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Richard Falk: Narrating Turkey at a Time of National Crisis

How the polarization of politics led to an attempted coup many were not expecting.

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Image courtesy of Pedro Szekely.

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

A night before the attempted coup of July 15th, in conversation with an elegant secular business leader and permacologist in the seaside town of Yalikavak I was surprised by the intensity of her negativity toward the government, expressed with beguiling charm. She insisted that Turkey had hit rock bottom, that things in the country could not get worse. I felt speechless to respond to such sentiments that struck me as so out of touch with the reality of Turkey. This woman lives in a beautiful, secluded country house nearby, enjoys an extraordinarily successful career, is associated with a prominent Turkish family, possesses an engaging personality by any measure, and from all appearances lives a harmonious and satisfying modern life of comfort, good works, and human security. And yet she is totally alienated by the Turkish experience of Erdoğan’s prolonged leadership, which she alternatively describes as ‘autocratic’ and ‘Islamic.’ I mention her as the foregrounding of the typical mindset encountered among Turkish secular elites, displaced from their positions of control that lasted until the Kemalist hegemony began to weaken, and an outlook that confines political discussion to enclaves of out of touch likemindedness.

When I politely demurred during our dinner, suggesting that while there were justifiable criticisms of the AKP patterns of governance and of Erdoğan’s political style, especially since 2011, Turkey when compared with other countries in the region and its own pre-AKP past, and taking some account of a variety of challenges, still offers the region a positive example of what can be achieved by an energetic and ambitious emerging economy under what had been until recently generally stable political conditions. There are heavy costs of various kinds that should be acknowledged alongside this somewhat affirmative picture—human rights have been abridged, journalists and academics suppressed who voice strong public criticisms of Erdoğan, and the Turkish state that he leads. There have also been a variety of charges of corruption and contrary well grounded charges of a ‘parallel government’ operating under the secretive authority of the Hizmet movement led by ‘the man in Pennsylvania,’ Fetullah Gülen, a mysterious Muslim cleric who preaches a moderate message. He is alleged to be the mastermind of the subversion of the Turkish state, and is accused by Erdoğan of having orchestrated the failed coup, and on this basis, Turkey has formally demanded his extradition to face criminal prosecution.

I arrived in Istanbul in the afternoon of July 15th with the expectation of participating in a conference the next morning held under the auspices of Koç University on the theme “Migration and Securitization of Europe: Views from the Balkan Corridor.” Listed in the program as the keynote speaker I felt quite nervous as to whether my prepared remarks captured the intended spirit of the event, but I will never know as an immediate personal impact of the attempted coup was a phone call to our hotel room at 2:00 AM telling us that ‘unfortunately’ it was necessary to cancel the conference. Our newly opened luxury hotel was almost empty, which itself expressed another facet of the reality of Istanbul in the wake of earlier terrorist incidents, most recently, the ghastly attack in late June at the Istanbul Airport. The only other hotel guests were a few families of rich Gulf Arabs with the women heavily veiled in black with only a slit open for their eyes. It was a strange atmosphere. This highly embellished postmodern hotel with its spacious marbled lobbies was barely inhabited. I found the unattended electronic monitor at the hotel entrance a useful metaphor for the flawed security consciousness that, despite everything that has happened in the past year, still prevails in Turkey. The beautifully appointed rooms with exceptional views of the Golden Horn, beneath the softly lit graceful buildings that comprise the Topkapi palace, conveyed a different impression of Turkey’s past, present, and possible future than what this new hotel had to offer even in the best of times.

Unlike the real time abstractions of TV, the ominous activities of these jets, whose purpose we could not then fathom, gave the coup a frighteningly real dimension.

Before dinner we had walked slowly through our neighborhood of Karakoy, past numerous crowded and vibrant sidewalk cafes where mainly young Turkish men and women were enjoying water pipes, beers, soft drinks. We ended up in a popular nearby Armenian restaurant, admired for the quality of its food. As we entered we were happily surprised to find two close Turkish friends who we had known for the past twenty years, the longtime dean of the Bilgi University School of Law and his lawyer wife. Even though the restaurant was crowded we found a table that allowed our friends to join us. We had an animated conversation that touched lightly on the current political situation in the country and region but without any sense that we were dining amid an imminent internal crisis that would shake the foundations of the Turkish state.

In fact, the recent decisions of the government to repair the frayed relations with Russia and Israel were widely welcomed as signs that the Erdoğan leadership might be returning to a more pragmatic foreign policy based on nonintervention, refraining even from pro and con judgments about the political orientation of governments in the inflamed Middle East. This shift was reinforced by indications that efforts were underway to normalize relations with Egypt that had deteriorated badly after the Sisi coup in 2013 against the elected government of Mohammed Morsi, followed by the bloody crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and other anti-coup activists. There were even hints by the new prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, that Turkey might be soon softening its insistence that there could be no peace with Syria until Bashar al-Assad gave up his role as leader, and this despite the continued massive genocidal atrocities being carried out by the Damascus regime against the Syrian people.

Although not articulated in this manner, it certainly seemed that Turkey was moving away from an ideologically driven foreign policy in the Middle East that reflected sectarian biases, and trying to live at peace with all of its neighbors, virtually ‘a second coming’ of ‘Zero problems with neighbors’ as well as the brief flirtation with the unsustainable posture of ‘precious isolation.’

As our meal was nearing its end, the manager of the restaurant came to tell our friends, who ate there regularly, that he was hearing startling reports of a coup underway, with the Bosporus bridges closed and occupied by tanks, and Erdoğan’s whereabouts unknown and rumors circulating of his assassination or capture. We were told that people were returning to their homes as soon as possible if they could do so without having to pass over the bridges. We walked calmly in the warm Istanbul night close to the water, heeding the advice to get off the streets.

When we got to the room, we tried our best to find out what was happening by listening to TV, trolling through the channels to find some relevant reporting in real time. CNN Turka seemed to be doing the best job, at least until briefly taken over by coup supporters. The news we received at first was that there was sporadic fighting and casualties, and most significantly, that the coup was succeeding in gaining control over key governmental institutions and communications sites. There was an announcement that a state of emergency had been declared by the coup leaders and a curfew imposed. There were pictures on TV of the tanks on the bridges, of explosions in Ankara, gunfire in Istanbul and a report of a helicopter attack on the Parliament, which was meeting in a special session. These announcements were followed by conflicting claims as to who was in control with a dramatic focus on the whereabouts and reaction of Erdoğan.

The sea change in Turkish political culture was the conviction across the entire spectrum of polarized politics in the country that change of government must be brought about through the electoral process.

Via CNN Turka, Erdoğan was then interviewed by way of an I-Phone feed. He seemed shaken and uncertain, while vowing to take back control of the government, and apprehend those who were seeking its overthrow. It was later learned that the coup planners had changed course at the last minute, aware that the government was onto their scheme, initiating the coup attempt several hours ahead of schedule with the hope of capturing or killing Erdoğan, which seemed to be the key element in their plan. Apparently warned in the nick of time by the head of the Turkish Intelligence Organization (MIT), Hakan Fidan, Erdoğan managed to escape 10-15 minutes before the plotters arrived at the hotel where he was vacationing in Marmaris, with twenty-eight soldiers on board two helicopters. After that, according to a Reuters report, Erdoğan made a hazardous journey by plane back to Istanbul, both harassed and protected by F-16 jets aligned on opposite sides, arriving while the airport, including the flight tower, was still apparently under the control of pro-coup forces. The pilot made a dangerous manual landing with minimum lights, and by then the airport was again under the control of government supporters. Erdoğan held a dramatic press conference sitting between large Turkish flags and beneath a huge framed portrait of the founder of the republic, Kemal Ataturk, and speaking confidently that the coup was being defeated, and that forces loyal to the government were generally in control of the country. Erdoğan called on the people to come to the airport, and to the public squares throughout the country, asserting their loyalty to the government and their antipathy to the coup.

As night became morning we remained transfixed by the TV reportage of these unfolding events, including how they were being presented to Western audiences by CNN International and BBC. This kind of passive witnessing contrasted with existential fears produced by F-16 military jets flying continuously over the city at low altitudes, breaking the sound barrier, causing ear-splitting sonic booms that were terrifying and seemed to threaten the onset of major combat. We were strongly reminded of the ordeal faced by the people of Gaza often traumatized by the sound of sonic booms from overflying Israeli jets and Syrians huddled in ruined cities being continuously subject to the terrorizing impact of barrel bombs dropped on the authority of the Syrian government. Unlike the real time abstractions of TV, the ominous activities of these jets, whose purpose we could not then fathom, gave the coup a frighteningly real dimension.

Twelve hours after the coup started, it was over, and immediately questions were raised, suspicions surfaced, and political analysis reflected the deeply held contradictory views that had preexisted these tumultuous happenings. There were expressions of political unity, a rarity in Turkey, in which all of the leading parties expressed their hostility to the coup and those who undertook such a violent path, signing a declaration to this effect. This could be taken either as a sign of going with the winner in this bitter struggle for power or an indication that the political culture in Turkey had matured to the point where civilianization of political authority had made it unacceptable to mount a military challenge to a democratically elected government of the country under any circumstances. The sea change in Turkish political culture was the conviction across the entire spectrum of polarized politics in the country that change of government must be brought about through the electoral process. In effect, the armed forces no longer were able to claim credibility as the guarantor of the Ataturk principles of republican governance as had been the case in such earlier coups as 1960, 1971 (bloodless coup by threatening memorandum), 1980, and 1997 (a so-called ‘post-modern coup’ that proceeded by way of ultimatum). In retrospect, one of the great achievements of the AKP period of leadership was this assertion of the primacy of the political, as interpreted by elected leaders, and the accompanying marginalization or constitutionalization of the Turkish deep state (composed of military leaders and heads of the intelligence services). As suggested, the opposition leading secular party, CHP, in this coup crisis affirmed civilianization as an integral element of Turkish democracy, but its polarizing opposition to the AKP and Erdoğan withheld any expression of appreciation for this achievement. Many years ago, my dear friend, Erich Rouleau, after serving as ambassador in Ankara for several years and an expert on the politics of the region, expressed the view that the deep state’s veto over the political process was such a formidable obstacle to the establishment of a democratic constitutional order in Turkey that it was unlikely ever to be overcome. Now, of course, the country confronts the opposite problem: an excessive consolidation of power in the office of the presidency with or without the blessing of constitutional reform.

With the crisis of the failed coup seemingly effectively resolved, there is emerging what might be described as ‘the crisis of the aftermath.’ So far, it consists of several main strands: (1) how wide to draw the circle of criminality and civic responsibility with respect to the movement of Fetullah Gülen as operative in the government [as of July 19th almost 20,000 suspected members of FETÖ (Gülenist Terrorist Organization) have been suspended from army, judiciary, and police, which is additional to 7,453 suspects now detained that include 100 police officers, 6,038 soldiers, 755 prosecutors and judges, and 650 civilians]; there exists also a preoccupation with the prosecution of Fetullah Gülen himself, which depends on whether the United States can be persuaded to grant extradition; there are also present anxieties about a witch hunt being extended to all critics, especially the faculty of universities and media journalists; (2) the extent to which ‘democracy’ is being deliberately confused through the mobilization of ultra-nationalist populism mingled with calls in the nightly demonstrations in the public squares for Sharia governance; (3) the degree to which in a period of insecure borders, transnational terrorism, and a domestic insurgency the effectiveness and credibility of the Turkish armed forces can be restored; (4) the extent to which the call for restoring the death penalty with respect to the coup culprits will lead European Union to end Turkish accession talks, and how this will impact on Turkey’s NATO membership; (5) overall, how relations with the United States will be affected by the policies that are adopted by the government in this period of aftermath and with other states in the region.

What this failed coup demonstrated convincingly is that things could, and almost did, get a lot worse.

It is worth observing two tendencies that cause in one instance hope and in the other deep concern. The hope arises from the unity that has so far been maintained as between the main opposition political party and the AKP built on the consensus that the coup operatives and supporters must be brought to justice, but without a spirit of revenge and in accordance with the rule of law. The concern arises in response to the sweeping dismissals, suspensions, and detentions of those in the civil service, educational system, and armed forces under the misleading banner of anti-terrorism. The Gülen movement certainly seems guilty of treason, and some acts of terrorism against Innocent Turkish civilians, but it was a criminal undertaking to be differentiated from terrorism in the pattern of recent attacks in Nice, Dhaka, Orlando, or the Istanbul Airport.

Returning to my pre-coup conversation in Yalikavak I think again of the view so prevalent among oppositional secularists that due to recent political developments, things in the country could not get any worse. What this failed coup demonstrated convincingly is that things could, and almost did, get a lot worse: a bloody military regime that would have needed to be harshly oppressive to deal with the massive civil resistance that would have certainly emerged, and probably producing an insurgent challenge taking the form of a civil war, possibly in the Syrian mode. With such a prospect in mind it was particularly encouraging that even the bitter CHP opposition to the AKP during these past fourteen years realized from the outset of the coup attempt that its success would have been a disaster for the country far, far worse than the continuation of AKP governance.

There has now surfaced in this unsettled period of the aftermath a quite different set of concerns about things getting worse, that the experience of the coup will lead Erdoğan to seek and obtain further enhanced powers that enable him to purge public institutions, and even the private sector of all its opponents, which it should be realized, make up about 50 percent of the country. He may also seek to use his populist mandate to move the country further in an Islamic direction so far as regulatory framework and cultural atmosphere are concerned.

It is not a matter of abandoning a critical stance, but it is a reminder of the critical importance of not exaggerating the negative features of a governing process as it undermines the coherence and credibility of political discourse. How can we even talk about conditions that are worse than what exists being already deemed to be ‘the worst’? In times of tension it is particularly important to defend what is good, identify what would worsen the status quo, strive for balanced assessments, always hoping for the best, and try to identify and oppose any and all steps toward coercive authoritarianism. I have had the same reaction to conversations in the United States with friends who deem the country to have become ‘fascist.’ Surely, there have been disturbing tendencies, but to assert the actuality of fascism is to misunderstand its truly demonic reality.

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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