Turkey in a State of Exception

The 15th of July 2016 will join the collection of dates that stand for Turkey’s momentous turning points in recent history. Many of them are in fact military coups. What this botched coup attempt means for Turkey, for Europe, and the wider world, and which developments it is likely to trigger is far less certain.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Erdogan were fast in branding the armed insurgency as the desperate power grab of a terror organization commanded by the Pennsylvania-based charismatic preacher Fethullah Gülen. Indeed, evidence suggests that many of the coup plotters were among those men, whose advancement in the armed forces were expedited by their commitment to Gülen’s influential network, present in virtually all state institutions. These military leaders were expecting to be side-lined in the upcoming review of the Military Council. Whether they moved on the command of Fethullah Gülen, or whether they acted out of a siege mentality and the realization that their days in office were numbered, we do not know.

What we do know, however, is that the personnel involved in the attempt was not limited to the ranks of supporters of the Gülen network. Credible observers suggest that Kemalists and secularists of the old regime and probably also people in the closest power circles around Erdogan must have been involved. Erdogan himself was left in the dark about the coup attempt for several hours. This does raise questions about the role of the chief of the general staff and other generals, who were allegedly not involved in the coup, but so far failed to prove that their behavior is beyond possible doubt. Even greater questions are directed at the MIT, Turkey’s Central Intelligence Organization and its director Hakan Fidan, who failed to inform Erdogan of the coup attempt in due time.

All these scattered bits and pieces of information insinuate that this was not the desperate attempt of a narrow group of Gülenists trying to save themselves. More than 200 people were killed in the night of 15th of July, and the jets over Istanbul and Ankara were flying low enough to shatter thousands of windows and instill fear in people’s minds. President Erdogan was, most likely, facing a real risk to be assassinated or at least imprisoned. What brought down the coup attempt in the end will be discussed for some time to come, with the question whether the United States were in any way involved or in the know about it taking center stage. For now, we can safely assert that this was a full-blown and uncharacteristically violent coup attempt, which faltered after a series of strategic blunders, a breakdown of communications between the plotters, and the subsequent withdrawal of support by third parties.

Another Coup

The coup was averted largely due to the incapability of the plotters, and partly due to AKP sympathizers, who were called to the streets in support of the president. Mosques, which in Turkey are in effect state institutions under the control of the Presidency of Religious Affairs, played a major role in mobilizing AKP supporters. Were these early demonstrators defending democracy against the putschists, or were they following the orders of their leader Erdogan? Probably it was both, with a penchant for the latter. There was very little participation from other societal groups, save for some socialists, who joined the “vigils for democracy” due to their principled stance against military coups. All parties did, however, strongly condemn the coup attempt.

Considering this as being close to universal condemnation, why does Turkey now feel as if a coup has indeed happened? With an official “state of exception order,” the suspension of the rule of law for a foreseeable time, and a purge of tens of thousands of civil servants, teachers and military personnel, it does not look like a country that is normalizing after having successfully averted a major threat to its democratic order.

The fact is that the country was already caught in a downward spiral towards polarization and dictatorship even before the 15th of July. Since the thwarted elections of June 2015, which would have ended the thirteen years of AKP rule, there are doubts about Turkey’s democratic credentials. Erdogan is acting as an executive president even though the constitution only provides for a largely symbolic function of the head of state. And behind the facade of national unity, a brutal fratricidal war has been unfolding between the country’s most powerful Islamist movements: the AKP as the inheritor of Turkey’s oldest tradition of political Islam, the “National View” (Milli Görüş, referring to the nation of Islam and the Islamic umma) and the less openly political, but no less influential network of Fethullah Gülen.

For more than a decade, these two movements have been partners in transforming state and society towards religious values and Islamic identities. While the AKP was acting visibly in the political domain, fighting against the tutelage of the military and the former secularist state, Gülen’s Hizmet (Service) network targeted civil society through Qur’an reading circles, schools, and business associations. Much of this work appeared benign, education-oriented, and geared towards reconciling Muslim social conservatism with modern life and economic progress. It also contributed massively to Turkey’s soft power abroad, with hundreds of schools and universities that have overall been recognized as being of high quality, investigations in the United States and closures in Russia and some central Asian republics notwithstanding. It appears, however, that the network also had a dark side: The network’s schools and business associations also aimed at creating loyal followers to Gülen, who would follow orders once they came into positions of power. Social control and religious pressure played a major role. Young men and women were helped into state agencies, and particularly into the judiciary and the military, Turkey’s two most important veto powers until recently.

What has triggered the fallout between these two sections of Turkey’s leading Islamist movements? We are in the realm of speculations, but one theory looks rather convincing: these two movements concurred in transforming Turkey into a wealthy country, that is proudly Muslim, that would reconnect to an idealized Ottoman past and advance some form of leadership for the Muslim world. When it appeared that this leader would be the charismatic and youthful Erdogan and not the ailing and lachrymose Gülen, the balance between the two movements was disturbed. Where there was brotherhood for a common cause before, Gülen suddenly revealed himself as a direct contender to Erdogan’s power. The Gülen network, in turn, discovered that Erdogan was turning into a strongman, who would not need the services of Hizmet anymore. This may sound like a rather immature interaction, but infatuation hardly provides for cool-headed politics.

Democratic Windfall Effects?

The followers of Gülen, who apparently penetrated state institutions with the ultimate aim to act in the interest not of those institutions, but on the orders of Gülen, are now being purged. They followed the same goals as the Justice and Development Party’s agenda to reinvent Turkey as a country with a strong Muslim identity, only they disagreed with regard to the person they pledged allegiance to. Considering that Erdogan is now the president, serious concerns about the constitutionality of his politics notwithstanding, they have ended up on the wrong side of history. When we realize that many of them did not necessarily choose the membership in the Hizmet network, but as young and able men and women were nudged into their arms by the neoliberal restructuring of the education sector, many innocent lives will now be ruined. Whether a state apparatus which purges itself of tens of thousands civil servants and military personnel can continue to provide effective services and security, only time will tell.

The dark side of Gülen’s Hizmet—in addition to the much brighter side which also existed— appears to be that it is a network whose religiously conditioned followers obeyed the orders of a charismatic preacher in search for power. Such a group is not good for democracy. Could its removal from the Turkish body of politics then create a clean slate for Turkey’s politics and even facilitate a return to democracy? Some hopeful voices in Turkey, with liberals, socialists, and secularists among them, suggested so. This would, however, require a modicum of democratic commitment on the side of Erdogan, a pledge to uphold the rule of law in the court cases against plotters and alleged followers of Gülen, and strong message from the European Union aiming not at alienating but winning over a deeply troubled Turkey after a bloody coup attempt. Neither seems to be forthcoming.

Turkey’s imminent future will see more fratricides, more violence and more tragedy. And Europe, stunned by its fear of migrants and the world, will continue to watch on the side-lines.

Kerem Öktem

Professor for Southeast Europe and Modern Turkey at the University of Graz, Austria, and Associate of the Centre for International Studies at the University of Oxford.

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