Turkey’s Fractured State

A statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, seen through a damaged window at Ankara police headquarters. Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, seen through a damaged window at Ankara police headquarters. Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Turkish military is known to be a stronghold of Kemalism, the secularist and nationalist ideology of the founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. So when the Islamic conservative Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., came to power in 2002, many then feared that the military would stage a coup in the name of Kemalism.

Yet when a coup in Turkey did finally materialize, on July 15, it wasn’t Kemalists who were blamed, but the Gulenists, members of an Islamic fraternity led by the cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in exile in the United States since 1999. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, echoed by the Turkish military’s general staff, claimed that what they call the “Fethullah Gulen terrorist organization” was behind the failed ouster.

In the wake of the coup, the Turkish government has arrested scores of military officers, hundreds of other military personnel have been dismissed, and thousands of officials have been purged from the state bureaucracy. Not all of these people are necessarily connected with the Hizmet movement, the official name of the Gulen fraternity that means “service” in Turkish.

Yet the notion that a Gulenist faction within the military was behind the coup plot is not so far-fetched. This attempted putsch occurred in the context of entrenched Gulenist influence within Turkey’s institutions of state and a yearslong power struggle between Mr. Erdogan and Gulen loyalists, who were once the president’s political ally.

This was one reason the coup failed, for the Kemalist majority in the military, including its high command, did not join the attempt. Instead, they moved to crush what the chief of the general staff called a “crazy” attempt instigated by Gulenists.

Officially, the Hizmet movement is committed to values of religious moderation and interfaith dialogue; it promotes education and science through its extensive network of schools, both internationally and — until now — in Turkey. Yet Gulenists also belong to a secretive network that has ruthlessly sought to wield power, in glaring contradiction of the moderation the movement’s officials preach. Tellingly, those journalists who specifically reported on an earlier Gulenist power grab were targeted by the authorities; some were even imprisoned for years.

At first, the A.K.P. and the Gulenists were allies. The Gulenists provided the governing party with the educated cadres that it lacked, and their followers in the police and the judiciary played a crucial role in orchestrating the trials that sent droves of military officers to prison in the early years of A.K.P. ascendancy. Once this common enemy, the Kemalist state establishment, was defeated, though, the Gulen movement and the A.K.P. turned on each other.

Having helped Mr. Erdogan lay the foundation for an authoritarian Islamic-oriented government, the Gulenist faction within the state started a struggle against its former ally. The first sign of this internecine conflict showed in 2012, when an attempt was made to arrest the chief of the national intelligence service, a close confidant of Mr. Erdogan’s. The then-prime minister made a thinly veiled countermove in the power struggle by announcing his intention to close down dozens of private prep schools in Turkey, many of which were Gulenist. That step precipitated a further round of retaliation from the Gulenists in 2013, when the judiciary began an investigation into government corruption.

Mr. Erdogan responded by purging Gulen supporters from the police and the judiciary. He even turned to the military as a new ally, releasing in 2014 all the imprisoned Kemalist officers, who had been accused of coup plotting. The former chief of the general staff, Gen. Ilker Basbug, has claimed that he and his colleagues had been the victims of a conspiracy mounted by the Gulen movement. Mr. Erdogan endorsed this charge, saying that he had been misled by the Gulenists who, he said, had fooled him with evidence against the military officers that turned out to be fabricated. It is likely that this disinformation helped Gulen loyalists to advance up the military hierarchy after the imprisonment of the Kemalist old guard.

In the past, the Turkish military was vigilant about possible infiltration by members of Islamic fraternities. But starting in 2003, the A.K.P. government regularly blocked the military command’s requests to discharge officers suspected of Islamist ties.

That changed after the A.K.P.-Gulenist alliance broke up. Then, it was the government insisting on a purge, with the general staff resisting because the clear-out of Kemalist officers had been so demoralizing for the armed forces. This resistance finally crumbled. Days before the coup attempt, it became clear that the judiciary was about to indict 1,000 officers accused of being Gulenists, and that the military leadership would accede to Mr. Erdogan’s purge.

The Turkish government may nonetheless struggle to present incontrovertible evidence identifying that a faction loyal to Mr. Gulen was behind the failed ouster. It is even less likely to be able to prove that the cleric himself was involved in the plot.

What is beyond doubt, though, is that Gulen sympathizers in government institutions and the military are responsible — along with President Erdogan himself — for turning the Turkish state into a war zone. The armed forces were always a pillar of the Turkish state; now they have been torn apart by factional fighting.

This institutional implosion will continue and expand with the mass purges of Gulenists, which will inevitably sweep up others who have nothing to do with the fraternity. For Mr. Erdogan, seizing on this moment to reassert control, these purges may not ultimately rescue him. The breakdown of authority, discipline and cohesion in the Turkish state has gone alarmingly far. Despite its failure, this coup attempt sets a dangerous precedent.

Halil M. Karaveli is a senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program.

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