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I’ll post links soon to a few pieces I’ve written about the failed putsch in Turkey. Meanwhile, here’s an update from my friend and colleague Okan, who was interviewed recently by an Iranian journalist, Sajjad Moosavi. Okan kindly gave me permission to reproduce an English-language version of that interview.
Q: Who is Fethullah Gülen and what should we know about him?
A: Fethullah Gülen is essentially an Islamist preacher wrapped in a “moderate Islam” package for human consumption. I say “Islamist” and not “Muslim” because as with many others, such as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Gülen’s mission in life is all about using religion to attain wealth and power with the ultimate goal of political dominance. Whether he’s assisted by international actors is a matter that should be investigated; however, it’s clear that the Gülenists partnered with Erdoğan to change the course of the Turkish Republic from a modern, secular direction to one that exploits religion to cling endlessly to power. Claire wrote two pieces about Gülen in which you can find excellent information: Who is Fethullah Gülen and Turkey’s Two Thugs.
Q: Why is the government accusing Gülen of trying to stage this coup? Why are they saying the coup is being directed from Pennsylvania? Is there a reason why the government would want to link the coup to outside sources?
A: It was widely reported (in various news sources) that Gülenists were going to be purged from the military when the Supreme Military Council met in early August. It’s quite possible the Gülenists gambled on a coup, thinking the disgruntled secular population — whose freedoms are increasingly being challenged in various ways — might at least accept it, if not come out to support it. The coup statement issued that night used a language that would appeal to a large segment of the society who believe in Atatürk’s founding principles. That strengthens that hypothesis.
The clash between Gülen and Erdoğan got off to a light start during the Mavi Marmara incident, became visible when the Special Authority Court, dominated by Gülenist judges and prosecutors, tried the match-fixing case (fans of the accused club, Fenerbahçe, challenged the accusations and helped expose all the Special Authority Court cases, including the widely reported Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases, as sham trials), and matured when the Gülenists went after Erdoğan’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, in February 2012. The ultimate break came when the December 17-25 graft investigations were launched, targeting Erdoğan and four of his ministers. The split led to the abolition of the Special Authority Courts, with the full consensus of the opposition parties.
Erdoğan’s attempts to forge an all-powerful, one-man regime may have led them to try to stage a coup in desperation. However, looking at how Erdoğan has responded to the coup attempt with a virtual counter-coup of his own, targeting not just the Gülenists but the opposition in general, suggests two more possibilities:
- Erdoğan and the AKP undertook a fake coup to revitalize his Islamist base as well as other party members and their extensions. There is a lot of evidence that goes against this possibility: Gülenist names appear to be involved, and there were casualties among AKP people and their supporters.
- Erdoğan and the AKP government knew about the plot in advance (some statements, like that of the general who spoke on TV after the initial coup attempt was thwarted, suggest there was advance intelligence; also, it has now been revealed that the President received the first notification of the plot at around 3:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon). They allowed it to happen. We cannot know yet, but the possibility is there. How else could they have been prepared to call their members (via means that include text messages) to confront the military? Once it was time to put on a show, the AKP took the main stage and turned it into a sham people’s resistance against the coup attempt, leading eventually to calls to keep invading the streets — with the pro-government media covering it only from the perspective of, “The Turkish people stopped the coup attempt.” It was mostly AKP members and ardent supporters called upon to go out via text messages, first by the party, and then via announcements by the president and the prime minister, as well AKP mayors and other state officials.
The purge of nearly all government institutions immediately afterward indicates the lists may have been prepared way in advance. The EU has already expressed concern about this possibility.
Q: Why do you think anyone in Turkey would try to overthrow Erdoğan? How popular are he and his policies inside Turkey? Do people see him to be the reason why terrorism has found its way into Turkey?
A: To grab power in a country where the institutions have gotten weaker, creating a vacuum that can be exploited for total control of the nation. A condition that Erdoğan’s policies have themselves created. Having been partners before, it is conceivable that the former partner, now excluded and feeling used and cheated, might want to take the power back.
Erdoğan has an extremely loyal 25 percent vote. No matter what he does, they will vote for him without questioning him. This is mostly the result of him dictating the political narrative by controlling over 75 percent of the media (possibly even higher). Real information requires search and effort, which a large segment of the people do not have the time or the will to do. Hence Turkey will ways be divided with regard to him and his policies as long as they don’t satisfy those who don’t vote for him. The past eight years’ experience shows there is minimal or no chance that Erdoğan can return to policies that will embrace the whole nation. His agenda is different; he wants to transform the Turkish society into one where his delusional neo-Ottomanism meets Arab Islamism.
Those in opposition (50-60 percent of the nation) overwhelmingly think he is the reason for the terrorism. This is even documentable via an examination of the post-2000 era and what has increasingly taken place, becoming unbearable after the summer of 2015. Some among his constituents are also concerned, but not enough to change their preference, at least so far.
Q: Erdoğan has purified, as he puts it, the Justice Ministry as well as the police force, undermining Gülenists in the process. Do you think the attempted coup will give him a justification to filter Gülenists out of the military, too? If so, do you suppose the coup might in some way have received a green light from people in the government?
A: No doubt. And possibly even others that he sees as opposition or obstacles in his way. I do not think the coup attempt would have gotten a green light or support from the people in government outside of the Gülenists. If any, maybe a few isolated disgruntled individuals, which would add up to nothing.
Q: Why do you think the coup failed so miserably despite having taken off so strongly?
A: I do not think it took off strongly at all. It was presented that way in the media, which may have been as the result of what might have been a decision by the AKP to put on a show and turn it into a display of “overcoming a strong coup attempt” through its own constituents. This has been the narrative imposed upon the media: the Turkish people stopping the military, when in reality it was impeded by the military officers within, who, by and large, did not join the attempt and even tried to prevent it (The commander of the First Army actually called Erdoğan and told him.)
Q: Do you think Erdoğan will come out of the coup stronger than ever, or will his Justice and Development Party suffer losses because of the coup?
A: He may and will, most likely, if the AKP can control the narrative. His party will not suffer losses unless Erdoğan and his party now become too authoritarian and intrusive for the people. By the way, the term “Erdoğan and his party” technically constitutes an egregious violation of the Constitution. The president cannot be from any party and must be neutral. The coup attempt helps people forget that fact, and thus improves his chances of imposing his will via national sentimentality created by the failed coup attempt. It has also distracted from his problems stemming from his failure so far to document that he actually has university diploma, which would nullify his eligibility for presidency.
Q: Some say that Erdoğan will pursue his plans for the expansion of presidential authorities more vehemently after the coup. Do you agree? Is the political life of the ruling party secured, at least until the next election?
A: Yes. I totally agree. He never gives up pursuing what he has in mind. Never. When he fails at something, he always comes back to it. Under normal conditions, the ruling party would persist until the next election.
In the June 7, 2015 election, the voters gave the opposition the chance to weaken the AKP, but the opportunity was wasted when the AKP decided to create chaos by provoking intensified PKK terror activity — to which, in my opinion, the PKK willingly contributed because the PKK was not very happy with the rise of the Kurdish HDP, either. As a consequence, the HDP was weakened due to the severe punishment of the local Kurds via war; and some backers of the nationalist MHP were drawn to support the AKP. The post-coup behavior of the AKP shows that Erdoğan is once again after voters for other parties, this time the MHP and the CHP on the grounds of national sentimentality, while solidifying his base. Hence I cannot see how the political life of the ruling party can be negatively affected, unless a game-changing crisis takes place.
However, Turkey is no longer under normal conditions. I doubt anyone can know what exactly will happen from this point on. With Erdoğan saying, “The coup was a gift from God,” it’s possible we’ll find ourselves in a counter-coup, the outcome of which can’t be predicted.
Q: The coup leaders have vowed not to stop here. Do you think another coup looms large in the future? What do you think will happen to the coup leaders, and to those soldiers who were played into marching into the streets?
A: The coup leaders will be arrested and tried (I hope everyone will get a fair trial). There is talk of bringing back the death penalty, but my gut says that this is to keep a segment of the Turkish people (AKP and the nationalist MHP) all riled up after the coup attempt. More dangerous is the idea of making it easier for average citizens to acquire firearms so they can go out and “defend against coup-makers.” As you can easily guess, that would produce calamitous results, with people killing each other. We have already witnessed the looting of stores and people’s properties as well as attempts to beat up people who don’t share the views of the AKP’s supporters. It is now clear that the AKP members urged to take to the streets are being used as smoke screens for the thuggery going on behind them — against Alevi citizens as well as Syrian refugees, for now. There have been some incidents where Sharia-minded people traveled into non-AKP districts and harassed alcohol drinkers, but nothing widespread yet.
We shall see what kind of trials will take place for the coup makers and what will happen to the soldiers who were played into marching into the streets. Most appear to have been misled, but there are videos of others firing at people, as well. It is important to identify who they are.
Another coup looks unlikely on the surface, but the weather right now is not stable. No one knows what will happen.
Q: Why do you think the coup happened now that Turkey is trying to solve its problems with Israel and Russia, and has said that it will have a more positive role in Syria? Do you think a military government put in place by a coup would have been better for the region?
A: At this moment, tough to know if the coup plotters had any external or international support for their attempt. I do not think a military government would have been stable. Some stability would have been possible if following the coup, they immediately announced that democratic elections would take place as soon as possible. No one writes about it, but past coups in Turkey all lead to elections relatively quickly. I do not think this bunch of coup-makers would have chosen that route, though.
So, a military government put in place by a coup would not have been a real solution until a civilian government took over. The best it could do would be to stall things without aggravating them any further until an elected government came to power.
On the other hand, I firmly believe that Erdoğan is not really trying to solve problems with Israel and Syria. He is in desperate need of international support, tacit or open, to try to change Turkey into a presidential system, i.e. a sultanate – or even something worse, because there are those in his party that treat him like the Prophet. (No kidding.) He is just saying and doing things to appease them for that purpose. He’ll change once he gets what he wants.
A Northwestern University ’84 alumnus in economics, Okan Altiparmak is an advisor on U.S.-Turkish relations and an independent filmmaker based in Istanbul, Turkey. Having penned several articles about Turkey in recent years, Altiparmak has also produced and directed a full-feature documentary on Turkish soccer fans that was released nationwide in Turkish theaters in 2005 following years of experience working with motion picture producers in Hollywood alongside an acting career in the local LA theater scene. He is the Turkey director of MuslimWorldToday.net.