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On Point

After Failed Coup, Turkey's President Must Respect Democracy


by Austin Bay
July 19, 2016

In the first critical hours of last week's attempted military coup, the vast majority of Turkish citizens made it clear that when it comes to changing government leaders, they believe in ballots, not bullets.

Every major Turkish political party, including the ethnic Kurdish Peoples Democracy Party, quickly rejected claims by coup spokesmen that the will of the Turkish people sanctioned their attempt to topple President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government.

So, the big message emerging as the initial emergency subsides is this: in crisis, Turks courageously defended their democracy.

That suggests the secular Republic of Turkey, founded by Kemal Ataturk in 1923, has achieved one of Ataturk's most fundamental goals: embedding democratic values in Turkish society. Despite the turmoil and uncertainty, that rates as very good news.

Ataturk is the only person to have turned a culturally Muslim society into a parliamentary democracy. Unfortunately, his achievement is being contested, and the biggest threat comes from President Erdogan, the man the people saved.

I'll get back to that problem in a moment, but first a bit more on Ataturk's goals. Ataturk wanted Turks to become citizens of a free nation living under the secular rule of law -- laws ratified by a popularly elected legislature. Turks would no longer be the subjects of a sultan or dictator who ruled by whim.

Ataturk insisted that Turkish law be secular, not Islamic. That would protect religious freedom and free speech, both rights he thought to be essential to a modern and just society. In 1924, Ataturk abolished the Islamic caliphate as an institution. Little wonder in the 21st century the likes of al-Qaida and ISIS despise him.

In the process of creating the Turkish Republic in the 1920s and 1930s, Ataturk emancipated Turkish women and secured their right to vote. One of the major questions the Arab Spring posed in 2011 is how to modernize culturally Islamic nations. Islamic State modernity requires a strict seventh- or eighth-century religious social order -- complete with ritual beheadings. Ataturk's model offers a constructive and productive alternative -- and Turks know it.

Which brings us back to last week's coup.

In 2002, current President Erdogan's Justice and Development Party won the national election, and Erdogan became prime minister. The AKP styles itself as a moderate Islamist party -- a traditional values party.

In the 1990s, Erdogan served a jail term for anti-government activities. It embittered him. However, during that same decade, Erdogan said, "Democracy is merely a train that we ride until we reach our destination. Mosques are our military barracks. Minarets are our spears. And domes are our helmets." He has since claimed he was delivering an emotional speech and his views have tempered. He and his AKP Islamists are committed to a secular state. When he visited Egypt in 2011, after the fall of Hosni Mubarak's military government, Erdogan said that he was a devout Muslim but also president of a democracy. Moreover, there was no conflict between his faith and democracy.

However -- and this is a huge however -- since 2009 Erdogan has exhibited increasingly authoritarian tendencies. He diminished the power of the prime minister and made the presidency the most powerful office in the land. Now he has president. As president, he has jailed journalists without cause and arrested scores of military officers on what proved to be spurious charges of anti-government activity.

In the aftermath of the July 2016 coup, he has fired several hundred judges and arrested (at last count) over 6,000 soldiers and police he suspects are loyal to one of his major opponents, Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. Gulen lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan is convinced Gulen's followers staged the coup and has requested his extradition from the U.S. to Turkey. What evidence Erdogan possesses personally implicating Gulen is unknown.

However, Erdogan retained his power because the Turkish people believe in their democracy. If he has any sense of his duties and his place in history, he will curb his quest for personal power and commit himself to protecting the system that saved him.

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