What if the Putschists Had Won in Turkey?

From the late-18th century, through the French Revolution and into the 1800s, two key dimensions or components of modernity emerged in parallel: democracy, comprising elections, representation and parliament; and at the same time the opposite, darker side of the modern state, meaning its coercive apparatus and especially that embodiment of the monopoly of legitimate violence that is the army.

What if the Putschists Had Won in Turkey

In French, just coup means simply strike or blow. As a political term, coup is short for coup d’état, which connotes a sudden blow struck to change, overthrow, and/or establish control over the state, the government or the political régime. Hence it stands for one major variant of abnormal, violence-reliant politics. The other is revolution, which is generally regarded as (a) much more reliant on popular action from below; and (b) resulting in much more comprehensive systemic change – not just at the apex of politics but throughout what used to be called the political (and even the social) body. Both are admittedly rather loose and subjective criteria. How much change is systemic change? How much mass involvement do you have to have before you can call something a revolution? These are never easy to establish, giving rise to some grey zones of historical interpretation.

In contrast, a coup has more minimal content, and is therefore much easier to define. Here the use of violence is much more abrupt and concentrated in a way that cannot possibly be provided by a civilian or “amateurish” leadership (whether it resorts to urban uprisings, or guerrilla warfare, or a combination of both) but only by a professional, institutionalized locus with vast resources of men and material at its disposal, meaning the army. As a result, army takeover or military takeover have come to be used interchangeably with coup or coup d’état (as well as putsch, golpe or golpe d’estado, which have also enriched this malignant vocabulary of abnormality).

Paradoxically, coups or military takeovers are a corollary – but of course a pathological corollary – of democratic development. They do not derive from a previous and total absence of democracy. Instead, they presuppose a modicum of democracy, or a certain degree and direction of democratization, which they are designed to interrupt. From the late-18th century, through the French Revolution and into the 1800s, two key dimensions or components of modernity emerged in parallel: democracy, comprising elections, representation and parliament; and at the same time the opposite, darker side of the modern state, meaning its coercive apparatus and especially that embodiment of the monopoly of legitimate violence that is the army.

On the one hand, the development of liberal democratic ideas, the spread of constitutionalism, the legal consolidation of basic rights and liberties, and the extension of the vote all kept pushing against the Restoration shackles imposed by the Vienna Congress. But on the other hand, the forces of conservatism started to look for ways and means of arresting or reversing this trend – and turned (together with the Church) to the army. From crushing the 1848 uprisings (under Cavaignac), through putting and keeping Louis Bonaparte in power, to installing the military dictatorships of the Interwar Years (like those identified with Horthy, Metaxas, Antonescu, Franco, Salazar or others), a few of which managed to survive into the Cold War era, armies and army takeovers led by aristocratic officers came to be an object of universal hatred. In Western Europe, they mostly came to an end after 1945. In the process, they also acquired a very bad name. Especially in academic thought there was left no room for theorizing the political utility of coups or military interventions.

Not in the West, that is – but the Rest was a different matter. Modernity in the West had become a modernity that included and encompassed democracy, so that (at least after a point) the two were not regarded as contradictory or incompatible. Elsewhere, however, modernity as material, technical, economic, organizational and administrative progress came to be forcibly introduced and imposed on native populations from the outside. In colonial contexts (and by 1900, there were only a very few countries left in Asia or Africa that had not been directly incorporated into European overseas empires), the entire colonial edifice itself, with all its regents, governors, generals, garrisons, port facilities, road, railroad and telegraph companies, newspapers and school systems that imitated those of the metropolitan or “mother” countries, was the primary agent of modernization.

In semi-colonial settings where a settler colony arose and then achieved independence through its creole generations (such as Latin America), or where a traditional state or empire somehow survived and held on to a reduced sovereignty (such as China, Iran or the Ottoman polity), these creole or native elites shouldered that modernizing role. Trying to survive in competition with increasingly imperialistic European powers, the latter, meaning especially semi-colonial Middle Eastern modernities in the making, almost always began by importing the European army, which led, in a single inescapable chain reaction, to importing European laws, European administration, European schools and instruction, European dress, European money, European weights and measures – because none of these links could do without the others. Long before the Young Turks and the Kemalist revolutions, this is the story of Tanzimat modernization during the “long 19th century” of the Ottoman Empire.

We cannot say that it should not have happened, or that it should not have happened “that way”; it did, and that is a fact of history, and it brought major gains with it, and that too is a fact of history. But it also had a price. There arose a socio-cultural enclave: a small but highly Westernized native elite that had imported and internalized Eurocentrism, adopted an alla franca outlook and life-style, and turned self-colonizer to its historical domains. It became increasingly separated and alienated from the much more traditional alla turca majority of its subjects (now on the way to becoming its fellow citizens). Against them, it barricaded itself behind its new modern army stated by a Westernized officer class that evolved (by a process of class-formation not through the economy but through the state) into much more than just an officer class in the narrow military sense – together with its accompanying bureaucracy and judiciary, a social class in the fullest sense of the word, with its own clear-cut class interests, outlook, and ideology. It acquired a civilizing mission vis-à-vis the rest of society, which it quasi-imperially regarded as its own primitives, and which it subjected to progressive reforms from above. It came up with a version of modernity without democracy, of modernity at the cost of democracy.


In turn, this fed back into a bifurcation in Western political thought, academia and public opinion. Military establishments and takeovers that were emphatically “out” for the West itself came to be tolerated as bon pour l’Orient when it came to the Rest. These alla franca enclaves and armies came to be regarded as many outposts of Western civilization – especially in Islamic lands. Orientalism had long posited Islam as a static, fatalistic, over-mystical religion responsible for much of the East’s backwardness. In Turkey, first the Unionists and then the Kemalists also grew into this Islamophobia, fearing their own masses of believers and seeking to keep their potential “fanaticism” at bay through an authoritarian secularism guarded by the army. Here, therefore, subaltern reactions and demands for a voice, or for representation, were stigmatized as reaction, while the Westernized elites and military establishments on top represented progress. Time after time, in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997, modernity trumped democracy.

It almost did so in 2016. Despite appearances, though, it was not quite the same thing. Whether hierarchical or factional, all previous coups in Turkey had been carried out within the penumbra of Kemalism – under the aegis of the military-bureaucratic establishment’s civilizing self-perception and tutelage (or guardianship) ideology. This created a pattern, a habitus of army takeovers in the name of saving the country. It also conditioned the West, too, into seeing Turkey purely in terms of this army-vs-Islamism dichotomy. If there was some kind of coup brewing in Turkey, once more it had to be the staunch Kemalist old guard trying to defend the ramparts of civilization against Islamic reaction (now represented by the AK Party).

This was (and is) much too simplistic; it fails to understand that it was/is a case of “new wine in old bottles”; it overlooks nothing less than the Gülenist factor in Turkish politics and society. By its own historic attitude and behavior, the army set itself up as a target, an instrument to be usurped, a bastion to be conquered from the inside, and as the rest of this book amply explains, that is precisely what the Gülenist movement attempted. But at the same time, they could not do explicitly on their own ideological terms. That is to say, on the eve of 15th July they could not come out and say: “We are taking over and we shall be setting up a Mahdist, Messianic theocracy.” First, there had evolved a huge gap between their inner agenda and the exterior that they presented to the outside world. Second, that inner ideological outlook was not capable of (suddenly) acquiring a mass character. Thirdly, it would not have been able to forge and sustain either domestic or foreign alliances – at home with the still much more numerous Kemalists in the army and bureaucracy; internationally with the West, and especially the US, whom they hoped would at least tolerate this latest edition of a familiar-looking army takeover in Turkey.

So they dissimulated; ever since the 1970s they had built their entire existence around deception and dishonesty, and they did so yet again. They tried to present themselves as neo-Kemalists; more specifically, as a new edition of the 27th May 1960 coup. Nearly sixty years ago that junta had called itself the Committee for National Unity; they for their part chose to style themselves a Committee for Establishing Peace at Home. The 1960 putschists had adopted a relatively short and terse declaration that had been read over the radio. At least they were sincere in their Kemalism, and their text had an authentic ring to it. Their 15th July imitators would seem to have approached it with extreme pedantic insincerity, drawing it out into a verbose ineffectual mess that was so obviously fake nobody even really listened. Thirty seconds into it I was promptly reminded that “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice... the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte). Horrific as this was, it was also farcical. I remember thinking that such utter unoriginality did not, could not possibly stand a chance.

And so it didn’t; and so, as with Macbeth, with Fethullah Gülen, too, we have seen a case of “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself / and falls on th’other” side. But what if? What if they had won, in perhaps one of two ways, or a combination of both?

(1) What if... Turkish intelligence had received no tip that afternoon about an attempt to kidnap MİT head Hakan Fidan? What if the rebels in their fear of exposure had not been forced to move back their H-hour from 3 in the morning, when the whole country would have been sound asleep? What if they had been able to trick or bully some top generals into siding with them? What if their risky gamble had actually acquired the appearance of a united takeover by the entire Turkish Armed Forces? What if it had therefore come to be condoned, even supported, by the outside world? What if those commandoes had reached Marmaris before President Erdoğan had left?

Would a deathly silence have descended on the land? What kind of military régime might have taken over – something like Myanmar, perhaps? What sort of Kemalist-Gülenist coalition would it have entailed? After a time, would the Gülenists have started moving just as insidiously as ever to eliminate their partners? Meanwhile, how many tens of thousands would have been arrested, jailed, perhaps tortured, perhaps killed by their martial law authorities? What would have happened to the AK Party leadership both at the national and the local level? What of those liberal intellectuals that had supported the AK Party in its fight against military-bureaucratic tutelage?

(2) Alternatively, what if resistance had not subsided, but the putschists with their self-confidence growing by the hour had turned so brutal as to order their troops to show no mercy whatever to civilian protesters? What if the country had lapsed into a state of civil war, which might have provided an excuse for an international “peace-keeping” intervention of some sort? Might Turkey have gone through a process of Syrianization? Including perhaps dismemberment? As well as a partial UN mandate?

These might perhaps be worth thinking about. At least every now and then.

Source: Halil Berktay with Pınar Kandemir (eds.) History and Memory (Istanbul: TRT World Research Center, July 2017)