While Brian Silverstein was in Turkey to give a keynote address related to his research, conduct fieldwork and visit family, an attempted military coup took place on July 15 in opposition to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, resulting in hundreds of deaths.
Silverstein, associate professor in the UA School of Anthropology and director of the Arizona Center for Turkish Studies, says the coup attempt, involving an apparently small but significant faction within the military, is now being followed by an effort to purge institutions of tens of thousands of people. He noted that officers linked to Turkish cleric and political figure Fethullah Gülen, founder of the Gülen movement, were likely at the core of the coup. Turkey has since formally requested that Gülen, reportedly living in Pennsylvania, be extradited.
It is important to consider the repercussions of the coup attempt, Silverstein said, as Turkey has experienced "rapid and profound changes" and has grown into one of the top economies in the world with important ties to the U.S. and European Union members. He added that the Arizona Center for Turkish Studies is approaching the study of the country in unique ways, "for instance by focusing on issues and groups that have received less attention, like minorities, or environmental questions."
Silverstein, scheduled to return to Tucson from Istanbul on Aug. 15, answered some questions about the coup, what has happened since and what could be next for Turkey.
Q: What is the climate since the launch of the coup?
A: After a day of hope that President Erdogan would try to be more inclusive after the solidarity with him and the government shown by the political opposition, those hopes were shattered as it became clear the president intends to use this to the fullest extent to strengthen his rule. So far, this is starting with a declaration of a State of Emergency for three months (as of July 21), the firing, arrest or administrative leave of tens of thousands of public officials, military and police officers, judges from lower courts, higher courts and even the constitutional court, prosecutors, teachers — the list goes on. Tens of thousands of people who are accused of being connected to Fethullah Gülen have probably lost everything, and the government is clearly preparing for a backlash from them. Remaining security forces are on high alert and leaves have been canceled. Deputies from the ruling party and their supporters are calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty and easing restrictions on citizens’ ownership of side arms.
Q: There has been talk that Turkey could face international isolation as a result. What is the likelihood, and what could that mean?
A: So far world leaders, with the fairly unsurprising exception of Egypt — whose current ruler, Sisi, came to power through a military coup — are all voicing their support for the "democratically elected" government. But many in the European Union and the United States are also calling on the government to respect the rule of law (regarding a backlash and crackdown). Some EU figures have said if Turkey reinstates the death penalty, that's the end of their EU bid (which is obvious, as the death penalty is not allowed in the EU). Erdogan has said his party will consult with the opposition parties on the question of the death penalty, but if such a measure passes in parliament, he says, he will sign it into law.
Q: What about other predictions? What do you see for the future of Turkey, and in what direction might Erdogan attempt to take the country?
A: While there is a general sense of foreboding on the part of opponents of the president and the ruling AK Party about how much he will crush any dissent and further strengthen his own backers, it has to be said that his supporters (probably about 50 percent of the population) are in a righteous jubilation, having prevailed through their numbers and force over a treasonous attempt to oust their (democratically elected) leader. And it has to be remembered that these coup plotters actually bombed the parliament; there can hardly be a move more contemptuous of the rule by the people.
At the moment, concrete predictions are hard to make, as hour by hour we learn about new, major moves by the government. So far it is clear that this is the biggest institutional shakeup in the country's history since the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923. The Republic's first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, presided over massive reforms and transformations involving firings, retirements, closing of institutions, creation of new ones. Not since the 1920s and 1930s has there been such a shakeup. The stated aim is to "cleanse" these institutions of Gülen-linked people. It's clear that there are tens of thousands of them, but it's also probably true that significant numbers of people with no connection to Gülen will be included in the purges, at least initially. How will people prove their innocence? The State of Emergency affects how long people can be held without charge and how courts operate. And then after the purges, who will be hired to fill the vacancies? The best applicants for the jobs? Or supporters of the ruling AK Party and President Erdogan? Many, many people have doubts, and there is a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty.
Q: What does this coup mean for other countries, including the U.S.?
A: The coup attempt happened just as the government was trying to repair relations with certain important regional countries that had become frayed, including Russia, Israel and allegedly Egypt and even Syria. At the moment the government is moving to contain the effects of these events on the economy, mainly markets and the Turkish currency.
In recent years, Turkey has gained importance in the region and beyond as its economy has grown to be one of the 20 largest in the world and the country has intensified its relations with not only Europe and the Middle East, but also Africa and Asia. At the same time, Turkey is a NATO country, and it's often said Turkey lives in a "tough neighborhood," bordering countries including Syria, Iraq and Iran on one side; Greece and Bulgaria in the European Union on another; and Armenia and Georgia and with a water border with Russia and Cyprus. So, Turkey is located right in the middle of our world's most critical dynamics and events. The U.S.' strong and early statements of support for the democratically elected government were extremely important. As the attempted coup is most probably the work of people linked to Gülen, who is residing in the U.S., there is a great deal of outrage toward him, and now his extradition will no doubt come up in most every conversation U.S. officials have with their Turkish counterparts.