Twilight Of The Secularist Deep State In Turkey

As the charred roof of Turkey’s Parliament building still smolders from the aerial bombardment unleashed upon it by the pro-coup air force, more lies in ashes than masonry work.

While the finer details of the bungled attempt to wrestle power from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are still hazy, the implications going forward for Turkey, the greater Middle East, and the world couldn’t be clearer.

The story of the coup, when truncated, is a rather simple one. The military guardians of Turkey’s Kemalist tradition found themselves threatened by an Islamist political movement surging forward and continually undoing the “progress” of Turkish secularism.

Seeing that their society was showing all the signs of advanced onset Islamism, they decided to employ the traditional Turkish remedy: the putsch. However, unlike previous coups, this one appears to have failed on a spectacular level. Needless to say, those plotters not vainly seeking asylum in foreign countries are most likely in the process of signing confessions and naming whatever names the newly empowered Erdogan government instructs them to. The real story of the coup is more than just the obvious one of poor planning and failed execution. Rather, it is the tale of the last gasp of an exhausted ideology: Turkish secularism and the deep state that guarded it.

When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk first arrived on the Anatolian scene a hundred years ago, the Ottoman Empire, long the sick man of Europe, had finally decided to give up the ghost after enduring the brutality of World War I. Seizing the moment, Ataturk led an ingenious defense of what was left of the empire, and in the process, made himself into a legendary hero of the Turkish people. At the time, his reforms, which were imposed with an iron fist after the war, were sexy and innovative. Ataturk, like many other 20th century leaders, was able to impose modernity onto what had previously been an essentially medieval society. Secularism, it was thought, was the future and the new Turkish state would be on its cutting edge.

But like all ideological trophy wives, secularism has aged rather poorly since Ataturk ushered in its honeymoon phase. The days of the passionate embrace of a Turkish civic identity have faded, and discontent with the tedious status quo has grown like the waistlines of so many former Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders now hitting middle age.

Of course, in a technological sense, Turkey truly has become a modern nation. Glittering skyscrapers form the silhouette of Istanbul’s sprawling and ever-growing skyline. Its military is the largest and most advanced in the region, and its rulers have long set their sights on joining the EU. Western tourists (up until recently, of course) flocked in droves to the ancient ruins and exotic bazaars of the capital. They frolicked in the turquoise waters of Turkey’s Mediterranean beaches, whose beauty was outshone only by the advantageous exchange rate. But the more aware tourist could quickly find cracks in the seemingly Western-feeling facade.

Journey very far from the kitschy tourist traps of Sultanahmet or the hipster bars and nightclubs of Beyoğlu, and you’ll quickly feel more like you’re in Cairo than Berlin. Istanbul’s face may be worldly and lit by neon lights, but its soul is found in the song of the city’s thousands of minarets as they exude the call to prayer.

In truth, this had always been the case, but through the middle of the 20th century, the secularist narrative had the weight of inevitability on its side. Almost every Sunni power, with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia, was more or less openly secular. While many disagreed on the form secularism would take in the Sunni world, Baathist, Kemalist or Nasserite, the consensus still had an unshakeable faith in its inevitable triumph.

United by a shared hatred of Israel and suspicion of its western patrons, the Turkish and Arab regimes were able to maintain the status quo and channel the attentions and energies of the street, all while thwarting the growth of the inevitable Islamist weeds. Frequent Turkish coups and Arab massacres became little more than a regular and ritualized form of mowing the Islamist grass.

However, beginning with the 1973 Yom Kippur War and culminating with the Western-backed destruction of Baathist Iraq and Gaddafist Libya, the secularist narrative completely unraveled. The Arab Spring that initially excited the simple minds of The New York Times editorial board with visions of a liberal and democratic Middle East soon degenerated into the nightmarish reality of civil war and spreading Islamic radicalization.

The truth was that the for all the technological modernization imposed upon it by the secular dictators of the 20th century, the Sunni Muslims of the Middle East could never truly shake off the siren song of the glories of their Islamist past, which began to seem more and more appealing as the secular consensus crumbled before their eyes.

Put in this context, the failed Turkish coup can be understood as not only the last stand of the Turkish deep state but of the entire story of 20th century Sunni secularism itself. The Turkish military was already on its back foot after Erdogan’s purge of the top brass in 2011 allowed him to push ahead boldly with increasingly authoritarian and Islamist reforms. As they watched their Islamist foes encroach ever closer, no doubt the coup conspirators had concluded they were quickly approaching a “now or never” moment.

While their failure to capture or eliminate Erdogan and his prime minister was certainly the plotters’ cardinal error, their defeat was certain before the first shot had ever been fired. As footage of bewildered young soldiers meekly surrendering to mobs of pro-regime Turks began to circulate on social media, it became apparent that the coup planners’ blunders were more than just strategic. They found themselves unable to engender the respect and corresponding legitimacy which they had come to expect from Turkish citizens, while simultaneously remaining unwilling to instill the fear through brutal violence necessary in such an instance.

Like its Ottoman predecessor before it, the Kemalist tradition has been the sick man of ideology for some time now. The dreams of secularist glory, which enraptured the minds of so many young 20th century Sunnis, are now riven through with arthritis. They seem more at place gathering dust in a museum than inflaming passions in the street.

There is now no going back for the Turkish deep state, which will never recover from its humiliation. A vengeful Erdogan will purge every Kemalist in the military and civil service, as he fully exploits his newly found blank check to eliminate his political enemies. The Constitution will be rewritten, with the military forced to surrender all its previously enjoyed sovereignty to civilian command. Ataturk and his aspirations will be relegated to history books written by Islamists and will live on only in the fading memories of old men.

So ended the secularist dreams of the Kemalist deep state, whose people neither feared nor loved it, and for which its soldiers would neither kill nor die for. And so, like all the hollow men that came before it, it died with a whimper.

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19 Comments

  1. I find the sympathy many on the alt-right express for the Turkish military coup odd. Some are insisting this was a false-flag by Erdogan. Aren’t the islamists just rejecting globalization much like nationalists worldwide? Isn’t Erdogan just co-opting or triangulating the Islamists? Isn’t this failed coup another example of the failing Cathedral and diminishing US power?

    In light of Nice and now this failed coup, I’m more hopeful that Le Pen will win in France. If French citizens cannot see their civilizational end approach now then there’s absolutely no hope for Europe. Nationalism – responsible nationalism – seems healthy and self-preserving. We’ll see.

    1. Not all globalism-rejecting movements are alt-right approved. Some communists reject globalism as well. Bottom line is, Islamism and Communism are anti-civilization.

      /pol/ loves Assad who is basically the Syrian version of Kemalists. Why? Because Islam is our enemy and we’re sympathetic to the enemies of our enemies. Also note that voices of Cathedral supported erdogan which means he’s a collaborator rather than an enemy of it. Hence the alt-right sympathy for the alleged coup (see my comment below).

      1. Good points, although I’m not convinced Islamism is anti-civilization. It certainly is, by its very nature, anti-Western civilization. So, yes, enemy of my enemy yada, yada, yada.

        Whether Erdogan is Cathedral approved is questionable. The coup plotters as secularists would have been more acceptable to Cathedral. This all assume the Cathedral as a monolith and coherent which it isn’t. A weakened, incoherent Cathedral has certainly loosed Chaos.

        1. > I’m not convinced Islamism is anti-civilization.
          It’s heavily dysgenic. Take a glance at the world IQ map. Endogamy shaves 5-10 IQ points on average, and it’s allowed in Islam. Also the whole polygyny thing screws up sexual economy (civilization runs on productive endeavors of the betas harnessable thanks to monogamous marriage)

          > This all assume the Cathedral as a monolith and coherent which it isn’t.
          Agreed.

          > The coup plotters as secularists would have been more acceptable to Cathedral.
          This is not certain. Assad is secularist yet the Cathedral supports al qaeda against him. erdo represents moderate and democratic Islam in the West, which is why Cathedral tends to support him. Don’t forget that the central dogma of Cathedral is democracy (I think most of them buy their own shit).

    2. It’s a natural response. Europe is threatened by Islamism emanating from the Middle East. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is assumed to apply and anything that undermines Islam is viewed as a positive thing – even if the people applauding secularism in the Middle-East abhor secularism in Europe.

    3. “Aren’t the islamists just rejecting globalization much like nationalists worldwide?”

      Islamist-backed nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been building mosques, many of them “super-mosques”, in Western nations and have long encouraged Islamic immigration into the West (and criticise any nativism against it; look at the editorial approach of Al Jazeera).

  2. The conclusion–that this is the end of Kemalist Turkey–is correct. However I disagree with the analysis. This was not a last stand desperation coup. This was not even a coup. This was an obvious conspiracy carried out masterfully by erdogan and his allies.

    This may sound like a tin foil hat conspiracy theory but it really isn’t. This is the common sense reading of the whole ordeal.

    There are basic things all coups must do. Any non-brain dead strategy games player–let alone an actual general–would know these basic things. Thus it can’t be a real coup.

    1) Of all the possible days, they chose the day that erdo would be away and out of reach.
    2) They didn’t even attempt to capture erdo, ministers, governors, top executives. What now? Isn’t this the whole point of a coup?
    3) They didn’t even bothered to take mainstream news networks offline. The media broadcast propaganda all night long. Securing communication channels is basically the first thing a serious coup would do.
    4) Only a handful of troops were actually deployed. All the soldiers looked confused. They didn’t seem like they were given strict orders to use violence with extreme prejudice if necessary. Some soldiers said that they were told this was a drill.
    5) The handful troops that were deployed were used to acquire irrelevant targets such as the Bosphorus Bridge. Note that cutting its traffic only moderately affects intra-city transportation. There are far more important targets to be secured first, like the media towers.
    6) erdogan was unusually calm. He let his plane land on an airport security of which was precarious, to put it mildly. This is not his MO. In 2013 Gezi protests he was visibly shaken and didn’t even dare come back to the country for days.
    7) No leaders have come forward to assume responsibility. This is very unusually for a coup. Currently the government seems to try to frame some irrelevant colonel that was (dishonorably) discharged months ago.

    All these facts can only be plausibly explained by a conspiracy scenario. Erdogan certainly had the motive and means to do it. And to give credit where it’s due, this is the kind of ruthless calculation and ballsy action that can only be done by a handful of people in the world.

    In any case, Erdogan has just become the most secure sovereign of the world. This will prove to be an elusive opportunity to test Moldbug’s Fnargl hypothesis.

    1. Erdogan is still a demotist; so I wouldn’t consider him to be particularly secure. He will prove to be about as stable as any other authoritarian demotist society.

      1. No this is different. Erdo has millions (not exaggeration) of zealous supporters ready to die for him (not exaggeration). His main opposition, Kemalist bourgeois class, has nothing: they don’t have guns, they don’t have the numbers (to win elections), they don’t have potential supporters from the military (anymore). As of now they’re like the Afrikaners in South Africa: completely helpless.

        Other authoritarian regimes often have non-aligned power centers that have substantial pull. As of yesterday, erdo is a true sovereign. He alone can personally hire or fire any bureaucrat. He can personally make legal exceptions for anyone he wants. He can declare himself monarch and no one (internal or external) can do anything about it. There is no opposition internally (except Kurds who are abandoned by their Cathedralite patrons as the recent massacres demonstrate). There is no opposition externally: western countries don’t have the political will to kick Turkey out of NATO let alone institute economic sanctions against it; China wouldn’t give a shit either way, Russia couldn’t invade (too big a fish to digest + wouldn’t aggress against a NATO ally).

        This is basically like Kim Jong Un being internationally recognized. What happens if KJU is legitimated by the international community, AKA Cathedral? He becomes the most secure sovereign ever. Erdo is KJU– maybe even better because erdo’s cult of personality doesn’t purely depend on terrorizing his subjects–a substantial portion actually loves, nay venerates him.

        It will be quite interesting to watch a country being completely redesigned. This is the closest thing you’ll ever get to a femtosecond reaction. (It’s unfortunate that the only current true sovereign of the world is an Islamist, but I expect that the number of real sovereigns will increase–more like skyrocket–in the coming years)

  3. Liberal democracy was never truly an option that was available to the Islamic world. It was secular, authoritarian nationalism or religious fundamentalism. Western leadership failed to acknowledge this and went about knocking down dictatorships in the name of democracy, thereby paving the way for the Islamists.

    You’re entirely correct; this coup was the last gasp of a vision that has been on the retreat for decades now.

  4. Timely and interesting piece, and I think you are right about the death of the Kemalist secularist strand of Turkey. Only thing is I think that strand died a few years ago, and this “coup” was just the nail in the coffin.

    I am not convinced that Erdogan did not orchestrate this coup somehow. It was far too convenient, profitable, and easy for him to do.

    1. If it was a false flag, the way to find out is to squirrel out who ‘called’ the coup into action. I’d bet that was Erdo’s man, there to smoke out his, probably then-desperate, Kemalist political enemies.

  5. Assuming it wasn’t a false flag (not necessarily a given) I wondered whether the coup attempt was mostly driven by a) secularist parts of the military, b) the Gulen cult/organization, particularly its members within the military, or c) a combination of a) and b).

    The reason b) or c) seemed more likely to me was the perception that the important secularist parts of the army had been purged already, and the main struggle left was between Erdogan and Gulen.

    Out of the Turks I know, I’ve heard lots of answers, ranging from ‘it’s the military’ to ‘probably 80% Gulen’. Apparently the Turkish media is reporting it as if it were a Gulenist movement, whereas the Western media doesn’t seem to have taken this tack nearly as much.

    Oddly, now that it’s failed, I’m not sure we’ll actually know. Erdogan will crack down on both groups regardless.

  6. The main plotters of coup were Gulenists, not Kemalists (except some idiots who thought they can succeed to kill Erdogan).

    “There is now no going back for the Turkish deep state, which will never recover from its humiliation. A vengeful Erdogan will purge every Kemalist in the military and civil service, as he fully exploits his newly found blank check to eliminate his political enemies.”

    Not yet. Outright Kemalist officers who were purged by Gulenists now recalled into the army.

    By the way, Turkish version of CNN (CNN Türk) supported Erdogan and Turkish version of FOX supported the coup until they failed.

    1. The rivalry between Gulenist and Kemalist is more bitter than Erdo – Kemalist or Erdo – Gulenist rivalry. Gulenists are responsible for the great purge of the army between 2007 – 2013. They humiliated many Kemalist soldiers from cadets to the chief of staff. This is the main reason for the failure; Kemalist fraction did not support the coup. This makes Mr Carlo’s nearly entire analysis obsolote.

      1. “The rivalry between Gulenist and Kemalist is more bitter than Erdo – Kemalist or Erdo – Gulenist rivalry.”

        Erdo-Kemalist rivalry is more bitter than Gulenist-Kemalist rivalry. Remember the fact that many Gulenist infiltrated the state because of Erdogan’s protection.

  7. I’m somewhat late to the party on this one, but an additional week to consider all the factors at play may provide some further perspective.

    While I agree with Carlo that the failed “coup” likely marks the final gasp of secular Kemalist power, I don’t agree that the coup can be blamed on the remaining Kemalists in the military. From all I have read (a fairly wide-range of opinions and analysis), this may well have been largely the work of the remaining Gulenists in the military who were stampeded into staging the coup at an inopportune moment with little preparation. It is quite possible that Erdogan was behind the stampeding.

    That’s not quite the same as blaming it all on Erdogan nor on the Kemalists nor, indeed, on the Gulenists. I see it as a complicated interaction between all three camps which Erdogan managed to win.

    Whatever the case, there is little chance of Turkey returning to the Kemalist secular state that the military previously guaranteed. That was the context that NATO was cooperating with, so Turkey as part of NATO is also up in the air. If Turkey and Russia come to an agreement that they have more shared interests in common moving forward, that could close off the Black Sea to NATO, which in turn would have a profound impact on international balance(s) of power.

    Toss Trump and the upcoming US election into the mix and we are in for a rocky ride for the remainder of 2016. I have no crystal ball to predict whether that rocky ride might deliver us a 2017 with great new possibilities, but I am almost certain that four years of Hillary at the helm will be to none of our benefit nor approval.

    1. This is a great comment. At the time I penned this piece it was unclear who precisely was behind the Coup attempt. Even now it does not seem exactly clear whether the Gulenists were behind it, or whether they were merely a convenient scapegoat. Being Non-Turks, the subtleties of much of Turkish politics is certainly lost on most in the West, myself of course included. However, regardless of whom was responsible I stand by my claim that the Turkish Secularism, embodied by the Kemalist Tradition is almost certainly now a thing of the past.

      1. Now, nearly two months later, we can see the fruits of the failed coup: massive purges of Gulen followers from all levels of the state, academia, local mayors, police, and business. It seems clear that Erdogan already had long lists of Gulenists drawn up and ready to act upon with the coup as the excuse. As far as I can tell, the Gulenists have been the target far more than the Kemalists. Indeed, for reasons that as a non-Turk I don’t really grasp, the Kemalist nationalists’ party seems to be rather close to Erdogan’s AKP, though perhaps the shared contempt for the Kurds may be the reason.

        Here’s what I don’t quite get: If Erdogan used the Gulenists over the years they were in alliance with the AKP to infiltrate the state and crack down on the military’s power as guardians of Kemalism, AND if the Gulenists are now being portrayed as a terrorist conspiracy, does it not logically follow that Erdogan and the AKP were part of the terrorist conspiracy, too? At least up until the moment when there was a falling out among thieves and the Gulenists began to apply their shady methods against Erdogan’s family and closest allies.

        That seems to be the emperor’s new clothes than no one can speak of.

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