Coups are never a good thing, especially in countries that purport to be democracies like Turkey. Yet, the July 15 coup attempt would have been that country’s sixth since Kemal Ataturk enforced secularism in the 1920s after the demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WW I.
In the midst of the coup attempt, many media pundits characterized the events as an attack on democracy, while others online and on social media repeated conspiracy theories aimed at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For secularists, Erdogan has increasingly become a figure synonymous with Hitler, whose rise through democratic institutions resulted in democracy’s demise in Germany. The Peace and Justice Party (AKP) With Erdogan at its helm, has increasingly jailed members of the free press; discouraged women from becoming involved in politics and civil society; marginalized minorities despite promises of greater integration prior to the last election; and looked the other way as the country become a transit point to ISIS-held territory in Syria and an arms/extremist route from the Middle East back to Europe.
Erdogan famously described democracy as a bus ride that ends when you arrive at your destination. His goal has increasingly become an Islamist autocracy, not a stronger democratic Turkey. As president, Erdogan has called women who do not have children "deficient"; demanded a comedian be sued because she dared make fun of Erdogan from Germany; and jailed anyone that looks at him or his power grab over the last decade the wrong way. He has tried pro-secular generals to remove them from the military, and jailed political dissidents and human rights activists. Instead of integrating Turkey into a global community built on the principles of universal human rights, Erdogan has preferred to remove all threats to his fantastic dreams of a neo-Ottoman empire to rival the power plays of other countries in an already broken Middle East. And that was before the coup attempt gave him further excuse to strike out against perceived enemies.
With calm returning to Turkey a few days after the coup attempt failed, (despite the arrests of thousands from the military to the judiciary) – Erdogan demanded the U.S. extradite Fetahullah Gulen, an old man, retired and living in Pennsylvania. Though, Gulen is not known to many outside of academic and policy circles, he should be. Gulen, has not only funded a global Islamist movement that advocates for a reportedly democratic-friendly interpretation of Islam, he was a necessary ally to Erdogan’s rise in Turkey during the last 15 years before the two men had a falling out. Over time, it is believed that Gulen and his followers became a threat to Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic vision of leadership.
It remains to be seen whether Erdogan staged the coup so he could have an excuse to flush out the remaining cadre of secularists and pro-Gulen activists in government, the judiciary and military as some Turkish journalists believe; or if Gulen truly did try and remove Erdogan from power from the outside as the Turkish government maintains. What matters today is that Erdogan has moved one step closer to establishing a dictatorship that would end Turkey’s experiment in secularism and democracy.
No one should applaud a coup. But a democracy in name only can be even more dangerous. A true secular Turkey would not need the military to be ushered in periodically to prop up its democratic constitution. One must assume, then, that Turkey should have obsessed less about whether women wore hijabs in universities, and focused more on inculcating democratic values through its education system throughout the nation. This especially includes the countryside, where far away from the secular, westernized urban centers, families live in traditionally patriarchal societies like their neighbors to the east. With promises of a better economy, the AKP and Erdogan was embraced in rural areas and the countryside became the backbone of the AKP for more than 10 years.
It remains to seen what impact Erdogan’s continuing purge of the police, military and judiciary will have on Turkey’s commitment to fighting ISIS or its role in controlling the flow of refugees. If Turkey’s economy continues to go downhill as fearful tourists go elsewhere, Erdogan may have to take a break from his power grab and flirting with Russia to improve his marred relationship with his own citizens and NATO allies abroad. Until then, it appears democracy’s retreat globally has reached Turkey, which will only empower extremists further in the region.