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Conspiracy, paranoia, and real plots: the bizarre history of Turkey’s military coups

Pro-Erdoğan supporters wave Turkish national flags during a rally at Taksim square in Istanbul on July 18, 2016, following the military failed coup attempt of July 15.

A lot is still uncertain about the failed coup in Turkey on July 15, but one thing seems clear: The coup leaders believed they were acting in a long Turkish military tradition of protecting Turkey’s democracy from its elected leaders. Since 1960, the military has seized the reins of power in Turkey four times, acting, in their view, to guard the values of the Turkish republic from those who would threaten it.

This time the threat, they thought, came from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğan, who won a heated presidential election in 2014 after a long span as prime minister, has governed in an increasingly authoritarian fashion: censoring the press, arresting political opponents, brutally quashing protests, and attempting to abrogate greater and greater powers to his office. While eschewing radical Islamist movements and publicly reaffirming secularism, he’s given a stronger role to religious education and ramped up his own Islamic rhetoric.

It’s hard to puzzle out the truth amid the events of what Kerem Öktem, a professor of Southeast European studies and modern Turkey at the University of Graz, described to me as a “hyperreal coup,” where both Erdoğan and some of his opponents are “blurring the line between reality and fabrication.”

On the surface, the coup was the most recent exchange of fire between popularly elected leaders and a military that believes it, not the voters, knows best how to guard the country’s democratic legacy. But behind that, there’s a morass of conspiracy accusations, deep-rooted paranoia, and real plots that goes back decades.

Why does the army think it’s so special?

Since the founding of modern Turkey in 1922, the army has seen itself as the most important part of the country. Much of that is because of the man who made the nation, Mustafa Kemal — better known as Atatürk, “Father of the Turks.” (That’s a surname given to him by a grateful people in 1934, not the world’s greatest case of nominative determinism.) Go anywhere in Turkey and you’ll pass by busts of Atatürk gazing paternally down on the country he made.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), Turkish general, nationalist leader, and president. Photo circa 1916.
Keystone/Getty Images

Before Turkey, there was the Ottoman Empire, which by World War I was a crumbling, failed power trying desperately to reform. When the Ottomans picked the losing side in the war, it proved the final blow to the imperial system. Atatürk, one of the few successful Ottoman generals, carved the new, modern Turkish state out of the ruined body of the empire, establishing Turkey as we know it today.

He did so in the teeth of opposition from the victors, who had planned to split the Ottoman territories up between them, dividing up the fallen empire in a treaty signed in Sevres, France, in 1920. Brilliant resistance by Atatürk, including successful campaigning against an invading Greek army and others, produced the new nation.

That gave the army the most respected place in the new Turkey, but it also created a permanent military-political anxiety: “Sevres syndrome,” the belief that the rest of the world was always conspiring to split up Turkey. Outside forces weren’t the only enemy, however: Atatürk was determined to drag his country kicking and screaming into the modern world, and he saw religion as one of the chief obstacles to that.

The Ottomans had positioned themselves as the ordained leaders of Sunni Islam, but for Atatürk, Islam had been a dead weight on the country’s progress. Although he used religious language in public and claimed to be a Muslim in his autobiography, he was probably an atheist, or at least a tough-minded agnostic.

Atatürk borrowed a French idea, laïcité, the control of religion by the state. He brought religious bodies under the hand of the government, suppressed religious courts, changed the weekend from Friday and Saturday (the custom in most Muslim countries, since Friday is Islam’s holy day) to the Western style of Saturday and Sunday, and banned religious headgear for all but a select few.

The religious reforms were just one part of a much wider modernization program that included banning the traditional Turkish hat (called a fez) and switching from Arabic to Roman script, as well as visionary plans to promote women’s education, work, and political involvement. But while nobody was that attached to the fez, religious feeling would prove much harder to root out.

Street vendor selling red fezzes and scarves, Turkey.
Independent Picture Service/UIG via Getty Images

However, while the leaders of the new republic were secularists, even atheists, they were decidedly Sunni secularists — men who, as a local adaptation of a popular joke has it, believed “there is no Allah, and he chose Abu Bakr to lead the caliphate.” Mainstream Sunni institutions got softer treatment than more unorthodox forms of Islam like Sufism, yet alone Shia Muslims or Christians.

(This legacy lingered; when I worked at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul in 1994 as a teenager — I had an unusual childhood — the priests there had to switch from their clerical robes to business suits whenever they went outside to avoid being charged under the secularist laws. It was vanishingly rare for such a charge to be brought against Islamic preachers.)

That gave them the space to survive, and eventually to thrive again — and to play the role in politics that Atatürk had most feared.

Keeping democracy in hand — over and over again

After Atatürk’s death in 1938, “Kemalism,” as his policy of reform, secularization, and national unity came to be known, became the guiding ideal of the army, especially the officer class. With Islam out of fashion, Kemalism was the new faith, and Atatürk’s massive mausoleum, with its murals depicting the army guarding the republic, was its Mecca.

While Turkey was a one-party state, it was easy for the military to directly retain control. But as the country democratized after World War II, the growing power of the civilian government and a revival in religious practice increasingly worried military elites who saw themselves as the guardians of Atatürk’s legacy — especially against Islamic influence. The army still enjoyed plenty of privileges, including separate military courts that made its members virtually immune from civilian oversight or prosecution.

Yet that wasn’t enough. The military intervened repeatedly to keep Turkish democracy on what it thought was the right course in times of instability, staging forceful coups in 1960 and 1980 and effectively dismissing prime ministers from office in 1971 and 1997.

Former commander of the Turkish Air Force and one of the leaders of the 1980 military coup Tahsin Sahinkaya (second right), who died at the age of 90 in a hospital in Istanbul, Turkey, on July 9, 2015, is seen with former commander of the Turkish Armed Forces Kenan Evren (center), former Turkish Naval Forces commander Nejat Tumer (left), former chief of the Army Nurettin Ersin (second left), and former commander of the Turkish Gendarmerie Forces Sedat Celasun (right) during a Turkish Victory Day parade on August 30.
AA/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

It banned numerous political parties, especially ones with strong Islamic ties. But at first, the main targets tended to be the left, particularly groups sympathetic to Turkey’s embattled Kurdish minority. In its self-appointed task as the “guardian of democracy,” the military committed numerous atrocities.

The worst period was in the aftermath of the 1980 coup, when hundreds of thousands of citizens, mostly young people with left-wing sympathies, were arrested and tortured. Each time, democracy was eventually restored, but with considerable restraints imposed by the army.

But it’s the 1997 coup that perhaps most typified Kemalist fears. Instead of being triggered by generalized instability, it targeted the power of the Islamic parties. These parties were riding a wave of renewed popularity — in large part because the military’s earlier actions had repressed more secular opposition groups and nearly shattered the left. The army’s thuggish excesses had ended up creating the very thing Kemalists most feared: a widely popular Islamic opposition.

It was this atmosphere that created the massive success of Erdoğan, a former mayor of Istanbul. His four-month prison sentence for reading an aggressively Islamist poem in 1997 only served to give him extra credibility to a public fed up with the military’s controls.

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (more commonly known by its Turkish acronym, AKP) won a sweeping electoral victory against a divided opposition in 2002. Combined with a sudden economic boom in the early 2000s, this gave Erdoğan the mandate he needed to fight off Kemalist resistance.

The military, put off balance by the AKP’s success and as enthusiastic about Turkey’s sudden economic might as anyone else, failed to act. For his part, Erdoğan seemed to prefer pragmatism to Islamism, reassuring the public that he represented an accepting, compromising form of Islamic politics.

Turkey’s “deep state”: a political underworld

But to understand the atmosphere of fear and distrust swirling in Turkey, you need to take into account not just the military, but what Turks call the “deep state.” Buckle up, because things are about to get really weird.

You know your friend on Facebook who posts about how 9/11 was a CIA plot, Sandy Hook a false flag operation, and that Obama secretly conspired with Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden? Imagine that everything he said was, if not true, at least plausible, and you have some idea of what the deep background of Turkish politics looks like. Attempting to map out the relationships between the powerful ends up looking like one of those crazy boards full of string where the Illuminati control the Boy Scouts.

Like this, only slightly more plausible.

The term to know here is “deep state,” or devin devlet, a term coined in the 1970s to describe the shadowy anti-democratic cabals that allegedly linked the military, organized crime, terrorists, foreign and domestic intelligence agencies, the government, and the judiciary in Turkey.

A loose outline goes like this: From the 1950s onward, backed by CIA funds under the anti-communist “Operation Gladio — a Europe-wide program to create stay-behind forces in the event of Soviet invasion — elements within the Turkish military suborned numerous other groups to pursue their agenda.

This included ties to organized crime and heroin smuggling, especially from the 1970s onward, and the use of ultranationalist terrorist groups such as the Grey Wolves, a fanatic pan-Turkic movement, to create instability and murder the military’s enemies.

There’s no doubt that many of these conspiracies are, or were, real, and that elements in the Turkish military have always been willing to use dirty tricks, murder, terrorism, and repression to achieve their goals. The basement of Turkish politics is deep, dark, and full of spiders.

But the idea that all the various plots are part of one deeper, continuous conspiracy is only half-true. The problem is that the “deep state” has always reflected the worst fears of those making accusations about it. To Islamists, its fundamental purpose is to crush religion; for liberals, it’s anti-democratic; for Kurds, it’s fanatically nationalist and anti-Kurdish; for nationalists, it’s secretly in league with the US; for anti-Semites, it’s an Israeli-backed scheme.

A labyrinth of conspiracies, some overlapping with each other, and many undertaken primarily to line the pockets of their backers, seems far more likely than a single, centrally directed grand conspiracy. But agencies inside the military, such as the “Special Warfare Department” and Gendarmerie Counter-Terrorism Unit,” were undoubtedly the minotaur at the heart of the labyrinth, crunching on the bones of thousands of sacrificial victims.

By the 2000s, the Turkish public was fed up with being lied to, eager for change, and a massive producer and consumer of new media. Major scandals in the late 1990s exposed the dirty links between the security forces, the government, and organized crime and fueled a desire to see the “deep state” exposed.

The increased openness, and the AKP’s anti-Kemalist sentiments, brought some of the atrocities of the past to light. The perpetrators of past coups were put on trial. Constitutional reforms weakened the role of the military, especially its courts. The reputation of the army plummeted in Transparency International’s surveys, from the most trusted national institution in 2004 to being perceived as just as corrupt as politicians by 2011.

Yet the idea of the deep state also acted as a vehicle for a new wave of political persecutions, and as a shield for the corrupt to defend themselves against accusations. That’s been particularly the case for Erdoğan, an enthusiastic campaigner for the “annihilation” of the deep state.

The exemplar was the 2008 Ergenekon accusations, where hundreds of defendants — a mixture of military officials and civil leaders — were blamed for a secret plot to overthrow the government. That plot possibly existed, in some form or another, but it was also clear that many of the defendants were there for opposing Erdoğan, and that the campaign was a way to further his own power.

Sedat Peker, alleged Mafia leader with links to the “deep state” in the Ergenekon coup plot case, is released from Silivri Prison in Istanbul on March 10, 2014.
Islam Yakut/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Think of McCarthyism in the US. There were real Communist infiltrators, but their numbers were tiny compared to the frenzy of accusations hurled by McCarthy for the sake of his own career.

So it is with Erdoğan: As the coup has bloodily shown, he has real and dangerous opponents — but his accusations have always gone far beyond their real numbers, and threaten innocent and guilty alike. (This prescient 2012 New Yorker profile by Dexter Filkins is worth reading in full.) The Sledgehammer accusations in 2010, another supposed military plot, served the same purpose as Ergenekon while being even less plausible.

Instead of bringing a cleansing light to Turkish politics, then, the AKP-led attacks on the “deep state” ended up being part of the transformation of its own support base into a new form of the deep state.

“There is plausible circumstantial evidence that the old deep state, together with new additions, is back on the streets,” Öktem told me. “The kind of violence and symbolic humiliation and extrajudicial killings is extremely reminiscent of the 1990s, when deep state operatives were pretty much ruling the Kurdish provinces. The novelty is the presence of actors who seem to use a jihadist rhetoric and a deeply religious language.”

False flags and exiled teachers

Complicating this is the role of Fethullah Gülen, a charismatic Islamic preacher, businessman, and educator who has built up a massive movement in Turkey since the 1970s (although he’s lived in the US since 1999 for “health reasons”).

His movement emphasizes modernity, community, and social action, and he has strong ties to Sufism, a peaceful, esoteric Islamic tradition with a long history in Turkey. This let him build up his power base while being seen as a potential ally to every side.

Even his form of Islam was acceptable to the Kemalists, with its emphasis on private worship and obedience to the Turkish state; it also struck a chord with millions of Turks who valued faith but didn’t want it to dominate life.

The Gülenist movement emphasized joining the state in order to gradually shift it toward Islamic ideals; thousands of military and police officers, judges, and civil servants were members or sympathizers, often owing their job to other Gülenists.

Embroidered images of Fethullah Gülen (left) and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (right) are displayed in a shop on January 17, 2014, in Gaziantep, near the Turkish-Syrian border.
OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

At first, Gülen was a strong ally of Erdoğan. Gülenist media cheered on the Ergenekon case and called for the destruction of the old “deep state.” The Gülenists could be ruthless in exploiting their power, too; investigative journalist Ahmet Şik was detained for a year, and his work destroyed, when he wrote a book on the movement.

But in late 2013, Erdoğan turned on Gülen and his followers, accusing them of being the new deep state, working to subvert the intelligence services and overthrow his government Although tensions had been building for some time, the immediate cause was a corruption scandal involving the children of senior AKP leaders, including Erdoğan, which the president claimed was a plot by the Gülenists.

Today, Gülen functions in Erdoğan’s rhetoric in much the same way Leon Trotsky did in Joseph Stalin’s: as a traitor and manipulator who can be blamed for everything that goes wrong. Gülen’s supporters have been systematically purged from the police and the government.

It is no surprise, then, that Erdoğan immediately accused the Gülenists of masterminding Friday's coup attempt. While it is unclear at this point whether Gülen and his followers were in any way involved (which they have flatly denied), it’s certainly possible, since the army was virtually the only area that hadn’t yet been ideologically cleansed since 2013.

That meant there was still a substantial collection of officers with Gülenist ties, as there had been in every Turkish institution before the purges. They had good reason to fear that they might be the next target — which could have been what prompted the sloppy and ill-planned coup.

But in a twist typical of conspiratorial politics, Turks opposed to Erdoğan, including Gülen, are already accusing him of being behind the plot. That seems an improbable and highly risky move.

Yet he’s seizing the chance to eliminate his enemies, calling the coup a “gift from God.” The event is being compared to the 1933 Reichstag fire that gave Hitler his final excuse to seize absolute power; Erdoğan has said outright in the past that he admires Hitler’s “reforms.”

The military’s threat to Turkish democracy may now be over, perhaps for good. But with it may go other aspects of the Kemalist legacy: a desire to look to Europe, a preference for the modern and the urban, and the will to keep religion from dominating politics.

Erdoğan’s populist authoritarianism threatens a frightening change in Turkey — a dictatorship with the barest veneer of democracy laid over it as cover, fueled by resentment and religious conviction, and drawing in elements from jihadists to intelligence officers to organized crime to shield itself and assault its enemies.

Disturbing pictures of soldiers lynched on the street are already emerging, although it’s hard to tell whether these represent semi-organized violence by Erdoğan-affiliated militias or the fury of the crowd in response to the army’s own killings. Erdoğan has begun a wave of rolling purges and arrests removing the last vestiges of his political and judicial opposition.

Despite their fear of Erdoğan, the opposition turned out into the streets that night to save democracy from the military. Whether they can keep together to defend the rights the Turkish people faced down tanks to protect is another question.

James Palmer is a writer and historian living in Beijing.