Back when the world was a bigger place than it is today, the annual ‘Blue Peter’ summer expedition served as an eye-opening introduction to far-off foreign destinations and indigenous cultures for a UK audience of children, many of whom (like me) had never ventured beyond the British Isles at the time. One particularly memorable moment came in 1975 when John Noakes stood in the middle of the Bosphorus Bridge and pointed to one end, declaring over there was Europe, before pointing to the other and declaring over there was Asia. Funny how these things have a habit of returning to the forefront of one’s thoughts at the most unexpected moments. When news broke of an attempted military coup in Turkey a couple of days ago, the very same bridge was back in the headlines, closed to traffic due to the emergency.
The ‘Blue Peter’ trip to Turkey – just a year after the country had invaded Cyprus – was sandwiched between two other military coups, taking place in 1971 and 1980, though there had already been another (back in 1960) long before John, Pete and Lesley flew to Istanbul. That 2016 should witness a fourth is not really a great surprise. The Turkish Army takes its role seriously as an upholder of the Turkish Republic’s secular constitution, as established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1922; and a country that acts as the gateway from one continent to another has always had powder-keg potential whenever relations between Europe and Asia are fraught, especially where interpretations of faith are concerned. Threats to Turkey’s avowed intention to not be governed by religious doctrine, along with the increasing censorship of the polarising Islamist President Erdogan, appear to have sparked this latest military uprising which, unlike those of 1960, 1971 and 1980, has failed.
Erdogan has been a divisive and dictatorial figure ever since his election as President in 2014, following eleven years as the country’s Prime Minister. His Islamist political stance was evident early on, even resulting in a prison sentence for inciting religious intolerance in 1998. His two years in office as Turkey’s President have been marked by a clampdown on freedom of speech and regular accusations of human rights violations, both of which have continued to stall Turkey’s ongoing attempts to join the European Union and both of which are too close to hardline Islamic states for comfort. His conservative Islamist leanings have also been seen by some as placing Turkey’s proud tradition of secularism in peril.
It was notable that the rebel forces within the Turkish military that spearheaded this aborted coup saw capturing television stations as a top priority, for Erdogan’s attempts to control state broadcasting appear to have been based on the Putin model. Unlike the Soviet Union, the Ottoman Empire is no longer within living memory, and the independent republic that rose from the ashes of the old Ottoman possessions carved up by the allied European powers at the end of the First World War was a deliberate break with the old Islamic imperial past. However, just as the pop culture of the defunct GDR has something of a nostalgic cult following in East Germany, the legends of Ottoman conquest exercise a sentimental grip on many of those who subscribe to Islamic Fundamentalism; and President Erdogan often seems possessed by the spirits of the deceased sultans.
Anyone ascending to the pinnacle of political power in Turkey is conscious that the military’s loyalty is not so much to the nation’s leader, but to the founding spirit of the nation; and Erdogan has used canny means to neutralise any potential challenge from the military to his authority, rounding up hundreds of army officers in two separate high-profile court cases based on spurious rumours of coup-plotting. The removal of those whose loyalty to him wasn’t guaranteed enabled him to promote those whose was. Along with military personnel sentenced to lengthy prison sentences were numerous journalists and opposition politicians hostile to Erdogan’s rule. Even before he became President in 2014, Erdogan’s lengthy spell as Prime Minister served as a warm-up to his tyrannical presidency, with public protests ruthlessly crushed and controversial judicial reforms laying the ground for the virtual Absolute Monarchy he appears to be creating for himself. ‘Insulting the President’ has now become an offence of a nature that would be more familiar in Iran, bracketed as an effective terrorist act.
The manner in which Erdogan has imposed his law upon Turkey and the way he is viewed by his opponents as threatening the country’s cherished secular foundations was bound to provoke military response sooner rather than later, yet the failed coup d’état of last week, which has so far claimed over 250 lives, has been suspected by some as a stunt instigated by the President himself. In many respects, it gives him the remit to suppress all dissent that he has been waiting for. His immediate response to the coup – arresting almost 3,000 soldiers and over 200 politicians as well as firing over 2,000 judges – has been swift; some foreign observers have made the point that the President’s hand is now stronger than ever; he has carte-blanche to enforce his authority in what the New York Times has labelled a counter-coup.
‘He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap.’ So spoke modern Turkey’s venerated founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The country’s unique geographical position has always placed it on the frontline of any East-West tensions, yet as a secularist state it has managed to act as a successful bridge between two regularly clashing cultures. How much longer it can continue to do so with a man like Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the helm remains to be seen; but the signs aren’t great.
© The Editor