The failed coup can offer a chance for a new democratic settlement.
On July 15, 2016, a coup attempt shook Turkey and though it failed, it left us with many questions. While the details of how the coup was attempted and why it failed remain unclear, first indications suggest that the coup was initiated and orchestrated by a clandestine network within the army and perhaps other state institutions (including the judiciary, intelligence, and police forces). We do not know with certainty how this network was organized and how it operated, but what we do know is that the spiritual leader of this network is Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric, who has been in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. Though he and his advocates deny any accusations of his involvement, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems convinced of his guilt and intent on rooting out his network in Turkey.
Until recently, Erdogan and Gülen (and his followers) were political allies in total accord with one another.
Just a few years ago, such an accusation would have been unthinkable—until recently, Erdogan and Gülen (and his followers) were political allies in total accord with one another. Gülen, a religious and political figure and writer, is the founder of the Gülen movement, which was propelled, in part, by the rise of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in the early millennium. A Cold War man, Gülen became a popular preacher during the anti-communist struggle in Turkey in the 1970s (likely sponsored by American intelligence). From the early 1980s on he and his followers, the Gülenists, built an international network of businessmen, teachers, journalists, intellectuals, and bureaucrats, some of whom graduated from the schools that this network established in Turkey.
Through education, media, and international conferences the Gülenists promoted democratization and interreligious dialogue. In the US, Gülen was presented as a global peacemaker and champion of Islamic Humanism and Enlightenment, which was, some argued, a cure against the more militant Islamic strains of Salafism and Jihadism. At the same time, his followers saw him as a kind of reformer, a mujaddid, a religious concept developed in a Sunni dervish tradition, signifying one who brings renewal to the religion.
Over the course of some decades, Gülen drafted the architecture for a well-connected socio-religious network, hierarchically organized, so that the network would become, openly or secretly, influential in civil society, academy and bureaucracy—not only in Turkey but also in the Western world—and, if possible, take control of power and usher in a new age. Some, however, were critical of Gülen’s millenarian vision and argued that he had a hidden agenda, including ambitions of becoming a supreme religious leader—a Sunni-Muslim version of Ayatollah Khomeini.
In the late 1990s, the tensions between the Turkish military and Turkey’s first Islamist government created a political crisis and in 1997 a pro-secularist military intervention resulted in a witch-hunt for conservative Muslims, including but not only Gülenists. Many conservative Muslims working for the state, in academia, or in the media lost their jobs during this period—this was also when Gülen himself left Turkey for the US.
In the ensuing years, this political crisis worsened, and it was in this context that Erdogan, former mayor of Istanbul, rose to power. As the leader of a group of young Islamists, who rebelled against the old Islamist establishment, Erdogan proposed a new agenda, combining Islam with democratic and free-market values. The party he established, the Justice and Development Party (abbreviated as AKP in Turkish), built alliances with various conservatives, liberals, and socials democrats—and the Gülenists proved to be natural allies in this new coalition. The US and key partners of the European Union supported this alliance—the moderate Islam, politically led by Erdogan, spiritually by Gülen, was seen as an opportunity to combine liberal values and Islam in the global context after 9/11. However, a brief study of the alliance and its rupture—which came to a decisive head in the July coup—reveals an unfortunate pattern of trampling precisely those values underfoot.
The US and key partners of the European Union supported this alliance—the moderate Islam, politically led by Erdogan, spiritually by Gülen, was seen as an opportunity to combine liberal values and Islam in the global context after 9/11.
Part of the reason that the Gülenists and Erdoganists made for such comfortable bedfellows, is in part because the former provided the AKP government with a well-educated and pious cadre which Erdogan actively supported—he and the AKP placed Gülenists in all manner of state offices (the bureaucracy, judiciary, and the police). Meanwhile the international connections of the leading Gülenists helped the AKP government to affirm Erdogan’s image in Europe and the US as a democratic reformer, who could end the decades of secular-military patronage in Turkey, which they began dismantling beginning in 2005 with a series of very successful public opinion operations and judiciary wars.
Accused of being involved in a conspiracy against the elected government, hundreds of high-ranking predominantly pro-secular Kemalist officers were expelled from the army, and judges and prosecutors from the judiciary, through a battery of lawsuits. Many liberals and leftists endorsed these trials with the sincere belief that they would end the dark history of regular military interventions in Turkey—though we later learned that the bulk of evidence against these military and judicial personnel was fabricated by police and civil and military prosecutors who were connected to Fethullah Gülen. With hundreds of military officers dismissed from the army, a new generation of soldiers was handpicked by the Erdogan-Gülen coalition to replace the ousted secularists. Many observers who were critical of the trials claimed that the whole judiciary process was set up as a conspiracy to eliminate the Kemalists from the army. (Ironically it was precisely these new officers, appointed at the behest of the Erdogan-Gülen coalition, that would be the ones to initiate the recent coup against the president).
Then, in the summer of 2013, the Gezi movement erupted in Taksim Square—a popular uprising against Erdogan comprised of a diverse group of Socialists, Social Democrats, Kemalists, Alevis, Muslim socialists, LGBT communities and soccer fan-clubs. Taksim Square was occupied for ten days by the protestors, who were demonstrating in part against Erdogan’s increasingly Islamist tone and authoritarian ambitions. The Gülenists openly backed Erdogan and the Gülenist press accused the Gezi leaders of intending to incite a coup against the democratically elected government. On Erdogan’s orders police attacked crowds, killing and injuring dozens of young demonstrators. Some argued that the police who were particularly brutal against the protestors were also Gülenist and suggested that this was a deliberate conspiracy against Erdogan. Regardless, Erdogan’s over-reaction severed the tacit alliance between him and the left-liberal groups who had supported his policy to eliminate the Kemalist generals. His public standing in the world as a democratic hero fighting against military patronage diminished dramatically.
This was the beginning of the Erdogan-Gülen war.
Just months later another sudden political rift occurred—this time between Erdogan and his heretofore loyal Gülenists. Gülenist prosecutors and police initiated a massive corruption investigation against Erdogan's close associates and his family, shocking the nation. Erdogan rejected the allegations in toto. This was the beginning of the Erdogan-Gülen war. Soon, imprisoned "Kemalist" generals, journalists, and intellectuals, some of whom had been victims of the earlier Erdogan-Gülen coalition, became staunch supporters of Erdogan against the Gülen movement. The tables turned, and now Erdogan’s operations to root out the Gülenist network from the state, particularly in the police and the judiciary, intensified. Main Gülenist newspapers, financial and business organizations were confiscated under the new draconian laws passed by the parliament. Many in Turkey and abroad criticized the Erdogan regime of using Gülen as an excuse to attack the opposition.
What happened on July 15 unfolded in this context. Despite all else that remains uncertain, there is general agreement in Turkey that a Gülenist clique in the army initiated and then orchestrated the coup. Though there were some minor clashes among the ranks of rebel soldiers, there was no major inter-army clash. The Gülenists in the military appear to have acted in unison, and likely thought that when the coup was unleashed, others would take part; but they miscalculated. The main fighting pitted the military against the police, allied with civilian activists, who poured out on the streets after Erdogan’s call to resist the coup.
Since the coup attempt, Erdogan has declared that the Fethullah Terror Organization (FETO) was responsible and we have seen thousands of military personnel, judges, prosecutors, policemen, and teachers being dismissed or indicted. Academics were banned from going abroad and around thirty academics were also indicted. Hundreds of schools and numerous universities, which were allegedly connected to the Gülen movement, were closed and a legal process has been started to confiscate their property. It seems that such harsh measures will only increase: Erdogan declared a three-month state of emergency and suggested that capital punishment, which was abolished many years ago, could be reinstated.
Erdogan’s power, in spite of enormous support from the people, remains fragile. This coup demonstrated that there is nobody Erdogan can trust within the state. Though this coup attempt and Erdogan’s successful counterattack will likely only serve to bolster his support among sympathetic voters, Erdogan might become more of a paranoiac in the wake of this plot. He has long wanted to convince the general public to support constitutional change that would create a more authoritative presidential system. Now, some fear he may get the support for such a referendum.
Yet many in the country are rallying to preserve their democracy. In a stunning display of solidarity, the Republican People’s Party (the AKP’s main opposition), backed by labor unions, urban activists, Kemalists, socialists, LGBT communities, and some Muslim Democrats, organized a massive demonstration on Taksim Square protesting against the coup attempts—as well as any possible attempts to create a dictatorship in their wake. Some AKP leaders participated in the meeting to show their support for non-partisan anti-coup demonstrations.
This coup need not necessarily push Turkey toward greater authoritarianism; it could signify an opportunity to reaffirm the nation’s commitment to democracy and liberal values. The majority of the population was against the coup from the beginning, with all political parties openly condemning the intervention from the first. Civilians, together with police, stopped the tanks, climbed on them with Turkish flags, occupied them and took the rebels hostage. What better chance to build a new consensus and social contract, and to end the strong polarization Turkey has suffered from? Erdogan, if he has any sense of history and responsibility, should initiate this new consensus, rather than trying to consolidate his own power with the creation of an authoritarian party-state.
The most popular leader since Atatürk, Erdogan should leverage his support to build a new peace settlement—with conservative Muslims, seculars, the Alevis, and the Kurds, and unleash a total democratic reform without exclusion. That means dispensing with the current witch-hunt. Turkey desperately needs to end this turbulent period and search for a new settlement, a new social and political contract, in which all citizens can live in peace and trust. Such a settlement has evaded Turkey throughout its history—but this failed coup might be a chance to try once again.