JOHN TULLOH. The uncertain future for Turkey and Erdogan.

Aug 19, 2016


My friend! Leave not my homeland to the hands of villainous men!
Render your chest as armour and your body as bulwark!
Halt this disgraceful assault!
For soon shall come the joyous days of divine promise;
Who knows? Perhaps tomorrow? Perhaps even sooner! 

   A verse from the Turkish national anthem. 

More than ever before, Australian tourists bound for Turkey and Gallipoli had better be on their best behaviour. They will find this otherwise welcoming and hospitable country to be in a state of growing uncertainty regarding its future. It is part of a concerted move away from secularism in favour of Islamic policies under the increasingly autocratic style of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, its touchy president who tolerates no criticism.

This is the ‘New Turkey’, as Erdogan likes to say. Forget about the secular past and the reverence for Turkey’s modern founder, Kemal Ataturk. It’s now all about Islam, he makes clear, and, by the way, me as well. As the New York Times says, Erdogan has long had ambitions of surpassing Ataturk as the country’s most consequential figure. His moment of opportunity came when the attempted coup was crushed last month. It was the perfect excuse to re-shape Turkey in his own image which has been inspired by the old Ottoman empire.

Erdogan reacted with paranoid speed by arresting 10,000 military personnel, sacking judges, riding roughshod over laws, extending detention without charge from four to 30 days, cancelling the passports of public service employees, purging actors, theatre directors and even 110 of the staff of the Turkish Football Federation and hinted that he might revive the old Ottoman practice of dealing with opponents by re-introducing the death penalty. He identified immediately the enemy: his once political partner, Fethullah Gulen, a Moslem cleric now living in the US.

Erdogan brought hundreds of thousands of supporters on to the streets to rally to his cause and even political opponents as well as if to reinforce the unity of the ‘New Turkey’. He dropped lawsuits against those he had accused of defaming him. He wallowed in the martyrs killed resisting the attempted coup by renaming streets or ordering statues in their memory. July 15, the date of the failed overthrow, will be a national holiday from next year. Erdogan ignited a binge of patriotic fervour with himself marching at its triumphal head as commander-in-chief.

Erdogan ‘has sought comfort in the bosom of his angry, exhilarated people’, wrote the British Near East writer, Christopher de Bellaigue, in the New York Review of Books earlier this month. ‘The country has spent the past three weeks (since the coup failure) in a state of collective hyperventilation. The combination of nationalism and religiosity is like nothing I have seen in twenty years of following Turkish politics’.

But Erdogan should be careful as he goes. ‘He has been seriously weakened and he knows he’s really not safe’, Halil Karaveli, a scholar and editor of the Turkey Analyst based in Sweden, told ABC Radio National. That’s why he reached out for the opposition. Karaveli fears for the future of Turkey when the traditional unifying force – the military – is now irrevocably fractured between Erdogan loyalists, the old guard known as Kemalists and those behind the upheaval, the Gulenists.

The Turkish leader is not an astute politician. He allowed Daesh (ISIS) members a free rein in Turkey mainly because they were fighting Erdogan’s enemy, the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad. They later let loose suicide bombers on the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, frightening the important tourist trade. Plenty of other jihadists remain in Turkey. In addition, Erdogan allowed far more Gulenist sympathisers into the top ranks of the military than was prudent for someone constantly fretting about his future well-being as he belatedly discovered.

So where to for now? It will require some consummate juggling for a leader whose country of Moslems is partly in Christian Europe and partly in the Islamic part of Asia. He has the restless Kurds and Daesh plots to worry about as well as coping with nearly two million refugees, mainly from Syria. Erdogan got Vladimir Putin off his back for the present following talks last week. He still wants to do a deal with the EU to secure future economic prosperity. But European politicians are nervous of the prospect of Turkey’s 78-million people having visa-free travel access in return. Turkey has demanded a deal by October or else it will make the EU just as nervous by scrapping the agreement to curb the flood of asylum-seekers pouring into Europe.

Most of all, Erdogan might be well advised to start at home and try to appease all elements of the military which sees itself as the guardian of Turkish democracy. In the past half century, it has intervened during political instability. The last time was in 1997 when the Islamist Welfare Party was in power. It was shut down the following year. One of its members was Erdogan himself, who went on to form his Justice and Development Party. He might be authoritarian and irritate the secularists, but at least for most Turks it is better than military rule when executions, torture and the suspension of liberties became part of life. Perhaps the wisest path would be for Erdogan to exercise some tactful patience instead of his headlong rush to create the ‘New Turkey’ if he wants to be remembered with even greater acclaim than Ataturk.

FOOTNOTE. Gulen, who denies any responsibility for the coup, is the new bogeyman in Turkey. Parts of the media have portrayed him as a kind of Osama bin Laden. Erdogan has described schools and charities linked to his movement as ‘nests of terrorism’. Halil Karaveli has likened Gulen’s movement to Opus Dei. ‘It is a very dangerous organisation which hides behind the rhetoric of interfaith dialogue and moderation’, he told ABC’s Lateline. It was ‘actually responsible for sinister machinations (which have) contributed to destroying the Turkish state and seriously damage Turkish democracy’. Gulen saw himself as a kind of Ayatollah Khomeini, who spent 14 years in exile before returning home to Iran in triumph to lead the Islamic republic after the Shah was toppled. If he ever does make it back, he will find the coup plotters buried in wasteland now known as ‘the cemetery for traitors’ and, if Turkish media reports are correct, may find the house where he was born as a newly-converted public toilet. Who knows, he might even find that Istanbul has reverted to its old Ottoman name of Constantinople. 

     John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.    


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