As crowds chant calls for the execution of those involved in the failed coup in Turkey, there are fears that this once-secular country is decisively turning the corner towards full scale Islamisation. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using the attempted military takeover to justify a purge of state officials and army officers who do not give him total obedience, opening the door for him to establish an all-powerful presidency while seemingly Islamising Turkish society to a degree not seen since the fall of the Ottomans.
The purge continued at full throttle on Monday with the sacking of 8,000 police and 30 governors as well as 52 high ranking civil servants. This is in addition to 70 admirals and generals along with 3,000 soldiers and 2,700 members of the judiciary fired or detained since the coup failed on Saturday.
As pro-coup forces were rounded up over the weekend, there were parades of religious zealots in the streets chanting “Allahu Akbar” as giant speakers in Taksim Square in central Istanbul blasted out verses from the Koran. Appeals from Turkey’s 85,000 mosques played a significant role in mobilising popular protests in the hours after the coup began. In Gezi Park in Istanbul, the centre of secularist and liberal protests against Mr Erdogan’s authoritarian rule three years ago, was now filled with crowds loyal to the President.
The increasingly Islamist mood is already influencing social mores in Istanbul. Selin Derya, 26, who works for a business head hunting company, says that since pro-Erdogan crowds flooded into city centre in the aftermath of the coup “I am frightened of going out wearing a dress that some bigot might think is too close fitting or does not like the fact that my skirt ends above the knee.” Another secular woman in Istanbul explained that she does not want to enter the city centre at the moment because she fears harassment by religious extremists.
There have been escalating signs of intolerance of secular lifestyles in recent years, including an attack in June by two dozen men on a music store in Istanbul where they beat up Radiohead fans whom they accused of drinking alcohol during the holy month of Ramadan. When protesters gathered to demonstrate against the attack, they were dispersed by police using tear gas and water cannon.
The programme of Mr Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) since they won their first general election in 2002 has been to reverse the secularisation introduced by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the republic in 1923. As the AKP has tightened its grip on power, it has chipped away at the secular institutions of the state and encouraged the Islamisation of education and social behaviour as well as seeking to cull non-Islamist officials and officers.
Mr Erdogan has said that he wants to see “the growth of a religious generation”, which would replace long-standing secular domination in Turkey. His foreign policy since the Arab Spring in 2011 has been to support the largely Sunni Arab uprising in Syria in alliance with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, though his efforts to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad have so far failed. This strategy included tolerance for extreme Islamist jihadi movements such as Isis, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, enabling them to establish networks of support inside Turkey. However, in the summer of 2015 the Turkish government agreed to let the US and four other states, including the UK, use Incirlik air base in south east Turkey for air strikes against Isis. Gunmen and bombers from the Islamist group attacked Ataturk Istanbul airport in June killing 42 people.
The failed coup will enable the implementation of Mr Erdogan’s long-desired presidential system based on Islamic values. It is unlikely to face much resistance now from people who do not want to be labelled as coup sympathisers. Not only are large numbers of soldiers and officials being arrested, but they are being publicly humiliated by being beaten, forced to strip to their underwear and lie crammed together on the floor of wherever they are being held. The commander of Incirlik air base, Gen Bekir Ercan Van, was shown on film handcuffed and being bundled into the back of a van.
Mr Erdogan is likely to find it easier to create an executive presidency, with all power concentrated in his hands, given that his victorious aura, following the failure of the coup, has enhanced his popular support. Though Turks are deeply divided between his supporters and opponents, few want to see him replaced by a military junta. “He expanded his political base by increased nationalist support after he abandoned peace process with the Kurds after the 7 June general election last year,” said a political observer. “he has even more support now.”
US and EU officials have called on Turkey’s government to respect the rule of law amid the purge of state institutions in the wake of the attempted coup.
As regards the coup plotters, it looks likely that only the movement led by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen would have had the connections within the Turkish armed forces to organise such a widespread conspiracy – although Mr Gulen and his supporters have denied any involvement. This coup may not have been as big as the Government now says it was in order to justify its crack down on all its opponents, but it was still impressively large and was not far from succeeding from seizing power for a few hours on 15 July.
An explanation may be that the Gulenists, when closely allied to Mr Erdogan and the AKP between 2006 and 2012, played a leading role in helping him defang the armed forces. They ruthlessly led a witch hunt inside the army with hundreds of officers removed or arrested accused of plotting a coup which probably never existed. The Gulenists appear to have used the opportunity to replace the ousted officers with their own sympathisers who were activated last Friday night to launch a coup of their own.