The diplomacy of Turkey’s coup attempt psyche

The diplomacy of Turkey’s coup attempt psyche

This week marks the first anniversary of the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, which from day one the government declared as a terrorist act orchestrated by the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen.

Ankara subsequently urged Turkish embassies around the world to hold memorial services and use every occasion to explain the evils of Gülen’s terror network to Turkey’s allies. 

Observing Turkey’s diplomatic push to outlaw Gülenists, I cannot help but remember when in its first years in power the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government issued a decree to urge Turkish embassies – the doors of which had hitherto been closed to Gülenists – to establish good ties with Gülen schools and benefit from their know how. 
This week in Washington I counted five events on the theme of the failed coup attempt. There were three panel discussions hosted by Turkish think tanks operating in the U.S., one hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a press conference given by Turkish Ambassador Serdar Kılıç. One common aspect of all think tank panels was the participation of former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey. Jeffrey is not only a diplomat who has extensive knowledge about Gülen’s green card process, but is also among a handful of Americans who genuinely understand the possible grave consequences of last year’s coup attempt if it had been successful. 

The ignorance of the Americans over Ankara’s frustration with the lack of empathy on the threat Turkey faced on the night of July 15, 1016 cannot simply be explained by ill intentions, as most Turks tend to believe. The story of the AKP and Gülen breaking their political alliance and eventually becoming enemies is very complex, and deciphering it requires deep understanding of Turkey’s political structures. 

What’s more, with a vast crackdown on dissidents ranging from politicians to journalists, academics and human rights advocates under the ongoing state of emergency declared just after the failed coup, the Turkish government shot itself in the foot. In both the U.S. and Europe, on the first anniversary of the coup attempt, the post-coup purge in Turkey is mostly perceived as nothing but an effort to silence opposition to President Erdoğan. The Turkish argument that all operations and investigations against suspected Gülenists are being carried out transparently and within the rule of law simply do not fly in Western capitals. 

Turkish officials’ presentations at the July 15 panels in Washington were part of Ankara’s efforts to rebrand Gülen and his organization, (which have mostly been regarded in the U.S. as moderate Islamists friendly to the West). In his keynote address at SETA DC’s July 15 conference, Commander of the Gendarmerie Forces General Yaşar Güler described Gülen’s network as a new source of radical terror, which he argued is a global threat today. While giving examples from inside Turkish military of how Gülen radicalized young minds and “turned them into robots,” Güler pointed to the religious indoctrination of officers. 

At the same conference, AKP Deputy Chair Ravza Kavakçı Kan brought a different twist to efforts of re-conceptualizing and defaming Gülenists. She refused to consider the Gülen movement as an Islamic movement. “It is a mafia-like cult. For them, anything goes. They use any means necessary to persuade, brainwash or blackmail people. If they need to look religious, they utilize religious terminology,” Kan claimed. 

The arguments for both radicalism being at the core of Gülenist political motivations in the first place and utilization of pragmatic methods may be highly relevant in the domestic context. However, to win the hearts and minds of the Americans with the same rhetoric, Turkey first needs to step out of the state of emergency psyche and prove that its judiciary is not being used as a weapon against its own people. Until then, the task of July 15 diplomacy will be little more than flogging a dead horse for Turkish diplomats.