On July 15, 2016, a group of Turkish soldiers initiated an attempted coup. They flew attack helicopters and F16 fighter jets, drove tanks down the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, bombed the parliament building, and seized the Bosphorus Bridge. During the ensuing tragic violence, almost 300 people were killed and at least 2,000 injured. The amateurish endeavor was rapidly quashed by forces loyal to the government. Rushing to judgment, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promptly placed blame on Fethullah Gülen and his followers, launching punitive measures against the group before even awaiting evidence. Gülen is a Sufi mystic, cleric, and founder of the Gülen Movement (GM), also known as Hizmet (Turkish for “service”). Internationally, many laud the GM as a civil society organization with spiritual and humanitarian goals, while a great number of others, particularly in Turkey, suspect it of insidiously seeking power to fulfill an array of nefarious ambitions such as Islamizing the state and wielding undue influence over the judiciary.
In either case, Erdoğan has cast suspicion on everyone even remotely affiliated with this group, composed of around 10 million sympathizers and participants, a deliberate and effective fear tactic to completely deactivate his opposition. He has also resorted to pointing a reproachful finger at the United States, a defiantly anti-Western gesture that has gained him points across the Middle East. The crackdown that he subsequently instigated against those he perceives as opposition—his reach has now extended way beyond the Gülen Movement—has been characterized by the Turkish Nobel laureate and novelist Orhan Pamuk as constituting “a regime of terror.” These series of events reflect seismic fault lines in Turkey between sectarian, ethnic, and ideological groups, and, ultimately, a brutal struggle over the very soul and unity of Turkey. The ensuing geopolitical consequences will manifest lasting changes in the broader region, one already wracked by the terrorism of the so-called Islamic State, Kurdish insurgency, the Syrian civil war, and Russian aggression.
Turkey has arrived at a perilous crossroads. One path could lead to reforms and a healthy democracy with a new constitution, which would safeguard human rights, individual liberties, pluralism, freedom to be openly secular or pious, and freedom of the press. Increasingly autocratic, Erdoğan appears to have chosen another path—Islamist, repressive of religious and ethnic difference, hostile to the West, restrictive of the press, and one where torture of one’s political opponents is the norm. The first path justifies his inclusion as a NATO ally; the second leads Turkey away from the Western bloc towards Russia and the Middle East. What Erdoğan does next will have profound implications for the United States. If he continues moving in the direction he is heading, Turkey’s very social fabric will be rent apart, possibly leading to another coup—or, in the worst case scenario—a civil war. The war in Syria could drag out much longer, escalating the number of dead and the refugee crisis. Alarmingly, Turkey, a traditionally key ally of the United States, could shift the global balance of power.
Atatürk’s Legacy and a History of Military Intervention
This putsch attempt is only Turkey’s most recent in a series of government takeovers orchestrated by the military. The reason for this goes back almost a century. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, promoted the French model of laïcité, an assertive form of secularism that frowns upon demonstrations of religion in the public sphere. Kemalism, the principles drawn from Atatürk’s ideological legacy, was codified in 1935 to maintain a secular and homogenized society. Atatürk’s objective was to establish a unified country that was (paradoxically) Western on the one hand and Turkified on the other, through state-building processes that effectively worked toward erasing a collective memory of Ottoman cultural and religious diversity. His many state reforms included a ban on traditional or religious clothing and the abrupt adoption of the Latin alphabet for the Turkish script—ultimately aligning Turkey with the more powerful West, and turning away from what he perceived as the “backwards” Middle East as well as from Turkey’s own Ottoman past. The curriculum in the Turkish school system served as a primary vehicle to inculcate in citizens a reverence for the state, the military, Western-style modernity, and Atatürk’s legacy. Kemalism has long been upheld by the Turkish Armed Forces, which have historically acted as the guardian of Atatürk’s vision, carrying out several coups toward that end (1960, 1971, 1980, 1997, and an attempted coup in 2003). This tradition of political turbulence dates even further back—Ottoman Janissaries fomented unrest, deposed sultans, and even took part in political assassinations. Turkey’s present constitution, which grants the military a great degree of power, has, in effect, weakened democracy. While Turkey’s form of government is officially a parliamentary democracy, the military has, in fact, long prioritized the protection of the state over the individual rights of citizens.
Atatürk’s Turkification strategy was multipronged. His brand of nationalism also involved deporting Kurds residing in Kurdish cities to non-Kurdish cities within Turkey, in order to deprive them of communal identity, or abroad, to southeast Europe, and central and western Anatolia. He forcefully assimilated those who were not ethnically Turkish, labeling the remaining Kurds, for example, as “Mountain Turks,” and banning Kurdish language and even music. Many others were massacred. After the 1980 coup, the Turkish military, fearing a fragmented nation, institutionalized a series of educational reforms in the national school system that further discouraged identity politics and also crushed the political left. In addition, the military for the first time mandated that Islam would be taught as part of the curriculum. This was more of a state-unifying strategy than a show of piety; Islamic discourse was deployed in order to valorize the military and flag. The military consistently worked against the rise of ethnic and religious groups that might wield any form of political power.
In other words, Atatürk’s attempt to “modernize” Turkey left many victims in its wake. As Hakan Yavuz and John Esposito write, “Secularism as an intellectual and political project in Turkey has a long history of differentiating, marginalizing, and excluding large sectors of Turkish society.”
The Rise of Erdoğan Islamism
Since the 1980 coup, observant Turkish Muslims began to hope that the limited democratization reforms put in place as a result would allow religious identities to be publicly represented. Those imagining a modern Turkey that would welcome demonstrations of piety in the public arena coalesced around the Justice and Development Party (AKP), founded by Erdoğan in 2001. In 2002, its electoral victory sent a clear message to secular Kemalists and the ultranationalist Turkish Armed Forces: A religiously based government would now lead Turkey. This was quite a triumph for those pious Turks, concentrated in central and eastern Turkey, who suffered a history of blatant discrimination at the hands of the Kemalist secularists. For around a decade, the AKP basked in its success. During that time, Turkey under Erdoğan was relatively stable, flourished economically, and grew in status as a regional political actor. It positioned itself to Middle Eastern countries as a champion of democracy, a state characterized by a tolerant synthesis of Islam and modernity. Hope abounded that the Turkish Constitution would be rewritten, limiting authoritarianism and the power of the military. Turkey’s EU membership bid, launched in 2005, was even taken seriously for a while—which is clearly no longer the case.
Before Erdoğan’s ascendance to power in 2003, Islamic movements in Turkey had criticized previous governments’ use of secularism as a rationale for authoritarianism. Ironically, Erdoğan has used Islam to justify his increasingly despotic rule, and to appeal to his conservative base. Following his successful bid for president in 2014, he began to use his position, shaped by a unique form of nationalistic and patriarchal Islamism, to oppress other ethnic and religious groups. Currently, Turkey’s Kurdish community (around 18 percent of Turkey’s population) and members of the Gülen Movement have received the brunt of this force. Immediately after the failed putsch, mosques were forced to broadcast their call to prayer outside of regular prayer times, in order to mobilize support against the plotters. He has also leaned on his religio-political orientation to rally sympathetic members of the international Muslim community to his side. Those who view his government as having successfully created a society at once modern and yet also assertively pious have supported him in the aftermath of the July 15 coup attempt, but have, in doing so, also sacrificed liberal democracy for anti-Western Islamism.
Erdoğan’s actions appear aimed at reinforcing his own authority and at restoring the “honor” of Turkey and of Muslims through a combination of aggressive means, in a region where the memory of the loss of the Ottoman Empire to the West in 1922 is still fresh, and the xenophobic paranoia of being “surrounded by enemies” is ubiquitous. The trauma of the loss is profound, and the president’s propaganda machines capitalize on these wounds and on the fear they foment. Not only is it still illegal to insult “Turkishness” under Article 301 of the penal code, but Article 299 makes it illegal to insult the president. Erdoğan regularly takes advantage of this law, and has detained a great number of activists, media professionals, and dissidents for speaking out against him. His style draws from the archetype of the hypermasculine patriarch, modeled after the Ottoman sultans and even Atatürk, and resonates with those who fear the loss of Turkish strength and honor.
This manifestation of religiously fueled hypermasculinity emboldens those suffering from Turkey’s collective emasculation anxiety. Erdoğan himself has stated that women are not equal to men, and that manual labor is unsuitable for their delicate natures. On August 8, 2015, he rebuked a group of women protesting gender inequality in Istanbul, claiming that their role is to bear at least three children; he has also claimed that working, childless women are incomplete, half persons. Along this same vein, in 2014, Bülent Arinç, co-founder of the AKP and senior member in the government, admonished women for laughing in public. These comments reflect a deep-seated fear of the loss of masculinity and patriarchal privilege, and resonate with the ultraconservative religious community. Women’s rights will undoubtedly suffer setbacks as Erdoğan moves further toward autocratic rule. His nemesis Gülen, in contrast, whose masculinity is ascetic rather than macho, has urged women to take positions at all levels of society (although the GM is not free of patriarchal tendencies). In 2008, he even encouraged women to learn martial arts to defend themselves against abuse within their marriages. While these two had reasons for their collaboration, their vast differences would pull them apart after 2013.
Erdoğan and Gülen: The Marriage of Convenience
Turkey’s Energy Minister, Berat Albayrak, recently described those affiliated with the Gülen Movement as a treasonous group more dangerous than the Islamic State (because of GM members’ high level of intelligence). He said, “There are people with higher IQs than mine, who are better-educated than me, who improved themselves. There are judges, commanders and professors among them. They also have a good level of income. However, the outcome is nothing but treason.”
Given these accusations, some might be surprised that Gülen and Erdoğan were ever allied. While Gülen opposed the transnational political Islamism that arose after the 1980s, after the military coup of 1997 the GM was categorized together with the Islamists and persecuted as such; in 1999 Gülen fled for the United States. This treatment convinced the movement to turn toward the opposition: the fledgling AKP. Erdoğan’s 2002 AKP electoral success was buoyed by GM support; the movement in turn was able to expand its projects in Turkey, and many GM participants, for the first time, were able to find employment in state institutions. Unsurprisingly, the secularist Kemalists were appalled by this alliance and by the idea that the GM was “infiltrating” the state, as they tended to put it. Thus, the Gülen-Erdoğan collaboration was based initially upon shared political enemies, chiefly the ultranationalist Kemalists who had tried for decades to keep religious groups out of power and were generally repressive toward anyone overtly religious. Some might, therefore, have concluded that the two shared common religious inclinations. However, their understanding of Islam is quite different; Gülen is a Sufi mystic. Sufism emphasizes the individual’s need to polish his or her soul as part of the internal journey toward the divine. Religiously, the movement both reflects the long tradition of Turkish Sufi brotherhoods, and Gülen’s own emphasis on societal change through education, humanitarian activism, and interfaith dialogue. He never sympathized with, or adopted, the AKP’s more conservative form of political Islam which, on the other hand, has more in common ideologically with other transnational Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
But the rift between the two began in earnest when the Gezi Park protests erupted during the summer of 2013. Erdoğan’s forceful response to demonstrators trying to rescue Gezi Park—one of the few green spaces left in Istanbul—from development was widely criticized. Gülen and his supporters began to speak out, both against Erdoğan’s handling of that crisis as well as against his government’s repression of the press and his foreign policies toward Syria, which was already engaged in a civil war. In mid-November 2013, Erdoğan decided to close the country’s dershanes, or exam preparatory schools, many of which were connected to the GM, in retaliation.
The relationship between the two men finally soured completely after a graft probe in December 2013, in which key government officials were accused of corruption, bribery, and collusion in the Iran-Halkbank-gold triangle. The United States and the European Union had imposed a trade embargo on Iran in 2010, and since 2012, Iran was also prohibited from using any international money transfer system. Turkey purchased oil and gas from Iran, and was able to pay for it indirectly by holding money for Iran in Turkey’s Halkbank. Iran then converted the money to gold, and later returned it to the country, thus evading the sanctions. Wiretapped ministers in Turkey were recorded in conversation discussing the deal, which took place ostensibly with Erdoğan’s knowledge. When the scandal was revealed, Erdoğan furiously accused the movement of retaliating against him for the school closures, through those in the police and judiciary loyal to Gülen.
As soon as the coup attempt began, theories and rumors started circulating regarding who was responsible; even now, half a year later, there are no clear answers. In August, anthropologist Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former Turkish parliamentarian under the Republican People’s Party (CHP), stated: “There is still a lot of fog after the coup. Whatever sketchy evidence we have so far points to a makeshift alliance, we are certain about that. What we still don’t know yet is who or what brought all these officers together. My suspicion is that it was simply an anti-Erdoğan sentiment.” However, according to one outlandish rumor, the coup attempt was the result of a CIA-Gülen-Ecumenical Patriarchate collaboration; this was later dismissed as a Russian misinformation campaign aimed at shifting Turkey’s loyalties away from the West.
Some believe that it was President Erdoğan himself who secretly staged the coup in order to consolidate his power; they note he has seized the opportunity to crush all perceived opposition. Certainly, the event paved the way for his restructuring of Turkish institutions (military, educational, media) to his benefit, allowing him to assert geopolitical strength in an increasingly unstable region. Questions arise regarding the unusually sloppy execution of the attempted coup and the strange way in which it unfolded, lending some merit to this theory. For example, why did the coup plotters not detain Erdoğan while he was vacationing in Marmaris, on the southwestern coast, instead allowing him to travel one hour by plane to Istanbul? Why did Erdoğan appear to have lists already prepared of people to arrest prior to July 15? The president has even called the coup attempt “a gift from God.”
Others wonder if ultranationalist secular forces within Turkey’s powerful military played a role. The coup plotters, in fact, stated they wanted to defend secularism in Turkey. In 2012, Erdoğan’s government imprisoned 230 military-affiliated ultranationalist Kemalists for their role in a clandestine organization called “Ergenekon,” known as the “deep state,” which had plotted Erdoğan’s removal from office in 2003. Even though these men’s convictions were overturned in 2014, the events of July 15 could have been a retaliatory move on their part, an attempt to halt the Islamization of Turkey, or both.
One of Erdoğan’s confidants, İsmail Kahraman, suggested on April 25, 2016, that Turkey’s constitution eliminate its emphasis on a secular Turkey and replace it with wording that would establish Turkey as a religious state, including a reference to God. Such a move would no doubt alienate those who want to protect the staunchly secular vision of Turkey originally set forth by Atatürk. However, overstating the secular-religious divide in Turkey is reductive. Alliances shift depending on variety of factors and are merely forged based on ideological grounds. After all, Erdoğan blamed the GM for the coup attempt, not the secular Kemalists. He likely did so to gain more control over the military, which he was able to restructure in the aftermath to his benefit, purging anyone he considered sympathetic to the GM or anyone he perceived as opposing him.
A final theory is that the United States played a significant role. While, according to one poll, 69 percent of Turkish citizens believe the United States did play at least some role, President Obama flatly denied any involvement. Turkey is a member of NATO, and the United States has relied on it in the past as a moderate and stable Middle Eastern ally. Regardless of their historical ties and of the legitimacy (or not) of these rumors, the Turkish government briefly closed Incirlik Air Base, grounding flights and cutting off power, apparently a punitive measure aimed at the United States. That air base, which also houses tactical nuclear weapons, is crucial because it is being used to launch attacks against the Islamic State.
Turkey itself has done little to fight the Islamic State, and, indeed, at times appears to be allowing its fighters to pass through Turkey’s porous border to enter the caliphate. Instead, it has spent much of its military resources battling Turkish and Syrian Kurds, even though Syrian Kurds are backed by the United States, which supports them precisely because they are fighting the Islamic State. Syrian Kurds have made use of the opportunity granted by recent political turmoil to create a space for themselves in Syria. This panics the Turkish government—Erdoğan fears a Syrian Kurdistan would embolden Turkey’s Kurds in their efforts to carve out their own territory. Syrian Kurds could (potentially) even cross into Turkey to lend support.
Since 1984, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has fought both for Kurdish rights and for an independent Kurdistan. The Kurdish conflict has cost around 45,000 lives in Turkey since the 1980s, leaving more than two million internally displaced, and approximately 2,000 villages destroyed. Because Ankara has been more focused on its internal conflict with its Kurdish population than on defeating the Islamic State, it has been accused of, ultimately, aiding it, all the while attacking a U.S. ally, the Syrian Kurds. This is a fair assessment, and understandably, of deep concern to the United States.
The U.S. government would prefer an American-friendly Turkish president, in part, to maintain secure access to that key air base. But Russia also wants Turkey as an ally so it can enhance its influence in the larger region, halting the presence of U.S. warships in the Black Sea and obtaining support for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in the process. Russia also benefits from ensuring Turkey is increasingly dependent on it for energy. Currently, Russia and Turkey are cooperating on the building of the Akkuyu nuclear power station in Turkey, owned by the Russian company Rosatom. The two countries also have agreements regarding the Blue Stream natural gas pipeline (Russia brings gas directly into Turkey through a pipe under the Black Sea) and, as of October 10, 2016, the Turkish Stream pipeline (which is the third gas link between Turkey and Russia). Russian companies supply 58 percent of the natural gas imported by Turkey and in the future, two Russian companies, Rosatom and Gazprom, will supply as much as 74 percent. Even though Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 2015, Erdoğan paid a visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin on August 9, 2016, shortly after the coup attempt. What this all means, at the end of the day, is that they have business together.
With the current Turkish government still in place, the United States risks losing a strategic ally that has become increasingly critical of it, that undermines its support of the ISIS-fighting Syrian Kurds, and that is flirting heavily with Russia. The United States should be, and is, deeply concerned about this relationship, although Washington has not publicly stated so. However, one would assume that, if the CIA were involved in actual coup planning, it would not have bungled it quite so ineptly.
Does this mean, therefore, that the failed revolution was truly conceived of by the Gülen Movement? The GM defines itself as a Sufism-inspired, civil society humanitarian organization, a definition supported by the actual work carried out in its thousands of educational, charitable, and cultural organizations around the world. Inspired in part by Sufi philosopher Said Nursi’s (1877-1961) Nur movement, the GM first emerged in the 1960s, grew in popularity in the 1980s and ’90s, and expanded abroad after 1999. Nursi, like Gülen, believed that science and religion were not at odds, and that modernity did not necessarily contradict piety; however, Gülen’s focus on education distinguishes him from Nursi. GM participants have conveyed to me in interviews their deep commitment to interfaith and intercultural dialogue, educational projects, and service to those in need.
One also must acknowledge that, before July 2015, the movement possessed a significant degree of influence and power in Turkey, through its popularity and large network of media and educational institutions (which have now been taken over or shut down). The types of accusations leveled against it differ depending on the region from where they arise. In Turkey, unfriendly portrayals of Gülen cast him as either a Zionist crypto-Jew, as a secret cardinal working for the Pope, or alternatively as a CIA agent.
Ironically, in the United States, defamatory comments range from allegations that Gülen is an anti-Semite working toward the downfall of Israel, or as an enemy of the West, secretly trying to Islamize the United States. Clearly, he cannot be all of these at once. Paranoia and its ensuing conspiracy theories are rampant in Turkey, and there are many Islamophobic groups outside of Turkey. Gülen’s critics’ charges reflect larger fears (i.e. regarding the security of Israel, or the secular/religious identity of Turkey) and very little, if any, of Gülen’s actual agenda. Ludicrously, on November 1, 2016, Erdoğan’s chief adviser implied that Gülen had a “deep connection” to the events of 9/11. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Gülen and his movement have been the target of such conspiracy theories.
Insistent that Gülen is guilty of masterminding the plot, Erdoğan has now formally requested that the United States extradite him to Turkey to face trial, which is unlikely to happen. Gülen, who resides in Pennsylvania, has vehemently denied any personal or institutional involvement. On August 10, he wrote in an op-ed for Le Monde: “If there are any officers among the coup plotters who consider themselves as a sympathizer of Hizmet [Gülen] movement, in my opinion those people committed treason against the unity of their country by taking part in an event where their own citizens lost their lives.” Attempting a government takeover would indeed patently contradict the GM’s own stated values, deeply undermining its appeal to its own (also coup-weary) followers. That being said, even if those ultimately found guilty were in some way affiliated with the movement, this does not justify the Turkish government’s extraordinary number of detentions and arrests of ordinary GM participants. Erdoğan has successfully used chaos and the discourse of fear-mongering to unify his supporters, and the Gülen movement—along with the Kurds—provide an easy and advantageous target.
The Indiscriminate Purge
Declaring a three-month state of emergency in which he unlawfully suspended the European Convention of Human Rights, Erdoğan put in motion a series of crackdowns termed “the Purge,” (in Turkish, temizlik) targeting the military, police, and the judiciary (with particular emphasis on those in any way associated with Hizmet). More than 160 media outlets (including newspapers, television, and radio stations) and publishing houses were forced shut or seized by the government. He has restructured the military by sacking up to 3,000 personnel and invalidated the teaching credentials of those he deemed a threat to the government. More than 2,000 private schools and educational institutions were forced to close, forcing thousands of students to transfer to state schools. As of December 2016, he has fired or suspended more than 115,000 people, and jailed judges, prosecutors, teachers, and businesspeople. A staggering 80,000 people have been detained, and more than 35,000 arrested.
It is not clear what percentage of those arrested are affiliated with the movement, but the purge has extended way beyond those affiliated with Hizmet, targeting anyone perceived as part of the opposition. At this point, the GM can no longer openly operate in Turkey. Marxist history professor Candan Badem at Tunceli University was arrested merely for possessing a copy of one of Gülen’s books in his office—he has no other connection with the movement. The Kurdish community has also suffered from a strategy of indiscriminate attacks.
According to Amnesty International, there is credible evidence that those detained have suffered human rights abuses, including torture, sexual abuse, and rape. The forms of torture include verbal threats and abuse, holding people for days in stress positions, and denying them food and water. There are reports of beatings, and of people forced to kneel for hours with tight zip ties holding their hands behind their backs. Amnesty International also details examples of the extreme emotional distress detainees have suffered as a result, including a person engaged in head banging and another who attempted suicide. Thousands of these people are being held arbitrarily, without any knowledge of the charges against them, denied access to legal aid and even the chance to contact family members.
Aftershocks and Consequences
Although Turkey was once a relatively safe country, the aftermath of the coup has left many terrorized, and the country more divided than ever. Individual rights have been indefinitely sidelined—thrown under the bus, together with the free press, the EU bid, and liberal democracy itself. Erdoğan’s focus on the Purge and the Kurdish conflict have taken precedence over those concerns, despite his earlier commitments to democracy and reform. While Turkey itself is reeling, the greater geopolitical implications of the crisis are also tremendously significant.
The international community and human rights organizations have demanded that independent monitors investigate the coup and the government actions that took place during the Purge. They have also urged Erdoğan to refrain from taking advantage of the extended state of emergency and to await evidence before seeking justice. According to Human Rights Watch, Erdoğan’s government has closed clinics, hospitals, associations, and trade unions believed to be linked to the Hizmet movement, which he recently classified as the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” (FETÖ), despite offering “no specific citation of any criminal activity by the affected individuals.”
Many Turkish citizens who fear harassment or arrest, and thus want to flee abroad, find they are unable to leave—more than 50,000 passports were revoked in the aftermath. Those who were successfully able to escape Turkey, predicting an imminent arrest, now find themselves traumatized refugees of a country they have long loved but that no longer appears to love them back.
Opposition groups will also perceive any attempt by Erdoğan to open peace talks as further attempts on his part to consolidate his own power, damaging any potential for consensus building. And it’s not just Hizmet that has been reclassified. Figen Yüksekdağ, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), has complained that lawmakers in her party have also been charged with terrorism and warns, “If the HDP is ostracized, that will raise the risk of a coup and civil war.” In the June 2015 elections, many GM activists (fed up with the AKP) supported the HDP, described as a blend of socialism and ethnic nationalism, and known for its support of women’s and LGBT rights. This temporary alliance, between the two groups Erdoğan has labeled as “terrorist” could well continue to strengthen, posing quite a threat to Turkey’s current government. The Kemalists, allied with Ergenekon (the “deep state”), could also reassert themselves. It is reasonable to foresee the very real potential for civil war, or at the minimum, another coup attempt, as anger grows over the Purge, attacks against the Kurds, growing Islamism, and the president’s steady march toward totalitarianism.
The July 15 aftershocks have also further imperiled women and Turkey’s LGBT community. Women, generally, do not fare well during violent political conflict. No longer spared from violence during the crisis, they are often further victimized by displacement, physical insecurity, poverty, and sexual and domestic violence. Turkish women, notably absent from street protests, have reported increased sexual harassment. Attacks against the LGBT community have also increased, including the beheading of a gay male Syrian refugee, Wisam Sankari, and the murder and immolation of a transgender woman, Hande Kader. It is not unusual that political instability should lead to patriarchal (and often homophobic) backlash, as those in power attempt to restore “order”; unfortunately, the number of these attacks, which reflect heightened polarization and divisiveness, will likely continue to rise.
The ramifications of the putsch attempt reach, however, beyond Turkey’s borders. Erdoğan can either turn inward, embracing isolationism, reorient his government toward Turkey’s traditional allies in the West, or continue to pivot toward Russia. As mentioned, the momentum is currently in Russia’s direction, which could affect the outcome of the Syrian war and the balance of power in the region. Without a doubt, Russia is helping tug Turkey away from its already shaky commitment to democracy. Erdoğan’s sidelining of human rights and Putinesque consolidation of power in Turkey, unsurprisingly, does not disturb the Kremlin. On the contrary, on October 2, 2016, a representative of Putin, Aleksandr Dugin, assured a Turkish delegation in Moscow that while “European doors are closed to you, Russian ones are open.” It also gains international influence when it keeps a distance from the United States, which is an important point of pride for the Turkish public.
However, in the long run, the Turko-Russian rapprochement is not sustainable. Historic enemies, their current alliance is not on an equal footing nor without serious areas of dispute. Turkey’s dependence on Russia for its energy needs makes Russia the stronger partner in their alliance. Russia’s sympathy for the leftist Kurdish insurgency, while provisionally shelved, grates on Erdoğan, whose approach to the Turkish Kurdish community is to forgo peace talks and use force to “stamp out the conflict.” Their alliance could be further problematized if Russia overtly collaborates with the United States, through a firm and sustained agreement to help Syria’s Kurds fight the Islamic State. If the United States wants to regain footing with Turkey, it should move in this direction.
There is potential, however limited, to salvage the U.S.-Turkey relationship. Turkey needs the West. Still reeling from terrorist attacks on Turkish soil, it depends on Western forces, including American ones, to battle the Islamic State. It also needs help from the United States to quell PKK violence, especially given that Syria’s Kurds might now lend support to PKK militants. Most of all, Ankara would benefit from an end to Syria’s war and Assad’s reign. Russia supports Assad; the United States and the West support the rebels.
Throwing a new wrench into the works, President-elect Donald Trump has hinted he will reverse the United States’ support of Syria’s Kurdish rebels, instead throwing his weight behind Assad. While this stunning turn of events will please Putin, if Trump follows through with it, he risks further damaging the U.S.-Turkey relationship, not to mention wreaking chaos with the refugee crisis. Turkey hosts over 2.7 million Syrian refugees; if Assad wins the civil war in Syria, they will need permanent refuge.
To redirect Turkey, the United States should take the high road in the face of Erdoğan’s crackdown and bluster and continue to support Turkey as a NATO member. Offering Turkey incentives toward realignment, such as support with security interests, while continuing to firmly denounce Erdoğan’s authoritarianism and human rights violations, might slow Ankara’s momentum toward Russia. However, given Erdoğan’s success in moving away from the Western bloc, the old relationship the two countries previously had is unlikely to be rekindled in its former form.
Some observers might, therefore, propose also extraditing Gülen to appease Ankara. Indeed, Trump’s key adviser, Michael Flynn, has recently argued the United States should hand Gülen over to Turkish authorities. However, making the mystic in Pennsylvania a sacrificial victim would be a myopic solution. While the move would delight Erdoğan, there is no evidence of Gülen’s guilt; under those circumstances, this would signal weakness and capitulation on the part of the United States, further emboldening Erdoğan. More importantly, the statements by the GM’s annual roundtable known as the Abant Platform have consistently supported a secular, liberal democracy, the rewriting of Turkey’s constitution to limit the power of the military, a separation of powers, and the accession to the European Union. The United States would be wise to cultivate this Western-friendly Muslim group; in the long term, if they were eventually able to resurface in Turkey and operate without fear of persecution, it might help steer Turkey back toward liberal democracy and away from autocratic Islamism, by providing an alternative way to be pious yet modern. Meanwhile, the United States should resist Ankara’s far-reaching attempts to pursue GM participants. Recently, according to pro-government journalist Cem Küçük, the AKP has gone so far as to establish a unit to abduct those residing abroad to return them against their will to Turkey.
Even before the events of July 15, Erdoğan has been positioning himself as Turkey’s divine patriarch and savior, “stamping his territory,” as cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz would put it, with the “inherent sacredness of central authority.” This political behavior is not new; Turkey’s founder, Atatürk, did the same, as did the Ottoman sultans before him. Atatürk’s legacy of Kemalism ensured that a stable, liberal democracy, protecting free press and individual human rights, would not take root in Turkey. Despite Turkey’s democracy, its constitution does not define the rights of citizens, which means that the stability and integrity of the country is safeguarded before, and sometimes at the expense of, individual human rights.
Atatürk’s fear was that Turkey would be splintered by its various sectarian and religious factions. His vision for his country was to remove or Turkify all non-Turkish groups, and to imitate French secularism, or laïcité, in order to unify and modernize Turkey. But a backlash against the Kemalist repression of religion initially manifested in Erdoğan’s AKP. For a period of time, there was hope for serious reform in Turkey. As anthropologist and former Turkish Parliamentarian Aykan Erdemir points out, “Today the country is making headlines for different reasons: frequent terror attacks, rising polarization, deepening diplomatic isolation, and a flagging economy.” Unfortunately, Turkey’s headlines will likely get worse before they improve.
As long as the tradition of the Turkish strongman continues without change, so then will the succession of coups. The attempted putsch and its aftermath have only heightened Erdoğan’s desire for ultimate power, and Moscow is taking advantage of Western criticism of Ankara to create even closer ties with its oil-dependent neighbor. The United States should navigate carefully—there is much to lose if Turkey continues on its path toward totalitarianism, and is drawn even more deeply into Russia’s orbit.