By: Timur Kuran

September 19, 2016

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power in 2002 on the promise of giving pious Muslims religious freedom. Fourteen years later, “freedom” is the last thing the AKP has delivered.


Today, even AKP supporters need to measure their words carefully, lest they be perceived as criticizing the government or siding with its enemies. This imperative has intensified since July 15’s failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Self-preservation requires the destruction of any evidence of association with the AKP’s foes, especially Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based imam whom the government accuses of masterminding the putsch.

By no means is Erdogan’s government the first to compel Turkish citizens to hide their preferences and beliefs. Under the secular governments that ruled Turkey from the 1920s to 1950, and to some extent under those of 1950 to 2002, pious Turks seeking advancement in government, the military, and even commerce had to downplay their religiosity and avoid signaling approval of political Islam.

The leaders of the three Islamist parties that preceded the AKP resented the barriers to religious expression. They also held that Turkey’s French-style secularism perverted Turkish culture. Though careful not to challenge the constitution openly, from 1971 to 2001 they were banned, each in turn, as threats to secularism. In 1999, Erdogan himself was jailed for reciting a poem deemed an incitement to sectarian violence. In the same year, Gulen, under investigation for advocating an Islamic state, moved to the United States.

As fellow opponents of secular governance, Gulen’s Hizmet (Service) movement and the AKP were natural allies. Indeed, they spent a decade working together to undermine Turkey’s secular institutions. After a constitutional referendum in 2010 terminated the staunchly secular military’s guardianship of the republic, they saw a historic opportunity for comprehensive social engineering. As prime minister, Erdogan started to transform Turkish society according to his own conservative interpretation of Islam.

And transform Turkish society he did. Secular Turks, once politically dominant and officially viewed as vanguards of modernity, were now characterized as lacking in morality, decency, and even Turkishness. Religious education was intensified. Alcohol restrictions were tightened. Women were instructed to have at least three children and, later, not to laugh loudly in public. What news media the AKP did not buy off were subdued through threats of punitive taxation and jail time for uncooperative journalists.

Paradoxically, devout Muslims were not free of fear either, not least because of the ensuing power struggle between the Erdogan and Gulen camps. Under AKP rule, Gulen’s supporters initially shared the privileges of power, including preferential treatment in government hiring and contracts. Tensions developed after the 2010 victory, and the alliance broke three years later when Gulenists tried to implicate Erdogan in a corruption probe. Erdogan responded by initiating a purge of suspected Gulenists from state agencies.

Two academics had already revealed that several sensational legal cases against the old secular establishment rested critically on fabricated evidence. After the 2013 breakup, AKP officials took to blaming Gulen for all judicial improprieties. Undoubtedly, the AKP knew that victims of the mega-lawsuits, who included hundreds of generals, were framed. But few Turks said a word, for fear of being labeled part of Gulen’s “parallel state.”

Two months after the bloodiest coup attempt in Turkish history, Turks still talk incessantly about the surreal bombardments, the televised images of tanks in the street, and the ferocious government response, which has included tens of thousands of arrests. Some wonder whether Erdogan staged the coup to justify a purge of epic proportions. Of course, any such questions are raised in private, amid assertions of antipathy to the “Fethullah Terror Organization” (FETO), the new official designation for Hizmet. Turks know that the government may equate the slightest connection to Gulen, however old or tenuous, with treason.

Indeed, alleged sympathizers are being summarily dismissed from their jobs, if not also jailed. People educated on Gulen scholarships are prime suspects, as are millions who have had dealings with a Gulenist-owned business. Gulenists’ assets are being seized in the biggest wealth grab since the 1940s. Under the circumstances, it would be suicide to mention the merits of the Gulenist charities being destroyed.

These responses are beyond excessive, not least because, whatever the involvement of Gulen himself, the putsch was not the work of Gulenists alone. Disaffected officers of many persuasions participated, as did opportunists seeking promotion. If the putsch failed, one reason is that information was leaked about the putsch, inducing many conspirators, including some key military units, to withdraw from the plot.

Many generals, intelligence officers, and other officials hesitated when it became known that a putsch was underway. Erdogan’s top generals and intelligence chief kept him uninformed for hours, even as an assassination squad made its way to his vacation residence. Evidently, a significant share of Turkey’s security officials took a wait and see attitude. In fact, delayed response has been the justification for some of the more than 100,000 firings. Among other Turks, too, there are doubtless many who decided to watch how the putsch would end, before turning against Gulen when it failed.

Had the putsch succeeded, claim the AKP as well as many of its opponents, the repression would be far worse. They are almost certainly right; after all, AKP supporters far outnumber Gulenists. But the AKP has made bitter enemies over the last 14 years, and millions of Turks would have applauded the jailing of its leaders, even as many of those leaders claimed plausibly that their support for Erdogan was feigned.

Today, Turkey is farther than ever from the goal of creating a society whose members feel free to speak openly and honestly. The ongoing witch hunt causes citizens of all persuasions to fear for their jobs and their lives. They seek refuge in dissimulation—social, political, intellectual, and religious. This pervasive untruthfulness reinforces patterns that contribute to Turkey’s recurrent political crises.

A version of this article first appeared on Project Syndicate on September 15, 2016.

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