Sean Quinn

About Sean Quinn

Sean is interested in solutions to political and social conflicts, and will complete a PhD at Wollongong in early 2017. He's no spring chicken and came to academic studies quite late, but was born in Northern Ireland in 1970, so he came to understand political conflicts quite early.

History repeating: The bitter, familiar lessons of the Turkish Coup

Approx Reading Time-17This Turkish coup might be new in its intensity, but ancient in its origin. However, the wounding of the westernised Turkey is sure to be felt elsewhere.



At an Australian distance, it is difficult to understand what is presently going on in Turkey. In the last few days, a coup attempt has been put down by a popular uprising, which was called onto the streets by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and somewhere over 250 soldiers and civilians have been killed. In the immediate aftermath, the “great divide” between Turkey’s historical secular tradition and a rising, youthful and democratic Islamism has widened. Some 2,745 judges have been dismissed and thousands of civilians arrested.

However, given Turkey’s role and proximity to the fight against ISIS, its NATO membership, and that Turkey has become a regular destination for many Australian and New Zealander holidaymakers, the physical distance between Australia and Turkey seems little comfort in an increasingly globalised and connected world.

The swift welcomes issued by Barak Obama, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton when the democratically-elected government of Turkey appeared to have successfully put down a military coup, skirt over some deeply divisive questions in global understandings of what democracy actually means. These questions have a long history. They go all the way back to democracy’s ancient Greek birthplace, and troubled Aristotle as much as they did the constitutional conventions establishing modern democracies in Australia and the USA. Moreover, given recent tightly contested and divisive elections in Australia and the UK, and the prospect of another in November’s US Presidential elections it appears that the central question: “How much authority does winning an election give the victors?”, won’t go away anytime soon. When all the post-election rhetoric about “mandates” is stripped out, election winners must work with the constitutional framework and institutions they’ve been got or mount a case for constitutional change.

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In Australia, that requires governments to work with senates and upper houses or to mount a case for constitutional change and fight for them in referenda, which governments of all persuasions have found it difficult to do. These “constitutional questions” tend to activate a reluctant streak in settled liberal-democracies. The UK’s recent Brexit plebiscite on EU membership was carried by 1,269,501 votes. That’s a reasonable winning margin for any normal parliamentary election among a voting population just shy of 51 million, but parliaments only sit for a set term, and if their governance during that time is poor they can be thrown out. For a big constitutional question that will affect the UK’s population over the long term in ways that cannot be prefigured, 2.5% of the total population isn’t exactly decisive, yet it is still greater than the 1.8% that carried long-term Prime Minister Erdoğan to the Turkish Presidency in August 2014. And, although Turkey had a series of military coups through 1960-1997, that’s where Turkey’s current constitutional question really begins and some parallels between Turkey and the UK start to leap out.

Both the British and Turkish states are the contemporary inheritors of imperial traditions. Through the Gallipoli story, Australians understand this. Yet that understanding has much temporal and geographical distance in it. We remember that the ANZACs fought “Turks”, but forget that they weren’t fighting “Turkey”. During WWI they were fighting the Ottoman Empire, which did not collapse fully until March 1924. Furthermore, we mix up the issues driving WWI and WWII. Therefore we forget that WWI’s allies weren’t exactly fighting for “democracy and freedom“. These values existed in the British Empire’s colonies, but the UK didn’t introduce universal male suffrage until 1918’s “Khaki Election“; female suffrage remained decades away. Lastly, we forget that, with the exception of the Americans, all of WWI’s protagonists really lost. Russia’s imperial dynasty didn’t survive 1918. The Germans ended the war by deposing their own emperor. The Balfour Declaration partitioned the Ottoman Empire, and the remnants of the Ottoman Caliphate were swept away in the interwar period. Victorious France and Britain held onto their empires until after WWII, but the UK was immediately shrunk by the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-1921 and Ireland’s partitioning. Of course these events are nearly a century old and arguably worth forgetting, but anyone observing the build-up to Brexit could hardly miss the rhetorical power of the “Britain was great before the EU” mantra, and its ability to sweep away harder-to-grasp points about contemporary economic interdependence, the constitutional lopsidedness of the UK where England’s Brexit vote automatically trumps the internal democracy of Scotland, Northern Ireland (or Wales), and the future-orientated opportunities the EU presents to younger Britons. Lastly, one would have to be virtually insensate to miss the significance the “Caliphate trope” has for ISIS and modern Islamists.


The Consequences of an unsuccessful coup

Erdoğan’s ruling AK (Justice and Development) Party came to power in 2014 promising to uphold the Turkish state’s constitutionally specified “secular principles“. The reasons for a principle of secularism in Turkey are deeply embedded in the post-war revolutionary period that saw Mustafa Kemal Pasha Atatürk replace the old theocratic “sovereignty” of the Sultans, Caliphs, and the Ulama. For Atatürk, replacing the unitary conception of law and kingship with a legally diffuse and representative parliamentary system of government was an imperative. It was a way to push Turkey down a modernising path; one that brought it closer to Europe, and further away from the Islam’s religious restrictions.

Turkey has changed much since then. Following the destruction of Iraqi secularity and Baathism, calls for the repudiation of Turkish secularism and the establishment of a new Caliphate have migrated from ISIS-controlled Iraq to Turkey itself.

Atatürk brought the administration of Turkey’s mosques under government control and restricted the construction of new ones. He restricted religious dress, including the wearing of the fez and hijab. For him, the sort of secular modernity Turkey would have to legally enshrine resembled the “aggressive secularism” Napoleonic France had used to restore France’s post-revolutionary relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, whilst maintaining a healthy modern distance from the Church’s traditional political machinations. Atatürk’s secularising program was rolled out over a period of time. The restrictions were not all introduced at once, and didn’t reach their full level of prescriptiveness until the new Turkish state conferred the Atatürk (Father of the Turks) honorific upon their president in 1934. As illiberal as Atatürk’s restrictions appear today, they weren’t completely at odds with the modernising approach Ottoman Sultans had pursued through the 19th Century. While some regions resisted, Turkish Atatürk’s secularism wasn’t seen as wholly incompatible with the Ottoman’s traditional desire to provide security of worship and practice for all of the Abrahamic faiths either. Indeed, prior to WWII parts of Turkey had significant Jewish and Christian populations. The Sultans, who had seen themselves as the inheritors of Byzantine Rome’s Abrahamic leadership, generally saw their protection of kindred faith traditions as a point of pride, which marked them as different from the intolerance of Europe’s monarchs. However Atatürk and his successors knew that preserving a tradition of diversity and tolerance was always going to be a major problem for an overwhelmingly Muslim state.

Contemporary Western democracy has a supporting liberal value structure but it retains an illiberal and mechanistic logic too. As Australians (after 2013) or observers of the post-Brexit blogosphere know, “winning” encourages a sort of unedifying and intolerant triumphalism. Early 20th Century democratisers didn’t have a normative liberal structure to supplement the new states that were being created to rely upon. So they focussed mostly upon creating workable states from imperial remnants, and we can still see that in places like Northern Ireland or India and Pakistan they weren’t always successful in offsetting the potential of “tyrannous majorities” to dominate minority groups. Without a supplementary liberal normativity or liberal “world ordering” framework like the UN to fall back upon, Atatürk put the Turkish military in charge of defending the secular state he and they had created. Their role as Turkish secularism’s defenders has survived several constitutional rewrites.

During a largely unobservant 20th Century, Turkey’s military exercised their constitutional prerogative several times. As recently as 1997, in reaction to a perceived popular dilution of secularist strictures, a military memo to the Turkish government was enough to force changes in policy and personnel.

If reports are to be believed, one of “the West’s” most reliable regional allies has successfully suppressed a constituted institution whose stated aim is to keep the Turkish state “like the West”. With little evidence, Erdoğan is blaming a Sufi moderniser for the coup and calling for his extradition from the USA.

Turkey has changed much since then. Not only is much of the population too young to remember a history of recurring coups, Erdoğan’s leadership has overseen a transformation. Thousands of mosques have been built. Hijab bans have been lifted, and compulsory religious education instituted. Islamic restrictions on financial lending practices are again being observed, which has seen an expansion of a banking sector that charges flat fees instead of compound interest rates. Alcohol sales and advertising have been restricted. Islam has acquired a new political legitimacy, and secular laws are increasingly and publicly ridiculed. Following the destruction of Iraqi secularity and Baathism, Turkey now has an openly “Islamic state” neighbour, and calls for the repudiation of Turkish secularism and the establishment of a new Caliphate have migrated from ISIS-controlled Iraq to Turkey itself. This call was most recently and controversially made by the Speaker of the Turkish parliament on April 25th. All of which presents the leaders (and putative leaders) of Western democracies with a substantial conundrum.

If reports from Turkey are to be believed, one of “the West’s” most reliable regional allies has, through a populist uprising, successfully suppressed a constituted institution whose stated aim is to keep the Turkish state “like the West”. The bulwark the EU had funded to contain massive influxes of Syrian refugees, and site of some of NATO’s most significant nuclear weapons arsenals and bases for operations against ISIS and Al Qaeda remnants, has taken a clear step away from a liberal parliamentary rule-of-law and toward religious rule. Worryingly, with little evidence proffered, Erdoğan is blaming a self-exiled Sufi moderniser for the coup attempt and calling for his extradition from the USA.

The challenges a failed Turkish coup presents Western liberal-democracies with are almost an inversion of those presented by 2013’s successful Egyptian one. In Egypt, democracy’s suppression by military strongmen ended ISIS’s march across North Africa. It also underlined the reckless naiveté of the Bush Administration’s doctrine of “democracy promotion” and “regime change“. In Turkey, the challenges presented by the popular suppression of a once-strong military appear to force NATO and its Western allies closer to the sort of strategy Putin’s administration has pursued in Syria and Ukraine.

In a time of bitter internal divisions, liberal democracies are facing some of the greatest geopolitical problems since the end of the Cold War. Whether “the West” can, as the UK’s new PM insists it must, address the economic divisions fuelling contemporary “democratic disaffection” to meet these challenges remains an open question. Recent evidence suggests Australia, the USA, the UK and EU will struggle to.


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