A few thoughts about the July 15, 2016, attempted coup d’état in the Republic of Turkey. It matters. It matters for the E.U. and the migrant refugee crisis. It matters for the Syrian Civil War. It matters for N.A.T.O. and the treaty obligations that the United States and its allies have with Turkey. It matters in the on-going war against the Islamic State (ISIL, or ISIS). It matters for the future of the West’s relationship with the Muslim world. It matters in terms of free speech and freedom of the press. And it matters in terms of legitimacy and the possible establishment of further international legal precedent. It matters in terms of how the coup may have impacted the genocide of Yazidis and Christians in the region as well as how the history of the Armenian Genocide is taught in Turkey. Finally, the coup may also affect the ongoing conflict between the Turks and Kurds. It matters.
Turkey, straddling two continents on each side of the Bosporus, also straddles the Western world and the Muslim world. The secular Turkish republic has been an example that Islam and the West can co-exist and, after Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s election in 2002, Turkey has also held the promise that democracy and Islam can co-exist as well. Note the past tense in those two previous statements. Previous Turkish governments have been comprised of secular Muslim leadership and intervening military juntas. In contrast, Erdogan’s party espouses Islamic philosophies and his tenure as Prime Minister and later President of Turkey has been scrutinized for more than a decade. That initial promise of an Islamic democracy has been eroded over the years, but perhaps it is not his Islamic inclinations, but his autocratic nature that is to blame.
If the military coup of July 15, 2016, had closed one chapter of Turkish history and begun another, then the world no longer has to wonder if Erdogan would surrender power peacefully. [Verily, democracies are not measured by elections, but by the peaceful transfer of power between political rivals.] So, would the coup have saved Turkish democracy and/or made Erdogan into a tragic hero? We will never know. Erdogan was democratically elected. Isn’t that what the West has supposedly advocated? Democracy? Didn’t US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair promise their actions in the region would promote democracy in the region? But elections have consequences. It is hard to proclaim the sanctity of democratic elections if the results of those elections are not respected by those same voices, à la Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, Egypt 2013, and possibly now Turkey 2016.
The coup, to the degree, that its believed to have been a genuine attempt to overthrow the government, may have made a heavy-handed autocrat into a somewhat sympathetic figure. So, are coup d’états to be accepted or not? After all, the American Experiment began as a coup in 1776. No matter what you learned in Civics class, there is no line in the Magna Carta nor Coronation Act of 1688 that legitimizes the overthrow of the government, regardless of how well Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s mesmerizing prose is a logical conceit, not an established legal president. After all, Americans have criticized the Burmese military for years for ignoring the 2010 elections results that had favored Aung San Suu Kyi. It is hard to credibly argue to have it both ways. Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk who knew first hand from the court of Henry VIII how fickle the whims of leaders could be, said famously to Thomas Cromwell, “a man cannot have his cake and eat his cake.”
Many have argued Erdogan is no longer qualified to serve as head of state. After all, the detractors insist, he lost his legitimacy when he began attacking journalists and academics, yet that self-justifying logic is a slippery slope. Politicians must be removed by the rule of law, to do otherwise undermines the very rule of law Erdogan’s enemies purports to defend. It is also quite selective to question the legitimacy of Erdogan when Duarte dines at the White House, journalists mysteriously die in Putin’s Russia, Trump calls the media enemies of the state, and Orbán wins another election.
The Turkish military has had a tradition of intervening to “protect the republic,” specifically in 1960, 1971, and 1980. Let us hope the military does so again. Do not let your dislike of Erdogan cloud your judgment. If it is acceptable for the Turkish military to remove democratically elected civilians from power, what other militaries, in what other countries may now think to do the same? The 2016 attempted coup d’état in the Republic of Turkey certainly matters. It matters to the war against Islamic terrorism and the civilian casualties of the Syrian civil war. Perhaps equally important is what the coup says about the future of democracy in the Muslim world. But what happens next is anyone’s guess.