New Myth, Old Conspiracies

The AKP government continues to weave a political mythology around the July 2016 coup attempt in service of its “New Turkey.”

On July 15, 2017, the first anniversary of the foiled coup attempt in 2016, Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square turned into a festival ground. The district municipality allowed many local artisans and craftsmen to set up stands near Gezi Park, the center of the 2013 anti-government protests. The grounds were decorated with a near infinite number of Turkish flags and banners designed specifically for the coup anniversary, reading “15 Temmuz Destanı” (15 July Legend).

The so-called Democracy Festival at Taksim in July 2017. Sergen Bahceci

In the year following the coup attempt, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government disseminated a multi-layered political discourse concerning the meaning of events that took place on July 15, 2016. This post-coup government discourse amounts to nothing less than the attempt to construct a new myth of ethnogenesis, allied with the AKP’s claim, since about 2014, that its political reforms have created a “New Turkey” (Yeni Türkiye)—a floating signifier par excellance. The 15 July Legend attempts to establish this New Turkey though its all-encompassing and conspiratorial reasoning, statist politics, and affective appeal.

Naming the conspiracy as it unfolds

On the night of the coup attempt, Taksim Square was the scene of a major confrontation. Footage recorded by a civilian shows some 20 coupist soldiers, armed and in full uniform, trying to hold their ground near the Republic Monument at the center of the square against a pro-Erdogan crowd that is becoming larger and increasingly agitated. Backed up by a large police contingent, the crowd pleads with the soldiers to drop their arms and surrender. The pleas are mixed in style, some accusing the soldiers of treachery, others chiding them for their gullibility in being misled by their coupist military superiors.

The confrontation reportedly lasted for several hours before the soldiers lost their ground, both physically and discursively. As the commander present was separated from his team, the crowd forcibly confiscated the rifles before delivering the soldiers to the police. On the film, policemen can be seen punching the soldiers as they were taken away amid the roar of coupist F-16 fighter jets overhead.

The events described above evoked and drew on themes and modes of political reasoning produced by the political elite both before and after the coup attempt.

Conspiracies pervade

Immediately after news about military manoeuvres emerged on July 15, 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared on live TV to call the attempted coup a “revolt” instigated by the network of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Formerly allies, the Gulen network became the government’s arch-nemesis following political disagreements in 2013 that culminated in the resignation of four AKP government ministers over corruption charges initiated by Gulenist prosecutors.

A poster celebrating the victory of “people power” over the attempted coup of July 15, 2016. Sergen Bahceci

After December 2013, the government began purging the state of what it termed the “parallel state” of Gulen. The “parallel state,” an extended metaphor of the “deep state,” referred to the suspected network of Gulen loyalists placed in key bureaucratic positions in order to influence the running of Turkey from within. Although reports concerning Gulenist infiltration of the Turkish bureaucracy existed before the AKP-Gulen fallout, the AKP government had been instrumental in covering up investigative reports until 2012. After the hostilities of December 2013, these previously marginalized reports were taken up by “Gulenist hunters,” prosecutors, journalists, and former military officers, as evidence of a state within the State.

July 15, 2016 was officially interpreted within this preexisting framework: the coup was an attempted conquest of the state by Gulen, whose functionaries within the military sought to subjugate democracy by killing pro-government citizens and bombing the Turkish parliament with bunker-buster missiles.

However, within this conspiratorial reasoning, Gulen was also presented as the opportune pawn of a greater “mastermind” whose end goal was Turkey’s demise. At different points, Erdogan and the government implied that this shadowy foe was the United States and the CIA; officials never provided a tangible explanation. Meanwhile, pro-government pundits disseminated sketchy evidence to allege Gulen’s links with the CIA and the United States. Erdogan, and through him the entire nation, already knew who Gulen was, what he was up to, and who was behind him.

Both the governmental officials and the public made sense of the coup attempt by utilizing an already existing and pervasive conspiratorial reasoning. Such suspicious logics are informed by a “search for the Other—for the precise center of sovereign power” (Jenkins 2005). The search, however, can never be empirically completed, as the discovery of this other always risks falsifying what the conspiratorial logic purports to already know.

Emergency states

The AKP has persistently blocked the work of the parliamentary commission from conducting an inquiry into the coup attempt. Instead of examining the matter through legal channels, the government has used its state of emergency powers to purge those it views as conspirators. Executive decrees saw the dismissal of more than 100,000 civil servants in the months following July 2016; purges still take place intermittently. Lists based on reports of “Gulenist hunters” are drawn quickly before a new executive decree dismisses thousands from their jobs. Investigations are hasty and are openly deemed unnecessary by the policy-makers as well as the pro-government public, because we already know the guilt of the perpetrators.

The blocking of legal channels for proper investigations merits an assessment of the government narrative as politically motivated. How does the invocation of a conspiratorial logic further the AKP in its political ends?

Firstly, a conspiratorial logic allows room for ambiguity in narrative. Paradoxically, this is achieved by confessing a lack of knowledge alongside a claim to ultimate knowledge. In the logic of a conspiracy theory, one lacks knowledge about the details while knowing the ultimate truth. The government repeatedly expressed confidence in its knowledge that the Gulen network was behind the coup attempt, yet official confessions simultaneously conveyed uncertainty about the number of Gulen loyalists placed within state institutions.

Certainty about the ultimate enemy and ambiguity about the enemy’s reach mean no act of cleansing can be over-zealous. Initially, the government dismissed and prosecuted tens of thousands of civil servants discovered to be using the messaging app called ByLock. This app was allegedly preferred by Gulenists for its powerful encryption features. However, thousands of civil servants were silently acquitted more than a year later, as the government conceded that ByLock was not just used by Gulen loyalists but unsuspecting citizens too.

Secondly, a conspiratorial logic allows the government to reconstruct the Turkish political cosmos. In denouncing and purging the “conspirators,” the AKP not only claims for itself the possibility of reconstructing the state after its own image, but also reorders the symbolic world that has come to dominate Turkish public life in the early twenty-first century.

The central role of the army in Turkish political life—one of the foundational myths of Turkish modernity—was fundamentally unsettled through the glorification of pro-government “people power” standing against the military. Following the coup attempt, the government swiftly reformed the top military command structure, stripping the chief of general staff of his powers and making army, navy, and air forces directly accountable to the cabinet. In the process, the lynching of ordinary conscripts—who were clearly ordered to the streets oblivious to their superiors’ intentions—is overlooked. “The people” are crowned as sovereign of the New Turkey, although this construct does not connote the entire population of Turkish citizens. Many who suspect the government’s narrative are symbolically excluded from the fold. They are expected to be deferential to the new state and are implicitly asked to reconsider their loyalties.

The government attempts to silence any criticism of its conspiratorial narrative by invoking the memory of the 250 civilians who died resisting the coup attempt. Blood spilled in defence of the nation was already a foundational theme of Turkish nationalism. Today, not only are the fallen glorified, but witness testimonies are used to enforce the narrative that all of those who resisted the Gulenist coup were supportive of the AKP government. Testimonies emphasize the notion that people resisted solely in order to protect the AKP government as the ultimate representative of Turkish democracy. Although many of the fallen were indeed pro-AKP, other people also resisted the coup. This figure of the pro-government supporter is tuned specifically to personify “the people” of a New Turkey, which symbolically excludes many of those who oppose the coup and the AKP government. However, the symbolism surrounding martyrdom, intended to evoke anger towards the enemies and loyalty to the state, leaves little space for the contestation of the mainstream narrative.

Martyrs of a new nation?

The AKP government attempts to weave a political mythology based on the July 2016 coup-attempt in service of its New Turkey. The mythology draws on conspiratorial logics in order to fill the gaps within its narrative. The new myth demands that all Turkish citizens to be convinced of its conspiratorial argument, be politically deferential to the state, and remain emotively charged in their attachment to the New Turkey. The 15 July Legend forms the mythic charter of this New Turkey, whose existence as a discursive tool precedes the coup attempt, although it is being coronated by it. The myth is made as part of a political effort to provide citizens an anchor in AKP’s push for a new collective sense of nationhood.

However, many people in Turkey do not subscribe to the version officially promoted and they accuse the government of paving the way for the coup attempt by aiding the Gulen network between 2002 and 2013. As the results of the April 2017 presidential referendum show— during which the AKP campaigned through the very mythical themes discussed here to argue for a strong executive presidency—about half of voters rejected the New Turkey platform. This shows that top-down attempts at making new myths require persuasiveness, which is not always easy to politically achieve. The early presidential elections on June 24will test the true efficacy of the 15 July Legend. If Erdogan and his AKP fail to retain power, it will be a clear signal that the voters reject not only their policies, but also their framing of what had happened on that terrible night when, regardless of how one frames it, 250 civilians were killed and thousands more injured.

Sergen Bahceci is an Economic and Social Research Council funded PhD student in anthropology at the London School of Economics. His doctoral research is on nationalism, self-making, and state-making in the internationally unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Further Reading.

Candar, Cengiz. 2017. New Turkey: Neo-nationalist or the reincarnation of the ‘Old’? The Turkey Analyst, December 20, 2017.

Kapferer, Bruce. 1988. Legends of People, Myths of State: Violence, Intolerance, and Political Culture in Sri Lanka and Australia. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press.

Sofos, Sypros. 2016. Turkey: of Coups and Popular Resistance. openDemocracy, July 21, 2016

Cite as: Bacheci, Sergen. 2018. “New Myth, Old Conspiracies.” Anthropology News website, May 23, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.869


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