Turkish Purge Progressing Apace

A failed coup is always a good opportunity for a strong man to do some housecleaning. Turkish tough guy President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is making the most of his opportunity following a really poorly executed coup on July 15. He has blamed everything on an exiled Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen. According to Reuters, the president has “suspended, detained or placed under investigation more than 60,000 soldiers, judges, teachers, journalists and others suspected of ties to Gulen’s movement.” Despite the alleged complicity of a cleric, the result of the current purge is likely to be a less secular Turkey.

To understand what is happening to democracy in Turkey, one must understand the foundations of the social order. Almost 98% of the population identifies itself as Muslim, and 73% of them are Sunni. The current Turkish state was founded by the military in response to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. One of the things the leaders of the Young Turk movement thought held Turkey back was religion and politics mixing. Modern Turkey is a secular state, which governs millions of devout Muslims.

As the US State Department puts it,

The [Turkish] Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the Government imposes some restrictions on Muslim and other religious groups and on Muslim religious expression in government offices and state-run institutions, including universities, usually for the stated reason of preserving the “secular state.” The Constitution establishes the country as a “secular state” and provides for freedom of belief, freedom of worship, and the private dissemination of religious ideas. However, other constitutional provisions regarding the integrity and existence of the secular state restrict these rights. The Constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. The state bureaucracy has played the role of defending traditional Turkish secularism throughout the history of the Republic. In some cases, elements of the bureaucracy have opposed policies of the elected government on the grounds that they threatened the secular state.

President Erdogan is playing a rather crafty game it would seem. By blaming the Gulen movement, he is posing as a protector of Turkey’s secularism, or at very least, as a defender of a benign Sunni faith from which his party springs. At the same time, he may well be removing inconvenient secularists from the state apparatus. He is almost certain to be creating vacancies that he can fill with people who will support him. This is relatively standard after a coup attempt.

The difference in Turkey is that the replacement of personnel, the purge itself, undercuts the basic premise of the Turkish state for the last 100 years, secularism. The president is doing so with a fig leaf of democracy. Following the coup, the opposition parties have chosen to back the democratic dimension of Turkish political life (as they should), but given President Erdogan’s erosion of secularism, they may be contributing to a situation where religion begins to play a bigger role in politics.

Reuters noted, “Erdogan’s ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party and opposition parties, usually bitterly divided, have demonstrated a rare spirit of unity since the abortive coup and are seeking consensus on constitutional amendments partly aimed at ‘cleansing’ the state apparatus of Gulenist supporters. A senior AK Party official said on Wednesday they were discussing plans to increase parliamentary control of a key state body that appoints judges and prosecutors.”

The purge of Gulenists, to the extent the coup was influenced by the cleric, is beneficial to the secular state. The purge of non-Gulenists falsely labeled as followers of the cleric is not. Parliamentary control over judges and prosecutors, however, is the real threat to secularism, at least so long as the AKP is the governing party.