting Islamists within Turkey. Erdoğan believed himself so secure in his grip on power that he could do what he liked without regard for what the Americans or the Europeans might say. Finally, beginning in 2015, when the AKP lost its parliamentary majority, Erdoğan began stoking fears of a civil war, appealing to Turkish ultra-nationalists against the Kurdish parties. The Turkey Erdoğan began to create was one in constant fear of violent outbreak.
In this context, with Erdoğan determined to hold on to power no matter the costs, it might have appeared insane to attempt a coup d’Etat. But this is precisely what took place. And despite some of the conspiracy theories alleging that it was Erdoğan himself that staged the coup, it is almost certain that members of the sect led by Fethullah Gülen were involved. But why? After all, Gülen and Erdoğan were once allies, and the president as recently as 2012 heaped praise on the exiled cleric, imploring him to return home.
In order to understand the relationship between these two men, it is once again necessary to return to the tension between modernity and liberty that runs throughout modern Turkish history. The rivalry between Erdoğan and Gülen in many ways mirrors that between Atatürk himself and the contemporary Kurdish Islamist Saïd Nursî. At one point an ally of Atatürk in the construction of a Turkish nationalism, Nursî soon fell out of the president’s graces as the new Republic’s attitude towards Islam sharpened. For the Kemalist Republic, Islam became seen as necessarily conservative and reactionary, a symptom of Turkey’s lag behind the nations of Western modernity. Atatürk and his comrades saw the people as essentially savage due to its attachment to Islam, and as a result, they needed to be brought up to speed. This modernization in the early Republic was often repressive. European-style dress was mandated, organized religion was outlawed, and minority religious groups such as the Alevi Kurds were often simply massacred.
Fethullah Gülen’s movement, inspired in part by Saïd Nursî, had originally sought a middle path—which some might call opportunist—adopting the slogan of “Modernization through Islam.” According to Gülen, the cause of Turkey’s backwardness was not Islam, but rather its scientific and technological under-development. With this rhetoric, Gülen was able to build a sizable following among rural populations as well as the Anatolian petite bourgeoisie. During the days when the United States government was actively supporting Islamist movements as a bulwark against communism, Gülen was a direct beneficiary, gaining influence with the CIA-backed military coup of 1980. Unlike Necmettin Erbakan, who advocated conservative Islam as a political position, Gülen did not aim to build an Islamist party, but rather to infiltrate the apparatuses of the state in order to use them for his own ends. It was their shared rivalry with Erbakan that made Gülen an ally of Erdoğan.
Erdoğan’s rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood began driving the two apart, and Gülen’s ill-advised 2016 coup—perhaps a product of the messianic pretensions of a man who believed he speaks to the Prophet Mohammed in his dreams—gave the Turkish leader the excuse he needed to declare a state of exception. Since 15 July 2016, there have been over 50,000 arrests in Turkey, and nearly 200,000 public employees have been fired. Journalists, writers, and members of Kurdish parties have been put in prison. Believing himself to be encircled by internal and external enemies, Erdoğan has become determined to allow no opposition to exist within Turkey. The Turkish state must become the state of Erdoğan’s own partisans, that is, nationalists and Islamists.
Erdoğan’s split personality—believing himself at once all-powerful and constantly under siege—captures Turkey’s contradictory nature as well as anything. As with so many other political projects in Turkish history, his AKP party may have once begun with liberal aims. Today, however, these hopes have gone the way of so many others in the history of the Turkish Republic.
Photo Credit: Maurice Flesier, Turkish protesters in Istanbul, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.