Can Europe Make It?

More than black and white: a report from Istanbul

A critical engagement with the question of the ‘right’ relationship between religion and politics, would immensely benefit analysis of the events in Turkey, as well as future European political decision-making.

Christiane Fröhlich
7 August 2016
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Taksim Square, July 24. CHP supporters stand under Turkish flags, including portrait of Ataturk, founder of modern Kemalist Turkey. Petros Kardjias / Press Association. All rights reserved.European reports about the developments in Turkey since July 15 are quite equivocal: the attempted coup was the beginning of the end of what had been left of Turkish democracy since AKP came to power in 2002, since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected prime minister in 2003, and since he became president in 2014.

Without a doubt, the growing authoritarianism of the Turkish government is real and worrying. Since July 15, tens of thousands of security personnel, judges, academics, journalists etc. have been discharged and/or detained. Many universities, schools, publishing houses, newspapers, radio stations and online media outlets have been closed down. Employees of Turkish universities are currently not allowed to leave the country, some cannot even cross the boundaries of the city they live in. The state of emergency provides the Turkish government with the liberty to extend pre-trial custody, to search civilians, to impose curfews, curb the consumption of alcohol, limit private festivities and so forth. All of this is catastrophic and sends the signal that president Erdoğan aims to consolidate his power with ever growing authoritarianism. 

But the inner-Turkish discussion of the attempted coup and its aftermath consists of more than the "being against Erdoğan" which dominates European interpretations of the developments. In fact, it is much more nuanced than this black and white perspective. I believe that it is only on the basis of a full understanding of both perspectives that adequate answers can be developed to the question how the relationship between Europe and Turkey should be shaped in the future. That is, if the answer is not merely aimed inwards, towards Europe, but also wants to include those who are suffering most from the attempted coup and its aftermath, namely the population of Turkey.

In Turkish discourse, it is in no way considered proven that Erdoğan's position has been strengthened by the coup. On the contrary, even voices that are critical of the government have pointed out that he has been weakened by the loss of his most important instruments of repression. The Gulen-movement is key here; in Turkish discourse, it is considered evident that this religious sect had infiltrated the military, the judiciary, parts of the educational sector etc. and that it orchestrated the attempted coup. In fact, that Gulinists have developed into a common foe for a society which had hitherto been divided by ever-growing rifts between secular and religious forces, between Turks and Kurds and so forth.

This helps to explain why the Turkish government allowed a demonstration organised by opposition forces on Taksim square on July 24. It included all kinds of societal groups: LGBTQ, Alevites, Kurds, Kemalists, Religious, AKP-supporters, and was nevertheless broadcast widely by state media. This is not in line with European ideas of AKP omnipotence, but with a broad societal renunciation of Gulenist forces. The same is true for a public service announcement which has been shown in Turkish television in a continuous loop: the spot turns Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's words "Happy who can call himself a Turk" into "Happy who can call himself a Turk, Kurd, Circassian, Arab, Armenian, Assyrian, Jew, Christian, Alevite, Sunni [...]". Erdoğan's public acknowledgement of opposition leader Kılıçdaroğlu for his determined stance against the coup and the fact that prime minister Binali Yıldırım has been speaking of the need for societal dialogue since July 15 also refute more unidimensional interpretations of recent developments in Turkey.                           

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Preident Erdogan and his wife wave to the crowd during vast Democracy and Martyrs' Rally in Istanbul, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. Emrah Gurel / Press Association. All rights reserved.Since July 15, every night has seen demonstrations in Istanbul against the coup, in which not only supporters of the president are taking part, but also Kemalists, minorities, explicit opponents of Erdoğan. Apparently for many demonstrators, the matter is not the president of state, but the question of what the Turkish political system should look like and how the societal political bargaining process could and should be shaped in the future. The unexpected four-party-declaration on the day after the coup is a case in point. In fact, in Turkish discourse, the attempted coup is considered a fundamental attack on Turkish democracy; never in the history of the republic had initiators of a coup d'etat attacked the Turkish parliament.

Relatedly, many Turks are asking themselves what would have happened had the coup been successful. Would the rule of military forces which had been infiltrated by Gulenists have been more democratic than the current system? What is the relationship between secularism, political Islam and democracy in current Turkey, what should it be in the future?

The question which we have to ask ourselves in Europe is why this Turkish perspective is invisible in our dominant interpretation of the coup. Which inner-European discourse strands are rendering it unspeakable? This kind of self-reflection, which also needs to include a critical engagement with the question of the ‘right’ relationship between religion and politics, would immensely benefit the objective analysis of the events in Turkey of the last two weeks, as well as future European political decision-making with regard to Turkey.

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