The coup attempt took place on a Friday night. By Sunday evening a list of 73 journalists to be arrested had been leaked by a pro-government social media account. My name was at the top.
Within three days, 20 news portals were inaccessible, and the licences of 24 news and radio stations cancelled. Meydan newspaper was raided, and its two editors detained. (They were released 24 hours later.) Yesterday the journalist Orhan Kemal Cengiz, also on the list, was arrested at the airport with his wife. It is almost impossible to hear dissident voices now, in a media already largely controlled by the government. The European convention on human rights has been suspended until further notice. A cloud of fear hangs over the country.
When, this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared a three-month state of emergency, I thought: “Nothing has changed.” As a journalist who has produced documentaries on all the past coups in the country, and has lived through the past three, I knew all too well how terrifying a regime the coup could have brought about. However, I also saw how its failure would empower Erdoğan, quickly turning him into an oppressor too.
Turkey’s politics has always functioned like a pendulum: it swings from mosque to barracks, and back again. When it sways too near the mosque, soldiers step in and try to take it to the barracks. And when the pressure for secularism from the barracks becomes too great, the power of the mosques grows. And educated democrats, sitting in between these extremes, are always the ones to take a beating.
Why can’t we escape this dilemma? It’s easy to explain, yet hard to resolve. The Turkish military has, unfortunately, been the only powerful “guardian” of secularism – in a country where civil society has not matured, opposition parties are weak, the media are censored, and unions, universities and local authorities are neutralised. The armed forces have always claimed to be the sole protectors of the country’s modernity. Paradoxically, however, every coup the army has plotted has not only hurt democracy but also fuelled radical Islam. A recent scene at the funeral of a coup protester symbolised the situation perfectly. The president was there. The imam prayed: “Protect us, lord, from all malice, especially that of the educated.” “Amin!” (“Amen”) the crowd roared.
So last week’s attempted coup is only the latest example of a centuries-old oscillation. But it is also shaping up to be one of the worst. During the attempt on 15 July, crowds answered hourly calls from mosques. They yelled “Allahu Akbar” while lynching soldiers; they flew Turkish flags and the green flags of Islam, and shouted: “We want executions!”
Lists of all sorts of “dissenters”, not just journalists, circulated immediately. Nearly 60,000 people – including 10,000 police officers, 3,000 judges and prosecutors, more than 15,000 educationists, and all the university deans in the country – have either been detained or fired, and the numbers are growing daily. Torture, banned since the military coup of 1980, has resurfaced. A campaign has been launched to revive the death penalty, which was abolished in 2002. It is the biggest witch-hunt in the history of the republic.
What does this mean? Along with the state of emergency, this means that legislative authority will shortly be neutralised on a grand scale and redirected towards executive authority; access to fair trial will be obstructed; and greater restrictions on the media will be imposed. Erdoğan has already declared that if parliament decides in favour of the death penalty, he will approve it. If he is not bluffing, this may cause a total rift with the European family from which Turkey already feels excluded.
For reasons we still can’t understand, the soldiers who attempted to seize control on Friday night blocked only the road heading from Asia into Europe; passage to Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran was unhampered. I find the decision symbolic, for Turkey now appears to be trapped in Asia. The door to Europe is closing.
And the problems we are left with are these. Fine, we are rid of a military coup, but who is to shelter us from a police state? Fine, we are safe from the “malice of the educated” (whatever that is), but how will we defend ourselves from ignorance? Fine, we sent the military back to their barracks, but how are we to save a politics lodged in the mosques?
And the last question goes to a Europe preoccupied with its own troubles: will you turn a blind eye yet again and co-operate because “Erdoğan holds the keys to the refugees”? Or will you be ashamed of the outcome of your support, and stand with modern Turkey?
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