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Aggression in Syria, repression in Turkey: How Erdogan forges his Sunni Islamist ‘New Turkey’

Turkish President Erdogan's response to the July coup attempt and his invasion of Syria are all aspects of his religious sectarian vision to form a 'new Turkey' governed by Sharia law with himself as absolute President

The momentous events of 15 July 2016 have shaken the Turkish nation to its core, in the process even awakening hitherto unknown reserves of popular courage and unquestioning obedience.

The official narrative has it that the people of Turkey, supported by their political leadership (government as well as opposition), resisted the country’s military and so thwarted a coup that would have spelled the end of Tayyip Erdoğan’s political career and life.  And now, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (or AKP, led by the hapless PM Binali Yıldırım) have emerged stronger than ever, and Turkey will never be the same again . . .

Terror Distractions and Other Threats

A little more than a month later, a terror attack occurred that was to have serious consequences in the weeks and months to come:

“[o]n August 20, 2016, ISIS carried out a suicide attack in Gaziantep, Turkey targeting a Kurdish neighborhood wedding ceremony killing fiftyone people and wounding sixtynine others.”

And, as always seems to happen in Turkey Tayyip Erdoğan personally entered the controversy, this time by means of blaming a child suicide bomber for the attack (August 21), only to have his proxy deny this claim subsequently. Speaking to reporters in Ankara, the hapless Prime Minister stated namely that

“[w]e do not have a clue about who the perpetrators behind the attack were. Early information on who did the attack, in what organisation’s name, is unfortunately not right.”

In other words, this terror attack is now quite cosily fulfilling the function of a distraction, with the news media happily participating in the frenzy.

Yet another factor that always seems to occur in Turkey whenever the “Caliph” (ie. ISIS leader Ibrahim Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi) and his Merry Men (aka the IS or ISIS/ISIL) are involved

“[n]o group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.”

The weekly news magazine Newsweek‘s Jack Moore muses that

“ISIS rarely claims attacks in Turkey, which analysts speculate to be because of its use of Turkey as a transit country to get foreign fighters into its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria.”

But Moore’s statement seems rather weak and unconvincing. The Turkish state under the AKP has had warm relations with many, if not all, Islamist factions across the border in Syria. But, last year the “suicide blast in the Turkish border town of Suruç” (20 July 2015) was then the first effective spill-over of violence from the Syrian theatre into Turkish territory.

That particular “attack was targeted at a meeting organised by the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations (SGDF), bringing together young people from all around the country planning to travel across the border in order to offer aid and support for the re-building of the recently liberated Kurdish town of Kobanê.”

The terror attack was thus specifically aimed at Turkey’s Kurdish minority, its sympathisers and political representation.

Even though AKP-led Turkey was quick to blame ISIS or the Islamic State for the outrage, responsibility for the attack was never claimed and this suicide blast effectively brought an end to the Kurdish Peace Process.

Following this first foray into Turkish territory many more suicide attacks followed, particularly in Ankara and Istanbul — attacks which the government was always keen to blame on the “Caliph” and his Merry Men, though following renewed hostilities with the country’s Kurds, the name PKK (ie. the main Kurdish anti-government militia) also managed to pop up occasionally.

The parallels between the Suruç and Gaziantep attacks appear striking, the latter taking place exactly a year-and-a-month after the former. And in both cases, the official narrative has it that Islamist terrorists hailing from across the border were targeting Turkey’s Kurds . . .

Last year, I wondered whether

“the Suruç suicide bombing [was] a false flag attack?? [Whether] the Turkish Army [would] now enter Syria to fight the IS and the Assad regime?? . . .”

In the end, Turkey’s Armed Forces (or TSK in acronymised Turkish) stayed put. and according to Russia, Turkey traded freely with the Islamic State, importing stolen oil and reaping huge profits.

The relations between the Erdogan, the “Caliph”, and the Kurds seem most tangled up. Or is AKP-led Turkey merely using the name ISIS (or ISIL or the IS or DAESH, the Arabic acronym now also popularly used by Turkish politicians and media alike) to deflect attention from those really responsible for inflicting grave harm on the Turkish Kurds? And this question would then lead us to ask who is hiding behind this government-sponsored obfuscation?

For one thing, the local Kurds seem rather clear about the matter. Following the recent Gaziantep suicide attack the Kurdish news agency Ajansa Nûçeyan a Firatê (ANF) reported

“AKP members were protested and expelled from the funeral of 42 people that had been massacred in [Gazi]Antep,”

even adding that the massacre was perpetrated by

“ISIS gangs supported by the AKP.”

A Policy of Sunnification or Erdogan’s Dream

It really looks like Erdogan and the current hapless Turkish Prime Minister Yıldırım are keen to insinuate that the Republic of Turkey is under constant threat from either foreign terrorists, Kurdish separatists or, as recently witnessed, from apparently U.S.-directed “traitors” – as the coup-plotters have now been termed.

And these threats are all sneakily used to deflect attention from the fact that Tayyip Erdoğan is in the process of establishing a new land on the Anatolian peninsula, a “New Turkey” (as the AKP now self-assuredly also boasts), a new country completely at odds with the state founded by Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk] in 1923.

From late 2013 onwards, I have been using the term “policy of Sunnification” to describe the AKP’s domestic agenda.

In fact, Turkey’s affairs next door in Syria are but a continuation and sounding-board of this self-same policy, as the Assad regime in Damascus is supposedly led by an Alawite clan, though in reality the Syrian government appears to be much more inclusive than that, counting its fair share of ethnic and religious minorities among its members, in addition to a number of Sunni Muslims  – arguably, a circumstance most displeasing to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the self-proclaimed champion of Sunni Islam, arguably forever dreaming of a revived Islamic Turkey emboldened by righteous and obedient believer-citizens pledging allegiance to the Prophet and his representative on earth, Tayyip Erdoğan.

After all, as long ago as 20the January 2004 the then-U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman penned a confidential report for his masters in Washington, D.C. describing Erdoğan as “a natural politician,” possessing an “unbridled ambition stemming from the belief God has anointed him to lead Turkey.”

At the outset of his political career – on 22 November 1994, to be precise – when he was Mayor of Istanbul, the then 40-year old Erdoğan participated in a television programme via the telephone and proclaimed in a loud and clear tone of voice

“alḥamdulillāh [or praise be to God or Allah], I am a Muslim . . . alḥamdulillāh, I am a proponent of the Shariah.”

As a result, it should not come as a far-fetched idea to assume that the ambitious (yet also apparently equally avaricious) Tayyip Erdoğan would someday like to overthrow the Kemalist consensus and even venture to re-introduce the Shariah in Turkey.

Some have argued that the AKP’s long-term goal for the year 2023, the centenary of the Republic’s foundation, has always been to

“transform the nation state Turkey into an Anatolian federation of Muslim ethnicities, possibly linked to a revived caliphate”

with a re-introduced Shariah legal system . . .

The botched military coup of 15 July came as a “gift from God [or Allah],” offering the opportunity to effectively emasculate, if not extinguish, the opposition and other unwanted adversaries.

That fateful night, when Erdogan used his FaceTime interview on CNN Türk to call upon the people to take to the streets, they responded in huge numbers filling the main squares of Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara, imbued with a religious zeal that, according to some, seemed to mirror the fanaticism displayed by the “Caliph’s” suicide commandos (ISIS/ISIL or IS) and other religiously inspired agitators.

The masses took to the streets, proclaiming their allegiance to the Prophet and his cause by means of shouting “God is great” (or ‘Allahu Akbar’) over and again.

The political scientist Professor Alpaslan Özerdem, present in Ankara during the coup attempt, relates that following Erdoğan’s FaceTime words of encouragement

“members of the public stormed the state TV studios in Ankara, and the same broadcaster who read out the coup statement only a few hours before announced that the state TV had been brought back under civilian control. However, an army unit then stormed the studios of CNN Türk just after 3.30am, and the Turkish public were treated to the bizarre spectacle of a military coup taking over a TV broadcast and journalists fighting back. Half an hour later, the public stormed the CNN building too, chanting ‘Allahu Akbar.’ A man entered the studio itself from the fire escape and asked his fellow protesters to join him there, apparently without realising that all cameras in the studio were broadcasting live – instantly making him something of an unwitting national icon.”

The news agency Reuters adds that

“[m]ore than 290 people were killed in the violence, 104 of them coup supporters, the rest largely civilians and police officers.”

And that means that about 186 Turkish individuals have now joined the ranks of martyrs, arguably residing in heaven in clear reciprocal sight of Allah.

The AKP-led government after all ensured that Turkish civilians-perishing-for-the-cause-of-Turkey would join their military martyr brethren. As explained by Erdoğan himself (March 2012): now

“[w]e are including civilians who died in terror events into the category of martyrs. Civilians who become invalid or die by reason of a terror event and their relatives will receive compensation and a monthly allowance’. In this way, the Turkish state takes on the responsibility to take care of those who have died (or suffered) for the cause of the fatherland, which has now become equal to the cause of God.”

In this way, Erdogan encouraged his followers to become Mujahids (or individuals striving for the cause of Allah) and potential martyrs (or Shaheed), with 186 civilians actually sacrificing themselves for the sake of their leader, the President or rather Recep Tayyip Erdoğan:

“This uprising is a gift from God [or rather, Allah] to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army [and the whole of the nation of opposition-minded antagonists, desperately clinging to the memories of Atatürk and the achievements of Kemalism]. “

The Turkish Bin Laden or Pennsylvania

Erdogan and the whole of the AKP apparatus immediately blamed the self-exiled former government employee-or-cleric Fethullah Gülen, and, capitalising on the Ankara judiciary’s inventive phraseology (7 May 2015), accused a “shadowy, clearly elusive, and possibly even non-existent, organisation” known only as the supposed terror group FETÖ (Fettullahçı Terör Örgütü or Fethullahist Terror Organization) of being behind the coup attempt.

In fact, for all intents and purposes, one could put forward that Gülen has now become Turkey’s very own Usamah bin Laden, as the shadowy figure veiled in a cloak of Islamic learning and authority threatening life and limb across the nation from behind the scenes, supposedly orchestrating last July’s momentous Friday happenings: but

“[b]y 5am, [on Saturday morning 16 July] it [had] become clear that the coup attempt . . . failed”

and Erdoğan made a public announcement, addressing Gülen by means of a rhetorical flourish:

“I have a message for Pennsylvania: You have engaged in enough treason against this nation. If you dare, come back to your country”

— using the name of the Keystone State as a means to directly appeal to the figure of the fugitive former government employee-or-cleric Gülen (totum pro parte).

The same night, quite some time after all was said and done, a clearly relieved Erdogan stated confidently that

“[t]he army is ours . . . I am the Commander-in-Chief.”

Post-coup-attempt, Erdoğan, his proxy Yıldırım, and the whole of the AKP establishment immediately started a concerted campaign to ensure that the momentum was not lost, encouraging citizens to take to the streets in so-called “Democracy Guards” and giving speeches left, right and centre — television sets as well as purposefully erected large screens in public squares constantly airing the figure of the President admonishing his followers and threatening his opponents.

The press reported on 25 July that a

“total of 13,165 people have been detained in connection with the foiled coup attempt in Turkey, President Erdogan said on Sunday [, 24 July]. He mentioned that 8,838 of those arrested are soldiers, 2,101 are judges and prosecutors, 1,485 are police officers, 52 are local authorities and 689 are civilians, as reported by the Hurriyet daily. He added that 934 schools, 109 dormitories, 15 universities, 104 foundations, 35 health institutions, 1,125 associations and 19 unions were closed as they belonged to what he described as the ‘Fethullahist Terrorist Organization’.” And the authorities also determined then that “8,651 members, or 1.5%, of the nation’s armed forces took part in the failed coup on 15 July.”

Official Backlash: Purging the State

Following the successful suppression of the coup attempt, the official reaction has been nothing but a severe continuation of the repression that occurred in the wake of the corruption scandal, commonly referred to as #AKPgate.

But now, these purges are much more severe, as a three-month State of Emergency has been proclaimed on Wednesday, 20 July 2016, following a five-hour meeting of the National Security Council and a meeting of Erdoğan’s privy cabinet.  The President then told the press that

“the aim is to rapidly and effectively take all steps needed to eliminate the threat against democracy, the rule of law and the people’s rights and freedoms.”

It seems ironic that an act allowing the president and the PM “to bypass the parliament in enacting laws is cited as a means of protecting and safeguarding democracy.

On the same day, two members of Turkey’s constitutional court were arrested, in addition to more than 100 judiciary officials also taken into custody.

In early October the Turkish cabinet agreed to extend the State of Emergency for another 90 days, as then made public by the government spokesman Numan Kurtulmuş.

According to the Turkish Constitution, a state of emergency can only last for a maximum period of six months and this could mean that a possible constitutional amendment could by the end of January 2017 very well turn the current State of Emergency into the new normal and the Republic of Turkey into a veritable AKP-led police state, known as the “New Turkey”.

Thousands of private schools, charities and other institutions were forcibly closed down on Saturday, 23 July.

At the same time, the authorities immediately set out to purge the ranks of government officials and employees, abolishing vacations and restricting foreign travel. Whilst, as explained by the the journalists Josie Ensor and Zia Weise

“licences of 21,000 staff working in private schools have been revoked, [and] more than 20,000 employees at the education ministry fired, and the state-run higher education council demanded the resignation of 1,577 university deans. The Turkish education ministry [also] announced the closure of more than 600 state school across the country.”

The much-anticipated meeting of the High Military Council of Turkey (or YAŞ, in acronymised Turkish) in early August was moved forward as a clear means to cull the ranks of suspected (or possibly unwanted) members — in short, a grand total of 149 generals and admirals.   More than a thousand commissioned and 436 non-commissioned officers have been made redundant and nearly 1,700 military personnel have been summarily discharged.

The five-hour Council meeting, headed by the hapless Prime Minister Yıldırım and the Defence Minister Fikri Işık, came to an end Thursday night (28 July) and was greeted by numerous “democracy supporters” taking to the streets to celebrate in honking cars.

The news agency Reuters‘ Ece Toksabay and Daren Butler remark insightfully that Tayyip Erdoğan

“wants the armed forces and national intelligence agency brought under the control of the presidency”

moving towards an absolute presidency.

Also 45 newspapers, 16 television channels and 23 radio stations have been shut down, muffling the free press basically.

And on 31 July an emergency decree effectively closed down all military high schools and military academies, venerable institutions going back to the Ottoman era and representing a tradition that seems to be at odds with the current regime.

These institutions used to furnish an officers’ class steeped in Kemalist ideology and thus ensured that the Turkish Armed Forces was led by a cadre that saw its function primarily as safeguarding the status quo. Or, as expressed by the BBC in 2007

“[t]he army sees itself as the guardian of Turkey’s secularism.”

Forging an Absolute Presidency for Turkey

But those days are over now, and talk of “defending democracy” and of reintroducing “capital punishment,” as oftentimes voiced by anti-coup protesters as well as the AKP machinery, should really be understood as coded messages.

I would argue that the use of the term “democracy,” invariably accompanied by enthusiastic proclamations that God is great or ‘Allahu Akbar’ by Erdoğan supporters is nothing but a veiled call for the re-introduction of Shariah law in Turkey.  And in this context, the return of capital punishment could very well function as a catalyst that would convince wider swathes of the population that stricter and more stringent laws are in order . . . and no law is stricter than the law of God, or the Shariah in an Islamic context.  And the strongman that is Tayyip Erdoğan, as the “anointed” leader of Turkey is the one to achieve this feat, something that seemed all but unthinkable and even unimaginable just ten years ago.

As voiced by an anonymous intellectual in Istanbul interviewed by the veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn:

“Erdogan’s lust for power is too great for him [to] show restraint in stifling opposition in general,”

and pursuing his ultimate policy aims, no doubt.

And in this connection, his first goal has to be seen as a changed constitution and the introduction of a presidential system to replace the parliamentary one, in place since 1923 (or 1908, if you want to include its Ottoman forebear).

In other words, Tayyip Erdoğan seems intent on turning “15 July” into a symbolic date, comparable to “31 March” in reverse.

The so-called ’31 March Incident’ (or in Turkish, 31 Mart Vakası) refers to the defeat of a 1909 countercoup, a countercoup that would have abolished the constitutional regime introduced the previous year and reinstated Sultan Abdülhamid II as an absolute autocrat ruling the Ottoman lands.

At the time, counter-revolutionary army units were joined by hordes of theological students (softa) and turbaned clerics (ulema) shouting, “We want Shariah.”

Future history books might very well relate the events of “15 July” as a successful counter-revolution that established Tayyip Erdoğan as Turkey’s first absolute president, overseeing Turkey’s successful return to its Islamic roots of yesteryear.

On 24 August, the Prez addressed a crowd of disabled citizens at his residence, the so-called Beştepe Palace in Ankara, boasting more than a 1,000 rooms,  making an announcement befitting an absolute ruler guiding the ship of state:

“This morning at 04:00 our army, our security forces have begun an operation in the north of Syria, aimed at terror organisations posing a continuous threat to our country from there.”

And in this way, following years and years of looking for a convincing casus belli, Erdoğan has now taken the initiative and unilaterally invaded Syria (the military operation receiving the moniker ‘Euphrates Shield’ and its own requisite English-language twitter feed. . .

One could argue that Erdogan has in this way started acting as Turkey’s absolute president, making do without any constitutional amendments or parliamentary approval.

At one fell swoop, Tayyip Erdoğan has now established a new Turkey, the “New Turkey” that is not afraid to invade its neighbours for political gains at home.

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Can Erimtan
Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002.

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