Turkey’s everlasting divisions

Turkey’s everlasting divisions

Throughout the history of the Republic of Turkey, state policies have created irreconcilable divisions based on ideological and ethnic lines. These policies have pervaded all spheres of the Turkish society and economy and the aftermath of the recent coup embodies of this divisive politics.

Aftermath of the 15 July coup attempt

The true perpetrators of the coup attempt are still unclear. Erdogan and his supporters cite Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric based in the United States, as the prime suspect. Others accuse Erdogan himself as the mastermind behind the attempt as they believe that he staged the event in order to bolster his legitimacy in the face of ‘foreign threats’, a common theme in the history of the Turkish Republic. Despite the ambiguity of the event, the consequences of the coup attempt have been largely detrimental to the country.

The President introduced a state of emergency in order to lay the foundations for bolstering his power inside the country and began a campaign to cleanse elements of the country that supposedly ran counter to the dictates of the state in its current form.

Erdogan focused his attention on universities in Turkey and pushed forward investigations of academics (even those residing abroad were asked to return to the country), probing their past activities, and any aroused suspicion led to arrests. The bases of these suspicions are connected to so-called “terrorist” organisations, whether it be the Gulen movement or Kurdish-based movements.

Once again, ideological and ethnic differences in Turkey were brought out into the open in a violent manner.

The mentality of the state has changed little since 1923

The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Divisive politics have been quintessential of the republic both before and since the founding of the Republic.

The end of the Ottoman Empire saw the perpetration of the Armenian Genocide, which occurred around the year 1915 and cleansed the huge majority of Armenians in the country. The Turkification process had begun with severe violence and it continued ever since.

The basis of the Kurdish rebel movement harks back to the days of the foundation of the state. The Kemalists, adherents of Mustafa Kemal’s ideology, which emphasises “Turkish nationalism”, “secularism” and “Westernisation”, have refuted the Kurdish identity and imposed repressive laws that restricted the cultural and socioeconomic development of Kurdish-populated regions, found mostly in the southeast of the country.

Poverty in these regions is still rife when compared to the swift modernisation that the western parts of the country has seen. These are the roots behind the conflict behind the PKK and the Turkish state that has been continuing since 1978.

Other smaller ethnic minorities have suffered a similar fate, and it has not only been due to direct violence committed by the state, but also structural violence. For example, in 1942, the Kemalists, in order to improve the socioeconomic and political status of ethnic Turks, imposed a “Wealth Tax” which aimed at non-Muslim minorities, who ended up paying up to 10 times as much as Muslims.

Although the tax has since been scrapped, remnants of this mentality still remains as Armenians were targeted in the aftermath of the coup attempt, despite their lack of connection to the Gulen movement, which Erdogan accuses.

Ideological divisions within the country have caused a number of coup attempts. Coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980 were put into effect by the army in order to “protect Mustafa Kemal’s ideals of democracy and secularism”.

Rifts behind rightists and leftists during these periods were also reasons for the army to step in and take control. Leftists have taken the brunt of the Turkish army’s seizure of control since they counter the nationalist dictates of the Turkish state (i.e. the Turkish nationalism professed by Mustafa Kemal and his ideological predecessors).

A coup in 1996 prevented Islamists from taking power, more precisely the ‘Welfare Party’, headed by Necmettin Erbakan, which was a predecessor of the current ‘Justice and Development Party’ (AKP). Finally, the attempted coup this year has been supposedly caused by a rift within the Islamist ideological camp. All these, divisions, both ethnic and ideological, have formed almost irreconcilable camps within Turkish society.

An illiberal democracy with a bleak future

Huge rallies were held in Turkey recently in support of the President and the foiling of the coup attempt. Opposition leaders were also present and the event was lauded for its “democratic” qualities. Nevertheless, the limelight was once again shone on Erdogan and Turkish nationalist sentiment was rife.

The past few years has seen the shutting down of a number of media outlets in Turkey, which had been voicing opinions that run counter to the discourse of the AKP. As mentioned before, academics and journalists who show any inclination towards a stance and do not succumb to the dictates of the AKP have been restricted in their freedom to conduct their work, or have simply been arrested.

The opinions of ethnic minorities and differing ideological camps are being pushed further and further away from public discourse in the country. Such gradual repression may lead to a moment where frustrations within Turkish society may explode and lead to a political crisis that may have serious consequences for the country. At the moment, the current AKP regime is not seeking to patch up these divisions.

About Author

Leon Aslanov

Leon Aslanov holds an MSc in International Public Policy from University College London. He is a researcher and political analyst with an in-depth knowledge on the languages, societies and politics of the South Caucasus, Turkey, Iran and the surrounding region. His specific research interests lie in conflict resolution, divided societies and history of the aforementioned regions.