Within hours of Turkey’s coup attempt, tens of thousands of arrests, suspensions and forced resignations — from military and judiciary members to civil servants and university deans — demonstrated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s resolve to make coup plotters “pay the heavy price of treason to the homeland.” These top-down purges, reminiscent of the routing of leftists following the country’s 1980 coup, will enable the increasingly authoritarian president to stack the institutional deck even further in his favor.
As concerned as observers of Turkey’s struggles with democracy are about the national state of emergency declared Wednesday, the counter-coup unfolding at the societal level bodes equally ominous for Turkey’s future.
Initially mobilized as a tool of popular resistance against military forces, civilians are now demonstrating a form of vigilante vengeance against anyone they deem to be traitorous to the nation. The lasting consequences of this form of tactical polarization may prove the greatest obstacle to a stable, democratic Turkey.
Speaking via FaceTime on a live news broadcast from an undisclosed location during the coup attempt, Erdogan urged his supporters to defy the curfew declared by the military and take to the streets to “give [the traitors] their answer.” Shortly after, on orders from Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), calls issued from minarets instructed listeners to take responsibility for the protection of their homeland “for the love of Allah and Muhammad.” The head of the Diyanet also invoked Islam in his condemnation of the coup as “the greatest betrayal of our exalted religion.”
Effectively deputized by the president and goaded by religious authorities, groups that coalesced in the early hours of the coup were fueled by a combination of perceived moral duty and desire for revenge. With many chants of “Ya allah bismillah allahu ekber” (“In the name of Allah, Allah is great”), sprawling crowds of pro-government Turks confronted armed soldiers en masse, aiding in the rapid vanquishing of coup efforts. Civilian mobs lynched military officers despite some police efforts to protect them; one soldier was reportedly beheaded on the Bosphorus Bridge. In the province of Malatya, crowds stormed and then set fire to a bookstore, again invoking Allah.
The night after the coup attempt, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim declared to masses gathered at the Turkish parliament that their “work was not yet done” and thus their “democracy vigil” would continue. In response, the crowd shouted slogans supporting sharia law as they marched to occupy Kizilay Square in the heart of the capital of Ankara.
Taking back the streets
The takeover of Kizilay by pro-government masses was symbolic, as it had been closed to demonstrations since the anti-government Gezi protests of 2013. Unlike Gezi, initially motivated by environmental concerns that later swelled into overwhelmingly peaceful civil-society mobilization that united previously divided groups, Yildirim’s rally played on Turkish societal divisions, exacerbating polarization. In taking back the streets from the supposedly irreverent and immoral “hooligans” of Gezi, pro-government demonstrators avenge not only the coup attempt but the perils of opposition writ large, sealing off one of the remaining outlets for dissent in Turkey while asserting their own morality over public space.
On Twitter, users appropriated the hashtag #nobetteyiz, roughly meaning “we are on vigil,” and used in 2013 to demonstrate solidarity with those camped out to protect Gezi Park. These tweets included photos of prayer gatherings in parks and videos of groups chanting slogans in the name of Allah. Government supporters — the “50 percent” that Erdogan claimed he was struggling to hold back from the streets during Gezi — now occupied these streets with a vengeance. Placards displayed slogans such as “we want the death penalty” and “death to traitors.”
War of words
Spurred by government claims that Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen was behind the coup, a banner covering the Ataturk Cultural Center in Istanbul’s Taksim Square addressed Gulen directly: “Dog of Satan, we will hang you and your dogs [supporters] by your own leashes.” Targeting a wider swath of society, participants at rally in Adana on Tuesday shouted “Hell for secularists!” The use of fiery, “other”-izing language to spur a wave of counter-coup mobilization got the job done for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government but has left roiling social tensions in its wake.
The AKP is well-versed in wielding this kind of polarizing rhetoric to de-legitimize opposition, as I’ve written elsewhere. In literally adding insult to injury during Gezi, the government used vilifying language to justify crackdowns on demonstrators, branding them as terrorists and immoral infidels deserving of such treatment. The danger of this narrative is that it not only explains away violent behavior by officials but also galvanizes those on the street to take punitive action against anyone seen as deviant. With a Turkish presidential adviser suggesting the day after the coup attempt that restrictions on licensed weapons be lifted, those hell-bent on revenge may not wait to see whether the death penalty is reinstated.
Turkey’s dark side of civil society
As has largely been the case thus far in Turkey, unchecked vigilantism can generate the kinds of atrocious outcomes scholars call the “dark side” of civil society. We’ve seen similar examples of aggressive popular mobilization in Turkey during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in recent years. Seemingly self-appointed patrol groups with fundamentalist interpretations of Islam have physically attacked people who don’t fast during the day. Many non-fasting Turks I’ve spoken with during Ramadan conceal their food and water consumption from public view — not just out of deference to Islamic custom but out of fear of reprisal. This year, vigilantes assaulted a Korean record-shop owner and his customers for playing a new Radiohead album and serving beer. The attackers reportedly smashed beer bottles over their victims’ heads while yelling, “We’ll set you on fire!”
Such threats may be empty, but the punishment of perceived immoral or heretical behavior has a precedent. Turkey recently witnessed the 23rd anniversary of the Sivas massacre, arguably the most heinous example of vigilantism in the country’s history. Seeking revenge on writer Aziz Nesin for translating Salman Rushdie’s controversial “The Satanic Verses” into Turkish, Sunni extremists in 1993 torched a hotel filled with Alevi (non-Sunni, largely leftist) intellectuals and artists gathered for a festival. A mob erected barricades outside the hotel so those trapped inside couldn’t escape, chanting slogans in support of sharia law and damning secularism. While Nesin survived, 37 Alevis and hotel workers perished.
The militant rhetoric used by AKP leaders in the aftermath of last week’s coup did not call explicitly for that level of violence. It did, however, paint with a very broad brush numerous enemies of the state and encourage action against them. Extinguishing the vigilante mentality that formed and metastasized in response will prove a herculean task, one unlikely to be undertaken by the government that stoked and benefited from it.
Lisel Hintz is a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.