Note from LeftEast Editors: This text was originally in N+1 Magazine.
AN HOUR OR TWO BEFORE SUNSET on a warm evening in mid-July, my friends are wondering where they can get a beer. They’re surprised that the local grocery store doesn’t carry alcohol, and that its sale on campus is illegal. But this is a fun-loving neighbourhood, full of college students, and there’s bound to be a solution. I spot a small store with the blue Tekel sign over the door, left over from the recent past: the old state-owned spirits and tobacco company, whose name literally means “monopoly.” I usher my friends inside, where they can find what they want, and there’s no real need for me to translate.
While they make up their minds about drinks, I overhear a customer in his twenties ask an older woman about a problem on the nearby Bosporus Bridge. I miss something amid the din of conversation, but after she leaves I ask him what he’s heard. He says there’s a rumor that soldiers have closed the bridge. A terrorist threat? “Probably,” he says. “After what happened in Nice they may have heard something.”
As we walk back toward the dorm, drinks in hand, I tell my friends what I’ve heard, not out of fear but of duty: I’m their eyes and ears during our stay in this city where they don’t know the language. No one is surprised. With all the ISIS attacks over the past few weeks, tightened security, even of the military kind, no longer strikes anyone as strange. We walk the several blocks to the dorm and hang out there until long after sunset, eating fresh cherries from the local fruit markets by the Bosporus. At some point we head inside for the second course: beer and crackers in the privacy of a dormitory common room.
Amid the boisterous conversation that ensues, my phone rings and I duck into my bedroom to answer it. I hear the agitated voice of my own native informant: “tonight they are expecting a terrorist attack on the level of September 11 in either Istanbul or Ankara. Justus, stay where you are, do not leave campus!” I try to ask a question but the call drops. Back in the common room, I gesture to my friends to quiet down and relay the message. Their response is skeptical and resistant. Who has this information and why are they releasing it now? Why the vague threat with no mention of evidence or sources?
When I call back to ask for more detail, the story has changed entirely. The prime minister has announced that “some sort of military coup is underway,” and will be crushed with all due force. The moment is surreal. Over the past ten years, the prospect of a coup has been the government’s pretext for suppressing every conceivable opposition. Even Kurdish activists—the natural archenemy of every military junta—have seen themselves defamed lately as allies of that shadowy network of armed actors journalists call the “deep state,” and which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan identifies, even fourteen years into his party’s time in power, as the “status quo.” For Erdoğan and his loyal prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, a military uprising may be the ultimate existential threat, but ideologically it’s also too good to be true. No wonder so many oppositional Turks assumed the spectacle soon to unfold on their television screens was not coincidentally cinematic, but staged—or as I would hear many times over the next few days, tiyatro (“theater”).
I SPEND THE NEXT HOUR OR SO in the common room, reading online media. My friends are getting conflicting information from their respective countries, so I translate as much as I can from the few Turkish papers I trust, so long as the wi-fi connection holds out. The papers report that artillery forces have occupied the National Intelligence Office (MIT), Turkey’s equivalent of CIA headquarters and a stronghold of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and sent tanks to the offices of the state-run Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) network. The left-wing website Bianet reports a message on the Turkish Armed Services home page stating the military has taken control of the country. I cannot access the site itself. Over at Cumhuriyet, I learn that soldiers posted the message after occupying the military High Command in Ankara and taking the chief of staff hostage.
Cumhuriyet quotes the statement: to restore “the rule of law and individual rights and freedoms,” the army has “taken hold of the administration” (yönetime el koydu). This is the traditional language of military coups. Every Turk old enough to remember September 12, 1980 can recall General Kenan Evren announcing on TRT that “the army has taken hold of the Parliament” (Meclise ey koydu). Meanwhile, the papers report that helicopters have bombed police headquarters in Ankara, attacking another seat of ruling party power.
A while later I find myself in front of the television in the dormitory lobby, along with my friends and a bunch of dorm residents, mostly students but also some junior faculty. On TRT, an impeccable blonde assures us of the restoration of constitutional order and of the state’s tarnished international reputation. Calmly, she announces the removal of a political leadership that has lost its legitimacy.
Meanwhile on the private channel ATV, the scene looks quite different. Hurriedly broadcasting the voice of every AKP party official they can find, reporters rush to expose the terrorist gang whose revolutionary pretentions have no hope of gaining popular support. One speaker picks up her smart phone and announces she has made contact with President Erdoğan. She turns the tiny screen toward the camera and there he is on a video call, some kind of ruffled gray curtain in the background. His gravelly voice promises victory and vengeance. He looks like he’s just woken up from a nap.
The students break out into brief laughter at the spectacle: a once all-powerful man jabbering on a tiny screen-within-a-screen. Next up on the device is fellow AKP founder Abdullah Gül, who served as president from 2007 until 2015, when Erdoğan moved from the prime minister’s office to the presidency. Speaking more forcefully than his successor, Gül intones with an uncharacteristic lack of diplomacy, “taking hold of the administration, forcing regime change in Turkey, is not possible. This is not some Latin American country . . . this is the Republic of Turkey!”
Four or so blocks away from the dorm complex, we join a crowd of students waiting placidly to withdraw its net worth from a row of ATMs. We’ve all heard that the banks will soon close, but no one is especially panicked or eager to cut in line. Fighter jets fly by at top speed, dipping low as they cross the Bosporus off to our right. No one pays them any mind. I ask a scruffy student ahead of me whether he knows why Erdoğan chose to address the nation from FaceTime. He says Erdoğan wanted to hide his location; the tanks we’d just seen on TV, surrounding Atatürk Airport, were there primarily to keep him from leaving. We exchange pleasantries about the catastrophic state of the country then go our separate ways.
The narrow street I take toward the dorm is dark and empty. From a vague distance I hear what sound like firecrackers: secularists celebrating the fall of their nemesis? I consider and quickly dismiss the thought of gunfire.
I retire to my room amid the hum of planes and an ethereal chant in Arabic: the loudspeakers of every mosque in the area are playing something resembling the call to prayer (ezan) over and over again—something I’ve never heard before. The ezan usually sounds five times a day at regular intervals to mark the ritual prayer sessions. The continual and varied chant I hear now is ghostlier, and later I learn this is called sela, sung at funerals and sometimes for forty-five minutes before the midday Friday prayer session. Later still, I read that some people who complained about its being played throughout the night were arrested.
LATE AT NIGHT, AN F-16 FLIES OVERHEAD and the sound of a massive explosion erupts from just behind my building. From my sixth-story window I see people in the courtyard scurry inside while others stay there, as if nothing’s happened. I leave the room to go down to the basement, though I wonder if this is what one does. The woman at the reception desk has not heard any bombs, and my friends on the ground floor assure me that this is just what a low-flying plane sounds like, especially to someone on the sixth floor.
I wonder what’s going on in Ankara. I know the government has called on the police to fight the attempted coup. Faced with a hostile army since his first day in office, Erdoğan began shifting resources from the army to the police more than a decade ago. The police have long had a more Islamist base, and have fought much of the recent war against Kurdish militants in southeastern cities, alongside special forces units whose autonomy from the military command and explicit ideological profile have made them resemble a ruling party paramilitary. The army itself is still the second largest in NATO, but if portions of it join the police in defense of the state, I figure, we could be watching the beginning of a civil war.
On television, journalists report on the plight of the parliamentarians under siege in the Parliament (Meclis) building, which is surrounded by insurgent tanks. The anchor assures us they all have enough to eat. Some students, still assembled around the TV, snort at this line, certain the whole scene is bullshit.
A bearded young man in an unbuttoned flannel and print T-shirt underneath, whom I’d taken for a student but turns out to be a professor of sociology, dissects the government’s case. He’s the only Turk I speak to who’s eager to switch to English.
Of course we don’t want military intervention, but neither do we want a civilian dictatorship. The tragedy is that we never get a third option . . . They say they are calling for the defense of democracy, but what kind of democracy is this? Do you hear the continual ezan they’re playing all through the night? This is not a call to defend democracy. This is jihad.
My fellow spectators are not much more impressed by the moonlit images of a tank and helicopter trading fire with the illuminated facade of the Atatürk Mausoleum in Ankara in the background: battle scenes perfectly centered on screen, as if shot on location by a Hollywood director. But then the scene shifts abruptly to something that, for me at least, is a lot harder to write off as theater: a bend in the new divided highway that stretches around the Presidential Palace, thirty times the size of the White House, that Erdoğan built for himself in time for his election to the presidency one year ago. People are running in all directions under a shower of bullets raining down from a helicopter.
POLITICAL THEORISTS SINCE CARL SCHMITT have distinguished constitutive from constituent power, on the view that any legal order rests on a foundational act of violence. Much of what seems self-evident to the citizens of a republican polity—the rights and freedoms of those citizens, the prerogatives of the state charged with protecting them—looks different in light of the revolutionary violence once required to establish it. The supreme crimes of regicide, mass execution, and the expulsion of disloyal populations stand in the background of many a republican regime. And even once the state is established, its claim to legitimacy is still maintained by the threat of violence.
In fully industrialized countries with a dominant position in the capitalist world-system, the brute force that sustains legitimate power’s smooth functioning is more easily concealed, leaving the shakier states of the global south to wrestle publicly with establishing a monopoly on violence that is both effective and backed by popular consensus.
What sets Turkey apart from most parliamentary democracies is the overtness with which this universal conundrum enters law and political discourse. A law on the books since 1935 enlists the army to “protect and keep watch over the Republic,” a clause which many take to mean that the law not only permits but requires military intervention when the constitutional order is in danger. The architects of coups in 1960, 1971, and 1980 have justified their actions with reference to this law, as slightly modified after each previous coup.1
On the other hand, the constitution since 1982 lists “widespread violent acts for . . . the overthrow of the democratic order” among the threats that justify a state of emergency. In other words, Turkish law relegates coup attempts to the realm of Machiavellian vertù: success justifies the enterprise while failure condemns it to ignominy. The difference between duty and treason is a function of the outcome.
It is no surprise that the authors of the 1982 Constitution made success a criterion of legitimacy. They themselves had just come to power in the September 12 coup d’état, an event that relates to subsequent Turkish history as World War I does to the decades that followed in Europe: in the words of Karl Kraus, “the catastrophe from which we all have come.” With the exception of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), whose national-conservative ideology of “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis” gained quasi-official status under the generals’ tutelage, every party currently active on the Turkish scene excoriates “September 12” and presents itself as the sole force capable of liberating the country from its legacy.
Kenan Evren’s 1980 coup was a watershed event in the rise of contemporary Turkey. The junta cemented the country’s transition from a heavily unionized mixed economy with import-substitution policies to an export-oriented neoliberal system geared toward attracting foreign direct investment. Yet the generals’ shock doctrine went beyond economic restructuring, changing the contours of the Turkish nation as an imagined community. While erecting statues of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk all over the country, Evren’s regime watered down the secularist component of Kemalist ideology in favor of a discourse of national unity based heavily on Sunni Islam.
The government instituted mandatory religion classes in public schools, a measure amounting to (attempted) forced assimilation of the sizable Alevi, or Turkish Alawite, minority. Once the populace approved of the new constitution in a referendum without a secret ballot, the junta handed power over to the new Prime Minister Turgut Özal, who had won an election in which all the prominent politicians of the pre-coup era were banned from running. Özal was a former World Bank economist and member of the Nakshibendi religious community (tarikat), with which Erdoğan is also associated. Putting the country firmly on the path to neoliberal reform, Özal heartily supported the USA in the first Iraq War and enabled Sunni religious communities (tarikat and cemaat) to gain a foothold in the state apparatus.
Özal and his center-right successors greatly expanded the program of religious public schools, which were officially tasked with providing vocational training to aspiring clergymen but in practice offered a parallel, state-funded alternative to the secular education envisioned by Atatürk and his followers. As the religious right gained in strength, the left found itself increasingly marginalized. Hampered by repressive legislation and unable to absorb the flow of migrants from rural regions—such internal immigration being a hallmark of the neoliberal transition worldwide—the labor movement could no longer act as a concentrated political force. As a new informal economy arose on the backs of wage laborers who had never known collective action and welcomed whatever communal charity they could get, hardcore Sunni communitarian movements replaced the left as the locus of opposition to the capitalist state with its compromise ideology of “Turkish-Islamic” nationalism.
ONE OF THE RELIGIOUS COMMUNITIES to organize in the years following the 1980 coup was the cemaat of Fethullah Gülen. A renegade member of the ultraconservative Nurcu movement, Gülen set about putting a more “modern,” westernized face on what he called “civil Islam” and focused his money and energies on training young men and women for careers in civil service. Rather than lead an Islamic revolution, the autodidact religious scholar aimed to take power slowly through placing his followers in the bureaucracy. In Turkey, the group’s media apparatus emphasized continuity with national traditions including the veneration of Atatürk, while its English-language wing spoke of tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
The AKP’s rise to power following the parliamentary elections of 2002 greatly accelerated the Gülenist infiltration of the state apparatus. As the only Islamic conservative faction with an educated, middle-class base, Gülen’s followers were well placed to serve a government reluctant to rely on the established bureaucracy, steeped as it was in generations of Atatürkist values. The AKP-Gülenist partnership laid the groundwork for what the ruling party, now determined to root out its former allies, would come to call the “parallel state.”
Gülen’s test-prep schools and communal dormitories have always been known for their disciplined work ethic, but also marred by various cheating scandals involving Turkey’s national standardized tests. The most famous of these incidents involved the nationwide university entrance exam in 2010, in which extensive data suggested that Gülenist students had received answers ahead of time from their friends in the education bureaucracy. Since the Gülenists and the AKP government were at the time working hand-in-hand, the government initially shielded the community from criticism. Yet if post-coup interrogations are to be trusted, this scandal was only the reflection of a long-established pattern. One of the officers arrested for plotting this month’s coup attempt testified that he had graduated from the Military Academy after receiving the questions the night before the final exam—in 1988.
For a long time, the Gülenist movement has been integral to the “Turkish model” of “Islamic liberalism” which western powers expected to supplant the old statist model put in place by Atatürk. In 2010, the Erdoğan government spearheaded a referendum to revise the 1982 constitution, supposedly for the sake of “democratization.” Central to the revisions were a series of measures to give the elected government the ability to restaff the judiciary. Approved by 58 percent of the electorate, the revisions established special courts for trying alleged coup plotters, permitting testimony by “secret witnesses” and otherwise facilitating conviction. By 2012, a large number of old-guard Atatürkists in the military, bureaucracy, academia, and journalism had been convicted of plotting a coup, on the basis of “evidence” collected by the government’s Gülenist allies—much of which later turned out to be fabricated.
A number of intellectuals and parliamentarians spent years in prison, just as journalists linked to the Kurdish movement had been jailed for years at a time under terrorism charges even while the state ostensibly sought a negotiated solution to the war with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Left-wing journalist Ahmet Şık spent a year and a half in jail for exposing a Gülenist network in the police force. Needless to say, the imprisonment of Kurds, Atatürkists, and leftists hardly stirred the US government and media to the vehement indignation they would later show when the state seized the Gülenist-owned Zaman newspaper in 2014.
The pivotal moment in the Erdoğan-Gülen relationship came at the end of 2013, when the Prime Minister, wary of the reclusive imam as a potential rival, decided to close some of his Turkish businesses in a strike at Gülenist power. The Gülenists responded by leaking information about massive corruption in the cabinet, and quickly found themselves labelled a terrorist organization—an accusation that now looks like a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the meantime, it was probably Gülenists in the intelligence services who leaked information to gendarmes about clandestine weapons shipments to jihadists in Syria, opening the way to an exposé by Cumhuriyet editor Can Dundar and increasing diplomatic tensions with both Russia and the West.
It seems indisputable now that Gülenist officers played a major role in planning this month’s coup attempt, though they may not have been alone. Ahmet Şık thinks a loose coalition of Gülenist and secular-nationalist figures came up with the plan, but that they splintered under pressure, enabling the insurrection to fail. In any case, the heavy Gülenist presence among the conspirators, which pro-government media pounced on almost before the first shots were fired, prevented the attempted coup from winning the support of rank-and-file secularists.
The Monday after the failed coup, I chatted with a restaurateur in Istanbul, who I think spoke for many when he said, “if these had been Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers, we would have applauded,” but as it was, the action reflected only a power struggle between two gangsters fighting over access to rent-seeking activities (rant). Like many other secularists I have spoken to, he was adamant that neither Erdoğan nor Gülen were genuine Muslims—“they are not even human, so how can they be Muslim?”—and that their devotion to Islam was merely an act (şov).
Kurdish activists hold another view entirely, seeing recent power struggles as less a battle between the secular and the religious than a contest over different approaches to the ongoing war between the Turkish state and the PKK. Since both the secular-nationalist camp and the Gülenists are traditionally hostile to Kurdish autonomy, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) chairman Selahattin Demirtaş sees the coup attempt as related to the AKP’s recent decision to give up the “peace process” and return to the ruthless suppression of the guerilla movement. Demirtaş thinks that ardent nationalists in the military agreed to enter Kurdish cities with tanks only if Erdoğan stepped back from his drive to concentrate power in his own hands. Unsatisfied with the progress on that front, the soldiers (both Gülenist and otherwise) decided to strike.
ON THE AFTERNOON AFTER THE COUP ATTEMPT, I got a text message from “RTERDOĞAN” addressed to “the precious children of the Turkish nation” exhorting everyone to take to the streets to “defend your democracy and your nation.” It was late in the day, and with the exception of a few outlying skirmishes the fighting was already over. Yet in a decade and a half, the AKP has never let a crisis go to waste. Now was the time for the ruling party to assert its mastery over public space and enlist the crowd in its victory parade.
While a divided security apparatus no doubt paved the way for the conspirators’ defeat, the AKP has promoted the narrative that the people stopped the coup—a brilliant move on their part, for which documentary evidence is not lacking. Over the past eight days, footage of civilians with flags facing down tanks or raising their fists to the sky as jets pass overhead have run nonstop on television news. In some videos, the crowds erupt spontaneously into chants of ya Allah, bismillah, Allahü ekber! (“O God, in the name of God, God is great!”), to the rhythm of the leftist chant, “shoulder to shoulder against fascism!” and the secular nationalist one, “We are Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers!”
Both of these latter chants were ubiquitous at the Gezi Park protests in 2013. On Istiklal Street in the central tourist district of Istanbul last weekend, the pious version was the only one I heard. People I had never seen at a demonstration in Turkey—women in the full face veil, bearded men with hats embroidered with Qur’anic inscriptions and small children in tow—flowed down the broad avenue carrying Turkish flags, a symbol not previously associated with their ultraconservative lifestyle. It was a somewhat diverse crowd, and not all the women had their heads covered. But all shook their fists and chanted only of God and of their president. From small shops in the side streets, a song extolling the leader played on the radio, its refrain is simply, “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.”
I spotted one man walking down the avenue with a long plastic pole extended like a fishing-rod over his right shoulder. From the rod a doll-like figure hung from a string, the noose around its neck. Pasted to the doll’s head was a photograph of Fethullah Gülen’s face; on its belly, a sign reading, “bring back the death penalty” (idama evet). I strode out into the square and looped back and forth between passersby to get a good photograph on my cell phone. I had to wait and maneuver a bit, because a man with a heavy, professional-caliber camera had gotten in ahead of me: probably a journalist.
SO FAR, THE AFTERMATH OF THE FAILED COUP resembles, remarkably, the aftermath of a successful one—only here the success is Erdoğan’s. The would-be junta’s most shocking act on the night of July 15 was to attack the Parliament building with the Meclis still in session inside it, damaging the facade of the building and making part of the ceiling in the front hall cave in. Now, as part of the three-month-long state of exception decreed by the president after a five-hour meeting with the National Security Council, theMeclis’s legislative power has been completely suspended. For the next three months, the cabinet will rule the country directly.
The nationwide purge of the Gülenist movement immediately assumed a scope familiar only to police states. Civil servants have seen their vacations canceled indefinitely, and the Higher Education Council has forbidden universities to let their employees undertake work-related travel abroad. Thousands of judges, prosecutors, public school teachers, and employees of the Ministry of Education have been dismissed. Fifteen universities, thirty news websites, and nineteen labor organizations have been disbanded. Every single member of the judiciary in Turkey is now under investigation.
The inquiries will not stop at the water’s edge. Fethullah Gülen has always been seen as an American puppet. Living on a heavily-guarded compound in rural Pennsylvania since 1999, he has built up an international business empire based in part on the charter schools that have recently become a source of political controversy in the United States. For most of Gülen’s time in the public eye, it was secularists who suspected him of colluding with foreign interests to establish dominion over his native country. Americans should not be surprised to hear Islamists now repeat the same allegations.
Gülen’s American connections give the AKP a chance to burnish its conservative agenda and give it the veneer of anti-imperialism. It is an irresistible opportunity for a party whose defense of financialized capitalism and repression of working-class resistance has been unremitting, and which grabs at any chance it gets to enforce its populist bona fides.
That the AKP has rarely diverged from Washington’s diplomatic agenda even amid its much-publicized spats with Israel makes the anti-American rhetoric urgent. Erdoğan’s reconciliation with Tel Aviv, and the pliant posture he has taken over the past few months toward negotiations with Putin and Assad, make it doubtful that Washington would see any reason to get behind a coup attempt against the AKP. Yet it is hard to blame Turks of all stripes for pointing fingers in that direction given the history of the Gülenist movement.
AFTER MORE THAN A WEEK IN ISTANBUL, I ask the cab driver to take me to the airport shuttle bus stop at Taksim Square. The man is friendly, and within a minute or so asks me what I think of the coup attempt. “They say it was all theater,” he says indignantly, “have you ever seen theater like that?!”
He’s right. Over two hundred people died on the night of the coup. I mumble something politically noncommittal, and he starts to give me fragments of his life story. He is poor, and never had the chance to do pursue a dream or a plan. He went out that night to stop the tanks. They did it, the people; they stopped the coup. He has seen three coups in his lifetime, and this one, the fourth, failed. The people said no, they had their cell phones, they knew what was happening, they got out there and the tanks withdrew.
“I’m not a Tayyipist, I’m an MHP supporter. As a Muslim, I’m not for Sharia, I don’t want a religious state, but you have to give credit where credit is due. They have built roads . . .” he says distractedly.
“And high-speed trains,” I help him out, in a spirit of takkiye: concealing one’s own views to better get along with people.
“The left just wants Tayyip to go at any cost,” he says.
“But the coup-plotters were not leftists,” I counter.
The man returns to the story of his life. “I always wanted to study literature,” he says, “but I was poor, so here I am driving this cab these past forty-three years.”
“Under capitalism there are the rich and the poor,” he adds, “and we have no welfare state. Europe has a welfare state, but we only have one on paper . . . There are only three rich families in Turkey: Koç, Sabancı, Eczacıbaşı,” naming three marquee clans from the golden age of the secular bourgeoisie, who got their start thanks to government contracts under Atatürk’s incipient state-capitalism.
“There are also construction magnates,” I mention, trying to bring AKP-era neoliberal capital into the discussion.
“I am sixty-three years old,” he says, “so I know only Koç, Sabancı, Eczacıbaşı. You see, it’s a monopolistic system.”
Then I challenge him. “If you’re so critical of capitalism, then you should really be a leftist, shouldn’t you?”
He laughs. “I kind of look like one, you know,” he says, stroking his unshaven face. “No, our soldiers were always CHP supporters,” he concludes. So there you have it: the secular elite, the status quo. The notion that Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) encompasses the left. We have arrived at our destination. I pay, get out, get my bags from the trunk, and attempt one last gesture of peace and reconciliation: I shake his hand and say, “God willing (inşallah) this beautiful country will soon see better days.” Inşallah, he repeats. “This country doesn’t deserve days like these,” he concludes. “Does it?”