The World This Week: Blood on the Bosporus as Purge Follows Failed Coup
In a week of much violence, the attempted coup in Turkey marks the limits of appeals to ethnicity or religion as a basis for a state.
This week has turned out to be more eventful than a Hollywood action film. In France, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year-old man of Tunisian origin, ploughed a truck into a crowd watching fireworks on Bastille Day. This is a day when France celebrates its 1789 revolution with much joy and bonhomie. Instead, la grande nation mourned its dead as it suffered a third major terrorist attack in 18 months. In Nice, a glitzy glamorous town on the resplendent French Riviera, at least 84 people died and 303 ended up in hospital.
Côte d’Azur, as the French call this stunning part of the world, has an ugly underbelly that few apart from intelligence professionals have been concerned about until recently. In the aftermath of the Nice attack, the BBC tellingly examined how Salafist ideology has spread among marginalized Muslim youth making Côte d’Azur not only the playground of the rich, but “also a breeding ground for jihadists.”
In Kashmir, Indian security forces killed Burhan Wani, a 22-year-old charismatic militant. Thousands attended his funeral and violent protests erupted. According to Al Jazeera, over 30 have been killed and hundreds more injured in clashes with security forces. Since 2001, Kashmir has been relatively peaceful except for two brief uprisings in 2008 and 2010. However, Salafism has been on the rise for the last few years in this historically Sufi land where discontent and despair with rule by New Delhi has led largely unemployed and unemployable young men to take to the gun.
In South Sudan, civil war shows no sign of ending. This week, the United Nations (UN) declared that millions faced “deepening hunger” thanks to continued fighting between rival forces of President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar. At least 300 people died in four days of fighting and 42,000 fled Juba, the national capital. The UN estimates that the number of refugees could soon hit 1 million. Reports of gang rape, cannibalism and wholesale burning of villages are rife. Meanwhile, drought, disease and malnutrition stalk the land. In the June edition of Africa This Month at Fair Observer, Samuel Ollunga and this author painted a grim picture of South Sudan. Tragically, that picture just got worse.
All of this pales in comparison to developments in Turkey. On July 15, some officers of the military attempted a coup. In Istanbul, they rolled tanks on the iconic Bosporus Bridge that connects Europe and Asia. Jets and choppers flew over the Ankara skyline. Bullets were fired and shells exploded. Soldiers took over the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), the public broadcaster, to announce the end of political rule and imposition of martial law.
When the military officers made their move, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was vacationing in the Mediterranean resort of Marmaris on the Turkish Riviera in Anatolia, a bastion of loyalty to the president. The timing was seemingly perfect. Hulusi Akar, Erdoğan’s loyal army chief, was detained by the rebels and held hostage. The counterterrorism chief was shot in the head. Slippery Erdoğan got away though. He used FaceTime on an iPhone to speak with CNN Türk and denounced the attempted coup as “an act of treason.” The Turkish president flew into Istanbul to rally supporters and crush the attempted coup. He called on people to take to the streets, which they duly did to deadly effect.
Thousands flooded the streets to fight for their fledgling democracy. Mass defiance of the rebels demonstrated that their writ did not run at all. Meanwhile, the dithering and disorganized rebel leaders wilted under the incandescent fury of the crowds. Soldiers abandoned their tanks to surrender with their hands up in the air. Soon, jubilant crowds celebrated on tank tops chanting Allahu Akbar (God is great).
This victory of vox populi over military fiat has come at a price. The attempted coup has left at least 265 people dead and more than 1,440 injured. It has been followed by a full-scale purge. Already, 6,000 people have been arrested. Of these, 2,745 are judges. Erdoğan has vowed “to cleanse the virus” of revolt “from all state institutions.” Vendetta is in the air as he is proposing to bring back the death penalty. It is now beyond doubt that Erdoğan, increasingly a modern-day sultan, is tightening his viselike grip on power.
Yet something more fundamental is going on. Apart from the deluge of details flooding television channels, news websites and social media, the elephant in the room is the question of identity. Less than 100 years ago, Istanbul was the capital of the sprawling Ottoman Empire. Like the English and the Austrians, the Turks had ruled over a vast realm—both Christian and Muslim in Europe and Asia. By the time World War I came knocking, Turkey was the sick man of Europe. To quote a 1924 article in The Economist, “its rule was everywhere ineffective, its sovereignty imperfect, and its power a shadow.”
Incredibly and incongruously, Sunni Muslims around the world still venerated the effete, incompetent and opulent Ottoman sultan as the caliph. So much so that Muslims in modern-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh launched the Khilafat Movement against their British masters to defend the caliph. Of course, Arabs who had been ruled by the so-called caliph were not too keen to return to his yoke. They had discovered nationalism, a rather seductive European idea.
It turned out that some Turks themselves were seduced by this idea. From the ashes of ignominious Ottoman defeat, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created the Republic of Turkey after a stirring fightback against the victorious allies. As this author explained in 2015, Atatürk “adopted laïcité, the French idea that imposes a strict separation of church and state.” Out went sharia (Islamic law) and the old Arabic script. In came new penal and civil codes penned in the Roman alphabet. A new secular nation state based on science and knowledge instead of superstition and religion was born.
In the course of changing the country, Erdoğan has concentrated power in his hands. He has fallen out with old friends such as Fethullah Gülen, the leader of the movement that helped him castrate the secular generals not too long ago.
To do this, Atatürk abolished the caliphate. To understand the significance of this event, we could think of it as akin to the ending of the Vatican for the Catholic world. By tradition and theory, the caliph reigns over a united Muslim world. That is precisely why Atatürk was not content to merely abolish the caliphate. The very next day he sent Abdülmecid II, the last sultan and caliph, packing from Dolmabahçe Palace into exile.
Atatürk’s new nationalism was based not on religion, but on ethnicity. All Turks were meant to be one people. However, the pesky Kurds wanted to be different. The Allies had promised them an autonomous homeland in the Treaty of Sèvres. They did not take kindly to Atatürk’s authoritarian centralized rule and resented his attempts to impose cultural homogeneity through policies of Turkification. The Kurds found their language banned and their centuries-old way of life upended in the new Kemalist state.
Inevitably, the Kurds revolted. Unsurprisingly, Atatürk crushed them with an iron hand. Till today, the Kurds remember the grimly grisly Dersim Massacre of 1937-38. The fabled French university Sciences Po records that thousands of Kurds were slaughtered, many more resettled, some were burnt alive, others were subjected to poison gas, entire villages were gunned down and soldiers had orders to kill even women and children. Martin van Bruinessen has described the Dersim Massacre as ethnocide, a deliberate destruction of Kurdish ethnic identity. Kani Xulam, the director of the American Kurdish Information Network, has gone so far as to likening Atatürk to Selim the Cruel, Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.
Despite Atatürk’s best efforts, neither devout Muslims nor recalcitrant Kurds entirely embraced his ideals. Most Turks, especially those in Anatolia, continued to be pious Muslims. Most Kurds continued to assert their identity often through passionate and primal poetry. The secular military kept Muslim parties in check and rebellious Kurds under control. It developed a tradition of conducting coups, the first three occurring in 1960, 1971 and 1980. In 1997, a more sophisticated “postmodern coup” forced the newly elected Islamist prime minister to resign.
At that time, Erdoğan was the mayor of Istanbul. Within a year, the dynamic mayor found his Islamist party banned and himself in jail on the charge of inciting religious hatred. Luckily for Erdoğan, the times they were a changin’. Turkey’s NATO allies were increasingly uncomfortable with coups or military rule now that the Cold War was over. More importantly, Turkey’s secular elite had become effete like the Ottoman one before it. The worthies in Istanbul and Ankara were seen as corrupt, incompetent and arrogant. Erdoğan damned them for drinking “their whiskies for years overlooking the Bosporus” and for looking “down on everyone else.”
Eventually, energetic and efficient Erdoğan triumphed in the elections and ascended to power as prime minister in 2003 and president in 2014. He has never looked back. In the early years of his premiership, Erdoğan invested in infrastructure and education. He enhanced labor rights and ushered in historic health care reforms. Many of his fierce critics admit that Erdoğan’s reforms boosted economic growth and created jobs.
Erdoğan used the strong Turkish economy as a base to change the direction of the country.
First, he clipped the wings of the military. Even while looking to the nearby Middle East and the wider Muslim world, Erdoğan actively pursued accession to the European Union (EU). This allowed him to put the military budget under scrutiny and whittle down the power of the generals. When the military tried to intimidate voters in the 2007 election, Erdoğan grabbed the chance to bring the army firmly under his thumb. He allied with the Gülen movement to initiate a series of high-profile court cases against the generals. All the chiefs of different forces eventually resigned and a number of high-ranking officers ended up in jail.
Second, Erdoğan initiated a rapprochement with the long-suffering Kurds. He allowed the Kurdish language to be used in the media and in political campaigns. He restored Kurdish names of towns and cities that had been given Turkish ones. In November 2011, he even apologized for the Dersim Massacre. Erdoğan was able to be more inclusive to the Kurds because, unlike Atatürk, he bases Turkish identity more on Islam and less on ethnicity.
Third, Islamism became a guiding principle for Erdoğan both at home and abroad. Not only did headscarves come back in fashion, but he also projected himself as a new kind of Muslim leader who was willing to stand up to the West. He famously walked off the stage at the World Economic Forum when he was not allowed to respond to Israeli President Shimon Peres’ comments on Gaza. He initiated what Kadri Gürsel in Al Monitor has termed an Ottoman Middle East Policy.
In the course of changing the country, Erdoğan has concentrated power in his hands. He has fallen out with old friends such as Fethullah Gülen, the leader of the movement that helped him castrate the secular generals not too long ago. In fact, this attempted coup is different from the previous ones because it is officers of Gülenist factions who organized it. Their claim on TRT that they were acting to protect Turkey’s secular democracy and restore its separation of powers was an attempt to gain legitimacy and increase public support.
Bit by bit, Erdoğan has been losing public support. In June 2015, his party lost its parliamentary majority. This was in part because Erdoğan crushed mass protests that broke out over Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013. Another reason, as Michael Werz argues in Der Spiegel, is how the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Erdoğan has become an abode for “patronage, corruption, and careerism.” Lacking inner party democracy or intellectual ballast, the AKP is a conglomeration of yes men who kowtow to the inflexible and insular Sultan Erdoğan.
In elections in November 2015, Erdoğan only rode back to power by creating a siege mentality. He declared war on both the Islamic State (IS) and the Kurds. This was most ironic. For years, Erdoğan had turned the Nelson’s eye to the rise of IS in neighboring Syria and Iraq. In 2014, Turkish tanks idled as the IS-besieged Kobane, fueling suspicions that the president was secretly supporting the Islamic State to weaken the Kurds. The de facto creation of Kurdistan in northern Iraq and Syria has heightened Turkish fears that the nation state Atatürk created by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat might be in peril. Besides, Erdoğan has never liked the Alawite regime in Damascus that is backed by Russia and Iran, Turkey’s historic rivals. In Erdoğan’s eyes, the Islamic State might have been a de facto ally because it was fighting old enemies and curbing their influence.
The attempted coup demonstrates that Erdoğan can no longer run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. His reliance on religion has reached its limits. Not only does he not offer the radical millenarian vision of the Islamic State, but he also fails to evoke the piety of his old friend Gülen. Erdoğan’s unappetizing appeal to Atatürk’s ethnicity model is also not the answer. It will fan nearly a century of Kurdish resentment and tear Turkey apart.
Like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Erdoğan’s mad grab for power is destroying Turkey. So low is public trust that many believe that the president might have orchestrated the failed coup or deliberately allowed it to proceed in order to strengthen his hand. Meanwhile, the economy is going down the drain and competent allies like Ahmet Davutoglu, prime minister till May, are quitting like rats on a sinking ship.
Perhaps all is not dark. Every party, including those who strongly oppose Erdoğan, was against the coup. As an intellectual mused in Istanbul, “Life is going to go on. It was no picnic last week and now will be only marginally worse. Those that can get out will but I have to stay positive that those that stay will endure. This is still a better outcome than a military junta. In Turkey, perhaps we should be thankful for small blessings.”
*[You can receive “The World This Week” directly in your inbox by subscribing to our mailing list. Simply visit Fair Observer and enter your email address in the space provided. Meanwhile, please find below five of our finest articles for the week.]
Turkey Struggles to Make Sense of Failed Coup
Alpaslan Ozerdem reports from Turkey on a violent, thwarted attempt to take over the country by force.
After the recent Ataturk Airport bombings, I wrote that Turkey is “a country with serious deficiencies in democracy, governance, the judicial system, human rights, the rule of law and — more importantly — security. Some commentators have even warned of the possibility of a full-blown civil war. More terror attacks such as the massacre at Ataturk airport can only serve to hasten the country down this dark path.”
It seems the country may have reached that breaking point already. In a span of just few hours on the night of July 15, I, and everyone else in Turkey, watched as a horrendous and violent process almost too bizarre to believe unfolded.
Turkey last endured a coup d’état on February 28, 1997. That one is often described as a “postmodern” coup, since it was carried out… Read more
Tragedy in Nice is France’s Mandate for War
It is time for the French government to consider all options to confronting terrorism.
The war seems lost. What happened on the French Cote d’Azur on Bastille Day—the day that sparked the French Revolution and the formation of a Republic based on liberty and freedom—seems to highlight France’s hopeless security frailties.
The images of bodies sprawled across a mile of the promenade in Nice as the last of the fireworks came to an end were some of the most disturbing I have ever seen. France has a serious problem, and one that now needs significant leadership and a substantial dose of reality.
The death toll currently sits at 84 and may well rise with 50 still in critical condition.
France has been subject to three significant attacks within the last 18 months that have claimed over 230 victims. Over the coming days, French authorities will continue to piece… Read more
White America Needs to Talk About Race
In “dishonest America,” inequality and informal segregation remain in a divided nation.
Since the time of honest racial segregation in America—when whites wrote down race-based rules of exclusion—we have been formulating modes of dishonest segregation: denials of equality and inclusion in areas such as housing, criminal justice, employment, interpersonal relationships and private organizations.
Once institutionalized, this dishonest segregation becomes subconscious for us whites. We do not create race-based rules; we just live by the status quo. We are not racist, after all. We just call balls and strikes. We’re objective when pressing charges, citing criminal statistics, administering standardized tests, drawing political districts or selecting the best candidate.
Many whites were born into this dishonest America—told that ours is a diverse country, only to be raised in all-white neighborhoods, sent to local property tax-supported, largely white schools, with few opportunities placed in our laps to have black friends… Read more
Where Have All the Leaders Gone?
The 20th century is long over and the rules of political culture have changed.
Cultural and political paradigm shifts do not occur very often. But a series of political earthquakes and aftershocks in the past few weeks in Europe and North America confirm that the landscape has been altered. Here’s an incomplete list of the major shocks that have been felt across three different fault lines spanning two continents:
1) Brexit, aka the United Kingdom’s referendum on the European Union, and the cascade of unintended consequences
2) The release of the long-awaited Chilcot Report, cementing Tony Blair’s reputation as a historical villain
3) The testimony of James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), concerning Hillary Clinton’s emails and exonerating her while highlighting the unambiguous illegality of her actions… Read more
Demographic Tsunami Heads for Saudi Arabia
Vision 2030 seeks to address Saudi Arabia’s economic challenges, but quick solutions are not necessarily on the horizon.
The Saudi Arabian National Transformation Plan and Vision 2030 have already over stimulated the saliva glands of banking and advisory community. Of course, these stakeholders are looking for fees from the Aramco IPO, forthcoming bond issues and the investments the proceeds will go into. Indeed, optimism about change is in the air—if not from those expats about to be taxed for the first time.
But Saudi Arabia’s problems cannot be fixed by financial engineering. Saudi Arabia is deeply dysfunctional, and the government survives because years of surplus oil revenues have compensated for and indeed created a culture of entitlement for the Saudi population.
With oil now well below Saudi Arabia’s budget break-even price—and likely to remain so—this situation can continue for only a few years. This is the problem… Read more
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.