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Transatlantic Take

Coup Attempt Unifies Turkey — But Could Distance the West

The international community has failed to fully grasp the sense of unity and solidarity the recent coup attempt has created among the Turkish political class and Turkish society as a whole.

The international community has failed to fully grasp the sense of unity and solidarity the recent coup attempt has created among the Turkish political class and Turkish society as a whole. Not only did all parties in the parliament denounce the coup attempt, even when it appeared to be winning, but they also drew similar conclusions as to who was behind it. While opposition parties have raised legitimate concerns about rule of law and human rights, they generally have supported the measures taken by the government to eliminate this specific threat to Turkish democracy. President Erdoğan has been atypically inclusive towards the opposition parties (except the pro-Kurdish Party) and Prime Minister Yıldırım has gone out of his way to rule by consensus rather than by majority.

The coup’s plotters had almost no support from Turkish society. Firing upon civilians and bombing the parliament cemented the public’s shock and rage at the putsch. While many fear President Erdoğan may use the coup attempt to further consolidate power and build an authoritarian regime, this fury has unified the populace in support of the measures taken by the government.

There is general consensus in Turkey that the coup was plotted and attempted by the Gülen Movement. The Gülen Movement is a faith-based movement without a clear structure or definable boundaries. The Movement has always shown a special interest in the state apparatus in Turkey and thousands of its followers have joined the military and civilian bureaucracy. The Movement’s network includes several hundred schools, universities, hospitals, media institutions, and commercial companies in Turkey and abroad. There are also thousands who are not part of the Movement, but have cooperated with them at some point. Even President Erdoğan and AK Party leadership can be counted among this number. In fact, during the first decade of the AK Party’s rule, the Movement experienced its era of greatest influence as the government appointed members to key positions in the bureaucracy.

The government is using the consensus against the coup attempt to uproot the Gülen Movement not only from the Turkish army and civilian bureaucracy, but from Turkish society entirely.  So far, over 60,000 people have been purged from the Turkish bureaucracy. Thousands of people have been detained and hundreds arrested under suspicion of committing crimes instigated by the Gülen Movement. Several schools, universities, NGOs, newspapers, TV and radio channels, news agencies, think tanks and companies have been shut down on grounds of being under Gülenist control. All of these actions have been taken by government decrees under the state of emergency, meaning they are not subject to rule of law or human rights agreements. 

The European Union and member states have criticized these developments. Turkey’s government believes the EU has not shown sufficient solidarity with Turkey at a moment when Turkey’s democracy and its people’s wellbeing were at risk. Aside from the U.K.’s EU Minister, no senior European officials visited Turkey in the aftermath of the coup, which Turkey’s government takes as a sign that the EU’s criticisms are not driven by principles. This in turn reduces the EU’s moral and political leverage over Turkey.

The stakes for U.S.-Turkey relations are even higher. The leader of the Gülen Movement, Fethullah Gülen has been living in the U.S. since 1999, with a green card that he received in 2008 when the Gülen Movement and the AKParty government were still allies in Turkey. Gülen’s green card application was initially rejected by the U.S. administration, and accepted only after a court ruled in his favor. The Turkish government has long requested Gülen’s extradition and redoubled these requests since the coup attempt.  In the United States, extradition is a legal procedure which is subject to concrete evidence and there is not much the administration can do about it. In Turkey, Gülen’s extradition is seen as a political sign of the United States’ support to Turkish democracy versus the coup attempters. In the United States, it is seen as a matter of legality. If the two sides cannot find a solution, this issue will increase distrust in U.S.-Turkey relations, and further antagonize the Turkish society towards the United States for at least a generation to come.

The West’s failure to understand Turkey’s fury towards the coup attempt, and the sense of national unity in its aftermath, has led to rhetoric which risks alienating not only the Turkish government but also Turkish society as a whole, including the pro-Western elite. Turkey, meanwhile, risks turning the post-coup measures into a witch hunt that will serve neither long term domestic stability nor the country’s standing in the international community. Can Turkish democracy emerge stronger out of this crisis, furthering Turkey’s integration into Europe and cooperation with the United States? The answer is yes, but only if all sides stop accusing and start listening.