Secular Turks between a rock and a hard place

Secular Turks between a rock and a hard place

What we are living through these days harbors several chains of ironies.

Certain European circles have counted on Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule to weaken the Turkish army, which they saw as the main headache in Turkish-European relations. So Europe largely remained silent to the “purge” against the army in 2010 undertaken via legal cases that saw hundreds of army officers end up in jail. 

Ironically, the same circles, for a few hours on July 15, placed their bets and counted on the army to weaken President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whom they now see as a major troublemaker. Yet the coup attempt did not come from the secular segments of the army but rather a religious sect that had infiltrated key positions in the army. Had the coup been successful, the first thing Gülenists would have done would be to assure that Turkey will be a loyal ally to the West. They would have immediately appointed an ambassador to Israel, given assurances to Europe that neither refugees nor any jihadists would be allowed to go to Europe, etc.

And as they would start annihilating the essential elements of democracy like free speech and secularism with their very subtle ways, Europe would have largely remained silent to democratic backpedalling. Just like it did with the Abdel el-Sisi regime in Egypt. And this is exactly what Erdoğan feared and feels vindicated seeing the initial tepid reaction of the West to the failed coup.

But the ironies don’t end there. At the beginning of the AKP rule, some secular circles in the Turkish society wished for the military to topple Erdoğan. Ironically, the coup attempt came from the Gülenists within the army who would have targeted their secular lifestyles had they been successful.

Erdoğan joined hands with the Gülenists to weaken the secularist within the army, whom he saw as his enemy; ironically it is largely the secular segments within the army that came to rescue Erdoğan by not joining the coup and even combatting the coup plotters, at the expense of their lives. 

So where are all these ironies leading Turkey’s democracy? Let me use a Turkish saying and borrow Semih İdiz’s translation.

Those who want Turkey to be a genuine democracy are faced with a situation where there “is a stick that has dirt on both ends (read ‘dirt’ here as a euphemism for what is obvious). In other words it is faced with a situation where it is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t.”

On the one hand, there is a real need for a purge against the Gülenists. And we have to rely on the country’s legitimately elected rulers, in other words on Erdoğan and AKP officials, to clamp down on this secretive organization. Yet on the other hand there is a real risk that Erdoğan uses this occasion to consolidate his rule. The purge that is taking place on all walks of life looks disproportionate to the real threat (yet everybody apart from Gülenists confesses to having not realized the huge proportion of the threat). The first decree by the power of law that was issued by the government brings serious restrictions to defense rights, not compatible with fundamental freedoms. The government saw no need to consult the opposition for the decree it issued on the new structure of the army which brought radical changes to the functioning of the armed forces.
All those are alarming signs that fuel the suspicions against Erdoğan.

Meanwhile, feeling weakened by both domestic threats and a lack of external support, Erdoğan and the government are showing signs of reconciliation with the opposition. But here too is another instance of being between a rock and a hard place. 

Let’s set aside the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) whose main ideology and constituency is not much different than the AKP. The secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) has been lending support to the government. Yet its supporters are not in the streets, where every night what are called “democracy celebrations” are held in city centers organized by AKP municipalities. Some are even afraid of accidentally coming across them, fearing they might be harassed because they are not “one of them.”

On the one hand, it is important that the government remains open to dialogue with the opposition. On the other hand one is suspicious on whether this image of “unity” will be used to sugarcoat antidemocratic practices. To what degree can we count on the opposition that has proven inefficient until now?

At the end of the day, criticizing the government’s action against Gülenists carries the risk of playing into the hands of this heinous organization, while not raising criticism carries the risk of legitimizing the government’s wrong practices. Finding the middle ground remains the current challenge.