The Turkish society has become increasingly polarized since the coup attempt of 15 July 2016. However, Erdogan and his rather conventional opponents, particularly secularists, nationalists and even the Kurdish minority, have come together in a rare consensus that Gulen, a self-exiled Islamic preacher, and his followers were behind the coup attempt and have long tried to infiltrate the Turkish state. Not only do these people blame Gulenists, but they also believe that the West was responsible for what happened. Indeed, a poll published on The Economist indicates that 84% of people in Turkey think that the coup was orchestrated with help from abroad. The obscurity of the reality overall led to the swarm of conspiracy theories in the country. In the meantime, Erdogan has managed to further consolidate his power.
Many journalists and Turkey experts rushed into the assertion that this stems from the inherent anti-Western sentiments shared within the Turkish population. However, these analyses have often failed to acknowledge Turkish people’s legitimate concerns.
It goes mostly unnoticed that Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) enjoyed a tight-knit alliance with the Gulenists until 2013, while the opposition had for decades criticized Gulenists for their attempts to undermine the Turkish state. With the help of the government, the Gulenists succeeded in slowly putting their followers into prominent positions in state institutions and created what many call as a “parallel state.” The period also saw a massive crackdown on seculars and show trials with fabricated evidence, as hundreds of army officers, high ranking bureaucrats, and civil society leaders languished in prisons whereas people close to the Gulenist movement took over their posts. The Western world, instead of pointing out the authoritarian inclinations of the Erdogan government, cheered Turkey’s democratization and its emergence as a role-model for the Middle East.
Many literate Turks now look at Western media organs and politicians with profound skepticism. They bitterly remember how the West turned a blind eye towards the mass arrest of seculars even though it now harshly criticizes the arrest of alleged Gulenists. The same holds true even for NGOs and humanitarian organizations. While Amnesty International, whose Turkey office president has been imprisoned for around a year, is calling for human rights violations in post-coup trials for instance, their protests are viewed with ambiguity even by some of the staunchest Erdogan opposers. Many of these people remember how the organization fell into silence when friends and families of jailed secular officers presented the organization hundreds of documents showing legal inaccuracies of the trial. This shows that Turks’ rising anti-Western sentiments are not only about their inclination for conspiracy theories and desire to blame any of their problems on the West. In fact, a more rational explanation exists, that many in Turkey embraced the so called “Western values” for long but they feel like they were left out along the way, resulting in lack of trust in the Western world.
Since then, Gulenists and the AKP government broke their alliance and have been in an open conflict starting 2013, but it was the coup attempt in 2016 that brought their relationship into the forefront. Many people in Turkey didn’t hesitate to hold Europe and the US accountable. Erdogan supporters especially pointed out that many Western countries did not condemn the incident until its failure became decisive, accusing them of not supporting Turkey as these countries awaited its outcome. The fact that it took more than six months for a EU head of state to visit Turkey also led pro-Erdogan journalists and politicians speculate that the EU did not show solidarity with the country and the coup’s massive civilian causality. On the other hand, while still criticizing Erdogan’s ever increasing authoritarianism, many others in Turkey also accused the West of not properly acknowledging Gulen’s role in modern Turkish history. As one Western diplomat summed it up, the reaction of European countries “was a test of loyalty, and Europe failed it.”
For many Turks, the coup attempt and the subsequent reaction of the international community followed a very similar pattern of disappointment of the late 2000s. Indeed, the West mostly failed to acknowledge Turkey’s authoritarian inclinations for years, and despite warnings of notable Turkish intellectuals and academicians regarding deteriorating democratic system, many Turkey experts and Western politicians were surprised with Turkey’s “sudden” backsliding democracy only after the widespread Gezi Protests of 2013. On the other hand, the increasingly unfavorable opinion of Erdogan due to his tightening one-man rule also thwarted an accurate understanding of the coup attempt.
It goes without saying that Erdogan and the Turkish government also have themselves to blame. The massive crackdown on tens of thousands of people along with increasing reports of human rights violations rightfully raised questions about Turkey’s still in-effect state of emergency. The fact that post-coup purges extended even to those who were critical of Gulenists casted shadows over the real intention of the government, with the opposition claiming that the coup attempt is being used as a way to consolidate power and further backside towards authoritarianism. Monitoring groups also pointed out that the crackdown was further digressed from the Gulenists with the arrest of pro-Kurdish opposition party members and supporters.
On the other hand, it is extremely critical for Europe and the US to make a distinction between these authoritarian practices, that need to be criticized regarding the rule of law and democracy, and the reality of the coup. The EU and the US should both acknowledge Turkey’s legitimate sensitivity especially with respect to the Gulen movement. The West should also realize that “the enemy of my enemy” doesn’t have to be your friend, as many people who oppose Erdogan have also long stood against Gulen and seen him behind Turkish state institutions’ decadence.
While some claim that there is still not a substantial proof to link the coup attempt to Gulen himself, various surfaced evidences proved coup culprits’ connection to the Gulen movement. People in Turkey still remember the emerged videos of Gulen urging his followers to reach all the constitutional institutions of Turkey, telling them to wait for the right moment to strike. When Western politicians fail to address at least Gulenists’ role in the coup, even those who criticize Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism also have a hard time believing that the West wants to see its own values in Turkey. The result is lessening trust in the West and letting Erdogan benefit polarization by keeping most of Turks on his side.
The EU in particular can play a crucial role with respect to Turkey’s deteriorating democracy. Turkey’s stance within European countries at this point presents a double-edged situation since EU leaders, most notably Germany’s Angela Merkel, made remarks about halting accession talks with Turkey. Such a thing would not only further alienate Turkey from socio-political standards set by the EU, but it would also serve to fuel Erdogan’s one-man rule rhetoric.
What EU should do instead is to engage in a dialogue and even open new chapters for Turkey’s accession, especially the ones about judiciary. As an ECFR report indicates, this can help set up a framework for Turkey to follow regarding the rule of law. While it doesn’t seem likely that Erdogan’s authoritarian inclinations will change soon in the future, an EU open to dialogue can at least show the Turkish opposition believing in democracy and the rule of law that the EU is by their side.
The current deadlock in Turkey’s relationship with the West and particularly with the EU helps Erdogan polarize his people while it further hampers Turkish people’s trust in the West. The fact that 84% of people in Turkey think that the coup was orchestrated with outside help is more beneficial to Erdogan than to the EU. Thus, halting the accession talks due to Turkey’s worsening democracy will ironically damage Turkey’s democracy even more and help Erdogan further consolidate power. If the West wants to engage in a more constructive dialogue with Turkey, especially with the opposition, it should hear Turkish people out to develop fair and trustworthy relations. If not, it is unlikely that anti-Western sentiments in Turkey will soon fade away, the results of which will be used by Erdogan to keep people on his side.
Photo from the EU Delegation to Turkey official website.