Turkish Gambit: AUC’s Reflections on the July 15th Coup Attempt

By Konstantin Kirilov

— As a warm summer’s evening was drawing to a close over the Bosphorus on July 15, nobody could have expected that in just a few hours the world’s attention would suddenly shift towards Turkey. Indeed, as elements within the country’s Armed Forces attempted to carry out a coup d’état, international media struggled to keep up with the pace of events. The group of coup plotters, which named itself the ‘Peace at Home Council’ after a famous phrase once said by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk[1], was largely routed by the following night. Upwards of 300 people were killed, more than half of them civilians, and at least 2,100 others were injured.

In the months following the attempted coup, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has responded with mass purges, which have so far resulted in the detainment of nearly 51,000 people, more than half of whom remain under arrest. An estimated 105,000 people have lost their jobs, as a result of the closure of thousands of universities, private schools, charitable foundations and several hundred media outlets, both traditional and digital. In an attempt to gain a better understanding of the reasons behind the coup, as well as the government’s response to it, The Herring reached out to AUC students, alumni, and staff for their reactions to this ongoing crisis.

The attempted coup d’état proved to be a big surprise to many, including third-year Social Sciences major Joran van Kemenade, who had recently returned to the Netherlands from a semester abroad at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University. “Many people dear to my heart were in Istanbul, and my roommate [from there] was visiting me in Amsterdam […] at first we couldn’t believe it,” he explained. Dr. Erinç Salor, an AUC lecturer and tutor originally from Ankara, had just arrived for a vacation in Northern Ireland when he learned about the unfolding events via social media. His initial reaction was one of “shock, horror and disbelief”, as news channels showed fighter jets circling over Turkey’s major cities and tanks deployed across the Bosphorus Bridge[2]. For others, like Frankfurt native and 2012 AUC alumnus John Steinmark, it was not quite the shock. “Coup attempts have a long tradition in Turkey, which is why the events of July 15 did not come as a complete surprise,” he said.

Third-year Sciences major Berna Tuvay was interning at a hospital in Turkey during the summer, and described a chaotic scene of competing narratives in the first hours, with mosques urging people to go out onto the streets, and the military responding with a curfew. “For me, it came as a total surprise, since the last [one] was such a long time ago. Frankly, I had almost even forgotten about it, especially since Erdogan’s power and authority seem unprecedented,” she explained. On the evening of the coup Tuvay was visiting a tea garden in the city of Manisa, in western Turkey, when a man on a nearby table announced that the Bosphorus Bridge has just been closed.

As the minutes rolled by, everyone was suddenly “bombarded with phone calls, text messages and social media notifications”, with rumours spreading like wildfire. “The story changed shape with each new piece of information,” Tuvay said, “and instead of Istanbul, it was Ankara, all of a sudden, Ahmet Davutoğlu was going to become president, it was an assassination plot against Erdogan, and so on.” The issue was only made worse by the limited news coverage available in Turkey – some TV channels were forced off the air, including the national broadcaster TRT. By the time Tuvay made it back to Izmir later that night, there were large crowds on the streets and in supermarkets, with many rushing to purchase essential products. “Driving by the gas station, cars were queuing on the roads – there must have been at least three hundred cars right there,”she recalled.

When asked what they thought of the government’s allegations that the exiled political and religious figure Fethullah Gülen was behind the coup, or the ‘false flag’ conspiracy theories circulating in Turkey and neighbouring countries, the interviewees provided contrasting accounts. For some, like van Kemenade, the lack of organisation on the side of the plotters was key in sealing the coup’s demise, and the effectiveness of the government’s response was indicative that the ruling AKP party was aware of the plans. Tuvay admitted that she was not sure which side of the story held more truth in it, while Steinmark opted to leave the definitive account of what actually happened to “future historians”. Dr. Salor offered an alternative take, saying that while for many it might be easier to “interpret events in a manner that makes them fit into their pre-existing understanding” of how Turkish politics work, he personally did not find it “productive” to take part in any conspiracy theories. “In the absence of any sort of official investigation with actual legal basis and authority to take action upon its findings,” he added, ”all that matters are the consequences.”

And those consequences have been dire indeed, as evidenced by the statistics from TurkeyPurge.com mentioned above. Tuvay witnessed them first-hand while being an intern at the Pamukkale University Hospital in Denizli, southwestern Turkey. Because of a shortage of treating physicians, some of the specialists had to work overtime, as their colleagues had been detained due to suspected links with the Gülen movement. Relatives were caught up in the coup as well: in one case an aunt of Tuvay’s, who works as a civil servant, was scheduled to travel abroad, and as a consequence had to obtain a lot of additional documentation due to the tightened security measures.

While on his exchange semester in Istanbul, van Kemenade also came head to head with a government crackdown that was already underway before the July coup attempt. A number of academics, including one of his professors, were charged with treason and arrested for collectively demanding the government de-escalate the conflict in the Kurdish-dominated southeast. Large protests erupted in support of those who were detained, several of which he personally attended. But, as he explained, universities across Turkey (and Boğaziçi in particular) are still “like little bubbles that do not reflect society at large”. According to him, as a remnant of the 1980 post-coup constitution that was supported by the United States, university campuses gained a large degree of autonomy, and nowadays provide space where students can “freely discuss their grievances with the political situation”. Rumours did spread, however, that police had infiltrated the Boğaziçi campus under the guise of students, and an explosive device was reportedly found during his time there.

Dr. Salor noted that many, both in Turkey and in the larger diaspora abroad, had been “observing the tightening grip of the government around the academia” for some time, with numerous campaigns, protests, and petitions being organized, including some by AUC lecturers. He was also aware of tensions in the Dutch Turkish community, with individuals thought to be associated with the Gülen movement coming under attack by different groups sympathetic to the ruling party. “As far as I’m aware,” Dr. Salor said, “an overwhelming majority of the Turkish community living in Europe strongly support the government.”

Van Kemenade echoed this sentiment, citing “huge support for the AKP and Erdoğan in the Netherlands”, with upwards of two-thirds of all votes cast here in the last parliamentary elections going for them, and similar results in neighbouring Germany. Steinmark added that while he knew “many liberal Turks living in Germany that do not agree with Erdoğan’s policies”, government supporters were, as a whole, “far more outspoken on the streets and on social media”.

According to van Kemenade, one reason behind the apparent widespread support for AKP in both the Netherlands and Germany might be the period when many families left Turkey, due to the larger influence of political Islam (or Islamism) in the 1970s and 1980s. They would then perhaps tend to be more supportive of AKP’s current policies, even though the party has continuously denied the brand. Another factor van Kemenade singled out was Erdoğan’s rhetoric, which he thought worked particularly well with the children of immigrants, since some of them “were brought up with a notion of Turkish pride […] but are not fully able to make sense of it”. The strong anti-imperialist elements and allusions to historical greatness, he felt, were a powerful tool in the hands of the government.

As the purges in Turkey continue and the international community struggles to decipher the government’s next actions,  most of those who The Herring managed to speak to remain equally unsure. One call to action came from Dr. Salor, who argued that people should focus on looking for those who are still being “silenced and marginalized” and do whatever is in their power to “give them the voice and access” that their own country denies them. “[To] listen to their stories and try to contribute to diversifying the voices coming out there,” he thought, “is the best we can do at the moment.”

BACK TO POST: ‘Peace at Home, Peace in the World’ (Turkish: Yurtta sulh, cihanda sulh), a phrase related to the fundamental basis of Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies, as envisioned by Atatürk.
BACK TO POST: Since then renamed by the government to the ‘15 July Martyrs Bridge’.
Gambit (from ancient Italian gambetto, “to trip”) is an opening move in chess in which a player sacrifices a figure with the hope of achieving an advantageous position.

John Steinmark works with the German Publishing and Booksellers association, who are running a petition in collaboration with PEN and Reporters Without Borders, aimed at supporting freedom of expression in Turkey. You can read more about the project on the petition’s official page.

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