Political Narratives and Authoritarian Consolidation in Turkey
Telling a different story about July 15
On July 15 this year, Turkey for the first time celebrated “The Day of Democracy and National Unity,” the only national holiday to be introduced since the founding period of the Turkish Republic. A year earlier, on the night of July 15, 2016, Turkish citizens lived through a bizarre coup attempt, in which fighter jets buzzed over Turkey’s two largest cities, a coup statement was read on public television, the Chief of the General Staff was taken hostage, and the Turkish parliament was bombed from the air. Following President Erdoğan’s call, tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets in defense of the government, leading to direct confrontations between demonstrators and pro-coup soldiers throughout Istanbul and Ankara. By the morning of July 16, the coup attempt had ended in decisive failure, leaving 240 coup opponents and 36 coup participants dead in its wake.
Although more than a year has passed since the event, many details about the planning and implementation of the coup remain unknown. The “confessions” released to the public seem heavily filtered by the government, and a parliamentary commission charged with investigating the coup attempt has curiously neglected to question key individuals, including the Chief of the General Staff and the head of the National Intelligence Organization. In several television interviews, President Erdoğan has made contradictory statements about when he learned about the coup attempt.
The plethora of questions that remain unanswered feeds theories of a “controlled coup” — the claim that government officials became aware of the plot early on, convinced some of the key participants to abandon ship, and then allowed the putsch to proceed anyways. Whether the plot was known to the government or not, the coup attempt provided Erdoğan with a singular opportunity to pursue his political goals outside the constraints of normal politics. The president himself acknowledged as much on the morning of July 16 when he called the coup attempt “a great blessing from God.” The government soon declared a state of emergency, and has since carried out a massive purge in the military, the police force, the judiciary, and civil service. These purges were accompanied by the imposition of draconian measures against opposition politicians, journalists, activists, and academics. The controversial referendum of April 2017, which took place under the state of emergency, replaced Turkey’s parliamentary democracy with an authoritarian presidential system.
These actions and institutional transformations did not naturally follow from the failed coup attempt of July 15. The way for these policies was paved by a particular story about what July 15 was and what it meant, a story constructed by government officials. In a recent article in Qualitative Sociology, I identified the main contours of this “Narrative of July 15.” The story that has been told, over and over again, can be paraphrased as such:
July 15 was the culmination of a process that commenced in the early 1970s, when the charismatic Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen devised a plan for his network to infiltrate the Turkish state. Gülenists recruited successful students from poor provincial families through the dormitories and student apartments they set up across the country. These recruits were then channeled — often with the aid of stolen exams — into careers in the police force, the military, or the judiciary, and were quickly promoted by Gülenist superiors. Over time, the network came to control the most strategic positions in these institutions. Gülen’s organization first conspired against the AKP government through the corruption probes of December 2013. When this plan failed, it plotted the coup of July 15, which was defeated through the heroic resistance of the people. Having emerged victorious from this struggle, the AKP government would now remove the remaining Gülenists from the state apparatus and root out the criminal network’s sources of recruitment and finance.
This is a compelling narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end, driven by the tension between a set of pure protagonists (Erdoğan and the AKP) on the one hand and polluted antagonists (Fethullah Gülen and his organization) on the other. As such, its Manichean structure and melodramatic imagination are, in part, the basis of its appeal and diffusion.
In the weeks following the coup attempt, pro-government and mainstream media outlets repeatedly circulated and elaborated on this narrative. The ritualistic recitation of the government’s narrative has served to suppress alternative, critical accounts of July 15. In particular, a clear set of facts about Turkey’s recent political history have thereby been suppressed. Under the leadership of Erdoğan, the AKP maintained a close alliance with the Gülen network; between 2007 and 2011, the two entities collaborated at key political junctures to sideline the staunch secularists in the Turkish military and high judiciary. Furthermore, given that the AKP has ruled the country uninterrupted since 2002, it was as responsible as anyone in helping place Gülenists in key positions in the state bureaucracy.
AKP leaders sought to dismiss this uncomfortable history by introducing a temporal distinction between innocent gullibility and criminal complicity: since the graft probes of December 2013 had clearly revealed the true nature of the network, collaboration with the Gülenists was forgivable on grounds of ignorance before this date, but a deliberate crime after. In line with this symbolic move, Erdoğan offered a public apology for his earlier credulity about the network.
Those who publicly challenge the Narrative of July 15 often face immediate consequences. Perhaps the most egregious case is that of the journalist Ahmet Şık, who spent more than a year in prison in 2011-2012 in a case reportedly fabricated by the Gülenists. Following his remarks that Erdoğan should be tried for aiding and abetting the Gülen network’s criminal activities, this long-standing critic of the preacher was arrested on charges of spreading propaganda for Gülen’s organization in December 2016. This indeed is tragic irony.
Within the last year, the Turkish government has invested a significant amount of political capital and material resources in the memorialization of July 15. It incorporated the event into school curricula, renamed major public landmarks — including Istanbul’s iconic Bosporus Bridge — in memory of the “martyrs of democracy,” and introduced a new national holiday to permanently mark July 15 in collective memory. Those who refuse to partake in this national myth-in-the-making risk being vilified as coup supporters. For those who are deeply concerned about the erosion of the separation of powers, assaults on press freedom, and the repression of political opposition in present-day Turkey, however, it is imperative to counter the government’s narrative with alternative, critical stories.
Ateş Altınordu is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Sabancı University, Istanbul. His research focuses on religion and politics, secularism, religion and science, and contemporary Turkish politics.