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Q&A: An attempted coup in Turkey opened the door for opposition’s purge

July 25, 2016
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ANN ARBOR—A failed attempt by Turkey’s military to oust President Tayyip Erdogan on July 15 left more than 200 people dead and hundreds injured. The ensuing crackdown saw the arrest of about 6,000 soldiers and thousands of prosecutors, police, and judges.

Fatma Müge Göçek, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, was born and raised in Turkey. She received her doctoral degree in the U.S. and has lived in the country ever since. Göçek is the author of “The Transformation of Turkey: Redefining State and Society from the Ottoman Empire to the Modern Era” and “Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009.” She explains the history and implications of Turkey’s attempted coup.

Q: You were born in Turkey, and have studied the country for three decades. What’s your assessment of this volatile situation?

A: I have a heavy heart. As a scholar, I often was optimistic, thinking that Turkey would eventually become a truly democratic country. I have now lost that hope. My despair first hit home when the Peace Petition I signed in January 2016, asking the Turkish state and government to stop massacring Kurds and to search for a peaceful solution instead, led the state to accuse me of being a terrorist aiding and abetting Kurdish guerillas. That accusation was followed by a legal investigation.

For the first time in my life, I did not feel safe enough this summer to travel to Turkey. I was worried I might be arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges. The worsening conditions in Turkey (attested by many bombings, the instigators of which were never brought to justice), and now last week’s inept coup attempt — the planners of which were brought to justice too swiftly — have, I think, vindicated my decision.

Q: What do you think the arrest of 6,000 people means?

A: As all opposition is repressed, civil society grows weaker and most political parties cannot be weaned off state resources; fascism will follow. That is what I am afraid of. What would prove me wrong? Full acknowledgment by the ruling party — the Justice and Development Party (JDP) — of freedom of expression on the one side, and the just treatment of all minorities, especially the Kurds and Alevis on the other. After all, the lynchpin of a successful democracy is not how it treats the majority, who gets its way anyhow, but its minorities.

Q: What were the forces behind the coup and swift response by the government?

A: How did we get to this point where thousands of state officials, officers and judges are now being purged by the government with impunity? I have been spending sleepless nights trying to figure this out.

As always, I think that global, international and domestic factors interacted during the last three decades to produce this unfortunate outcome.

Globally, the social impact of neoliberalism, that is, of privileging the market forces above all else in decision-making, has brought out the worst in humankind. In Turkey, starting in the 1980s, market neoliberalism started to strip the state of all its welfare measures that had somewhat cushioned the citizens from the harsh forces of the market. Union membership, health care measures and educational subsidies dissipated over time.

The reigning JDP emerged on the coattails of this neoliberalism, especially as world market forces enabled the formerly marginalized, religiously conservative businessmen to raise economic capital, which they then swiftly translated into political power. As Turkey’s state-owned or state-protected resources were opened up, the ensuing construction boom of private residencies and shopping malls — accompanied by increased consumption due to credit availability and hot money flowing into Turkey from the Gulf States — created the illusion of dramatic economic growth. The obedient neoliberal consumer became the ideal citizen of Turkey.

Internationally, Turkey’s geographical location between the hotspots of the Middle East, namely Iran, Iraq and Syria on the one side, and the European Union countries of Bulgaria and Greece on the other, made the country increasingly volatile. The JDP’s doomed foreign policy of ‘zero conflict’ with its neighbors gradually fell apart because of its biased interpretation of the world order. The originator of this policy, former Prime Minister Ahmed Davudoğlu, overestimated the agency of non-Western countries, and underestimated the power Western countries held over the world.

The JDP ideology of placing Sunni religious identity before all else that Davudoğlu, current President Erdoğan and the JDP all espouse, also legitimated intervention in Syria with the intent to remove Bashar al-Assad, a decision that included providing military, economic and logistic aid to what evolved into ISIS. The poor Syrian refugees fleeing their devastated homes found refuge in Turkey, not out of the country’s humanitarian principles primarily, but its strategic calculations instead: to have power over Assad’s Syria at present and in the future, and, if that failed, to keep in reserve a Sunni population with which to replace or contain Turkey’s Alevites or Kurds.

The West, namely the European Union and the United States factored into such plans mainly as passive actors. They played into the hands of the JDP through inaction because they prioritized their own interests before all else. The United States could not afford to put boots on the ground after the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it remained neutral, and the European Union decided it could not handle the refugees trying to flee there. So they threw money at Turkey to keep them.

Q: How about Turkey’s internal policies?

A: Domestically, Turkey always has been plagued by the fragility of its democracy. Established in 1923 on the remnants of the Ottoman Empire by its predominantly military ruling elite, the Turkish Republic had to wait more than two decades before moving beyond single-party rule.

Even then, after the first military coup of 1960 hanged the prime minister and a few ministers, similar military coups to ‘restore’ democracy have occurred literally every decade. Since the military’s priorities were to place securitization before all else, all democratic opposition was systematically destroyed and only political parties willing to play according to the military’s rules were allowed to exist. As a consequence, these political parties had no interest in mobilizing people from the ground up, since it was predominantly the state that decided their fate, not their voters.

This all changed with the JDP that capitalized on neoliberalism, Islamic ideology and grassroots mobilization to successfully challenge the military’s hold on Turkish democracy. Yet it did so with help from the Gülen movement, an ideologically Islamic and ethnically Turkish grassroots movement with the intent to transform Turkey into its hold.

Gülen’s ambitions started to clash with those of the JDP and President Erdoğan, especially as the latter gained enough power and decided it no longer needed Gülen support. Those who are purged in Turkey at this moment are allegedly Gülen supporters.

Q: You’re saying ‘allegedly.’ Is it not clear who they support?

A: I say allegedly because people in Turkey who criticize the government literally lose all their rights as they are tried by the state, with government support, on two grounds: They are alleged to be either supporters of Gülen or backers of Kurdish guerillas, as I have recently been accused. Since I live in the United States, some nationalists also think I am a Gülen supporter even though I have never met him and take issue with his ideology. There is no need to legally document such an accusation as the prosecutor willfully interprets any writing, including this article for instance, as posing a threat to the Republic of Turkey.

Q: Given this background, what happened on July 15, 2016, in Turkey?

A: The irresistible rise of President Erdoğan to an autocratic, life-long presidency faces two challenges: Gülenists who are still dominant in parts of the military and the judiciary, and the Kurds. These are, by the way, also the two domestic enemies identified by the Turkish military so there is no conflict between them and Erdoğan here.

The Kurds are easily turned into targets by alleging that all are guerillas on the one side and by drawing on Turkish racism to denigrate them and everyone who supports them to less than human status on the other. The Gülenists have been more difficult to purge because of their numbers and high positions within state bureaucracy.

I think the coup was carried out with the intent to purge the Gülenists. Given how the July 15 coup was carried out to literally fail, however, I have two possible explanations:

One is extreme ineptitude. They tried to seize President Erdoğan after he left the hotel and, more importantly, did not bomb any critical sites or take down Erdoğan’s plane even though they had substantial air power to do so. Given that the military is one of the most professional organizations in Turkey, especially in terms of strategic planning, this coup was extremely poorly planned.

The other is what I call ‘benign negligence.’ The state intelligence agency (MIT) and the JDP government — still headed by Erdoğan who is supposed to be the president of all citizens of Turkey rather than only of those who voted for him, but insists on being partisan – knew of such a coup possibility, but did not intervene purposefully to legitimate the purges they had planned all along.

Fatma Müge Göçek is a professor of sociology. Her publications include “The Transformation of Turkey: Redefining State and Society from the Ottoman Empire to the Modern Era” and “Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009.” Contact: gocek@umich.edu

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