Turkey through the Looking Glass

Ayşe Zarakol

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.


  • 3 August 2016 at 9:50pm
    SixthPartWorld says:
    This epistemic break is worrying only for those seeking to preserve Turkey's privileged role as NATO's eastern base. To vaguely say that both 'sides' are to blame for differing public perceptions, as if true evenhandedness lay somewhere in the middle, is misleading. Western media was mute at Erdogan's behest during the decimation of Cizre, Nusaybin, Sur, most of the southeast. The press is more actively using the purges to shape public opinion against Erdogan now that it suits the western capitals who Erdogan has bullied and blackmailed simply because he is in a more vulnerable position. Clearly the US was at best ambivalent towards the coup in its early uncertain stages, and is still trying to cut Erdogan down to size while it is opportune to do so. It is simply not in NATO's interest for the Turkish military to be decapitated so it is unsurprising that western media is paying close attention to the purges regardless of the popular mood in Turkey. Erdogan after all, came to power with US patronage and was seen in the West as the guy capable of modernizing an ossified Kemalist structures of rule. Obviously he has outlived his usefulness and, recognizing his own dispensability, has been reshaping the country in defense of his power. Polarization in Turkish society reflects his own political project - criminalizing Kurdish and left formations and co-opting the hyper-nationalist base. It was interesting that many of the lynch-mob swarming the coup-plotters and standing in the way of tanks were flashing Grey Wolf hand signs. This shows the degree to which Erdogan has blended the secular fascism of the far-right with his Ikhwan-inspired Islamism to inoculate himself against any Kemalist challenges to his unprecedented consolidation of state power. If "all bets will be off" from a further break between Turkey and the west, it is hard to see how Erdogan's foreign and domestic policies could get any more erratic and destructive given all the massacres he has already caused, at home and abroad. In fact the opposite seems more likely. Without NATO chit, with a weakened and unreliable military Erdogan should be less inclined to enforce martial law in the southeast, send troops to Iraq, or run proxy war in Syria. Turkish and western publics are clearly being manipulated by coup coverage, but this post does not offer much clarity.

  • 4 August 2016 at 4:09pm
    JamesBaldwin says:
    This is very interesting and informative, but I wish that commentators would stop talking about US "reluctance" to extradite Gülen, or similar language, as if it is at Obama's discretion (Ayşe Zarakol is far from the only writer to use this kind of language). Gülen is a permanent resident of the US, they can't just throw him out. The US government isn't "reluctant" to extradite Gülen without proof: it would be illegal for it to do so. The Turkish government has to apply for extradition through the appropriate procedure, and then a court will decide.

  • 9 August 2016 at 3:58pm
    biggarthomas says:
    I agree with JamesBaldwin. The 'reluctance' narrative fits in with the prevailing idea about America. However, sometimes that prevailing idea oversimplifies American life. BTW, I'm neither an American nor am I am apologist for America.

  • 9 August 2016 at 5:17pm
    Arnlod says:
    Thank you for stating that clearly : the only "reluctance" the US government has about extraditing anyone is to extradite based on the demands of a foreign leader without providing proof in a normal extradition hearing. Dislike of Erdogan should not be misconstrued as hoping for another Turkish military coup.

  • 9 August 2016 at 7:46pm
    Tanvyeboyo says:
    Very interesting piece!
    "Erdoğan and Gülen were political allies until 2013, and worked together to eliminate Kemalist rivals in the early years of the AKP government." How true. Does Gülen have a CIA handler? Maybe not but he can't be just a green card holder in suburban Pennsylvania? Can he?
    Turkey is the land of the deep state by definition and only now is the West waking up to the fact that the Gülenist faction was deeply embedded in the deep state in competition with the Kemalists. Kurds aside, Turkey and the Turkish people are not monolithic. The Alevi are a strong grouping, they are secular-leaning, anti-AKP and they are connected to the Alawites of Syria. Erdoğan is now breaking away from the Gülenist cultural grounding and power base because he no longer needs them.
    It's true the images of strafing and bombing of parliament were astonishing. The over-bearing nature of the purge should not cause us to forget that. If the coup had worked, how would Turkey's allies in NATO have responded? Empty condemnation and not much else, as with previous coups? Like with Sissi in Egypt? What could the allies have actually done? Turkey is not so easy to bully. They used to be an empire. Like us!
    Erdoğan is currently in Russia. What is cooking there? A major re-alignment? Maybe there is some hope for peace in Syria in such arrangement. Our own jihadis, once only callow youths, will be home for Christmas... Oh dear.

  • 10 August 2016 at 12:32am
    Delaide says:
    Other than that the coup plotters may or may not have been Gulenists I haven't read anything that examines the motives of the plotters. Is it not possible that the plotters had a genuine concern for the authoritarian/Islamist direction of Erdogan's leadership? That the coup may have had a noble aim of restoring secular democracy to Turkey?

  • 11 August 2016 at 11:44am
    Roy says:
    Irrespective of the affiliations, structures and personalities involved in this rat's nest of conspiracy - and for once there can be no doubt that there are multiple conspiracies involved - one thought keeps occurring to me. For years now there has been strong pressure by Turkey itself and within the EU to construct a fig-leaf whereby the country can be incorporated into the organisation. This struck me as completely absurd, long before the latest convulsion. One must question what is the motive underlying such an incomprehensible proposition.

  • 11 August 2016 at 8:15pm
    Neil Foxlee says:
    It's been suggested that the attempted coup was mounted because those involved knew that a purge was imminent. The fact that the government was able to identify tens of thousands of suspects so soon after the coup failed tends to support this view.

  • 12 August 2016 at 12:16am
    leighclark says:
    Thank you for this informative post. Are there any discussions in Turkey about US complicity in the military coup? I understand that the military base where the coup activities first broke out is a type of US forward-observation post with 50 tactical nuclear weapons on site. Here in the US we read and hear little about the coup and its aftermath, except for occasional criticisms of Erdogan's "crackdown" on persons perceived as dissidents or coup supporters. But one is reminded of the 2002 US-backed failed coup against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. The US ambassador to Venezuela at the time vehemently denied US involvement. Are we seeing in Turkey the aftermath of yet another US "intervention" gone wrong?

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