Telling stories about Turkey's failed coup

Who was behind the events of July 15, 2016? It depends who you ask. 

Though both mark the anniversary of the failed coup as a National Day, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) have developed competing narratives about who was responsible. And there is of course a third view. 

The AKP’s take, the official government view, presents the events of that night as a putsch attempt organised by the movement led by U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen and backed by Western powers, particularly the United States. Yet simply reminding citizens that coups are bad for democracy is not enough for the AKP, which also aims to confer additional legitimacy on the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Thus, the AKP argues that July 15 is to Turkey’s Islamists what the 1922 Turkish victory at Izmir or Atatürk’s 1919 landing in Samsun are to Kemalists - dates that herald the birth of a new republic. Islamists have begun to develop a grand narrative around the failed coup to help consolidate their hold on power and mark an historical turning point, a break from the secular past that solidified the Islamist-Erdoğanist government.

Embracing this view means embracing Erdoğan and the AKP, which is indeed a horrible scenario for Turkish secularists. Aware of the ideological intentions of the AKP, the Kemalist CHP takes a different view, pointing out that Erdoğan has prevented any investigation into the political side of the failed coup.

They have a point: thus far, investigations into the failed coup and related trials have focused on bureaucrats and military officers, without mention of any politicians. As a result, the CHP argues that the coup plotters’ political connections remain unknown.

The not-so-subtle suggestion of the CHP narrative is that key figures within the AKP, which was long allied with the Gülen movement, took part in the failed coup. The CHP hopes to craft a narrative that paints all Islamists, from the Gülenists to the AKP, as coup plotters. Just as the AKP argues that the failed coup marked the end of the reign of the secularist military (and its “parallel state” ally), the CHP aims to turn the events of July 15 into a secular victory over the country’s Islamists. 

For the Gülen movement itself, July 15 was Erdoğan’s plot. Some, though certainly not all, Gülenists view the events of that night as a staged coup organised by Erdoğan and his minions. 

Like the CHP, however, the movement is yet to elaborate on the details of its narrative, failing to offer up any evidence, such as names and dates. We still do not know whether Gülen was among those who were trapped on that fateful night. 

The movement likely figures that a better narrative, which would enable legitimate self-examination, is only possible in the post-Erdoğan period. This expectation forces the movement to employ a highly ambiguous narrative.

Another dynamic helps silence alternative intra-movement narratives. For years, the Gülen movement has been dominated by the same clique. Despite bouts of internal criticism and crises like the failed coup, the clique has successfully retained power. Today, it refuses to tolerate any other narrative, labelling internal opposition as traitorous.

Even journalists affiliated with the Gülen movement rarely challenge this leadership group. This explains why none of these reporters have interviewed Gülen about the failed coup, a bizarre reality according to any standard of journalism. Their reporting aims to show how July 15 was a plot by Erdoğan, which helps the inner Gülen clique survive, but probably does not get us any closer to the truth.