The failed military coup in Turkey that began on the evening of July 15 left nearly 300 dead and 1,400 injured. It was the fifth coup attempt in Turkey since 1960, but the first in which the military turned its fire against its own citizens. Unthinkably, and inexplicably, the aspiring junta also bombed the Turkish parliament, the symbol of the democracy it claimed to be acting to rescue.

On Monday, Air Force commander general Akin Öztürk appeared in court, visible bruises on his neck and face. “I am not the person who planned and directed the military coup,” he said. He claimed to have an alibi; he had been at a wedding during the coup preparations.   

If not him, who? President Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, and many politicians from different parties believe the person who planned and directed the coup was the U.S.-based Islamist ideologue Fethullah Gülen. Borrowing from the American historian Robert Paxton—who coined the term “parallel state” to describe a collection of institutions that are state-like in their organization, management, and structure, but not part of the legitimate state—the Turkish government calls Gülenists within the Turkish state a “parallel structure organization.” Sources within the military, according to the well-connected Turkish journalist Murat Yetkin, likewise claim that the plotters were known or suspected Gülen sympathizers.

Gülen has strongly denied any involvement. He has denounced the coup attempt, and accused Erdoğan, in turn, of staging the coup as a pretext for the brutal crackdown now underway on those suspected of involvement. This has already led to some 8,000 arrests and to calls for reinstating Turkey’s death penalty. The European Union’s high commissioner for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, has warned that this would automatically end Turkey’s accession process, for no country with the death penalty can be an E.U. member. The penalty would have to be applied retroactively—a clear breach of the Turkish constitution. Any remaining pretense of rule of law would be gone. 

It’s hard to overstate how sinister this turn of events is for Turkey. Mass trials are already underway. Defendants have been escorted by men brandishing weapons. They are not soldiers, nor are they wearing police uniforms. While Islamists weren’t the only faction of Turkish society opposed to the coup, the coup has unleashed all of Turkey’s Islamist psychopaths, sociopaths, criminals, and thugs; they have been verbally authorized to walk the streets and defend the nation against coup plots. The government has suggested it should be easier for people to acquire guns so they can defend the nation against coups. (It was not difficult to begin with.) Just as nationalists and police from Erdoğan’s ruling AKP party were recently unleashed against the Kurdish population in the southeast, they have now been emboldened to pursue any and all dissenters in Turkey.

So far, Turkey’s 15 million Alevis, the country’s largest minority, have been a target of the surge in Sunni Muslim excitement. AKP mobs have reportedly entered Alevi districts and suburbs chanting “Allahu ekbir,” and, “The AKP has come—where are the Alevis?” A memorial to the largely left-wing and Kurdish victims of ISIS’s October 10 bombing in Ankara has been attacked, as have Syrian shops and the offices of the Kurdish-focused HDP. Until now, many Turks have tacitly assumed the military to be the guarantor of last resort against the prospect of spiraling violence, but the military is now too discredited to play that role. Turks are frightened, and with good reason.

Suspects apprehended on suspicion of involvement in the plot appear from photographs to have been beaten. They have been denied access to lawyers. About 20 news websites critical of the government have been shut down. The government has published lists of journalists to be arrested, and effectively banned foreign travel for civil servants—3 million people, nearly 5 percent of the population. Thirty district governors have been replaced. Some 9,000 police and interior ministry officials have been suspended; 2,700 judges and prosecutors have been removed from their posts. Turkey’s board of higher education has requested the resignation of 1,577 university rectors and deans. Another 15,000 state education employees have been suspended. The state news agency reports that nearly 400 employees of the ministry of family and social policies have been stripped of their responsibilities. Government spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın has assured reporters that the arrest of nearly a third of Turkey’s 328 generals hasn’t weakened the military in its fight against ISIS and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). That claim is highly doubtful, particularly if, as has been reported, that Turkish army forces in the southeast have been barred from leaving their barracks for fear they might launch a second coup attempt.

Tuesday’s announcement that the licenses of 21,000 private schoolteachers have been suspended brings the total number of those suspended or detained to about 60,000. The so-called “parallel state” seems to be almost as large as the official one—and this isn’t counting all the suspected followers of Gülen in the Turkish civil service, judiciary, and police who had already been purged over the past two and a half years.

It will be many years, if ever, before we fully understand what just took place. But some of the conclusions hastily drawn in the Western media make no sense. Many commentators have been quick, for example, to accept Gülen’s intimation that the scale of the purge indicates the coup attempt was staged by Erdoğan himself, in some kind of Turkish Reichstag fire. True, lists of people to purge were prepared long in advance, but that doesn’t mean that Erdoğan staged the coup. It’s no surprise to anyone in Turkey that these lists were ready; the government had already said as much. To understand why, you’d need to be familiar with events in Turkey from the time the AKP came to power to the present, as well as the way, beginning in 2012, the AKP visibly, explosively, and publicly fell out with Gülen’s flock. The president has taken advantage of the coup plot to accelerate a purge, but it doesn’t mean he staged it. Nor is it evidence for Gülen’s involvement, though it would be credulous to dismiss that idea out of hand.

Regardless of the extent of their involvement, Gülenists are and have long been present in the Turkish military. There is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that Gülen’s supporters manufactured evidence during the sham trials of senior military figures; Gülenist press organs were keen to promote easily-dismissed and contradictory evidence as fact, and did so even as that evidence became more contradictory and absurd.

No one knows how or why Gülenists were involved in those trials, so no one yet understands the extent and the nature of Gülen’s involvement in Turkish politics and the military. Quite a number of Turkish military sources believe that there are large numbers of Gülenists in the nation’s armed forces; top commanders and generals have long spoken against Gülen and warned of attempts at infiltration. That Gülen says he has always been against military interventions doesn’t make it true. Gülen praised and fawned over the army after the 1980 coup. The army has long purged Gülenists amid their ranks, however, to the extent they could detect them. Erdoğan put an end to those the purges during the period after he took power, when he and Gülen closely collaborated.

According to Ahmet Şık, a journalist who was arrested after writing a book that charged the Gülenists with extensive infiltration of the Turkish state, the weekend coup was indeed headed by Gülenist officers who had been planning to stage it before a promotions meeting in August, when they were due to be dismissed. Their plans were discovered, he writes, and they knew they were to be arrested at 4am on Saturday morning. He believes the officers, aware they had been rumbled, decided to attempt the coup early on Friday night. This would explain why the coup was so poorly planned. Consistent with this, Erdoğan has acknowledged he knew of “military activity” at least seven-to-ten hours before the coup.

One thing is obvious: This epic folly has doomed Turkish aspirations for a decent democratic order for a very long time. It would have doomed them had it succeeded, and it has doomed them in failure. It’s unreasonable to expect a system as deeply and fundamentally flawed as Turkey’s to deal with the coup attempt in a manner palatable to liberal and democratic sensibilities. Whoever staged it has done terrible damage to Turkey. If the Turkish government can produce reasonable evidence linking Gülen to the plot, there is no reason we should feel compelled to protect him from the consequences. As one Turkish friend wrote to me early on Saturday morning, as the implications of these events sank in, “Whoever’s behind this needs to burn.” 

Photo by Gokhan Tan/Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next