The Turkish coup

Updated July 23, 2016


The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.

THE failed military coup in Turkey has led to a state of emergency. The coup attempt against an elected government involved murder and treason. The whole episode represents the modernisation dilemma of Muslim society. Kemalist secularism may have been carried to the point of almost abandoning Turkey’s Muslim identity. This inevitably touched a raw nerve.

Equally, conservative Islamist political thought and practice has not been able to cope with the contemporary challenges facing Muslim societies. Recently, the situation has been further complicated by US attempts to bend Turkey to its will regarding Syria, the Kurds and Russia, which Erdogan has emphatically rebuffed.

Erdogan has rejected the idea of a civil-military partnership in national policymaking despite the glorious history of the Turkish army. The military’s policy input yes; the military’s policy vetoes no! Turkey has confirmed civilian supremacy as the indispensable principle of democracy. This principle can never be asserted under corrupt and irresponsible governance which has become the norm in Pakistan where civilian supremacy is now eliminated from the civil-military equation. Civilian leaders are not entirely to blame for this. There has been a significant military contribution also. Turkey, unlike Pakistan, has a leader who can in a crisis summon the people, including his political opponents, to reject the rejection of civilian supremacy.

Turkey, unlike Pakistan, has a leader who can in a crisis summon the people, including his political opponents.

Erdogan’s survival is an assertion of a democratic confidence and conviction that has yet to develop among the people of Pakistan. Since the First World War, no military has served its nation as well as the Turkish military. Even so, the Turkish people have demonstrated no military can rule a free people. There are, of course, deep divisions in Turkish political society. Ataturk is justly revered by the Turks. Without him there would have been no modern Turkey. But some argue he went too far and too fast in adopting Western norms that did not have strong roots in Turkish history.

Maybe Erdogan erred in the opposite direction by trying to restore a balance between the imperatives of national identity and national modernisation. Erdogan now risks endangering his political triumph and the still fragile plant of inclusive and institutional democracy in Turkey if he insists on imposing his will and too sweeping a clean-up on a deeply divided society. Western criticisms of Erdogan are, of course, partly in response to his strategic independence. He should be well aware of how destabilizing Western displeasure can be.

Erdogan is convinced his one-time ally and now bitter foe — Fethullah Gulen — is behind the recent coup attempt. Gulen whose reform vision of Islam has many followers in Turkey — including allegedly the military — lives in exile in Pennsylvania under US protection.

In response to demands for his extradition, the US has asked Erdogan to provide proof of Gulen’s involvement and cites its due process requirements before it can consider any action against him. The US request is legitimate although it knows all about Gulen’s activities. As for the imperative of due process and the provision of relevant and authentic evidence, interestingly, this is exactly what the Taliban requested after 9/11 when the US demanded they hand over Osama bin Laden directly to them or to other countries to try him. It refused to entertain any Afghan request for evidence of OBL’s activities in Afghanistan that linked him to 9/11. Abject compliance was insisted upon on pain of immediate military action — which indeed followed the Taliban refusal to comply.

This was a complete denial of due process. The same is the case with the US use of drones against chosen human targets. Renowned international legal and political commentators describe the use of killer drones as a global assassination programme. A small group of White House advisers reportedly agonise with the president over who should live or die. Such due diligence is duly equated with due process! The issue of collateral damage is technically if inhumanly finessed through computer profiling.

Moreover, the US has not yet abolished the death penalty at the federal level. Clearly, it is selective in its dedication to due process. Nevertheless, despite the extreme provocation of a murderous coup attempt, Erdogan should not resort to capital punishment. This would produce ‘martyrs’, international isolation, and retaliatory violence. It may also render future externally abetted coup attempts more likely.

Erdogan is accused by his critics of becoming addicted to power and increasingly intolerant of political dissent. Some allege he is a closet fundamentalist, even a jihadi, or at least an arch conservative who is threatening Turkey’s national stability and progress in the 21st century.

Many of these descriptions are overdrawn. But as noted, there is a deep divide in Turkish political society between liberal secularists and more conservative Turks who cherish their national identity as the historical saviours of Islam after the Mongol dispersal of the Arabs. Turkey’s drive to modern governance, including the privileging of reasoned and scientific discourse as well as accountability and checks and balances are necessary and hopefully unstoppable.

Nevertheless, Turkey’s culture and historical identity require its political messaging on behalf of modernisation to be consistent with, and to a certain extent, couched in the idiom of Islamic thought and tradition. This would facilitate its nation-wide political receptivity. This will be a very difficult undertaking. The effort will require a long-term strategy to evolve a Turkish consensus on reconciling two different dynamics in Turkish politics and society instead of pitting one against the other in a self-destructive zero-sum game.

Japan’s history since the Meiji Restoration is fascinating and instructive in this respect. For a while it appeared Japan would develop a viable parliamentary democracy with Japanese characteristics. But the global situation during the interwar period aborted the attempt. Turkey today is also confronted with a disintegrating external environment which greatly complicates its political challenges at home. Nevertheless, it can and must set an example of success and hope for other Muslim countries to emulate. Pakistanis have a stake in the success of Erdogan and the Turkish people.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.

Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2016