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Narrative Power in Turkey

ISTANBUL – At the end of March, a retrial finally resulted in the acquittal of more than 200 Turkish military officers who had been convicted of plotting a coup in 2003 against the then-newly elected Islamist government. The defendants had been given long prison sentences after the first trial concluded in September 2012, even though the evidence against them was clearly forged. By the time the retrial ended, most observers recognized that the original proceedings had been a sham.

But, until recently, the “Sledgehammer” case – named after the fictitious coup plot – was widely viewed as heralding the long-overdue democratic subjugation of Turkey’s meddlesome military to its elected government. Liberal intellectuals and Western observers applauded the prosecution and hailed it as one of the greatest achievements of the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had since come to power. Now that the case has been shown for what it was – a thuggish government’s attempt to weaken its rivals and consolidate its hold on power – the question is why so many well-intentioned observers got their analysis so terribly wrong.

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My father-in-law was the alleged mastermind of the Sledgehammer plot, so my wife and I found ourselves moonlighting as forensic detectives and political activists. In my five years investigating this bizarre saga, I learned to appreciate the power of narratives. What proved most effective for the government was not brute force, but tales of nefarious activities by Turkey’s secular and military elites, which were contrasted to Erdoğan’s supposed commitment to establishing a democratic (albeit Islamist-tinged) state through a reconstituted judiciary. Grotesque exaggerations based on half-truths, these tales gave Erdoğan and his allies the maneuvering room within which to make the political regime more, not less, authoritarian.

One ally in particular was crucial. The Gülen movement – made up of the followers of the Pennsylvania-based Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen – did the heavy political lifting. The Gülen movement oversaw Sledgehammer and similar trials via its followers in the police and the judiciary, and used its extensive media outlets to craft and disseminate the narrative – built from countless stories of military plots and other malfeasance – on which these cases rested. Its representatives in the United States and Europe lobbied Western politicians and opinion leaders incessantly to vouch for Erdoğan’s democratic credentials.

At the same time, the Gülen movement invested heavily and shrewdly in cultivating Turkey’s Western-oriented intelligentsia. Thus, despite Gülen’s own embarrassing history of anti-Semitic and anti-Western sermons, his followers managed to establish themselves by the 2000s as a civil-society movement that shared Turkish liberals’ values and aspirations.

Gülenists provided resources and networks to Turkey’s liberals, who then lent the movement legitimacy and credibility in the West. When American and European politicians, reporters, and human rights specialists looked for insight on Turkey, they turned to the Gülenists’ liberal beneficiaries, who fed them the established narratives.

What made these intellectuals willing allies of Erdoğan and the Gülenists was their view that the military’s control of state institutions – “military tutelage” – posed the greatest obstacle to democracy in Turkey. For Turkey’s liberals, the weakening of the military’s political influence became an end in itself. It allowed them to overlook (or downplay) the growing list of rights violations and judicial manipulations. And it allowed the Gülenists to play them – for example, by ensuring that damaging leaks from the military (the most egregious of which were fabricated) would be published in liberal outlets first.

The Erdoğan government adopted legislation that lent credence to its false narrative. The European Commission looked with approval on a succession of initiatives – a new penal code adopting “modern European standards,” training programs on the European Convention of Human Rights, expert missions from the European Union, and constitutional amendments seemingly guaranteeing much greater judicial independence.

Unfortunately, as in development economics, mimicking advanced-country regulations and institutions rarely produces the desired results. Form does not guarantee function. But it can help obfuscate reality.

So it was with the Erdoğan government’s “pro-European” reforms, which served mainly to provide political cover for strengthening the Gülenists’ hold over the judiciary. Fooled by appearances, the European Commission continued to assert, year after year, that the military show trials were an opportunity to strengthen the rule of law.

Until recently, the military was widely regarded as Turkish society’s most powerful and cohesive institution. The generals had never been shy about intervening in politics when they felt it necessary.

But a well-honed narrative can be mightier than the sword. The Sledgehammer case and other allegations, false as they were, immobilized the military. Under intense attack by pro-government media, the general staff failed to mount even the slightest public effort on the accused officers’ behalf, even refusing to release an internal report that left no doubt that the defendants had been framed. The top brass did not want to look like they were “aiding the putschists.” Once the narrative was established, even its targets succumbed to it.

Western observers and the bulk of domestic liberals did not give up on Erdoğan until his government’s heavy-handed tactics during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in the summer of 2013. He then broke clumsily with the Gülen movement after its acolytes in the judiciary launched a corruption probe against him and his inner circle.

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Without his Gülenist allies, Erdoğan’s message has become oriented exclusively to a domestic audience, and features heavy doses of populist-religious-nationalist symbolism. Meanwhile, the Gülenists, ever in search of the narrative upper hand, have been presenting themselves to Western audiences as Erdoğan’s victims rather than as his collaborators.

False narratives eventually become unsustainable (with the Internet and social media hastening their demise). But, as in Turkey, a collapsed narrative can leave much debris. And, rather than helping to clear the rubble, Erdoğan and the Gülenists appear determined to use it to build their own new edifices of lies, magnifying the challenge of future political reconciliation.