The Meaning of Turkey’s Five Million Strong Nationalist Moment
Three weeks after the attempted coup in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on citizens to gather at the Yenıkapı (“new gate”) Parade grounds in Istanbul. More than five million people across the country showed up to the event on the Bosphorus’ shores.
A helicopter carried Erdogan — the sole speaker — onto an elevated stage. There stood the tall man, overlooking a scarlet sea of flags beneath him. He opened his speech with the words, “the era of secularist tutelage is over.” The grounds heaved with chants of “Allahu Ekber!” and “tell us to die Reis [leader] and we shall die!” The constitution, Erdogan said, was suspended. He waved a new document in his hand that he said would be put up for a nationwide referendum. This new document stipulates a powerful executive presidency with two legislative chambers (one for civil lawmakers, another for Islamic scholars) and an entirely new defense establishment. Experts likened it to Iran’s governing doctrine of Vilayat-e Faqih (“Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist”).
A few days into what was called “Yenıkapı Türkiye,” footage appeared on government television showing a few junta generals on the night of the coup meeting with the U.S. ambassador. Erdogan immediately announced that Turkey was going to leave NATO and that all remaining Westerners had 48 hours to exit the country. He said, “We know who was holding the leash of the coup plotters. We have seen the enemy.” In an emergency address, President Obama announced that U.S. nuclear weapons had safely been evacuated from Incirlik Air base.
In the following days, groups of young men wearing black headbands started going into Alevi and predominantly secular neighborhoods. Twitter, Facebook, and independent media were banned, but gruesome stories began to spread. In a rare video that hit the web, a whole row of apartments was set aflame, and a man with a black headband was pulling a mother away from her children.
Long lines started to form on Turkey’s borders and in airports. It was hard to find a seaworthy boat on the Aegean coast. The government declared a transition to wartime economy, rationed food and fuel, and introduced a curfew.
Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — with full support from its Syrian affiliate, the PYD — moved ahead unchecked in the southeast, taking one city after another. Erdogan announced that all men of military age were called to renew their registries. Many who already served were recalled. Turkey’s Syrian border was now one battlespace, Erdogan declared, and Turkey would not only retain its territories in the southeast, but extend the nation to encompass its natural borders once again. It would require great sacrifice, Erdogan said, right before he declared that the country was officially in a state of war.
That’s not how things happened of, course.
Kept you reading though, didn’t it?
Turkey is a popular country among political analysts. In their imagination, Turkey often shifts geopolitical axes, ditches democracy, goes to war, or commits genocide. Perhaps post-World War II generations — fed on a steady diet of “Hitler’s Rise” documentaries and Orwell novels — are primed to look for these things. Yet we haven’t seen them happen.
Here is how events really unfolded after the attempted coup.
Rallying in the Squares and at the New Gate
After the attempted coup, the government called all citizens to occupy public squares on “democracy watch.” At first, this call might really have been meant to deter a possible second coup, but at some point it became clear that the government merely wanted as broad a buy-in to anti-coup activity as possible. Millions of people showed up in squares across the country. The majority of people at these rallies were Erdogan supporters, but there were plenty who obviously weren’t. I stood in Kızılay, Ankara’s main square, while the presenters asked the crowd to clap for the opposition parties, all of which had come out against the coup in its early hours. This even included the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the liberal Kurdish nationalist party that has largely been pointedly excluded from the government’s outreach to the opposition.
The supporters of the pan-Turkic Nationalist Movement Party’s (MHP) are an excitable bunch and already mix well with the AK Party crowd, so it wasn’t hard to have them come out to public squares regularly. Participation from secular-leaning folk, however, was still scarce in the first week, so the Republican People’s Party (CHP) staged its own rally in Istanbul’s Taksim square on July 24. Some thought that participation would be limited, but they needn’t have worried. Thousands of people showed up, all condemning the coup in a festive mood. For the first time, the CHP invited its political opponents from the AK Party, and they obliged.
There really was a massive rally at Yenikapı the weekend before last, but it wasn’t some fascist break from Turkey’s republican history. The “Martyrs and Democracy Rally” was attended by a broad spectrum of society, including seculars, non-Muslims and Alevi. Mehmet Görmez, the head of Turkey’s main religious authority, held a touching prayer for the 241 people who died countering the coup. The grounds did heave with shouts of “Allahu Ekber” all afternoon, but it was meant more as “thank God” than “death to America.” There were many other slogans as well, including secular ones, and people were in a festive mood. Attendees made a game of taking photos with people they would otherwise not talk to — like a guy with a typical Islamic outfit posing with a guy in shorts and cool sunglasses. #Turkeyunited and #TekMilletTekYürek, meaning “one nation, one spirit” were trending on Twitter.
The leader of the MHP, Devlet Bahçeli, quickly agreed to attend the rally at Yenikapı, but the secularist CHP was more divided. According to sources in the CHP, there were those who thought that the attendance of Kilicdaroglu, the party’s leader, would give Erdogan undue legitimacy. Others thought that Kilicdaroglu would risk being sidelined by not attending. At first, Kilicdaroglu politely declined the invitation. But in a highly unusual move, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, President Erdogan, and former President Abdullah Gül called on him several times. In the end, they convinced him to attend.
What Was Said at Yenikapı
Bahçeli, Kılıçdaroglu, Yıldırım, Speaker of Parliament İsmail Kahraman, and Erdogan spoke in reverse order of protocol. The surprise speaker was Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar, who spoke after Bahçeli. He was greeted with chants of “our soldiers are the greatest.” The public perception of the military has suffered greatly as a result of the coup attempt, and Akar’s presence was likely aimed to undo some of that damage.
HDP co-leaders Demirtaş and Yüksekdag were not invited, nor were they included in the other post-July 15 national unity events. In this sense, Yenikapi draws the boundaries of the national consensus as being the political groups who are loyal to the state as it stands. The HDP, which at times acts as the political arm of the PKK, falls outside of that consensus. To Erdogan, the PKK and Gulenist network are one and the same: unlawful groups seeking to undermine the state’s legitimacy through force. If he had ever considered pulling the HDP away from the PKK’s sphere of influence, he seems to have given up on the idea.
Erdogan’s decision is firmly grounded in political reality. HDP rallies seldom include any Turkish flags, for example, and the party’s supporters have few chants and slogans in common with those gathered on Sunday. It is hard to fathom how Demirtaş or Yüksekdag would have been able to address the Yenikapi crowd without being booed off the stage. Demirtaş said in a later speech that he would not have been able to answer his own constituency if he had attended.
Note that this does not mean that “the Kurds” as an ethnic group were not represented in Yenikapi. According to Konda polling, 12 percent of anti-coup protesters in three different locations in Istanbul on July 26 were ethnic Kurds (Kurds make up about 14 percent of Turkey’s population, according to Konda). It is unlikely that the Yenikapi rally was different. Figen Yuksekdag said that Yenikapi represents a “Turkish nationalist coalition.” She is right in the sense that Turkish nationalism here is defined by a base acceptance of the state and its continuation under its present symbols and institutions. Kurdish that meet this definition are Kurdish in ethnicity and culture, but politically Turkish, with many voting for the AK Party. The HDP’s Kurdish nationalism clashes with this notion. That, coupled with its perceived association with the PKK, is why it has been left out by the mainstream.
The two opposition leaders who did attend gave very different speeches. Bahçeli, who is dependent on the AK Party to fight off an insurgency within his party, gave a rousing speech touting the valor of those who diverted the coup. In his classic muscular rhetoric, Bahçeli bashed all he perceived as enemies, at times pointing the finger straight at Turkey’s Western allies, and in particular, the United States. This fit seamlessly with the unchecked anti-American rhetoric of post-July 15 atmosphere. Many MHP and AK Party supporters I know praised the speech as the best of his long political career.
The CHP’s Kilicdaroglu was more reserved. He tried to address some of the root problems that led to the attempted coup. “We should teach our children to use their heads” he said, in reference to the Gülenist network, which often recruited children during middle school. This was also a thinly veiled Kemalist criticism of the AK Party government’s breach of secularism. It suggested that the AK Party, which had been in bed with the Gülenists for the better part of its first decade, could have saved itself from embarrassment and the nation from suffering had it followed enlightened principles rather than romantic notions of Islamist politics. Much of the rest of Kilicdaroglu’s speech covered the rule of law and the democratic process in a way that criticized the government, but didn’t tear at the spirit of unity the day called for.
Prime Minister Yildirim may have made the most conciliatory speech, quoting poets across various points of Turkey’s political spectrum and calling for unity above all else. Speaker Kahraman was more Islamist in his references, taking time to give a history of the Islamization of Anatolia. But considering his reputation for polemics, even he took care not to step on the opposition’s toes.
President Erdogan was last to speak, and his words were remarkable only in how unremarkable they were for him. He stuck to tried and true rhetorical devices, harking back to the Selchukids and the early Ottoman period. He gave a nod to Ataturk and the Republic before launching into attacks on the enemies of the people today, be they in the form of the PKK or the more insidious “FETO” (Fetullahist Terror Organization).
Still, the president did his best to summon up some hope, as politicians must. Erdogan averred that Turkey will meet its 2023 economic goals (set in the heyday of the country’s growth, and now seen as near-impossible). Turkey would transcend the level of “muasir medeniyet” (“contemporary civilization”), the goal Ataturk set for the Republic in his 1923 opening speech in parliament. The military would be rebuilt into something stronger and the country would finally rid itself of the Gülenist menace that had been secretly hindering its rise all this time.
Erdogan used less anti-American rhetoric compared to Bahceli. He limited himself to saying “this scenario [the coup attempt] is far bigger than them,” meaning the Gulenists, and “we know whom they were going to serve our country on a golden platter.”
Anti-American rhetoric has always been a hallmark of the Turkish public sphere. Many Westerners wrongly assume anti-Americanism is the preserve of religious actors, but it actually pervades the political spectrum. However, since the failed coup, this sentiment has reached unprecedented heights. Major newspapers accuse American generals of directing the coup, statements at times matched by senior figures in the government. Turkey’s membership in NATO is for the first time in recent memory a topic of mainstream debate. Erdogan could end this with a wag of his finger. That he chooses not to do so could mean that he is trying to build up some sort of leverage against the United States, which harbors Fetullah Gulen.
At the end, all speakers, as well as statesmen such as former Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoglu and former President (and AK Party co-founder) Abdullah Gul, were called on stage for a joint appearance. It was as close to a family photo as Turkish politics is going to get anytime soon.
What Does It Mean?
Having lived through the attempted coup in Ankara, I sat down on July 16 to write a piece for War on the Rocks. I wrote that I had witnessed a new political energy being released on the right. The coup hanging over it for decades had come, and Erdogan had survived it. The country’s religious right was more emboldened than ever before. I wrote:
At worst, the coup will encourage the AK Party’s worst attributes and serve as a stepping-stone to a regime that will make the country inhospitable to others. At best, it will be a uniting force in the country’s politics that leads to a new consensus.
The field is still wide open for either of those scenarios to take place, but it seems that Turkey right now is edging towards the second, more conciliatory one. The coup ripped into the political, economic, and social foundation that Turkey is built upon. Some seem to like that. The pro-government media and fringe groups don’t want to put the country back together the way it was. That is why we are hearing a lot of talk of Turkey leaving NATO and turning its back on the West, which really did fail to match and understand Turkey’s emotional reaction to July 15. Yet the political class – not just President Erdogan, but the prime minister and his cabinet – who have to think through the economic and strategic consequences of such actions, have been holding back their voters. They seem worried by the systemic implications of July 15 and want to instead move things back to normal as much as possible.
That is why the Yenikapı event, despite its massive scale, was remarkable for the continuity it displayed. All speakers except Kahraman made references to the foundation of the Republic and Ataturk. All called for the rule of law, a democratic process, and coexistence between different political groups. Erdogan didn’t have to insist on Kilicdaroglu’s presence, but he did. This wasn’t out of a sense of obligation to democratic norms, but a matter of necessity. Kilicdaroglu represents a quarter of the country that could make a lot of trouble for Erdogan. His presence softened the mood and made the country more governable.
The forces that Turkey led to Yenikapi also rallied foreign investors around the country. They knew they were taking on risk, but they were betting that the government would do its best to climb out of its volatile situation. Turkey’s leaders don’t have the luxury not to. Their trolls on Twitter might have fun with conspiracy theories of the American Central Intelligence Agency being behind the coup, but for them to keep driving their German cars, their leaders have to think about the world more seriously. So far, they have.
Similarly, the government cannot afford to bash the military. They are aware that security will be a big challenge in the months and years ahead and have been doing their best to prevent the military’s reputation from being damaged too badly. That is probably why Erdogan invited Hulusi Akar as a last-minute speaker.
But “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” as the phrase goes. The government cannot ignore its intelligence failure leading up to July 15 and the massive infiltration of government agencies by the Gulen movement. A country-wide purge and institutional reform is not unreasonable in this context.
To clarify, the term “purge” may invoke Stalin, but there really is no comparison between the Gulag and the current waves of suspensions and arrests. Tens of thousands of civil servants, as well as many in the private sector, NGOs, and some journalists have been swept up in these since July 15.
Though the government has thus far not systematically gone beyond Gulenists, this purge upsets a lot of people. Most of those arrested or who lost their jobs may have had something to do with the Gulen movement. However, many in government today did as well, including Erdogan’s son-in-law (and current energy minister), who went to a Gulenist school. This atmosphere is unsettling even strong AK Party supporters. One such friend who kept his position at an important ministry told me “strange people have appeared” who are “observing who sits with whom during lunch breaks.” He says that nothing gets done, and many are appalled by the injustice of some arrests. Another friend at an important ministry has been fired, and says that he will “definitely appeal in court” if given the chance.
He might be. If the government continues this this process, it will be alienating tens of thousands of white collar workers in major cities, and with them, an exponentially larger number of family members and loved ones. This could hurt the AK Party at the ballot box, especially in mayoral elections. President Erdogan is a tremendously popular politician, but even he cannot count on people’s support if he lets the purge get out of hand.
There is a darker side to the ballot box, too,: Turkish politics continues to revolve around defining very clear “in” and “out” groups. Erdogan and his government still focus their rhetoric on bashing their enemies, real or imaginary. The Yenikapi rally marked a welcome truce with the CHP and focused political toxicity across the Atlantic. Yet the structural problem remains.
The reality of Turkey is not the total opposite of the dystopian picture I paint at the beginning of this article. That’s an accomplishment. The country, after all, is host to a secretive Islamic cult trying to take over its government, neighbor to a decade-old war in Iraq, another civil war in Syria that has driven millions of refugees across its borders, a so-called caliphate bent on world conquest, and a group of Kurdish Marxist-Leninist nation-builders. This is not a boring part of the world, and Turkey may still go down a very dark path.
But it hasn’t yet, because it also gravitates very powerfully toward a “normal,” a kind of equilibrium that looks very much like a globalized, European society. That is what we saw shining through Yenikapı.
Selim Koru is an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), where he focuses on Turkey’s relations with the Middle East and Asia. You can follow him on Twitter: @SelimKoru.