Oh, No! Another Coup? It was a horrible sense of deja vu. In 1960, 1970, 1980, and a soft postmodern version in 1997, Turkey had military coups. It was the Turkish government’s worse nightmare. Then, on 15 July 2016, it looked like Turkey was experiencing yet again another coup. This time, however, it failed. The toll, however, was high, with 290 people killed and 1,440 wounded.
The Inevitable Crackdown: With great rapidity, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took strong action in a matter of hours and days to stamp out the ‘coup virus.’ Consider these statistics (courtesy of Incontext Ministries):
• 22,000 people in education suspended;
• 9,000 in the military arrested;
• 2,700 in the judiciary arrested;
• 50,000-60,000 government employees dismissed.
A 3-month state of emergency has been declared in Turkey, giving President Erdogan sweeping powers. The purpose of the emergency, so the government says, is to ‘preserve freedom and democracy.’
Turkey is in turmoil. And this is bad news … not just for Turkey … not just for the Middle East … but also for the world. Why?
Turkish Secularism - Under Threat? Turkey has had three constitutions (1924, 1961, 1982) and all of them have stated that Turkey is a secular, democratic republic. This secular, western-leaning outlook came courtesy of the founding father of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938). Ataturk, one of the most successful revolutionaries in modern times, took the feudalistic backward Ottoman dominated nation and yanked it from the dark ages to the 20th century. His secular legacy is highly appreciated by many modern Turks to this very day. Turkey’s secularism has been held up as a role-model for other Muslim-majority nations; however, the current instability iis clearly a setback for reformists Muslims everywhere.
A secular, western, democratic Turkey helps preserve the balance of power in the Middle East.
Part of the reason the military took over in Turkey in the previous occasions was because secularism and democracy were under threat. Once the takeover was complete and everything settled down, the country was handed back to civilian democratic rulers.
Military coups are the antithesis of democracy and for this reason many countries condemned this coup attempt. Yet the failed plotters, if they were given a microphone, would probably say that democracy was already under threat in Turkey and that’s why they felt the need to step in.
The ascendancy of Erdogan in 2003, along with his Justice and Development Party (AKP), began to change this unswerving commitment to secularism. Erdogan is an Islamist more than a secularist, even though he continues to give verbal allegiance to Kemalist secularism. He still publicly supports Turkey’s application to join the (secular) European Union, though with less enthusiasm than before. Nevertheless, key areas of society - the military, academic, NGOs, and the media - have been under great scrutiny and pressure by the AKP. The hysterical reaction to popular protests, plans for an executive presidency, a shaky economy and risky foreign policy (e.g. Syria), have the Turkish secularists worried.
Watch Turkey: This service has been saying for years to ‘keep your eyes on Turkey.’ Why? Its history, heritage, location, make it a powerbroker unlike any other. Turkey holds the balance of power in the Middle East and as long as it stays secular, there will be a degree of stability. That’s why Turkey is important to the world. But if this nation heads down the road of political Islam, it will upset the balance of power and the tremors will be felt worldwide.
Two trends to watch:
1. Will Turkey go down the Islamist road (not if the millions of Turkish secularists have their way);
2. Will there be a neo-Ottoman empire in the future? Former Prime-Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu spoke his neo-Ottoman ambition to ‘reintegrate the Balkan region, Middle East and Caucasus... together with Turkey as the centre of world politics in the future.’
When Turkey is stable, so is the region. But, as it appears, Turkey is unsettled, then others will be, too.
The Syrian Gamble: Turkey took a gamble when it decided to get involved in the Syrian civil war, with the goal of trying to unseat President Bashar al Assad. They allowed would-be jihadists to cross their territory from Istanbul Airport to the Syrian land border; it gave clandestine support to the so-called Islamic State, then refugees began to flow from Syria into Turkey. Some estimate 2 million Syrians are present in the nation. Then Turkey allowed the migrants to go from its territory into Europe, and then the EU responded with a deal to give Turkey money, visa-free travel, and accelerated EU Admissions talks, for its cooperation in stemming the flow.
Turkey continues to have unrest with the Kurds. Prior to the coup attempt, there have been several sensational terrorist incidents in Ankara and Istanbul, culminating in the attack on Ataturk International Airport (you cannot even walk into the terminal building without going through security twice, however the terrorists detonated outside the building and in the ensuing chaos were able to enter inside and detonate some more).
Turkish Leadership: Turkey has been wired for leadership over the millennia. The Anatolian Peninsula (Asia Minor) hosted the Hittite and Byzantine Empires. The Turks originated in Central Asia and migrated to Asia Minor 1,000 years ago. They led the Seljuk Empire and later the 600 year long Ottoman Empire, dominated North Africa, the Middle East, and SE Europe, while their sultan became the ‘Caliph’ of Islam. The empire collapsed after World War I and was replaced by Ataturk’s secular Turkish Republic. Turkey has become a valued ally of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and recently restored full diplomatic relations with Israel. Erdogan admitted earlier this year that Turkey and Israel need each other.
Other Nations Affected: Already, the Turkish backlash is affecting other countries like Azerbaijan, Armenian, and Turkmenistan. These are Turkic nations, formerly in the USSR, and part of Turkey’s ethnic and linguistic heritage. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have had the same leaders since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and want to enshrine family members into the high echelons of power. Like Turkey, these nations are endeavouring to have centralisation and security crackdowns to ensure stability and protect them from jihadist threats. Indeed, they are taking their cue from Turkey.
All the recent turmoil has weakened Turkey, despite the governmental crackdown. This is bad news for the region. Again we ask: Will Turkey stay secular and western-leaning or will it go Islamists and neo-Ottoman?
Watch this space.