Faces its Iran 1979 Moment
By Soner Cagaptay
Wall Street Journal
July 17, 2016
Turkey is at a pivotal point in its history following the
failed coup attempt of July 15. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having survived
the coup plot, won fresh legitimacy and gained a new ally: religious fervor in
the streets. Mr. Erdogan can use this impetus either to become an
executive-style president, or he can encourage the forces of religion to take
over the country, crowning himself as an Islamic leader.
Though the incremental acquisition of power has been more
his style in the past, the powerful eruption of Islamic support for him over the
weekend may prove too tempting. This is Turkey’s Iran 1979 moment—will a
brewing Islamic revolution overwhelm the forces of secularism?
As the coup plot was unfolding on Friday night, Mr. Erdogan
appealed to religious sentiments in the country, rallying his supporters to
launch a counter-coup. On his orders, calls for prayer were issued from
Turkey’s over 80,000 mosques at 1:15 a.m.—not a time when people are
supposed to be praying. The strategy worked, the call to prayer acted as a call
to political action, and religious Turks took to the streets in defiance of the
secularist military. Together with pro-government police forces, they
overpowered the military’s botched effort.
Since July 15, pro-Erdogan sentiments in Turkey have been
running high. Calls to prayer continue throughout the day (Islam requires only
five calls to prayer at set times daily), reminding religious Turks of their
political duty to stand with the president.
Mr. Erdogan, a politician with an Islamist pedigree, came
to power in 2003 as prime minister and head of the ruling Justice and
Development Party (AKP). At that time, he followed a policy of economic growth
to build a support base. He also moved away from Islamist politics, instead
embracing reform and seeking European Union membership.
After winning electoral victories in 2007 and 2011 on a
platform of economic good governance, however, Mr. Erdogan turned staunchly
conservative and authoritarian.
He now regularly cracks down on freedoms of expression,
assembly and association. He has shut down or taken over media outlets. He bans
access to social media, locks up journalists and sends the police to harass
Mr. Erdogan also promotes efforts to impose religion: In
December 2014, Turkey’s Higher Education Council, a government-regulated body,
issued a policy recommendation that mandatory courses on Sunni Islam be taught
in publicly funded schools to all students, even ones as young as age 6.
In 2014, Mr. Erdogan, acceding to term limits, stepped down
as prime minister and as the head of the AKP. He instead assumed the
presidency—a formerly weak office that he has been steadily transforming. The
coup gives Mr. Erdogan an excuse to press ahead with his plans to cobble
together a parliamentary majority; he intends to amend Turkey’s Constitution
and take over the posts of prime minister and AKP chairman in addition to being
This process, which would make Mr. Erdogan the most
powerful person in Turkey since the country became a multiparty democracy 1950,
fits into his gradualist approach to consolidating power. At the same time, it
presents a risk: In the two most recent elections, Mr. Erdogan’s AKP has maxed
out at 49.5% support, and although the president’s popularity has risen since
the coup, there is no guarantee that this bump will last until the next
elections, which, depending on when Mr. Erdogan calls them, could be as late as
Enter a second, quicker path to power: Islamist revolution.
Erdogan supporters—who took to the streets to defy the coup, and who have
continued to rally throughout the country since then—are not the
garden-variety conservative AKP supporters, but rather Islamists, and even
jihadists. Over the weekend, pro-Erdogan mobs captured and beat soldiers who had
supported the coup. Images were reportedly posted online, in the Islamic State
style, of a soldier who had been beheaded.
Unfortunately, jihadist sentiments in Turkey have become
increasingly noticeable lately, in no small part due to Mr. Erdogan’s
education policy, as well as his Syria policy, which has allowed Islamist
radicals to use Turkey as a staging ground. According to a recent poll by the
Pew Research Center, 27% of Turks don’t view Islamic State unfavorably. Mr.
Erdogan can now harness these forces to usher in an Islamist revolution.
Revolutions don’t require majorities, but rather angry
and excited minorities that are willing to act violently to take power.
Following the failed coup plot, Turkish politics has not settled down. Mr.
Erdogan is still not in charge of the whole country, which is why as of Sunday
afternoon he hadn’t returned to the Turkish capital. It is not yet safe for
him. Religious fervor is running high; mosques continue to call for prayers
throughout the day. Islamists and jihadists who are angry at the military roam
the streets, while most Turks of other political outlooks are scared to leave
If Mr. Erdogan were to pump up religious fervor further, he
could convert the religious counter-coup d’état into an Islamist
counter-revolution, ending Turkey’s status as a secular democracy. Adding to
the temptation is the fact that the military, divided and discredited in the
public eye following the failed coup, is in no position to prevent a
But an Islamist revolution would carry risks. Turkey would
be stripped of its NATO membership, exposing the country to nearby enemies,
including Russia. It would also almost certainly lead to an economic meltdown,
hurting Mr. Erdogan’s power base.
The first scenario, in which Mr. Erdogan uses the coup to
consolidate power, is more likely than the second, but the chances of an
Islamist revolution have never been higher in Turkey.