Turkey’s Erdogan Cleans House to Form a More Perfect Islamic State
Policy + Politics

Turkey’s Erdogan Cleans House to Form a More Perfect Islamic State

The failed coup in Turkey on July 15-16 has done exactly what many experts predicted: It’s given Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a green light to implement the next stage of his plan to turn the country into an Islamic state. After quelling the insurgent military rebels, Erdogan did the following in short order: 

  • Detained 42 journalists.
  • Arrested or suspended 57,000 soldiers, police, judges and civil servants suspected of complicity in the coup.
  • Arrested 62 children for treason from a military school. They were jailed and not allowed to speak with their parents.
  • Tortured detainees, according to Amnesty International. 

What’s at stake is a long-time strategic relationship that has been pivotal to U.S. national security interests for decades. 

Turkey has been a particularly important NATO ally of the United States because of its strategic geographic location between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It was a key military base for the U.S. in the Middle East from the start of the Cold War up to the fight against ISIS. Turkey’s Incirlik air base was used by U.S. warplanes launching attacks against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait. Incirlik was also used to enforce the no-fly zones in Iraq before the 2003 invasion.

Related: Turkey Widens Post-Coup Purge, Demands U.S. Hand Over Cleric 

More recently, the U.S. and Turkey have been at odds over the use of Incirlik in the war against ISIS. Erdogan was worried that strikes in Iraq would benefit the Kurds, who have long sought independence from Turkey. The relationship cooled but quickly recovered, even though the U.S. watched with dismay as the democratically elected Erdogan began to act as an autocrat after he was elected in 2014. 

Erdogan’s Islamic Rule
For about 80 years, Turkey’s army maintained a dominant role in its politics. It organized coups to force the country’s politicians to adhere to the army’s secular vision of Turkey. But in 2001, a conservative Islamic party founded by the current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the election. 

Gradually, Erdogan intensified Turkey’s Islamic identity and removed many secular generals and colonels from the army. In the meantime, Turkey’s economy experienced steady growth, which enhanced Erdogan’s popularity. Turkey’s status as a main player in the Middle East has been boosted as well. Erdogan was considered by many Turks and foreigners as an able statesman who earned his people’s and the world’s respect. 

Erdogan had an ally who was, in a way, a spiritual leader for many Islamist Turks. Fethullah Gulen, who now resides in Pennsylvania, helped Erdogan erase the secular influences by trying and convicting army officers, judges, police officers, academics and journalists for alleged conspiracy against the government. Gulen’s men replaced the secularists in these many sectors.

Related: Turkey Issues Detention Warrant for 42 Journalists 

The inevitable power struggle between the two men resulted in a broken alliance and by 2013, Gulen and Erdogan were enemies. Gulen’s men started fixing cases against Erdogan’s men in power. Erdogan started a house cleaning to remove Gulen’s men from the army, police, judiciary and the press. 

Gulen built what 60 Minutes called “‘The Gulen Movement’ -- with millions upon millions of disciples who compare him to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Gulen promotes tolerance, interfaith dialog, and above-all: he promotes education. And yet he's a mystery man -- he's never seen or heard in public -- and the more power he gains, the more questions are raised about his motives and the schools.” 

Who Was Behind the Coup
In any coup, the rebels need to arrest or kill the country’s leaders, take control of the main radio or TV stations, and seize key locations and facilities to prevent any countercoup forces from mobilizing. 

Related: Turkey's Erdogan Beats Foes for Now, But at High Cost to Stability 

The coup failed to arrest or kill Erdogan, who managed to mobilize his supporters to take to the streets, and only partially succeeded in the second and the third tasks. It also lacked national and foreign support. 

The Turkish government has accused Gulen of masterminding the coup and has demanded that the U.S. hand him over, but Kerry has refused. The failed coup has further soured the Turkish-American relationship. But the coup is simply not Gulen’s style. His movement’s signature strategy is to set the stage for its followers to occupy key positions, not to take power by force. 

Conspiracists accuse Erdogan himself of orchestrating the coup to solidify his grip of power, arrest all of his remaining opponents, and pass constitutional amendments that gives the president more executive powers. 

Related: Turkey's Spy Agency Suspends 100 People Suspected of Links to Gulen 

However, it’s hard to imagine that Erdogan would risk shaking the security of his government for these gains. More than 230 people were killed, and 1,500 others were injured during the coup. The Incirlik air base was shut down. Turkey’s future has never been at risk in the way it is today.  

The most likely scenario is that some followers of the Gulen movement staged an ill-prepared coup without consulting with their leader because they felt threatened by Erdogan. The latter’s recent steps of revoking the sentences against secular army officers and academics, consolidating with Russia and Israel among others, and granting the army officers immunity from prosecution may have been badly interpreted by some of Gulen’s followers. 

What Next for Turkey and the United States?
Even before the failed coup, the Obama administration signed a defense agreement with the Iraqi Kurds to support the Kurdish forces in return of their participation in liberating Mosul in northern Iraq from ISIS. The agreement will boost the Kurdish aspiration of independence. This is the last thing Turkey wants.   

In the aftermath of the coup, a major ally of the United States that was once considered a model of harmony between Islam and the West is almost completely lost to an authoritarian religious dictatorship. The country will move further away from the West and closer to the sectarian conflicts of the Middle East.