Turkey’s Coup Is A Nail In The Coffin Of Democracy, Says Top Turkish Novelist


Elif Shafak is a Turkish novelist and essayist whose celebrated works include The Bastard of Istanbul and The Architect’s Apprentice. The WorldPost spoke with her in the wake of the coup attempt in Turkey.

In the end, as the public poured in the streets to resist the military, there appeared little public support for the coup despite the deep polarization in Turkish society that has resulted from Erdoğan’s steady march toward strongman powers. Why was that?

The coup attempt was a terrible tragedy that caused hundreds of people to die and made everything worse. In one night, Turkey went 20 years back. This will leave deep scars in the society that won’t heal for decades to come. The last thing Turkey needs is a military dictatorship. Turkey’s intellectuals opposed the coup. In order to understand our antipathy against coups, one must bear in mind Turkey’s political history. This is a country that has gone through three military takeovers, each worse than the one before. The 1960, 1971 and 1980 coups all shattered democracy and generated massive human rights violations. Today, even people who do not like the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, will defend civilian rule against any possible coup because we do not want yet another military dictatorship. 

On the one hand, it was admirable that many people went out on the streets to stop the tanks. On the other hand, there is the danger of “mass psychology,” which could easily go awry. Social media today is throbbing with jingoism, anger, hate speech. Even journalists, writers, poets, intellectuals are under attack by people looking for “traitors.” From now on there will be a further increase in nationalism, religiosity, intolerance, paranoia, and, of course, masculinity. 

‘All these power struggles have ruined what little chance for democracy this sad, lonely country ever had.’

It is understandable that the military would be purged after a coup attempt, but why the judiciary? What is the connection?

The AKP government sees the coup attempt as a major operation against them. They think there is a sinister organization with connections inside different state apparatuses. That is why thousands and thousands of people in the judiciary and police forces have been sacked, removed, detained. The problem is, while some of these people might sympathize with the putschists, many others are probably completely innocent and had no clue what was happening. And that is very scary. Everyone and everything is lumped together. At times of enormous political turbulence such as this, nuances are easily lost. “Are you one of us or are you one of them?” This is the only question hovering in the air. Who is “us” and who is “them” you cannot even begin to question. We are heading into a Kafkaesque world. 

For those of us outside Turkey, blaming the coup on Fethullah Gülen, an elderly cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania, seems odd. Is there any truth to this charge in your view?

"In one night, Turkey went 20 years back," Elif Shafak said of the coup attempt. “In one night, Turkey went 20 years back,” Elif Shafak said of the coup attempt. 

I don’t know whether he is personally involved in the coup, but it is clear that many of the putschists were army officers connected with the Gulen community. Some veteran journalists, such as Ahmet Sik, have made extensive research on these connections. We need more objective research in order to understand fully. Whoever was behind the coup, I strongly condemn. The Parliament was bombed with elected representatives inside, civilians were shot, low-ranking soldiers were used as pawns, hundreds were killed… how could any of these be accepted? Whoever did this, they drove a nail into the coffin of Turkish democracy.  

What is the Gulen brand of Islam and what is the basis of the split with AKP and Erdoğan?

The two were close companions in the past, and then they have had several fundamental splits with regards to both domestic and foreign policy issues. The Gulenists talked about interfaith dialogue, encouraged education. But in the meantime, some of them tried to infiltrate the state institutions, purging opponents who dared to criticize them, even arresting critical journalists. There was a sharp contradiction between what they said they believed in and what was happening behind the scenes. And no transparency. All of these were totally unacceptable. It is wrong for a faith-based community to be so deeply involved in the state apparatuses. I am very critical of the AKP’s authoritarian tendencies, however, there’s a major difference: the AKP is elected by the people. Whereas the Gulenists are not elected or anything, and yet they still want to govern behind the doors. This is totally wrong. For me the gist of the story is that power corrupts and the struggle for power equally corrupts. I personally do not want any group in Turkey to be too powerful because whoever has a bit of power craves more and then more and is never enough. All these power struggles have ruined what little chance for democracy this sad, lonely country ever had.

‘This used to be a country with aspirations to join the EU. Right now, it clearly feels like yet another chaotic place in the Middle East.’

Looking at the event in historical terms, was this failed coup attempt the last gasp of Ataturk’s secular vision of Turkey? Democracy has been saved, but it will be an illiberal democracy? 

There was already a rise in illiberal democracy in Turkey. There was already a rise in authoritarianism. The country was already sliding backwards and now this! The ballot box in itself is not enough to render a system a “democracy.” A true democracy needs separation of powers, rule of law, freedom of speech, women’s rights, LGBT rights, free and diverse media and independent academia. Without all these institutions and values you can only have “majoritarianism.” And majoritarianism is not the same thing as democracy. 

What is your fear and hope for Turkey now? 

There is more to fear at the moment than to be hopeful for. Turkey is a beautiful country, sui generis in many ways, but the social and political changes are deep, scary. This used to be a country with aspirations to join the EU. Right now, it clearly feels like yet another chaotic place in the Middle East. Turkey’s liberals and democrats are the loneliest minority in this land. If you do not want to belong in any group, tribe, party or community, you will be misunderstood by everyone. How can one become and remain an individual in a society that has no room and no respect whatsoever for individuality?