The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the West struggles to understand about Turkey and Erdogan

Demonstrators wave flags during a rally on Aug. 7 in Istanbul in protest of the failed July military coup. (Ozan Kose/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

It's getting close to a month since Turkey's elected government withstood a dramatic, bloody coup by a mutinous faction in the military. In the weeks since, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has presided over an unprecedented purge of state institutions and civil society, arresting and detaining thousands, while suspending or firing tens of thousands from their jobs.

For a ruler often caricatured as a neo-Ottoman potentate, Erdogan sees around him a byzantine web of conspiracies and threats. Turkish authorities want their U.S. counterparts to hand over Fethullah Gulen, a septuagenarian Turkish imam who has lived in the United States since 1999 and is said to helm a shadowy movement, some of whose followers are linked to the failed coup.

Both the putsch and the crackdown that followed remain shrouded in uncertainty: Gulen's role in all this is still a matter of debate and investigation; the grim, lasting consequences of mass detentions and blanket punishment of suspected Gulenists have yet to be measured.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan says Washington will sooner or later have to make a choice between Turkey and U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. (Video: Reuters, Photo: HANDOUT/Reuters)

But, as I wrote last week while in Istanbul, it's important to try to understand the palpable frustration among many Turks with both the West's actions in the region and its narratives about Turkey.

Turkey's purge marks endgame in Islamist civil war

Many I spoke with were disappointed by what they viewed as a muted response from Turkey's Western allies in the hours after the coup was launched. They were angry about the continued residence in the United States of Gulen, a man likened by Turkish media and officials to Osama bin Laden. And they believed, perhaps justifiably, that had the coup plot succeeded, many foreign governments would have made peace with the new status quo — no matter the traumatic, violent interruption of Turkey's democratic politics.

Yusuf Muftuoglu, a onetime adviser to former president Abdullah Gul, offered a tidy summary of these attitudes: "Today, largely as a result of this Western indifference towards the coup and its culprits and the much greater amount of attention paid to other events many people in Turkey, including commentators who have nothing to do with conspiracy theories, believe that people in the West would have been content if this coup had succeeded. Turks are struggling to convince their global counterparts about what is so clear to them here at home."

The roots of Erdogan's paranoia

A huge part of the dissonance has to do with Western antipathy toward Erdogan. The Turkish president is often cast by his critics as a would-be tyrant, a demagogue who has used his majoritarian grip on power to consolidate his position, subdue dissent, intimidate the opposition, and reshape the Turkish republic in his own image — one that has increasingly moved Turkey away from its secularist moorings and toward Erdogan's brand of Sunni Muslim nationalism.

This view of Erdogan is not inaccurate. But it also obscures other forces at play.

Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a center-right religious nationalist party, have consistently won multi-party elections for the past decade and a half. They ushered in one of the country's longest stretches of stable, democratic, civilian rule. And, until a resumption of hostilities with separatists in recent years, they created an opening for the long-suppressed Kurdish minority.

For these reasons, Erdogan and his allies see themselves as the country's true democrats and pluralists, bucking decades of stifling, quasi-authoritarian secularism that forbade women from wearing Islamic headscarves in public universities, banned Kurds from writing and speaking in their own language and saw the military run roughshod over democratic institutions.

Was the U.S. behind a failed coup? Some Turks think so.

Erdogan has in the past styled himself as the inheritor of the legacy of Adnan Menderes, the prime minister who was ousted in a 1960 coup and later tried and hanged by a military junta. Like Erdogan, Menderes commanded the support of the country's poorer, more religious working classes.

And though his position from the outside appears impregnable — and, indeed, Erdogan seems to be further expanding his powers — he frets about suffering the same fate.

Turkey has experienced multiple military coups and coup attempts over the past half-century. On the campaign trail and in his public utterances, Erdogan has warned darkly about anti-democratic forces working against his rule — the machinations of the "deep state" — as well as foreign conspiracies. Many observers overseas grew accustomed to the scaremongering, seeing it as one of the more unsavory aspects of the Turkish leader's rhetoric.

But as the events of last month proved, there was some justification for Erdogan's fears. Turkey's democracy is still an experiment, still fragile and still at risk of a grave setback.

"In a region that hosts hardly any experiments with democracy or accountable governance at all, Turkey is still grappling with the messy, destabilizing process of transitioning from poor military dictatorship to modern, developing democracy," writes Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at the Century Foundation.

Erdogan may seem to be a problematic democrat to many in the West. But even his authoritarian streak, to many Turks, is preferable to the bad old days of military coups. The spectacle of mass protests in defense of Turkey's elected government has been replayed over and over on Turkish television for good reason.

It's not just about Islamists vs. secularists

Another somewhat lazy assumption about the political fallout in Turkey is that we're witnessing a contest between the Islamism of Erdogan and his ruling party and the secular views of an older, entrenched establishment in the country's military and cosmopolitan coastal cities. This divide does exist, but it's hardly the defining theme of the moment.

Even if we choose to rule out Gulen's direct involvement in the coup plot, it's no secret that Erdogan and the AKP have been in an open war against suspected Gulenists operating within the country's bureaucracy — its judiciary, police services and military — since 2013. Before that, as we detailed earlier, the two Islamist camps had been working in tandem to sideline other more secularist elements in the state.

Hundreds of military officers and other officials were convicted in trials led by Gulenist prosecutors on what were later discovered to be mostly fraudulent charges. Those witch hunts engendered the rather jaundiced views among most Turks about Gulen and his supporters, whose benign public face overseas doesn't quite match their seemingly clandestine operations at home.

"It is important to understand that Gulen created enemies across the political aisles," writes Ragip Soylu, a journalist with the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper.

The nationwide anti-coup rallies — called "democracy watches" — held nightly since the July 15 coup attempt pulled in myriad Erdogan supporters but also Turks from other parts of the political spectrum. These included secular Turks and more pious ones, ultranationalists and even a few liberals.

Al-Monitor columnist Mustafa Akyol described the turnout at a mass rally in Istanbul on Sunday:

"Erdogan supporters probably made up the biggest chunk; there were as many unveiled women as those wearing the veil, and Islamists were joined by pop stars, models, actors and actresses, and even Turkey’s chief rabbi. Secular media, too, was as supportive as the Islamist media. Hardcore secular and often fiercely anti-Erdogan daily Sozcu came out the next day with a huge headline that supported the rally, vowing “One nation, one flag.”

The reality in Turkey is that not all secularists are liberal and not all liberals are secular. Nor is Erdogan unwilling to make alliances with those less devout than him. If anything, in the aftermath of the coup attempt, Erdogan has drifted further toward ultranationalists on the far-right of Turkey's politics, a constituency that is not motivated by religion.

And the losers amid the ongoing purge — apart from Gulen's movement and others caught in the far-reaching dragnet — appear to be the long-standing foe of Turkey's ultranationalists: the Kurds. The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party was the only major political bloc to be kept out of Erdogan's displays of national unity.

Turkey still needs Europe and the West

Erdogan's confab this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin was billed as the Turkish leader's first foreign visit in the wake of the coup attempt and an angry rebuke of the West. But that's perhaps overstating things.

Although Turkish officials aren't thrilled about the perceived lack of support from Western governments after July 15, the meeting in Moscow was planned before the failed putsch and is part of a slow-moving rapprochement between two geopolitical adversaries in the Middle East's conflicts.

But for all its rhetorical bluster, Turkey under Erdogan still needs a healthy relationship with the United States and Europe — the E.U. being Turkey's biggest trade partner. In private, Western officials say their meetings with Turkish counterparts are largely cordial and productive and that Turkey, NATO's second-largest military, remains a solid friend and ally.

"Think of Turkey as the curmudgeon at the family dinner table," Selim Sazak, a Turkish analyst, said in an interview with The Washington Post in Istanbul.

The problem, though, is that increased apathy and skepticism abroad may fan the flames of ultranationalism within Turkey.

"That is why Turkey needs sensible friends at this very critical juncture — friends who will understand the severity of the threat the nation has faced, but will also urge it to respect the rule of law," Akyol writes. "Western governments, institutions and media organizations can play this critical role, but only if they begin by understanding what is really going on."

More on WorldViews:

How Donald Trump explains Turkey, and Turkey explains Donald Trump

Erdogan always feared a coup. He was proved right.

What the search for a missing Ottoman skull says about Turkish politics

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