A Coup that Does Not Look Like a Coup

There are many unknowns about the July 15th coup d’état attempt in Turkey. Putschists, instead of taking down the leadership or shutting down communication, ineffectually closed off some roads, attacked government buildings including the Parliament, and killed many innocent civilians without clear operational objectives. The level of confusion and disorder among soldiers was mind boggling. It is hard to believe that these putschists were part of the “one of the most powerful NATO armies.” The sloppiness of this military operation raises a lot of questions; who gave the orders? What was the network diagram of this operation? Did they have a plan B? What was going to happen if the coup was successful? Who are the political collaborators? Even after two weeks, none of this is evident.

Since the events have been unfolding, numerous conspiracy theories have circulated. Some have argued that Erdogan himself orchestrated the coup to take full control of the state apparatus –creating de-facto conditions for his imagined presidential powers. Although the government moved quickly to declare a state of emergency, suspend constitutional rights and purge tens of thousands of state employees, I do not find any of these conspiracies plausible due to the scale of terror inflicted on civilians. Spectacularly disastrous as it was, the coup was a coup with numerous unexplained events and links. For instance, although the National Intelligence Agency (a.k.a MIT) received information about the coup attempt and informed the military’s chief of staff around 4:30pm on July 15th, both the MIT and the military leadership failed to inform the government and Erdogan about the coup attempt at that time. Remarkably, Erdogan learned that there was an “unusual military activity on the roads” only around 9:30pm from his brother-in-law — a retired teacher residing in Istanbul.

Since day one, there has been a consensus among the main political parties that Gulenists (the Hizmet or Gulen Movement) a moderate Islamist network is at the center of the coup attempt. The cultish figure Fethullah Gulen, the founder of the Hizmet Movement, is the chief suspect. He lives in Pennsylvania in a large compound, and recently published an article in New York Times denying any relationship with the putschists. Since then, he frequently has appeared on Western media asserting his innocence, while arguing that Erdogan himself staged this bloody coup to eliminate Gulen’s supporters. However, the Turkish government continues to insist that the United States has to extradite Gulen as soon as possible for a trial. With so many unknowns, some newspapers close to Erdogan even claimed that the United States is behind the coup and protecting Gulen. [Dani Rodrik, an economist who has been following the Gulen movement very closely, recently published a blog post analyzing these claims “Is the U.S. behind Fethullah Gulen?”]

No matter how and why this coup happened, for Erdogan, as he quickly pointed out, “the coup was a gift from God.” He has used the catastrophic events as justification to reshuffle old state institutions and reinforce his power at the expense of democracy. Finding justification through an Islamist/Gulenist coup, Erdogan’s Islamist gangs have been harassing Kurds, Alevis, women, the LGBTQ community and Christian minorities who were already on high alert.

Pre-Coup: The Islamist Plot, Deep State, and Media Intellectuals

Islamists in Turkey are composed of many [often] competing Sunni factions. Erdogan, who is originally from Milli Gorus, has been particularly successful in unifying many tariqas [Islamic order] and Islamist groups [or cemaats / communities] which previously found refuge in different right-wing political parties. Alongside the Milli Gorus — AKP’s core political movement — Nurcu and Nakşibendi (Naqshbandiyya) tariqas are the two most important groups in this Sunni coalition.

Gulenists, although not directly connected to any of these tariqas can be considered as an off-shot of Nurcu tariqa, and gained momentum after the 1970’s as an independent and secretive organization. They expanded their powers during the late 1980’s and the beginning of the 1990’s when right-wing governments provided them a fertile ground in the state institutions. The Gulenist Islamist network, composed of thousands of schools, hospitals, universities, businesses, banks and media companies all over the world, paid particular attention to cultivating poor and underprivileged kids, directing them to their schools, providing them scholarships, accommodation and job placement in exchange for their un-compromised commitment to “the cause.”

Since the Islamist Gulen followers were highly educated and well-organized, Erdogan formed an intimate coalition with them to overcome Kemalists, social democrats and other secular groups in state institutions, especially in the military and judicial system. The AKP government delivered unprecedented opportunities to the Gulen Movement, including high-ranking government positions, lucrative public deals and illegal real estate and land grabs. Although the Gulen movement is an opaque organization, in Turkey almost everyone was aware of their power and influence in the government and the media.

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What is significant here is how Gulenists utilized previously independent “media intellectuals” to form and manipulate a particular public agenda. They hired many liberal journalists and academics, and provided them access to (often fabricated) state intelligence. Alongside their Zaman and Bugun Newspapers, they funded a left-leaning Taraf Newspaper as an operational front. In that regard, the Ergenekon and Balyoz (2008-2011) trials were particularly telling. An ambiguous term,“deep-state,” was propagated from journalistic columns to define various covert groups within the state with connections in the military, police, media, universities and NGO’s. This tabloid term quickly gained traction and spread into academic papers without much analytical consideration. In fact, the term “deep state” is useful in undermining the very nature of the repressive state apparatus, as if the Turkish State had been uncorrupted, respectable and just. In other words, the deep state implied that the state is not the problem but that the problem lies within — a dark, secularist group who wanted to control the state and undermine a wonderfully functioning democracy. Since the military has a long history of coup d’etats, understandably for some this was a reasonable argument. However, the term “deep state” was used by Islamists specifically to highlight the secularists, which undermined the fact that Turkey has been run by right-wing / conservative governments since the 1950’s, and Islamists and nationalists have already overrun state institutions. And in fact, the 1980 military coup d’etat was not a secularist takeover but a conservative one performed specifically against the rising socialist left — with the blessings of the United States of course.

In other words, in its deep or shallow forms, the state has always been repressive and undemocratic. In fact, specifically because of the Junta’s 1980 constitution, religion became a much more dominant force in the education system and every other aspect of public life. In short, the deep state conceptualization was an analytical travesty that provided a perfect decoy for Erdogan to fully grasp the violent state apparatus including the justice department, military, and the police, without democratizing these institutions. And finally, through the 2010 Referendum, he helped Gulenists to fully take total control of the judiciary apparatus without fully comprehending the very political struggle that he was going to face.

In “A General Theory of the Victim” (Polity, 2015) Francois Laruelle criticizes the media-savvy intellectuals who quickly position themselves in defense of the victim. Through their columns, TV and radio programs, these “embedded intellectuals” use every single opportunity to oppose the oppressor’s tyranny in its abstraction. Their relentless arguments underline a generalized victim that needs to be represented and defended (by them) ignoring lived experiences, or “real” victims. In that regard, Gulenists and the government media provided a platform to especially liberal pundits so that they could oppose the imagined tyranny of the Kemalist networks within the state. These media intellectuals, without much consideration, aligned themselves with the Islamists, in defense of the victimized Muslims. In an interesting coincidence, in Turkish “Mazlim”, read as Muslim means “the victim,” and signifies stigmatized groups.

We know how the story turned out.

Since the late 1990’s, many researchers have pointed out that Gulenists infiltrated into state institutions through various illegal tactics, including cheating on exams, bullying their opponents and structural nepotism. Those who warned about these unjust infiltrations were steadfastly prosecuted by the right-wing government. Warnings were ignored. At that time, both locally and internationally, media intellectuals used their outreach to delegitimize any opposition who raised any concern about the Gulenist-Islamist infiltration in the state. Pundits frequently wrote international op-eds in respected newspapers such as The Guardian and New York Times defending the Ergenekon trials, attacking the secularist resistance as backward and not democratic.

From TV’s to newspapers, from scholarly magazines to radio programs, the intellectual corruption inflicted by the Islamists spread into every corner of life. Media intellectuals were eager to draw quick conclusions that secularists were planning a coup, and those Islamists were defending democracy. For instance, Birikim Magazine, composed of once-respected socialist writers, started to appear at Gulenist-organized gatherings and argued that the rise of the Islamist bourgeoisie would bring much-needed democracy to Turkey. They blatantly supported AKP’s crackdown against secularist establishment at all costs. Among those, Taraf writer and scholar Murat Belge is one of the most brazen. Relying on Gulenist intelligence, Belge accused Alevis — a heterodox minority group — of having a clique within the judiciary. Considering the fact that Alevis has been relentlessly prosecuted by the Sunni repressive apparatus in Turkey, and have been subject to discrimination and genocides throughout history, it was hard to imagine how a respected scholar could put forward such an anti-Alevi argument. Belge and many others were so blind — they did not even question the data that they were provided with by the Islamist Gulenists. How could they so easily be manipulated by them and not listen to any salient voices that highlighted their wrong doings?

In my opinion, the aforementioned media intellectuals ignored warnings because they enjoyed the public visibility and the fame provided to them. They could speak on almost every subject matter, from politics to arts, from sports to geography, and were listened to even through they lacked in depth knowledge on these subjects.

Finally, considering the amount of corruption and the decay perpetrated by these embedded intellectuals, Turkish cultural life needs a serious reboot. This Islamist-Gulenist coup and Erdogan’s Islamist counter-coup should be an important lesson for all artists, writers and scholars to distance themselves steadfastly from the power nodes. Intellectuals should always have distance, even if they are present in an intimate proximity.