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The Birth of a Nation: Thoughts on Turkey’s Recent Anniversary Celebrations

Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

During last year’s coup attempt Tayyip Erdoğan (or the Prez) narrowly escaped an attempt on his life . . . in the year that has now passed, his Justice and Development Party (or AKP) has been at pains to portray its leader as a hero able to defeat his enemy by means of calling upon the Turkish nation.

Last Saturday was the first anniversary of Turkey’s Coup-that-was-no-Coup, and the Prez and his henchmen made good use of this opportunity to solidify the quasi-mythological narrative they have been constructing ever since. The commemorative festivities already started on July, 11th:

“Turkey has started marking the first anniversary of the failed coup attempt that took place last July. The July 15 Democracy and National Unity Day events will be held under the auspices of the Presidency and last until Sunday evening [15 July 2017],” as related by the official Anadolu Ajansı.

In Ankara, the Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu opened an exhibition entitled ‘The Treacherous 15 July Coup Attempt in Pictures,’ also visiting the graves of the ‘martyrs’ killed that night in Ankara’s Gölbaşı district. Turkey’s EU Minister Ömer Çelik, for his part, visited the graves of two police officers killed in the Gölbaşı district, grave sites located in the southern province of Adana, the ‘martyrs’ home province. Other AKP ministers visited other locations, ensuring that the population-at-large throughout the country be convinced of the AKP government’s deep love for the whole of Turkey – Environment and Urbanization Minister Mehmet Özhaseki going to Central-Anatolian Kayseri, Culture Minister Nabi Avcı visiting West-Anatolian Eskişehir. The Anadolu Ajansı also underlines the religious and pseudo-Ottoman dimensions of the commemoration: in the Central-Anatolian city of Bursa, the first Ottoman capital, morning prayers were recited at the Ulu Camii (or Grand Mosque of Bursa, commissioned between the years 1396-99 by Yıldırım Bayezid [1389-1402], the first Ottoman ruler to officially call himself Sultan by Caliphal decree), followed by Quranic recitations and invocations. During the whole day, on the 15th of July, numerous festivities and commemorations took place all across the nation, events at which banners and posters proclaiming “15 July” to be a veritable “saga” or “epic poem” (in Turkish, destan) were displayed. The epic deeds described in the quasi-mythological accounts took place in reponse to Tayyip Erdoğan’s televised FaceTime call to arms; when the population responded in droves imbued by a religious fervour and dedication quite unknown in Turkish Republican history.

As a result, AKP supporters have since termed the popular reaction the “people’s re-awakening,“ as if the whole of the Turkish nation had been raised from the dead (in Turkish, halkın dirilişi) and have been advocating the phrase throughout the nation so that it has now been universally adopted.

The anniversary constituted the perfect opportunity to stage an all-out propaganda assault, with the figure of the Prez himself supposedly penning an op-ed for the Guardian, published on “Saturday 15 July 2017 02.00 EDT,” as a clear attempt to sway global public opinion. Tayyip Erdoğan, or whomever he was able to call upon to write this piece, declared quite coolly that:

“[t]oday marks the first anniversary of the 15 July coup attempt in Turkey. Exactly one year ago, millions of Turkish citizens set aside their political, cultural and ethnic differences to form a united front against the plotters who tried to suspend our country’s constitution, shot at innocent civilians and bombed the parliament. Together, the people of Turkey refused to allow an armed group to rob them of democracy, liberty and their way of life. In thwarting this assault, 250 people lost their lives and another 2,193 were injured. My government’s continuing efforts to bring to justice Fethullah Gülen and his followers – who, evidence suggests, were behind the failed coup – isn’t just important for Turkey but for democracy everywhere.”

But, in reality, the purge of individuals associated with the figure of Gülen (image, left) following the coup was but the continuation and widening of a persecution that had been going strong since late 2013. These purges had come in response to a “corruption probe which implicated several government ministers and Erdoğan’s son,”  a scandal that erupted on 17/25 December 2013 and that is commonly referred to as #AKPgate. In response, “the AKP government moved swiftly to purge thousands of police officers, civil servants, prosecutors and judges without trial or disciplinary procedure, a self-confessed ‘witch-hunt,’ on the pretext of Hizmet [or Gülen] affiliation,” as expressed in report compiled by the Brussels-based Dialogue Platform, an admittedly Gülenist non-profit association. One could argue that last year’s coup attempt provided AKP-led Ankara with a perfect pretext to finish these purges. The AKP machinery is now trying to use the international platform that is The Guardian to distort reality further and convince the world that the “alternative facts,“ presented on the website of the broadsheet universally touted as left-leaning and pro-human rights-oriented yet equally beholden to the imperial agenda benefitting the U.S. and NATO, could now become embedded in global public opinion’s consciousness:

“[t]he fact that efforts by Turkey to identify and dismiss public officials loyal to Gülen – a US-based Turkish national – came under fire from the same groups raised questions regarding the west’s commitment to my country’s democracy and security. To add insult to injury, dozens of senior leaders of FETÖ, the organisation led by Gülen, have been granted asylum by our country’s self-proclaimed friends and allies. There is no way to sugar-coat this betrayal of Turkey’s friendship – which is incompatible with bilateral relations and fundamental values alike. Today, western leaders have a choice between standing in solidarity with terrorists or regaining the favour of the Turkish people,” the apparently Prez-penned piece continues.

In language somewhat reminiscent of George W. Bush’s post-9/11 words, the Prez and the AKP machinery seek to construct a ‘underdog narrative’ in an attempt to create sympathy and support for their project for a New Turkey: “[e]very nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,“ Bush, Jr. said on 21 September 2001.

Ever since the party’s inception in 2001, Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP machinery have been striving to change Atatürk’s nation-state and transform Turkey into a Muslim nation beholden to the Prophet’s example (the Sunnah) and the rules and precepts laid down in the Holy Book (Quran). Many critics have argued that Erdoğan’s long-term yet somewhat hidden goal had always been to establish an Islamic state in Anatolia, with a population composed of Sunni Muslims of different ethnic backgrounds and/or allegiances, as I also explained at length in December 2013. In contrast, Erdoğan himself declared in 2005 that “[w]e are not an Islamic party, and we also refuse labels such as Muslim-democrat.” And on 29 July 2008, Turkey’s Constitutional Court “stopped just one vote short of the necessary consensus that would have seen the Justice and Development party (AKP) closed and its leading figures banned from politics” on account of alleged anti-secular tendencies and behaviour – counter to “the principles of the democratic and secular republic” (Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, Article 68, 4th Paragraph). A little more than a year later, the Prez-then-PM Tayyip Erdoğan told an audience at the Johns Hopkins University that “[o]ur party is by no means an Islamist party,“ adding that “there is no Neo-Ottoman tendency present in the Republic of Turkey.“ (“Turkey in the 21st Century: Building Peace Through Diplomacy,” 7 December 2009). But, the developments in Turkey over the past 5 to 7 years have clearly proven otherwise, I would argue.

Last year, Tayyip Erdoğan’s by now more than legendary televised FaceTime call to arms was in reality an open invitation to martyrdom – the Prez urged his followers comprised of male and female Turkish citizens to lay their lives on the line and, as we have seen, untold Turks responded enthusiastically with “250 people” actually dying in the process. These individuals are now hailed as martyrs and these words are more than just florid language. The issue of martyrdom is a potent subject in Islam, one but has to think of the many jihadi terrorists sacrificing their lives in suicide attacks. The Islamic scholar Abul-Fazl Ezzati posits that:

“concepts of martyrdom and Holy Struggle in the cause of Allah [otherwise known as jihad] are interrelated. Both words have been frequently used in the Holy Qur’an. In fact, there is no martyrdom without struggle in the cause of Allah and for the cause of the truth [or Al-Haqq, one of the godhead’s 99 beautiful names].”

Traditionally (meaning in Kemalist terms), in Turkey, the concept of martyrdom had been divorced of its religious context and meaning, becoming an honorific bestowed upon soldiers perishing in terror attacks during their pursuit of duty defending the fatherland, which had become a higher goal in its own right. But the AKP government made sure to bring an end to such semantic confusion. During a meeting of the AKP faction in Turkey’s Parliament (or TBMM) on Wednesday, 21 March 2012, the then still-PM Erdoğan made the following announcement:

“[w]e are including civilians who died in terror events into the category of martyrs. Civilians who become invalid of die by reason of a terror event and their relatives will receive compensation and a monthly allowance.”

Following the failed coup, the AKP authorities were quick to term the coup-plotters terrorists belonging to a “shadowy, clearly elusive, and possibly even non-existent, organization” known only as the supposed terror group FETÖ (Fettullahçı Terör Örgütü or Fethullahist Terror Organization) – a terror group that seems to be nothing but the outcome of the Ankara judiciary’s inventive and creative phraseology (7 May 2015).

As a result, the FaceTime ‘call to arms’ was nothing but an open invitation to become a mujahid (or one who struggles in the cause of Allah, or its representatives on earth, or practising jihad, if you will) and possibly even a martyr (or shahid, spelt as şehit, in Turkish). During the anniversary celebrations these martyrs were duly commemorated and honoured in prayers and exhortations. The Turkish journalist and columnist Cengiz Çandar relates that the “zenith of the ceremonies was in Istanbul, which saw an impressive one-man show by Erdogan and also a significant response to the recent 450-kilometer (280-mile) march for justice from Ankara to Istanbul led by [opposition leader Kemal] Kilicdaroglu . . . Tens of thousands filled the highway leading from the Asian side of Istanbul to the Bosporus bridge renamed ‘The July 15 Martyrs Bridge’ and poured toward the European side where Erdogan delivered a venomous speech targeting Kilicdaroglu, as well as other political opponents, while also attacking Fethullah Gulen, the cleric whom Turkish authorities claim was the mastermind of the failed coup.”

In his speech to the gathered masses, the Prez was surprisingly frank and honest: “[o]ur people (or nation) immediately recognised by looking at the methods and style [of action] employed that the gang of traitors [known as] FETÖ stood behind this coup attempt. Our people (or nation) shot into action straightaway when they saw that Turkey stood on the verge of an attack, of an attempted occupation by means of [employing] the gang of traitors [known as] FETÖ . . . The biggest resistance and the bloodiest attacks were experienced in Istanbul and Ankara . . . So, what did the people opposing [tanks and weapons employed by the coup-plotters] hold in their hands? Did my citizens hold weapons in their hands? In their hands, just like today, there was a flag, but next to it there was another, much more effective weapon. That weapon was their faith, their faith.”

At the outset of his speech, the Prez identifies the enemy as a terror group working for nefarious outside forces, outside forces that had been intent on invading and occupying the Turkish homeland, arguably referring to the U.S. and the CIA. Tayyip Erdoğan then presents the Turkish people or the Turkish nation as an entity imbued with an unshakable faith, a true belief in the one god that is Allah and in Muhammad, his Prophet and Messenger. As a result, it seems quite commonsense that over the past year the Prez and his henchmen have been speaking about a Second War of Independence in reference to the popular opposition to the attempted coup.

Kemalist historiography and propaganda has always portrayed the War of Independence (1919-22) as a popular uprising against foreign occupiers led by the charismatic leader of the nationalist movement, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (who was to become Atatürk in 1934). The War of Independence was portrayed as an irredentist movement of the Anatolian population, a mixed population group consisting of many ethnic groups and sub-groups united in geographical and religious terms. Following  Mustafa Kemal’s victory, state-led propaganda efforts and social engineering transformed these disparate Muslim groups into a cohesive nation of Turks. For this reason, Islamist opponents of the Kemalist state have always reasoned that Anatolian Muslims were only able to defeat the foreign occupiers with the “power of their faith“ (in Turkish, iman gücü). Tayyip Erdoğan is now cunninngly employing last year’s failed coup and this year’s commemorations to proclaim himself the founder of a new nation, a new nation of believers living in the newly liberated spiritual territories of the New Turkey. In this context, a telling hashtag has surfaced on social media, namely #DemokrasiDeğilİslamİçin or #NotDemocracyButForIslam. Mustafa Kemal and his nationalist armies succeeded in the physical liberation of the land, and nearly one hundred years later, Tayyip Erdoğan’s volunteer army of mujahids and martyrs-in-waiting has now liberated the Anatolian peninsula in spiritual terms. As a result, the terms citizen and believer have now become synonymous.

The July 15 Democracy and National Unity Day marks the birth of a new nation on the grounds of the Republic of Turkey. The columnist Çandar’s summary of the end of the day’s events nicely illustrates this point:

“[t]he night of July 15 and the early hours of July 16 saw commemoration events transformed into a show of Islamist symbols and of Erdogan himself. The reciting of the Holy Quran from the minarets of 80,000 mosques all over the country was accompanied by collective prayers in the garden of the parliament building in Ankara. Islamic and Islamist symbols marked the ceremonies in Ankara and in Istanbul.”

Last year I put forward that Erdoğan was intent on “turning ’15 July’ into a symbolic date, comparable to ’31 March’ in reverse. The so-called ’31 March Incident’ (or in Turkish, 31 Mart Vakası) refers to the defeat of a 1909 countercoup, a counter coup that would have abolished the constitutional regime introduced the previous year and reinstated Sultan Abdülhamid II as an absolute autocrat ruling the Ottoman lands. At the time, counter-revolutionary army units were joined by hordes of theological students (softa) and turbaned clerics (ulema) shouting, ‘We want Shariah.’ Future history books might very well relate the events of ’15 July’ as a successful counter-revolution that established Tayyip Erdoğan as Turkey’s first absolute president, overseeing Turkey’s successful return to its Islamic roots of yesteryear. “In hindsight, last April’s referendum could be seen as the culmination of such a development. This seemingly democratic ploy has given Erdoğan the opportunity to proclaim his Absolute Presidency, a polity that might very well see the proclamation of Islamic Law in Turkey, as symbolised by the issue of capital punishment which also figured prominently during the last weekend’s celebrations. The referendum allowed the Prez to receive the “reins of power from the people as a ‘gift from God,’ [which enabled] him to replace the figure of Atatürk in the hearts and minds of the Turkish  people.” The D.C.-based Turkey specialist Soner Çağaptay even calls Erdoğan “an anti-Atatürk Atatürk.“

But now, last year’s failed coup attempt has given the Prez the opportunity to greatly expand his ambitions. From merely returning Islam to its rightful place in the land, Tayyip Erdoğan has now secured victory in a second War of Liberation, thereby forging a new nation of believers on the territories of the Republic of Turkey, united as Muslims in spite of their “political, cultural and ethnic differences.”

Like the Ottoman Yıldırım Bayezid who established the Ottoman Sultanate in the 14th century, destined to become the pre-eminent Muslim state in the world, Tayyip Erdoğan has now established the New Turkey, as a state he hopes will dominate the Islamic world as the heir to its Ottoman forebear that once united the Sunni Islamic world in one polity.

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21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar who was living in Istanbul for some time, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the book “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In the period 2010-11, he wrote op-eds for Today’s Zaman and in the further course of 2011 he also published a number of pieces in Hürriyet Daily News. In 2013, he was the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. He is on Twitter at @theerimtanangle

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