Turkey through the Looking Glass
Since the failed coup attempt on 15 July, two distinct narratives about Turkey have emerged. Talking to Turks and non-Turks about the coup increasingly resembles travelling between parallel universes.
Outside Turkey, most observers have focused on the way President Erdoğan and the AKP government have handled the aftermath of the coup, rather than the coup attempt itself. The indiscriminate violence of the coup, the killing of hundreds of civilians, the bombing of parliament have all quickly faded from view. Instead, opinion pieces in newspapers around the world have drawn attention to the likelihood, if not the inevitability, of Erdoğan’s taking the opportunity to eliminate his opponents and move the country towards full-blown authoritarianism.
A three-month state of emergency was declared the Wednesday after the coup, giving Erdoğan the power to issue decrees with the force of law. He has already said that the state of emergency may be extended as necessary. The first emergency decree closed (and confiscated the property of) 15 universities, 1043 primary and secondary schools, 1229 civil society associations, 35 medical centres and 19 labour unions. The second emergency degree dealt with military personnel and shut down 131 media outlets. So far, 18,044 people have been detained, 9677 have been arrested and 49,211 have had their passports revoked. About 1700 military personnel have been dishonourably discharged; 134 generals and admirals are under arrest. Tens of thousands of government workers have been fired. All university deans were forced to resign and 2239 academics are under investigation.
These numbers, which are likely to rise, appear to outside observers as clear evidence of a systematic purge of regime opponents. The government’s efforts to keep its supporters on the streets since the coup for nightly ‘democracy watches’ also seem ominous. Given the increasingly pronounced Islamist flavour of Erdoğan and his followers’ rhetoric, Western observers also worry about the fate of the secularist opposition.
In Turkey, the official narrative has been that the coup was instigated by a nefarious organisation led by the Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen, who has lived in exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. Gülenists are accused of infiltrating all state organisations, including the army, and hiding themselves in plain sight for decades. This is the official justification for the emergency decrees and for the high number of arrests and sackings. The US government’s reluctance to extradite Gülen without concrete proof of his involvement has led to widespread accusations that the coup was a US plot.
Erdoğan and Gülen were political allies until 2013, and worked together to eliminate Kemalist rivals in the early years of the AKP government. There were a number of high profile trials of Kemalist soldiers charged with plotting a coup against the AKP. Most of the accused were found guilty and were serving prison sentences when Erdoğan and Gülen fell out in 2013 over a corruption probe launched by Gülenist prosecutors against several of Erdoğan’s ministers. Erdoğan carried out several purges of Gülenists in the judiciary and the police, which seem small only in comparison to those underway today. To outside observers, Erdoğan’s accusations since the coup look like more of the same.
In Turkey, however, the fraught history of relations between Erdoğan and Gülen has made the official narrative a lot more credible to the general public. Kemalist officers who had their sentences lifted after Erdoğan’s break with the Gülenists appear on TV to talk about the hardship they suffered as a result of cases brought against them based on false evidence; newspapers and social media are full of stories of people who were pushed out of their jobs, especially in the military, by Gülenist pressure. The fact that Erdoğan and Gülen were allies until 2013 makes the stories of large-scale Gülenist infiltration of state institutions all the more believable to people who until two weeks ago were adamantly opposed to all Erdoğan said and did. As a result, the official narrative about a (possibly US backed) Gülenist coup has been accepted well beyond Erdoğan’s base. The ongoing purges have widespread approval, not just from Erdoğan supporters, because they are seen as a necessary evil to deal with a real problem.
The Kemalist-nationalist opposition sees in recent events a vindication of their warnings from the early years of AKP rule: they warned of university and civil service exam questions being stolen, and of favouritism in government appointments; they complained about the sham trials of patriotic military officers, only to be silenced for being coup sympathisers. Now it turns out the prosecutors who accused the Kemalist officers of plotting coups were themselves the ‘real’ coup plotters. (By their own admission, many of the officers involved were indeed Gülenists. What we don’t know yet is if they were acting on Gülen’s orders. We also don’t know who else was involved the coup attempt.) Condemning the recent coup attempt also allows the Kemalist-nationalist camp to obscure its long history of sympathising with (and carrying out) military coups.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s camp has found a convenient scapegoat on which to pin all the political mistakes of recent years: such events as the Roboski/Uludere massacre, when a military airstrike ‘accidentally’ killed 34 Kurdish citizens, the shooting down of a Russian jet last year and even the mishandling of the Gezi Park protests may soon be said to be the fault of the Gülenists. If it weren’t for Erdoğan’s apparently personal grudge against the Kurdish opposition party, the HDP (whose relative success in last year’s elections temporarily stalled his ambitions), it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine that even the Kurds could be brought back into the fold in the coming weeks by blaming the breakdown of the reconciliation process and the excesses of the military campaign on Gülenist factions.
In sum, the coup attempt of 15 July has flipped a number of traditional stories about Turkey. The country, long criticised by the West for being too comfortable with military involvement in politics, has united for the moment around opposition to a failed coup attempt. The images of the Turkish public welcoming the tanks in previous coups have been replaced by the commemoration of civilian martyrs who stood up to the tanks. It is Westerners who are now accused of being coup sympathisers (and perhaps rightly so). In the past two weeks, I have repeatedly seen Western observers on social media, bemoaning the dark turn of Turkish politics, get chided by Turks, who aren’t Erdoğan supporters by any stretch, for not criticising the coup attempt enough and misunderstanding the purpose of the purges. The West also suffers from a credibility problem among the secularists. For years, it idealised Erdoğan and dismissed Kemalist complaints about him; now it seems to be shielding Gülen. The polarisation between Erdoğan’s supporters and the secularists is quickly giving way to a national consensus directed against all enemies of the state, within and without.
The immediate losers will be the remaining opposition groups: Kurds, leftists, feminists, liberals. None of these groups has ever commanded the broad sympathies of the Turkish public, but in an evenly polarised society they could at least sometimes count on half the population disapproving of the state’s policies. Two weeks after the coup, it is already impossible in most circles to raise questions about the collective punishment of all suspected Gülenists, whether or not they were directly involved in the coup. And it is increasingly difficult to object even to the arrests of liberal journalists who aren’t Gülenists but worked at Gülenist institutions. (After 2013, Gülenist media organisations were among the few places that voices critical of the government could find an outlet.)
This isn’t to say that the alliance between Erdoğan and the main opposition will be long-lasting, even if its damage will be. Already Erdoğan and his supporters are pushing the secularists away in their rhetoric, and the Kemalists are spooked by the religious tenor of the ‘democracy watch’ demonstrations, as well as the heavy hand of the state of emergency measures which have already dismantled several venerable military institutions. Once the dust settles, they may well go after each other once again, and Erdoğan will have the upper hand (even though the coup attempt exposed vulnerabilities in his regime that were not apparent before, and there are rumblings that factions other than the Gülenists were involved in planning the coup). Given American reluctance to extradite Gülen, it is possible that he will turn into an Emmanuel Goldstein figure, his presence abroad used to justify further rounds of purges at home.
Most worrying, though, is the epistemic break underway between Turkey and the West, for which both sides are to blame. Once it is complete, all bets will be off as to the future direction of Turkish politics and foreign policy.