Turkey’s July 15th Coup: What Happened and Why 

Turkey’s July 15th Coup: What Happened and Why 
Edited by M. Hakan Yavuz and Bayram Balcı 
(Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2018), 344 pp. 

Reviewed by Prof. Paul Kubicek, Department of Political Science, Oakland University
The attempted coup of July 15, 2016 constitutes a watershed in modern Turkey. Its failure, in part the result of mass mobilization to defend the elected government, likely spells the end of Kemalist-style military tutelage. Its aftermath, including a long-extended state of emergency, mass purges and arrests, and profound constitutional changes, signal the emergence of a new order under the seemingly unassailable President Recep T. Erdoğan.

The present volume, as its subtitle suggests, examines the attempted coup’s causes as well as its dynamics, including who was behind it. Erdoğan and the Turkish government, of course, have pointed to exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen and his opaque network of supporters as the coup’s masterminds. The contributors to this volume largely agree, and thus much of the volume focuses on the Gülen movement, including its prior relationship to the Turkish state and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), its overseas enterprises and affiliates, the role of women, and how it has tried to co-opt academics and other foreign observers in presenting it as a moderate, enlightened, pro-democratic face of Islam. Indeed, most of the contributors to this volume have previously conducted research on the Gülen movement, and this work thus serves as a means to update and perhaps revise some of their work in light of the coup attempt.

First things first, however. Most would-be readers of this volume are likely interested in the questions posed in the volume’s title. While the definitive history of the attempted coup remains to be written, several of the contributors to this volume present compelling—if still circumstantial—evidence that the Gülen movement, if not Gülen himself, played a leading role. In their chapter, M. Hakan Yavuz and Rasim Koç note confessions from Gülenist officers, the presence of known Gülenists during the coup attempt at the Akıncılar air force base, which is considered the headquarters of the coup, and connections between the main generals who organized the coup and senior members of the Gülen movement. 

While there is no evidence as of yet that Gülen ordered the coup, the hierarchical nature of the movement, as well as contacts between some coup participants and Gülen in the days before the coup are certainly suggestive. Yavuz and Koç conclude that “cumulative evidence indicates that the coup was carried out by his [Gülen’s] core followers and would have been difficult to coordinate without his involvement or counsel” (p. 88). In a separate chapter, Yavuz debunks many of the conspiracy theories surrounding the coup, including that Erdoğan either organized or knew of the coup, using it as it means to eliminate some of its opponents and strengthen his rule. Yavuz also dismisses the idea (one suggested by Ilker Bašbuğ, a former Chief of Staff, among others) that the coup was carried out by various factions in the military, including Kemalist opponents to Erdoğan. Yavuz reasons that the Gülenists would never trust others, particularly Kemalists, with whom they have long had antipathy. 

David Tittensor, in his chapter, offers a different take, noting that many of the leaders of the coup had no known ties to Gülen and have denied being part of the Gülen movement, that past purges of Gülenists from the military meant few were likely to be in the upper echelon of the military, and that some confessions may have come after suspects were tortured. While acknowledging that the Gülen movement may have been involved in some capacity, he suggests the idea that the Gülenists acted alone stands as a “convenient fiction” (p. 299) to serve the political needs of the government and adds that no one has yet produced convincing material that would “stand up to proper scrutiny” (p. 230) to secure Gülen’s extradition for trying to overthrow the Turkish government.

As for the motivations of the coup—assuming that Gülen movement was the primary force behind it—it was the final act in a years-long struggle for power between Gülenists and Erdoğan, one that the latter was clearly winning. As several contributors (including Yavuz and Koç, Caroline Tee, Mujeeb Khan, and Michael Reynolds) note, Gülenists had penetrated the state apparatus, but were long considered friendly to the AKP. Indeed, Gülenists in the police and judiciary were key in taking down leading military and bureaucratic figures for alleged coup plots, actions that helped Erdoğan neuter a powerful potential opponent. 

However, in the early 2010s the two sides began to engage, in Khan’s words, a “death match” (p. 62), one that became public in 2013 when the government shut down many of the Gülen movement’s schools and dershanes and when, at the end of that year, Gülenists in the police and judiciary launched a corruption investigation designed to bring down Erdoğan’s government. Erdoğan survived—he won popular election to the presidency in 2014—and the government subsequently moved against Gülenist businesses, banks, and media outlets. 

Yavuz and Koç as well as Kiliç Kanat depict the coup attempt itself as a last chance for the Gülenists to act before they were decisively purged from the ranks. The coup was, as we know, poorly planned, but it failed for a number of reasons, including lack of support within the top echelon of the military, failure to control or shut down all broadcast outlets (which allowed Erdoğan to rally supporters via a video chat aired on a private TV channel), a profound misreading of anticipated public support, and the use of social media as a basis to organize opposition. Kanat (p. 141) notes more broadly that aiming for a direct, violent seizure of power was an “antique attempt,” one that the military had already deemed irrelevant by would-be putschists in 1997 and in 2007, who issued ultimatums or “e-memorandums” in an effort to realize a “postmodern” coup.

One objective of this volume, as mentioned, is to reassess past scholarship, in particular the question of academic responsibility due to the way the Gülen movement was presented in earlier research. Chapters by Tittensor and Joshua Kendrick take up this charge most explicitly, in particular efforts by Gülenists to organize junkets and “academic” conferences to win over sympathizers and the publication of quasi-academic hagiographic texts on Gülen. Certainly, there have been such efforts (this reviewer unwittingly took part in such a conference years ago on Islam and democracy, thinking it was organized by the host university), but what impact this has had on serious scholarship and beyond is hard to say. 

Certainly, Gülen, at least prior to the coup, had his supporters, not only among some academics in Turkey and abroad but also among US lawmakers and political leaders in other countries. Among academic works, perhaps the most far-reaching study on Gülen was written by Yavuz and published in 2012 by Oxford University Press. Titled Toward an Islamic Enlightenment: The Gülen Movement, it acknowledges the opaqueness of the Gülen movement and some of its critics, but only hints at some of the analysis and damning criticism of the Gülen movement in the present volume. 

Yet, some of the evidence against Gülen mustered after the coup attempt was certainly known in the early 2010s, when Yavuz suggested that Gülen’s main objectives were to raise moral consciousness and expressly rejected the idea that Gülen sought to seize political power (Toward an Islamic Enlightenment, p. 221). In the present volume, in Yavuz’s periodization of the Gülen movement, he suggests that it has tried to create a “structure parallel to the government” (p. 38) since 2002. This reviewer would have welcomed an effort by Yavuz to more fully account for what he apparently missed in his past work.

Overall, this volume does offer much on the Gülen movement that will be of substantial interest. Understandably, given events, the treatment of Gülen has markedly changed from that of earlier publications. Some of the indictments against Gülen in this work are particularly damning. While there may be solid reasons for such an assessment, in some cases (such as the chapter by Mujeeb Khan) anti-Gülenism veers into a defense of Erdoğan (they need not; one can cast dispersion on both, and conspicuously missing in this volume is a critical account of events since the coup itself, developments that call into question the rule of law and viability of Turkish democracy) and in some cases authors may be unduly relying upon evidence presented by the Turkish government, which clearly has its own agenda in casting Gülen as the head of a terrorist organization. To be sure, more evidence and accounts about Gülen and the coup are likely forthcoming.  More comprehensive assessments about what happened and why await.

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