I am based in Turkey and have been at the edge of some dramatic events. Before I was in Turkey, I was in the Turkish sector of Cyprus (officially designating itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, but only recognised as such by Turkey), where I followed the Postmodern or Indirect Coup of 28th February 1997 when military representatives on the National Security Council were able to force the collapse of a coalition government under an Islamist Prime Minister. Later that year I relocated to Istanbul where I experienced sporadic terrorism from Kurdish separatists and Jihadists. In June of this year I landed at the Atatürk airport just after an ISIS suicide attack. In a more gradual way I saw the disappearance of a Turkish political system under the guardianship of Jacobin laicist army generals, known as Kemalists after the first President of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk.
The changes in Turkey came about through a de facto alliance between a party with Islamist roots, the AKP (JDP, Justice and Development Party) and the followers of Fetullah Gülen. Gülen was himself a product of Nurcu Islam, which developed in the early years of the Republic before World War Two as a reaction against the state-led secularisation of Turkey. Gülen was a not very well educated preacher who operated in the context of a fragment of the Nurcu movement, which is not as a whole connected with him. Given the enormous tension between laic Kemalists and the religiously observant population, there was room for a movement devoted to developing conservative Muslim power in civil society and the state.
The Gülenists were preceded in this by the Nakşibendi community, which targeted the state bureaucracy and had followers in politics, notably Türgüt Özal, Prime Minister and then President in the 1980s. Secretive and manipulative politics has been a feature of Turkish and Ottoman politics for a long time. The power of the Janissary elite military and bureacratic corps during the Ottoman period was tied to a religious community, the Bektaşis, creating a parallel system to the legal power of the Sultan until they were violently crushed in the late eighteenth century.
The Committee of Union and Progress, which came to power with military support in the last phase of Ottoman history, developed into a conspiratorial organisation rather than a parliamentary political parry, and a secret arm of it was at the centre of the destruction of Anatolian Armenians in 1915. Secretive groups of Unionists provided a power base for Kemal Atatürk when he revolted against the restored power of the Sultanate and its subservience to the partition/occupation of what is now Turkey after World War One.
The idea of a secret part of the state was maybe not so strong during the early years of the Republic when a one-party system (though in principle the republic was under popular sovereignty) under the dominance of Kemal Atatürk and then İsmet İnönü maybe made it less necessary. Nevertheless, the conditions were established for a revived politics of manipulation behind the scenes. Unfortunately, İnönü’s decision to join the west after World War Two played a part in this. The reorientation resulted in free elections in 1950, with a change in government, and Turkish membership of NATO in 1952.
As in some other countries, the Gladio units played a role in dark political activities. These were the units established to engage in resistance in the event of a Soviet invasion. They had a secretive army within an army aspect and were inevitably a magnet for the most fiercely anti-communist officers, including Alparslan Türkeş, who played an important role in the 1960 Coup. Türkeş was expelled from the coup government, which found him too radical, but he founded the extreme right party in Turkey, Nationalist Action, which is comparatively moderate now, but was heavily involved in political destabilisation and terrorism along with the most anti-communist parts of the state.
What came later was infiltration of the state by Nakşibendis and then Gülenists. Their activity was rather overshadowed by the darker activities of the army and its extreme right allies, often also connected with the Mafia. This network is often known in Turkey as the Deep State. It tended to favour a secular democratic system in terms of formalities, but with concessions to religious conservatism along with an anything goes attitude to covert war against communists and then more importantly Marxist Kurdish autonomists, as well as very limited tolerance for the Left. The hard right element of the army with a base in Gladio was not the whole story. There were far left army officers, particularly up to 1971 and a general staff that tended to be in the middle, though the middle tended to move further right from 1960 to 1980, and then became unwilling to launch anymore violent coups after the 1980 military council stepped down in 198. The general staff itself became increasingly concerned about infiltration by Islamists, including Gülenists.
As it turns out the army’s fear was more than justified. The country liberalised, from a very illiberal base, in the late 1990s, and while the army to some degree went along with that, it launched a peaceful ‘post-modern’ coup in 1997 against the Islamists and was left with the image of the pillar of anti-democracy and anti-liberalism in Turkey. This is an important part of the background to the AKP ‘moderate’ Islamist/conservative democrat electoral victory of 2002 along with the economic crisis of 2001, which along with the 1997 coup left the secular parties very fragmented. The AKP gained a lot of liberal and libertarian support (a very small proportion of Turkey though) and more general reformist support from those who believed it would be a vehicle for reducing the military role in politics and for generally less nationalist-statist politics.
The AKP had very few supporters in place in the military, in the state bureaucracy, or in senior positions in education. The Fetullah Gülen campaign to turn his supporters into the dominant force in Turkey meant they had people in these positions, partly through infiltration of state institutions and partly through founding private educational institutions. This was just one part of the Gülen empire, which include major media groups, banks, and industrial companies in Turkey, and in many countries outside Turkey including the USA. Gülen himself moved to the USA to avoid prosecution by the Kemalist old guard before AKP came to power, claiming to have no links with the economic and educational empire of his supporters which is clearly less than honest of him.
The Gülenists expected a large role in the AKP government and served them most spectacularly in purging the armed forces after an attempted website coup in 2007. In that year the armed forces, unwilling to launch an outright coup, hoped to influence public opinion and the political process by placing a message on its website proclaiming the army’s guardian role in relation to secularism. This turned into the final political defeat of the army’s Kemalist guardian-tutelary role. The AKP won a general election and a referendum to change the method of electing the President. This triumph of civil electoral politics was, however, undermined by the trials of supposed armed coup plotters in the armed forces. Such trials gave the impression of completing the civilian dominance over the army, but were themselves rigged using weak and outright faked evidence. The judges and prosecutors were from the Gülen movement and were creating space for their own people to take the high offices in the armed forces.
The AKP began a campaign against the Gülenists after making its own illiberal core attitude very clear in 2013 in its highly intolerant and authoritarian reaction to the Gezi protest movement. It was increasingly clear to the (even then) most enthusiastic of liberal fellow travellers with the AKP that it was Islamo-nationalist and statist at its core, reducing democracy to the unlimited will of the party elected to government. The Gülenists and the AKP now found the state was not big enough for both of them and the Gülenists decided to use conspiratorial methods against the AKP. Audio files and video tapes of AKP figures and associates, which had evidently been kept in reserve and which suggested widespread corruption were released. Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan (then Prime Minister and now President) and the AKP government succeeded in sacking, retiring and transferring enough Gülenist police officers, prosecutors and judges to stop this evidence coming to court. They then declared the Gülenists to be a parallel state and a terrorist group, entering into a process of purging the state of Gülenists and seizing their assets in the media, educational and other sectors. The coup conspiracy convictions against army officers, and others, were overturned and it became widely accepted that Gülenists had rigged the trials.
On 15th July this year, I was at a small party on a terrace in the Üsküdar district of Istanbul, overlooking one of the Bosphorus bridges, though by quite a large distance. We could see traffic interrupted on the bridge and news began filtering through of a confrontation between police and army units in what was described as an anti-terrorist operation gone wrong, but was beginning to sound like the beginning of a coup. It turned out that a coup had started and for a brief part of the night it appeared that the old Kemalist-Guardian army had come back to dispose of a government that was elected but increasingly authoritarian. Any welcome in the party where I was, of secular anti-AKP Turks and foreigners was strongly outweighed by a fear that a coup regime would be authoritarian, would create new problems, and the AKP or something like it, if not worse, would be in power for ten or twenty years by way of reaction. This turned out to be the mood of anti-AKP and anti-Erdoğan Turkey. It also became increasingly reported and accepted across the political spectrum that though the putschists had adopted Kemalist language, they were for the most part Gülenists rising up before a purge of the army in a last grasp at domination of the Turkish state.
Since then a purge has unfolded against the Gülenists in state and society, covering the universities (the sector where I work), which has already led to the sacking and arrests of about 60 ooo, including constitutional court judges, army generals and university rectors. The number will certainly at least double before the purge and the current state of emergency is over. Such sweeping action is understandable up to a point given the violent actions of 15th July, and the accumulating evidence over the years of Gülenist infiltration to create a Gülenist-controlled state and society, but clearly the potential exists for massive and systematic individual injustice with abuses of state power affecting over enemies of the state, real and imagined. Some of the language President Erdoğan has used since the coup has been highly polarising and vengeful, demanding submission to state power; some of his rhetoric has been more conciliatory, recognising that all political parties opposed the coup and that deputies across the spectrum sheltered together in the basement of the National Assembly fearing for their lives. I cannot say I am hopeful that the post-coup atmosphere will be beneficial to liberty, but we should hope for and work for the best in Turkey, while being vigilant in working against further declines of liberty.
One thing is for sure: republican politics will not come from the army now and Turkish republicanism must renew itself through engagement and re-engagement with the whole history of republican thought, which is at the origin of classical liberal and libertarian thought. In theoretical and philosophical terms, which is where I work, the discussions of republicanism and liberty going back to Hannah Arendt in the last century, along with the revived study of Machiavellian–Renaissance–Early Modern Republicanism and the way the classical liberals were dealing with the republican legacy of ancient Greece, ancient Rome and medieval city-states are particularly apposite given that Turkish politics, avowedly Kemalist or not, deals so much in a republican language of shared sovereignty and popular mastery.