Within 2-3 hours of time the trajectory of a country of nearly 80 million people changed, and I would argue, completely. It started with tanks belonging to Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) blocking passage on both bridges of Istanbul that connect Europe and Asia, a clear sign of a coup d’état that the Turkish society experienced four times in the past. People were curious, anxious, waiting to see what will happen next. Then came the news of war jets flying low over major cities like Ankara and Istanbul. Millions of people living in the western part of the country were, for the first time, so close to the war-like minutes that the eastern cities experience almost on a daily basis- recalling the bombs falling over houses in towns that border Syria.
It was unbelievable and creepy. How could war jets, and those that belong to the nation’s armed forces at that, fly over and, at some places, use ammunition against civilians? After a while the state television (TRT) announced that TSK had overtaken the authority and a curfew was to be put in place. People started rushing out to local neighborhood markets open at night to stock in food for the “dark days” to come. However, the explanation of government officials was signaling a coup “attempt”, with the Prime Minister Yıldırım claiming the act an attempt by a section of TSK, i.e., some high-ranking soldiers belonging to the “parallel state” whom both the President Erdoğan and the government of AKP (Justice and Development Party) accuse of attempting to demolish the state. Therefore, all of a sudden, the rush to markets and fear of curfew were left meaningless: It was just an attempt, and the public would prevent the coup by standing in front of the military tanks.
The following hours of the coup attempt is marked by horrifying images of men beating crying soldiers with whips- mostly of ages 18-30, without any rank, doing their obligatory military service. The motivation of men holding whips was that the soldiers were the part of coup attempt, therefore betrayers. The heartbreaking moment when a soldier could not escape being beaten to death even after he surrendered to the angry men adds up to the cruelty I witnessed.
Now, there are two major different views as to who the criminals are. One, described above, is that of the government, the media and most of the public: that the coup attempt was realized by a section of the army belonging to the illegal parallel state. Another view held is that it is a scenario prepared by the government itself so that, as always, the government and, more specifically, Erdoğan could play the underdog and get even more support. How they would play the underdog is directly related to the experiences of past coups d’état that the Turkish society lived through. So, we should bear in mind that the dominantly Muslim Turkish society has developed a phobia, and rightly so, against coups d’état which were anti-Islamic in nature and prevented people to freely exercise their religion.
Well, that was more or less all about the night and the day after the coup attempt as well as the views on who the criminals are. Before entering into the core points of the article, I should make some points clear so that no-one gets anything wrong in this sensitive issue: my aim is not to debate who the (real) perpetrators/criminals behind this attempt are nor whether the high-ranking soldiers seen that night belong to the parallel state. That, I think, will be unknown anyway for decades to come. Secondly, I should make clear my point about the notion of coup d’état. I believe it is a cruel and cheap attempt to overthrow a government in our century and that any democratic society should oppose the presence of army in a country respecting rule of law and favor elections, ballot boxes, public debates etc.
Image 1: Soldiers try to avoid being beaten by men with whips
However, there lies a huge problem in the “democracy feast” of Turkey (as it is referred to on media and by the authorities): It has divided the Turkish society into such clear-cut camps that it seems impossible to erase this mark for the near future, and there is a culture of intolerance which is increasing at an incredible speed. There are many reasons as to why I see great problems in the response to the coup attempt- both at official and public level. Let’s begin.
First off, the behavior of the government officials and that of Erdoğan give me the impression that, whoever the actors behind the coup attempt, the government exploits yet another event to its benefit- in this case a “frightening” practice that the Turkish society loathes. I argue that the government members are not against coup d’état because of their loyalty to democracy or rule of law, but because they exploit an event towards which the Turkish society is so sensitive.
Right after the night of the coup attempt the AKP and Erdoğan call on the public to “not leave the squares empty”, which the latter has been doing up until now. There is a huge support of municipalities since day one: Public transport in Istanbul is free, the public buses write “Continue on the watch [to democracy]” and carry Turkish flags, the screens in underground stations or wagons continuously cover people who died (“the martyrs of 15 July”). In addition, the government mobilizes all efforts into fueling a hate wave: The head of Istanbul metropolitan municipality announced that a cemetery named “the Cemetery of Betrayors” will be built, so that “people who visit the cemetery curse those betrayers” whenever they remember this tragic event.
Secondly, I do not believe that the majority of protests are all-encompassing and tolerant towards differences in, say, political opinions, the way people dress, behave etc, which renders those protest not purely in favor of democracy as they argue, but instead a platform to voice their support for the AKP and mostly the sacred personage of Erdoğan. In other words, the rhetoric is in most cases not free from politics. This argument is based in my observations on interviews on TV, where protestors who were interviewed openly stated that they “would do whatever the Master (“Reis”- used to refer to Erdoğan) tells them”, and social media, where almost all people who attend the protests use hashtags such as “Reis”, “AKP”, and “milli irade” (“national will”- a term used by Erdoğan and the AKP, especially since the corruption allegations, to refer to the fact that they –AKP as the governing party and Erdoğan as President- were elected by the nation so there cannot be any superior power over them, even the nation itself) among others.
Apart from that, personal contacts reveal an increasing support for both AKP and Erdoğan after the coup attempt, and most people are not concerned about freedom of assembly or of expression for those who are in opposition to AKP and Erdoğan. In other words, you are likely to be criticized –if not lynched- if you go out there to any square where the protests are going on and tell that you are opposed to the government, the actions it took against the judiciary, journalists etc. but that you support a democratic Turkey.
In addition, the protests, which take place usually at night, are marked by constant chants and cries for Erdoğan, as well as acclamations of “national will”, whose underlying references I described above. In conclusion, there is a prevailing notion that “we believe in democracy and you are free to do what you want, as long as you are not opposed to whom/what we support”.
As extra information, I see a close relation between how politics is considered in Turkish society and the response I described above. Generally, politics in Turkey is a matter of life or death and there is usually no room for criticism (maybe the weakness of opposition parties for decades is a reflection of this?). For example, if person A has been voting for party B for quite a time but decides not to do it anymore since A is uncomfortable with the policy of that party in dealing with the environment, then person A is very likely to be criticized. S/he is likely to get reactions such as “Wow, then you have become ‘the other side’?” or “Who else will you vote for if not B?” Likewise, it is not impossible that people will see it as strange if you vote for a party that specifically represents a group –usually a minority- if you yourself do not belong to it.
Thirdly, I have very hard time in digesting the fact that the protests of Gezi Movement back in 2013 did not resonate well with the same Turkish society which now claims democracy on the streets. To name a few characteristics of the events back then: the protestors were named “looters” (çapulcular) by Erdoğan himself and demonized because they went to the streets, the police used disproportionate force against protestors (see the reports of Amnesty International on “Gezi protests”) and killed and wounded young people, Erdoğan called whoever took to the streets “vandals” along with “looters” and continuously bullied them on TV interviews and speeches he gave on any occasion. Now, the Gezi protestors did not use whips on anyone like the men who beat soldiers after the coup attempt, nor did they try to take revenge on the police who had clamped down on them so harshly.
Why, then, those who died during Gezi protests are ignored by the government and never commemorated while those who died during the coup attempt are constantly shown on TV during the news? Aren’t all citizens equal in the eyes of authorities? Should one be an AKP or Erdoğan supporter in order to be considered a “martyr” after dying from the bullet of a police officer?..
Fourthly, I believe the extreme use of the nationalist and Islamic rhetoric de-values the so-called fight for democracy and makes it a biased one. Added to it are the symbols of the two connected types of rhetoric, namely the Turkish flag, calls to prayer, sanctifying the “martyrdom”, and cries of Islam-related sentences such as “Allahuakbar”. Since the coup attempt the imams of the mosques recite what is usually recited before the ceremony of burial in addition to the regular calls to prayer that are heard five times a day, and they call to people to take to the streets to claim democracy from the loudspeakers through which the call to prayer reaches the neighborhood. While the former has the relieving effect, so to speak, that the “coup is over thanks to God’s help” and reminds people of the dark days in the past when the anti-Islam coups happened, the latter clearly shows that religion –mosques and imams- has become a tool for politics. Likewise, dying has been shown as a sacred course one can/should follow and those who die are commemorated as “martyrs” of the fight for democracy.
Although dying for one’s country is indeed considered holy and that the concept of martyrdom is favored by some people around the world, thousands of people who have died so far in catastrophes –mining accident that killed 301 people and countless bombings- have been labeled “martyrs” by the government, instead of explaining to the public the causes of the attacks/ disasters and sending the responsible people to justice. In other words, beyond the discussion whether they died as martyrs or not, the government legitimizes those deaths. The same holds true for the protests after the coup attempt, in which the rhetoric about martyrdom is fueled by media coverage and by some advertisements with Erdoğan’s voice at the background, instilling in people’s minds that they should not hesitate to put themselves in front of military tanks to counter the coup (indeed the officials still argue this case and invite people out to streets since “the danger is not completely over”). As for the nationalist rhetoric, here is the idiosyncrasy of the aftermath of this coup attempt: Normally the military in Turkey is considered sacred, and soldiers are always “martyrs” in the eyes of both the state and the public.
Image 2: Men who protest the coup attempt pray together one of the 5-times-a-day prayers
Military service is an obligatory one for all Turkish men after the age 18. Men are sent to the cities they will serve in with the famous saying “Every Turk is born a soldier”, with joy and whistles. In short, soldiers are more than civilians, they are heavenly. However, with the coup attempt, it became upside down all of a sudden. The police took over the place of soldiers in terms of respect shown and are now favored more by the public. There was no distinction between the real criminal soldiers –those with high ranks who are said to have planned the coup- and the young men who executed orders and who, sadly, were told that they were going on a drill. Instead, everyone started talking about how bravely the police behaved against the attempters and cursing on the soldiers without distinction.
It should be noted that although the image of men beating young soldiers with ships was later condemned and people were called on “to remember how we normally uphold Turkish soldiers and respect them again”, this move did not suffice to quell the anger of millions against soldiers, who, for them, prepared the coup or at least did not object to their superiors when they ordered them to act. In short, it all changes with how the government forms the discourse of the day: one day, soldiers are sacred (when they fight against the PKK in the south-east), the other say the police are sacred (when they fight against the soldiers involved in the coup attempt), and people follow it.
Lastly, the media response to protests, which is itself totally pro-government, is a tool of continuous imposition. Namely, there is continuous coverage of images of the night that the attempt happened and interviews with the people who got wounded in their resistance to tanks and soldiers who were firing. People who died are commemorated with emotional background melodies as martyrs of democracy. Again, the same media did not even cover the Gezi protests at the very beginning and instead preferred to put on a documentary about penguins, hence the symbol of Gezi movement being a penguin equipped with a mask against the pepper spray.
Before concluding my remarks I want to once again make clear that, with what I have written above, I am not a supporter of any coup d’état or attempt of it, nor am I opposed to protesting against such behavior. However, the nature of the protests after 15 July make me believe that Turkey is going down a very dangerous road – that of intolerance. Rather than supporting democracy and rule of law, most of the public is marked by a tendency of aggression and intolerance –towards the section of the army who planned the coup and people who they believe are from the opposition- after all the imposition of “We got of the big danger with God’s permission”- “God saved us”- “No more coups against Islam” –kind-of rhetoric by the officials, who do not hesitate to insert Arabic/Islamic words in almost all of their speeches where they address to people. This feeling of mine is strengthened by the fact that those who protest are mostly hardliners who support AKP and more importantly Erdoğan with a jusqu’au-boutiste attitude- being okay with the corruption of the government, arguing that “they [the governing party] steal but also construct/ work for the country” or that they are “ready to do what the Master wants from them”. This is exactly what should be seen as a danger to contemporary Turkish society, which is prone to be divided easily by evoking arguments that matter to people- nationality, country, citizenship, national will, anthem etc.
Image 3: People protest, in the city of Diyarbakır. Some of the banners read “Stand up right, don’t bow down. This Ummah [The Muslim community] is with you [Erdoğan]”, “My people, don’t forget who shot at you”, “The tank of the junta can’t deter the people”
In conclusion, all of the factors I listed above point to the fact that the protests “to claim democracy” which we have been witnessing since the coup attempt of 15 July are not a real public movement that was born purely out of the public’s response to come against the coup attempt, as it was the case with, for example, Gezi protests. While the latter was demonized by the government and the then Prime Minister Erdoğan, the protests since 15 July were themselves commenced by the several official calls to people to take to the streets and supported enormously. From my observations, the symbols seem to play an incredible role in the maintaining of protests- keeping people still protest each night with arguments of national will and a song with lyrics “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan”. I argue that instead of uniting differences under one umbrella, which would be what I want to see in Turkey, the symbols seem to increase the culture of intolerance that was, although always present at some level, unleashed completely with the official calls, where rhetoric of hate underlies.
Endnote: A protest of a different kind was organized on 24 July by the call of the main opposition party CHP (Republican People’s Party), where there were banners that read “Secular and democratic Turkey” or “We want neither coup d’état nor state of emergency”. Although it could have been considered a promising act in that it was not marked by a one-sided attitude or a specific political discourse, it did not continue either and was left weak compared to the protests which are the subject of this article. Whatever the outcome, I hope as a country founded on a secular basis –although forcefully- Turkey stays secular and that it follows a different path than many other countries that surround it.
 A movement which started off as resistance to neoliberal politics of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and tried to prevent the government from privatizing a public park in Taksim (Gezi Parkı).
 CNN Türk broadcast a documentary about penguins when thousands of protestors occupied the Taksim square. See the image: https://www.google.com.tr/search?q=cnn+turk+penguin+documentary&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwidsPnDpJnOAhUDWxQKHb31B8sQ_AUICigD&biw=1366&bih=657#imgrc=7kj6SSxRdMRNlM%3A