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Coup d'état attempt: Turkey’s Reichstag fire?

Damage caused by military helicopter bombardments inside Turkey's parliament near the Turkish military headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, Saturday, July 16, 2016. Burhan Ozbilici / Press Association. All rights reserved.On the
evening of July 15, 2016, a friend called around 10:30pm and said that both
bridges connecting the Asian and European sides of Istanbul were closed by
military barricades. Moreover, military jets were flying over Ankara skies. As
someone living on the European side of Istanbul and commuting to the Asian side
to my university on a daily basis and spending many hours in traffic in order to
do that, I immediately knew that the closure of both bridges was a sign of
something very extraordinary taking place.

To
confirm the news about the military jets over Ankara, I called my parents in
Ankara. They answered the phone in a panic. I could hear military jets from the
other end of the phone. Not surprisingly, my 86-year-old parents had
experienced military coups in Turkey before. As I was talking breathlessly with
my Dad, my Mum murmured from the other line calmly but firmly: “this seems like
a coup d'état.”

From
that point onwards, all hell broke loose especially in Ankara and Istanbul. The
death toll in less than 24 hours after the coup attempt in Turkey is over 200.
There are thousand of people who are wounded. Twitter and facebook became
inaccessible during the early hours. The tv channels started broadcasting live
from Ankara and Istanbul: yet, they were not sure what was going on at the
outset. Shortly after, the military released a statement saying that the
“military has seized all power in Turkey” through the state tv channel TRT.
That is when I could not stop my tears, for memories flocked back of the
September 12, 1980 coup d'état when a similar announcement was made. I
had experienced that coup as a student in one of the most politically active
universities in the country, the Middle East Technical University. The
memories, as for many people of my generation, were painful.

Last nail in the coffin of critical thought

Within
two hours, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was live on FaceTime on
Turkish  CNN (CNN Türk). His face could
be seen on tv screens as it appeared on the phone held in the hand of the CNN
Türk anchor. He issued a statement in this manner and urged the people to go to
the public squares and the airport and defend the nation. Soon afterwards,
there were echoes of calls to prayer from multiple minarets although it was not
prayer time. I read later that there were also calls for action by Imams
against the military urging people to take to the streets.

Joining
the echo of the calls to prayers were the loud noises of military jets flying
over Istanbul skies. The combination of these sounds made me think that yes,
these were the sounds of the funeral of free speech, critical thinking, and any
other remnants of liberal democratic process in Turkey. I realized in fear and
agony that whether the coup was successful or not, one thing was certain: there
would no longer be room in Turkey for people who can listen, read, analyze, and
think critically. With the siren-like echoes of calls to prayer and military
jets, Turkey was becoming a land only for true believers.

This did
not happen suddenly. With the crackdown on media, academic freedoms, random
arrests, and the increasing violence in the southeast provinces, citizens in
Turkey have been facing major limitations on their basic freedoms for the past
few years. The attempted coup d'état of July 15 is like the last nail in the
coffin. Lying dead in the coffin was the courage to use one’s own understanding
(as in Sapere Aude) that relentlessly
resisted the rising tide of categorical thinking typical of true believers.

Sight of a parliament in ruins

The
damage that was inflicted on the parliament building in Ankara was huge. Many
of its major halls and corridors are in ruins. The sight was reminiscent of the
Reichstag fire in Germany that took place on February 27, 1933, about a month
after Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor. The similarities are not limited to
the visible damage of both parliament buildings. The Reichstag fire was also a
last nail in the coffin of the possibility of basic freedoms as well as critical
thinking in Germany. On the evening of the Reichstag fire, Chancellor Hitler
was relaxing at a dinner party in Joseph Goebbels’ home. The fire was soon
blamed on a demented Dutch Communist named Marinus van der Lubbe who had a
record of crimes of arson. The reality behind the Reichstag fire was not even
clarified during the Nuremberg trials. Still, there was a lot of evidence that
pointed to the responsibility of the Nazis behind it. But what was important
was not so much who set fire to the Reichstag but rather what came out of it.

On the day following the Reichstag fire, juridical order was suspended by the Decree
of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State (Verordnung
des Reichspräsidenten zum Schutz von Volk und Staat
). The decree involved
the suspension of seven sections of the Constitution which guaranteed
individual and civil liberties. The decree authorized the government to take
complete control in the federal states and impose the death penalty for a
number of crimes. In fact, Goering wanted to hang the arsonist on the spot right
after his arrest. Today, I heard one journalist ask the Prime Minister on live
television whether they were thinking of bringing back the death penalty in the
aftermath of the attempt at a coup d'état. The Prime Minister responded
by saying that they will consider every need for extra preventive measures. He
also seemed to praise the violent mobs who took to the streets to oppose the coup d'état.

The
Decree following the Reichstag Fire led to emergency measures that created a
state of exception. It suspended the personal liberties listed in the Weimar
Constitution, including the rights of personal freedom, freedom of opinion,
freedom of the press, freedom of organization and assembly, and privacy of communication.
The Decree was followed by the Enabling Act (23 March 1933) which enabled the
cabinet to enact laws without the participation of the Reichstag. In sum, it
led to the consolidation of the Nazi regime (See:
Ayşe Kadıoğlu  “Necessity and State of
Exception: Turkish State's Permanent War with its Kurdish
Citizens”
in Riva Kastoryano (ed), Turkey Between
Nationalism and Globalization
, Routledge, 2013). There are already signs of
the suspension of the juridical order with dozens of members of the Council of
State and Court of Cassation taken into custody in less that 24 hours after the
coup état
attempt.

I
could not help but remember the days when the expression “consolidation” denoted
the consolidation of democracy and the issues surrounding it in the literature
on democratization in Turkey. After July 15, we now talk about the
consolidation of a new type of authoritarianism in Turkey. Some call it
competitive authoritarianism (See; Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu, “Rising Competitive Authoritarianism in Turkey,” Third World Quarterly, 19 February
2016).

Fascism: conservatism made
popular and plebeian

There
is no doubt that we are witnessing the consolidation of a new form of
authoritarian regime with a populist streak. I cannot help but remember a quote
by Barrington Moore (Social Origins of
Dictatorship and Democracy
, Beacon Press, Boston, 1966 [1993], p.447): “…fascism
is inconceivable without democracy or what is sometimes more turgidly called
the entrance of the masses onto the
historical stage. Fascism was an
attempt to make reaction and conservatism popular and plebeian, through
which conservatism, of course, lost the substantial connection it did have with
freedom…”. 

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