A memorial service in Ankara, a museum for democracy, and a large-scale feature film. The fifth anniversary of the attempted coup in Turkey has not gone unnoticed. On July 15, 2016, F-16s attacked the parliament in Ankara and occupied the public broadcaster’s building. Tanks appeared in the streets in Istanbul and soldiers opened fire on civilians. 251 were killed.
The film, Dawn, follows a pastry chef, Cevdet, who drives orders during the coup night, and stumbles upon the putschist soldiers by accident. Of course he bravely resists and thus symbolizes the citizens who risked their lives. For the film, one of the bridges over the Bosphorus was recreated in full size.
The president himself spoke of a “victory of democracy”. That is a bit harsh, because you cannot say that Turkish democracy has improved in recent years. Hundreds of thousands have disappeared in prison – often after dubious trials. These were by no means just supporters of Fethullah Gülen, the US-based cleric and alleged initiator of the coup. Critical writers and journalists, Kurdish activists and left-wing academics were also targeted. The coup was an attack on Turkish democracy. But Erdogan did not hesitate to undermine it even further.
That Gülen was behind the coup attempt soon became an article of faith. But conclusive evidence has never been provided, and many questions remain open. How did the coup plotters think they could take over the country with only 8,000 men? Why did the army’s top respond so slowly to reports of an imminent coup? Why did many high-ranking secular soldiers also participate? They know that at Erdogan’s party, the conservative-Islamic AKP, of course. But the temptation to finally deal with Gülen and his movement was too great.
For years Erdogan and Gülen worked together. Erdogan ensured electoral victories, Gulen provided loyal and highly skilled personnel to take the positions of retired secular Kemalists. Something went wrong sometime in 2013. After Erdogan closed the homework schools affiliated with the Gülen movement, Gulenist prosecutors hit back with a series of revelations about deep corruption within the AKP top. Erdogan’s throne faltered precariously. This fueled a paranoia that was reflected in the massive purges that followed the coup attempt. It was not only Gulenist businessmen, magistrates and academics who suffered. Even the humble teacher in the province lost his job and pension.
Paranoia and conspiracy theories are deeply entrenched in the Turkish state. This is partly historical: with the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), the European powers intended to divide the Ottoman Empire at will. Generations of Turkish children have been brought up with the idea that ‘the West’ is out to divide Turkey, and that it uses all kinds of groups within the borders (religious orders, minorities such as the Kurds) for this.
It also has to do with Turkey’s precarious security situation: a decades-long conflict with the PKK, war in Syria, attacks. This is obviously sensitive to the Turkish public. “When you have to deal with so many security issues, you naturally start to make connections,” a top Erdogan adviser once told me during a visit to Ankara.
Like Turkish leaders before him, Erdogan feeds the conspiracy spirit and uses it tactically. Suddenly he talks about a ‘mastermind’, Akst Akil, code language for dark forces in the West who are targeting the demise of Turkey. “This heightened awareness, this sense of urgency created by Erdogan, is what helped Turkey through the coup night,” the top adviser said. Paranoia as a survival strategy.
As the lira began to slide from 2018 onwards, Erdogan’s advisers once again eagerly vented the conspiracy theories. It couldn’t be the interest rate policy devised by Erdogan’s son-in-law. Conspiracy thinking in the highest echelons of the state: we know it from Donald Trump’s White House.
Is it indeed Erdogan’s tactic, or a mind choke, caused by fear? It’s something European leaders need to keep in mind, especially as Turkey evolves into an effective drone power, deciding conflicts in the region on its own. Or when negotiations will have to be held about refugees to be taken in again.
Marijn Kruk is a journalist. He replaces Luuk van Middelaar this week.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of 21 July 2021