If there was one constant that emerged from the dramatic events of last Friday it was that no one wanted a coup in Turkey. For a country deeply divided along multiple lines, the rare instance of agreement, however, was short-lived. The failure of the coup has produced even deeper fractures in Turkish society and pushed the country further along an increasingly inexorable path to conflict between its Islamists and secularists.
Nowhere was this troubling reality more acute than in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. For decades, Taksim has been a symbol of Turkish secularism and a mustering point for anti-government protesters. In its centre stands a monument to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish nation, who ruthlessly excised Turkey of its Ottoman-era Islamic institutions and forcefully set the nation on a secular trajectory, banning religious expression from public life.
Islamists took their revenge on Saturday night. Basking in the glory of the failed coup tens of thousands flocked to the square, waving Turkish flags alongside banners emblazoned with the Shahada, the Islamic profession of faith. Young men climbed atop the Atatürk monument, using a statue of the hard-drinking national hero as a footrest and shouting Islamic slogans.
Billed as a “democracy festival” by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, the celebrations quickly took on the tone of hero worship and religious fervor. “Tekbir!” one person in the crowd would shout, prompting a chorus of “Allahu Akbar!” Songs glorifying Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, blasted through speakers rolling through the square on trucks and buses.
“We will do anything our leader asks of us,” many sweating demonstrators declared.
Indeed, the failed coup demonstrated just how loyal Erdogan’s supporters are. On Friday night, as coup-makers in tanks and fighter jets roamed the streets and skies of Istanbul and Ankara, the Turkish capital, Erdogan took to the airwaves, calling on his followers to confront them. Thousands of mostly unarmed civilians flooded the streets, harnessing the power of social media—a platform Erdogan has called a “scourge” and banned repeatedly—to organize assaults on the putschists.
In Taksim Square, no more than a dozen bewildered young soldiers surrounding the Atatürk monument were encircled by hundreds of protesters. They shouted and taunted while a group of two dozen or so police officers loyal to the government watched.
Predictably, the situation turned violent. The soldiers fired into the air to disperse the crowd, which scattered momentarily but then, realizing the soldiers would not fire on them directly, became more emboldened.
The scene was repeated throughout the city: soldiers unwilling to fire on civilians were disarmed and dragged to waiting police officers for arrest. Crowds mounted tanks and pulled their operators out of their turrets.
In some instances, things turned bloody. By the early hours of Saturday morning, reports began to emerge of soldiers opening fire on civilians and civilians in return attacking soldiers. In total, more than 290 people were killed, 100 of whom were soldiers participating in the coup, including one decapitation, Turkey’s foreign ministry said.
By late Saturday morning, a surreal calm had settled over Istanbul. Taksim Square and the adjoining Istiklal Caddesi, a commercial thoroughfare normally teeming with people, were empty. People stayed home, glued to their televisions, where they were told the failed coup had been a plot hatched in the U.S. by the exiled moderate preacher Fethullah Gülen.
The Gülenists, Erdogan told Turks, were a dark force lurking in the shadows of Turkey’s national institutions working to overthrow the government. It was Gülen sympathizers, for instance, who had wiretapped senior officials of the ruling AK Party and its supporters in 2014, including Erdogan’s own son, exposing massive corruption inside the party. They had infiltrated the judiciary, Erdogan’s loyalists claimed, including the Constitutional Court, preventing Erdogan from implementing some of his more controversial reforms.
Within hours of the failed coup, 140 senior judges, including 48 members of the Council of State, one of the country’s highest judicial institutions, had been arrested. One Constitutional Court judge was charged with colluding with the putschists and taken into custody. A staggering 2,475 lower court judges were removed from their positions.
The military was not spared the purges. By last count, 2,839 military personnel have been placed under arrest, including a reported 70 generals and admirals, a four-star general, the highest military rank in the country, among them. And the sweeps continue. This week, the government reportedly fired 8,000 police officers.
To many Turks, including Gülen, who has accused Erdogan of staging the coup, it all sounds too convenient. Unanswered questions have left many wondering what exactly happened. If this was a genuine coup, they wonder, then why did the plotters take so long to attempt an arrest of Erdogan, giving him the chance to escape his holiday home in the Aegean resort city of Marmaris? Why did they take over Turkey’s national broadcaster, the TRT, and not the more popular television stations, which were then quickly used by the government to broadcast its own version of events? Why would the plotters bomb the Turkish parliament, an action never before seen in Turkey’s long history of coups? And if this truly was the action of a small faction inside the military, as Binali Yildirim, the Turkish prime minister, had claimed during the early hours of the coup, then why have so many senior commanders been arrested?
“The swiftness and scope of the action of the executive branch was remarkable,” Cangiz Candar, a senior Turkish journalist who has witnessed all of Turkey’s coups, noted in Al Monitor. “It gave the impression that Erdogan and the government were prepared for a coup attempt and had ample intelligence as to who in the state system would be associated with it.”
Erdogan supporters have come back with their own conspiracies, accusing the CIA of playing puppet master to the Gülenists. Why, they ask, will the U.S. not turn over Gülen, who has lived in rural Pennsylvania since 1999, to Turkish authorities for prosecution? Clearly, they add, he is protected.
The accusations, which have been made by senior AK Party members, have ruffled feathers in Washington and strained the relationship between the countries. Turkish demands for Gülen’s extradition have been met by requests from U.S. authorities for “unassailable evidence” that the 75-year old preacher has broken Turkish law.
On Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told his Turkish counterpart “public insinuations or claims about any role by the United States in the failed coup attempt are utterly false and harmful to our bilateral relations,” according to a transcript of the telephone conversation released by the State Department.
In Taksim, these conspiracies have become all the rage on both sides of Turkey’s political divide. For Erdogan’s conservative supporters celebrating in Taksim Square, the coup attempt was a clear sign of an attempt by Western powers to prevent the rise of political Islam.
“Turkey has historically been the leader of the Islamic world,” Alper Aydogdu, a 27-year-old taxi driver told Maclean’s during Saturday night’s celebrations. “The U.S. and Europe fear us and our leader. But they cannot stop us. It won’t be long before Europe comes to us begging to be friends.”
Down Taksim’s labyrinthine side streets, where Turkey’s secularists find refuge in bars and cafés, the mood was much less boisterous. For the few patrons who braved the Islamist wave in the Square, the failed coup marks a dangerous turning point for their country. Very few supported the actions of the plotters and accuse them of gifting Erdogan with the excuse he needs to crush the last vestiges of resistance to his absolute rule.
“The winner is Tayyip, not the public,” Fezai Kilic, a 50-year-old businessman said, sipping a beer alone in a bar in Nevizade, Taksim’s bar street. “The ruling party will be much more undemocratic now. ”
Others see a frightening subtext in the way Erdogan handled the response to the coup attempt. Calling his supporters out onto the streets to confront armed soldiers, they say, was a cynical attempt to transform them into a kind of people’s army, a move that could have dangerous consequences down the road.
“He used the mosques to call the people out to jihad,” says one Turkish aid worker, requesting anonymity. “How is that democratic? These people now feel powerful. I even saw Syrian refugees celebrating. What do they know about Turkish politics? They have become Erdogan’s own personal army.”
Indeed, the mass celebrations have left Erdogan’s critics dazed. From a democratic perspective, they were unsettling, noted Erkam Bora, a 44-year-old doctoral candidate in art history. Over the past three years, Turkey’s secularists have tried to demonstrate against their president’s increasing authoritarianism only to be met by tear gas, water cannons and arrest. Not so his supporters.
“Celebrate democracy, that’s fine,” Bora said. “But if Erdogan’s supporters can go out onto the streets peacefully without facing long lines of police in riot gear why can’t we? Isn’t that what democracy means?”
But in Taksim Square, where Saturday night’s “democracy festival” picked up again in full force on Sunday night, the mood bordered on the euphoric. The few police officers present chatted with demonstrators and took selfies with head-scarved teenage girls. On this night the Islamists owned the Square. Only one secularist mounted a counterprotest, a lone teenage girl walking defiantly through the crowd with a beer in her hand. No one paid her any attention.