The world is, and has always been, a dystopia. There is no such thing as a perfect or flawless government, and any doctrine or ideology that entices people with the promise of a paradise on earth is flawed and demonic; the Devil tempted Adam with a “Dominion that would never end.” Democracies, liberal or otherwise, are profoundly imperfect systems. Monarchies are also flawed in many ways, but kings are far less susceptible to corruption, given their vast wealth, than elected leaders who often emerge from the petty bourgeois, with natural predilections to social status and ladder-climbing that invites corruption. Despite that, historically, many anti-monarchical movements were motivated by the decadence of monarchs out of touch with the people and ruling the moribund and collapsing empires of Europe and the East. Many of these rebels were well-intentioned people but became pawns in the hands of others with more nefarious schemes. The Ottomans were one of the great empires brought down by fifth columns from within that were often working in tandem with Western powers.
Recently a coup was attempted in Turkey that immediately provided fodder for conspiracy theories, even among people who usually are not prone to such theories. One such theory making the rounds postulates that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan planned the attempted coup himself in order to solidify power, an absurd assertion even in light of what we already know. As “evidence” of this assertion, it was immediately claimed the attempt was half-baked and inconsequential. Does this really make sense given that F16s were mobilized from NATO bases, major television stations were taken over, bridges were secured, and both Ankara and Istanbul had curfews imposed? Even major Western news magazines such as Time and Newsweek acknowledged that the coup was extremely well-planned and almost succeeded. Claims that Erdoğan’s party, the AKP, is using it to consolidate power and remove all opposition from the army, the judicial branch, and the education system, is to speak hastily without the facts at hand; more pertinently, it ignores entirely the reality facing those in power who may still be threatened by subversives yet to be identified. It is far too early for all the facts to emerge. The country is still in shock, and the leaders of the democratic government, with the proven support of most of its people, are trying to restore order and ensure that the democratic system of Turkey is not compromised again.
What is tragic is that except for a handful of countries, including Sudan, Qatar, and Morocco, the democracies around the world did not show immediate support for Turkey’s democratically elected government. The American administration clearly was waiting to see what would happen; whether it had prior knowledge of the coup attempt or not is fodder for conspiracies. Given our history of involvement in coups and coup attempts, including in Iran, Argentina, and Cuba, such a theory may not seem preposterous, but without solid evidence, we should refrain from such theories that threaten longstanding alliances of friendship and cooperation. At least President Obama came out in strong support of Turkey’s government once it was clear the coup had failed—late, but a good sign, nonetheless.
Again, as democracies go, Turkey has been less flawed than most others in the past decade, with an economic record that is the envy of most of the world’s nations. In my many visits here, I have always found it to be a clean, beautiful, prosperous, and safe country. One only had to hear, in the midst of the coup attempt with all its uncertainty, the response of a BBC correspondent who was asked by his colleague in London whether he was scared; he replied that he felt safer in Turkey, even amidst the chaos of the coup, than he did in London, and mentioned the warmth of the Turkish people. This put the lie to the historical “cruel Turk” trope, a long-standing and vicious Western stereotype. One only need read the 18th century reflections of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the English Ambassador to Turkey, to see how extraordinary even late Ottoman culture was. She learned from the Turks about smallpox inoculation and took the procedure back to England, where Edward Jenner is still credited as being the pioneer of the vaccination. Moreover, anyone who has experienced Turkish hospitality and warmth knows that those bigoted beliefs about the Turks are apocryphal.
In my own assessment of Western reporting on the recent coup attempt, I consider it flawed and misleading. Asked to speak to a crowd in Konya the night after the coup occurred, I told several thousand Turks who had assembled in support of their country’s democracy, “Civil society is a precious gift and one that must be protected. Turkey has one of the most civil societies I have ever lived in.” In my estimation, only Japan and Oman rival it. I went on to explain that democracy is susceptible to the tyranny of the majority, as there will always be people who did not support or vote for the elected leaders. “The way for those who are not happy with the current a government,” I said, “is to work to oust them when the next election cycle comes around again. That is how democracy works, like it or not.”
The overthrow of a government the majority of people support, even a government that some may think is bending the law or dismissing dissent (something many in America believe happens too often there), is recklessly callous, criminal, and treasonous. Hence, the perpetrators of any coup attempt must be brought to justice as a deterrent for anyone contemplating treasonous actions. I don’t have the information the Turkish intelligence has, nor do the American media. Nevertheless, the vilification and even demonization of President Erdoğan, despite his immense popular support at home, that has been relentless for sometime in our Western press is thoughtless and biased, and reinforces the view that it is motivated by an antipathy toward Islam.
The irony is that President Erdoğan is not the Islamist that Western media have portrayed him to be. He is the secular head of a nation that asserts the rights of all Turks irrespective of their creed, race, or even sexual orientation. President Erdoğan, by all measures, is a devout Muslim attempting to navigate modernity and live his faith in the context of secularity. His party has helped Turkey move away from French laicism toward a more American model of secularism that allows for public display of religion and guarantees the right of a politician to say that, indeed, faith does inform his decisions. Nonetheless, he is not calling for Shariah law, he is not seeking a one-party system, and he is certainly not a dictator by even the loosest definition of that term. Even his desire to increase the executive powers of the president’s office is simply to move toward an American model as opposed to the current European one. He has undeniably opened up Turkish society in ways unthinkable only ten years ago. Most people, especially the previously persecuted devout Muslims, feel freer now in Turkey than they did under the laicism of previous governments when even wearing a headscarf was banned.
As far as I’m concerned, President Erdoğan showed immense valor in the face of great danger, risking his personal safety for the safety of his country’s institutions. He could have easily fled to a safe haven, but, instead, he chose to put his own life on the line by taking to the streets and setting the very example of what he was asking of his people. His popular support is palpable, and, despite the snide and cynical barbs of Western journalists about his “Ottoman-like” pomp, I can attest personally to his genuine and natural humility. At this stage, in light of the extenuating circumstances, he deserves to be given the benefit of our doubt. Our own Western culture and civilization owe a great deal to the Ottoman Empire, and while the Ottomans are gone, their great people, the Turks, are alive and well, and thriving in a democratic country of great industry and diversity. They deserve our best wishes and our support for their recently threatened democracy. Much disinformation and misinformation is being spread about Turkey and its leaders, but from the ground it looks cool, calm, and corrected.