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Richard Falk: Context Matters

Turkey after the failed coup.
Image taken by Flickr user bass_nroll

By Richard Falk
By special arrangement with the author

The legendary American pro-football coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, famously remarked when asked about his sports philosophy, “Winning isn’t everything. It is the only thing.” In thinking about the Turkish failed coup I paraphrase Lombardi: “Context isn’t everything. It is the only thing.” Without an adequate depiction of context every inflamed political happening is twisted in its presentation to fit the preconceived notions of the commentator opening the way for endless polemics. I am aware that as ‘a commentator’ I am subject to the same standards that I apply to those with whom I disagree. By being attentive to context, at least there is added an important degree of transparency and even self-scrutiny, enabling others to evaluate the line of interpretation put forward.

The element of context that I wish to underscore is that of location: distinguishing the interpretation of the events in question by persons mostly inside or mostly outside Turkey. I have been struck in recent days by the extent to which friends, opinion piece writers, journalists, and politicians writing from outside of Turkey are preoccupied with what the Turkish government has done wrong since the coup, especially presenting the post-coup as an atmosphere where Erdoğan is opportunistically pursuing his authoritarian goals under the false banner of enhancing the security of the state.

In contrast, most friends and commentators inside Turkey, including those holding similar critical political views to the outsiders, emphasize the encouraging and generally responsible steps being taken by the government since of July 15th and the widely shared belief, including among strong Erdoğan critics, that this is a time for unity and a shared sense that the defeat of the attempted coup benefitted the whole of Turkish society.

Of course, these generalizations are nothing more than strong impressions. It is obvious that there are a wide range of insider and outsider accounts of the failed coup in both groups, including a considerable overlap, but at least from my limited angle of vision there differences worth noticing.

Writing from inside the country is one reason why I feel far more sympathetic with the real insiders, and believe that an essential difference is one of context with respect to location. Those outside, influenced especially by the domination of the political discourse by strident anti-Erdoğan, anti-AKP intellectuals and media in Europe and North America, devote almost all of their attention to post-coup abridgements of freedoms, the anti-democratic state of emergency, and to finding signs pointing to the further advancement of Erdoğan’s autocratic agenda by taking advantage of the surge of popular support for the government that is allegedly reinforced by the intimidation of oppositional viewpoints.

There is another feature underscoring the relevance of location, which results from greater familiarity with and proximity to the accused culprits, giving real meaning within Turkey to the political truism, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ The wide public acceptance of the allegation that the coup was both genuine and the work of the quasi-religious, secretive, and cultic movement led by Fetullah Gülen has created a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt with respect to most of the steps so far taken by the government. The international media has not reacted in a similar fashion. It has surrounded the attempted coup with a series of question marks. In particular, it has suggested that maybe the coup was undertaken by discontented secular elements in the Turkish armed forces rather than by Gülenist forces or FETÖ (Fetullahist Terror Organization).

Those inside, tend to take greater notice of Erdoğan’s apparent return to a pre-2011 more pragmatic and inclusive approach to governance during these two weeks since the coup attempt. During this period Erdoğan has also been leading the effort to eliminate from government and civil society those who actively support FETÖ. The risk of leaving many coup sympathizers in places of influence within the various bureaucracies of government is disturbing to many not otherwise supportive of AK Party (AKP; Peace and Development Party) leadership. It is to be expected that for the country’s elected leaders who were nearly assassinated the issue of purging government of suspects touches directly issues of personal survival. This immediate concern is often confused with longer range efforts to prevent the educational system from nurturing FETÖ loyalists, which helps explain the closing of all military high schools that had been a prime recruiting site for Fetullahists.

By and large, Erdoğan’s public demeanor of calmness since the coup attempt has also been reassuring to the general public here in Turkey. It goes along with his welcome decision to drop the numerous pending criminal cases underway to prosecute those accused of violating a Turkish law that prohibits insulting the president. Such charges should never have been initiated in a democratic society that values freedom of expression, but what is worthy of comment is that at a time when Erdoğan is being accused of using the stressed atmosphere as a cover for his autocratic designs, he signals this new willingness not to punish his political adversaries as he is permitted to do under Turkish law. This move has been explicitly welcomed by Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, head of the Peoples Republican Party (CHP), the most prominent among those previously charged. Along a similar line is the rehabilitation of several prominent generals with known strong secular credentials, which seems part of this AKP unity platform to incorporate followers of Kemal Ataturk in the governing process, which if such a trend continues, is a major development.

Of course, considering the complexity and uncertainty of the post-coup reality, both insiders and outsiders are, at best, looking through ‘a glass darkly.’ There are many hidden factors, the situation is fluid, and there are appearances that could either vanish in a flash or become suddenly magnified. Aside from the Gülenist threat, the biggest internal problem facing Turkey is posed by the ongoing struggle with the large Kurdish minority, which may turn out to be the decisive test of whether these post-coup gestures of political unity evolve into a new and more hopeful form of political development for the country.

I believe insiders are also more aware of some troubling features that seem of less consequence to the West and the Turkish diaspora—that is, the popular mobilization that are nightly filling the city squares since the night of the coup attempt and will continue until August 7th. At first this show of wildly enthusiastic support for the nation and government, undoubtedly not anticipated by the coup leaders, is correctly regarded by Turkish public opinion as having played a major role in turning the tide of battle on the night of 15th. However, the daily continuation of these populist displays could tempt political leaders to engage in demagogic politics. If such an atmosphere persists it would likely lead to the abandonment of the tentative depolarizing steps taken to soften the religious/secular divide.

So far, an impressive dimension of the internal context is being established by the long dominant opposition party, CHP (Republican People’s Party), leading the way, with the backing of Erdoğan, toward exhibiting a post-coup consensus that contrasts with the toxic polarization that has characterized Turkish politics ever since the AKP prevailed in the 2002 elections. The Chair of the CHP, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu commented in this spirit, saying his party’s “biggest wish’ was the continuation of this atmosphere of “reconciliation”: “Today an atmosphere of reconciliation and mutual listening has emerged in politics. My biggest wish is for the maintenance of this atmosphere. My second biggest wish is for the enlargement of a common ground.” Whether this mood lasts or not, such a statement is quite extraordinary against the background of unrelenting opposition by the CHP to every previous step taken by the Erdoğan led government over the course of many years. Erdoğan also deserves credit for fully joining this effort with symbolic and substantive steps, including inviting the CHP and the more rightest MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) to the presidential palace for joint discussions on future policy. The picture is not entirely encouraging as the Kurdish party, HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), although joining with the CHP and MHP in denouncing the coup attempt before the outcome of the struggle for control of the Turkish state was clearly known, did not receive an invitation to attend the meeting in his residence. Such an omission could be more innocently interpreted as an effort to find common ground among the three main political parties on how to address the Kurdish challenge given this altered set of national priorities, and this could be more effectively done with the HDP representative absent.

This posture of moral tutelage directed at Turkey is definitely an expression of a colonialist mentality that continues to bias Euro-American thinking about Turkish political realities.

This fragile collaborative tendency does not imply a willingness of the opposition to accept Erdoğan’s approach or even the absence of sharp policy disagreements with respect to such coup related issues as disputes about the application of due process to those accused of Gülenist complicity and affiliations or AKP-led encouragement of the restoration of capital punishment. There are serious criticisms being made of the way some journalists who wrote for Gülenist media have been arrested, mistreated, and charged. Also there are a variety of protests objecting to the dismissals of large number of academicians, dismissed from their jobs in ways likely to harm their career and impose material hardship. These developments are unacceptable and should be opposed, but criticism to be persuasive within the country needs to be contextualized by reference to the intense anxieties raised by the attempted coup and a preoccupation with how to guard against a second attempt.

It is helpful for these critics to recall reliance on torture of suspects and detention of Muslims in the United States after 9/11, the establishment of the notorious Guantanamo detention center to imprison Al Qaeda suspects many of whom turned out to be innocent, and the shocking Abu Ghraib prison abuses. These unfortunate developments occurred in reaction to an extremely threatening national experience by the world’s most admired and militarily strongest constitutional democracy. As these events unfolded after the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, the United States was rarely censured by the international media for these encroachments on human rights, but was mainly treated as having endured provocations on such a scale as to justify a temporary suspension of judgment until months later when spectacular abuse became known to the public.

This temporary mellowing of domestic politics in Turkey reflects a provisional, substantively significant, inter-party consensus. This is an unexpected reaction to the coup attempt is a reflection of the overall acceptance of the official Ankara version of the July 15th events. Accusing Gülenists is now widely accepted and obsessively discussed across the political spectrum within the country, including the particularly the sinister role played by those called ‘putschists’ in mounting their violent challenge to governance by a fairly elected leadership. This violence included the killing of unarmed Turkish civilians and the bombing of the Turkish Parliament building. Prior Turkish coups had been deftly executed and were relatively bloodless so far as the general population was concerned, despite being harshly vindictive toward displaced leaders and their supporters during the post-coup aftermath. As in 1960 when the elected prime minister, Adnan Menderes was publicly hanged, and large numbers imprisoned, dismissed from their jobs, and executed. Or in 1980 when university faculties were purged, numerous journalists imprisoned, and thousands lost public sector jobs. Despite these excesses the international outcry in reaction to past Turkish coups was muted, even sympathetic, due to the geopolitical and ideological context. Since the post-coup targets of repression were concentrated on the secular left it was in keeping with Cold War priorities championed by the US Government. In effect, geopolical context matters as much as or more than the location of the observer. In this regard, it is instructive to compare the cascade of post-July 15 criticism and scrutiny that has been directed at Turkey with the soft international landing given to the 2013 Sisi coup in Egypt, which was not even called a coup by Washington, despite its seizure of power from elected leaders, exceptionally bloody aftermath. In Egypt as was the case for Turkey in 1980 there were several strong political reasons to welcome the results and forego complaints.

In relation to Turkey, despite the complex challenge directed at the Erdoğan leadership after the failed coup, Europeans and American public figures have been quick to express their criticisms and admonitions in isolation from their Turkish post-coup context. Federica Mogherini, the current EU official responsible for foreign policy, condescendingly urging restraint upon the Turkish government, insisting that Turkey be held responsible if it exceeds ‘proportionate’ post-coup responses, whatever that might mean. Did the EU issue any cautionary response when France declared a state of emergency after the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015 and extended it in response to the mid-July truck massacre in Nice? This posture of moral tutelage directed at Turkey is definitely an expression of a colonialist mentality that continues to bias Euro-American thinking about Turkish political realities.

Turkey is confronted by a situation where it is nearly impossible to distinguish reliably between friends and enemies, and where the failure to do so could in the future make the difference between life and death

There are a variety of well intentioned civil society petitions being circulated abroad, warnings issued, including calls for the suspension of EU accession negotiations. Some in the West have even urged the suspension of Turkey from NATO membership in view of alleged human rights infringements during the post-coup period. Some responses in the West are so wildly exaggerated as to be suspect. Consider the outburst by Tom Brake, the foreign affairs spokesperson of the Liberal Democrat Party in the UK. Brake argued that the wave of arrests in Turkey “should send shivers down the spine of any person who believes in a free and open society.” “Erdoğan’s ongoing purge of newspapers, academics, teachers and judges has nothing to do with Turkey’s security and everything to do with blocking opposition to his increasingly authoritarian rule.” Again it is helpful to wonder why the much worse crackdown after the Egyptian coup of three years ago received so little critical attention and the Turkish reaction to a truly frightening challenge to the political system has been so harshly judged.

It is no doubt useful and constructive in this period to express cautionary concerns about controversial initiatives taken by the Turkish government, and specifically, Erdoğan, in this post-coup period, while at the same time showing sensitivity to the urgent necessity for the government to restore security for the public and to rebuild confidence in relation to the armed forces, intelligence, judiciary, the police. Such a nuanced viewpoint is admirably contextualed by Mustafa Akyol, among others. In a column published in the Hürriet Daily News, July 30-31, 2016 Akyol couples an appropriate tone of sensitivity to the need for action against those suspected of potentially harmful associations with the Gülen movement with critical comments focused on the extension of punitive action to Gülen sympathizers, including journalists and academics, who pose no plausible threat. Akyol is a credible observer of the present scene partly because he was such a high profile critic of Erdoğan’s leadership. He is an internationally known commentator on Turkish developments who is as a regular contributor to the opinion pages of the New York Times. Akyol incidentally strongly endorses the view that the weight of the evidence supports blaming the coup attempt on the Gülenists, and their leader.

Turkey deserves sympathy from the outside while it is seeking to maximize unity on the inside

Here again, context matters. Turkey is confronted by a situation where it is nearly impossible to distinguish reliably between friends and enemies, and where the failure to do so could in the future make the difference between life and death for individuals and could possibly close down the democratic governing process in Turkey altogether. There remains much concern that a second coup attempt could be soon organized by Gülenist forces responsible for the July 15th attempt who are still believed here to retain their positions within the Turkish governmental machinery. If you are worried along these lines, you are likely to act more vigorously than if you don’t.

To invoke a bit of folk wisdom, ‘it doesn’t matter where you look, it’s what you see.” The Turkish post-coup context that I am experiencing makes me generally sympathetic with the efforts of the government and its leadership as part of its security policy to move toward a more inclusive democracy than existed during the last five years. If this development is sustained it will diminish the paralyzing effects of polarization that has prevented Turkey from achieving its political and economic potential nationally and internationally during the last decade or so.

It is yet to be seen whether the US Government can absolve itself from a widely suspected involvement with the Gülenists and their plots, and what this will mean for Turkey internally, regionally, and in relation to the European Union and NATO. The visit of the American Chief of Staff, his pledge of American solidarity with the Turkish government, although belated, at least recognizes the importance of correcting the belief here in Turkey that the US was directly or indirectly supportive of the July 15th attempt.

All in all, valuing context matters greatly when it comes to assessing Turkish reactions to the failed coup. Considering context is one way of trying to see as ‘the other’ sees. At this post-traumatic moment of political reconstruction Turkey deserves sympathy from the outside while it is seeking to maximize unity on the inside, and as the process proceeds, constructively encourage the leadership to correct some early reflexive moves taken in the name of internal security that could otherwise unjustly damage the life experience of many individuals and do great damage to the international reputation of the country. There exists a crucial challenge posed by the resumption of open warfare in the Kurdish region, and the importance of reviving a peace process that seeks inter-ethnic accommodation. Part of the prescribed contextualization, given Turkish realities, is to avoid premature international appraisals, admit underlying uncertainties, and allow enough imaginative space to enable a hopeful future for Turkey.

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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