The Turkish original of this article was published as
Neden darbeyi destekliyorlar? on 26th July 2016.
Three years ago, there was a military coup in Egypt on 3rd July 2013. Previously, the secularist and pro-Western dictator Husnu Mubarak, who had been president for twenty-nine years, had been toppled by the Arab Spring. In the following elections, Morsi, supported by the Muslim Brothers, became the first democratically elected president in Egyptian history. About a year after he was elected, however, he was toppled by the military on the pretext of the demonstrations against him.
In the evening on 15th July 2016, there was an attempt led by a Gulenist group within the military to overthrow Turkey’s democracy. At the end of a twelve-hour struggle throughout the night and into the morning, the putschists were defeated, and the incident became history as an abortive coup.
There are, of course, many aspects and dimensions of these two events that are dissimilar. Yet the reaction of a majority of the Western press and governments to these two military coups, three years apart, is on the whole quite similar. Some journalists and broadcasters have come out in opposition to such coups, and we must give them their due. However, given how “easy” it is (or should be) to take a principled stand against what is, after all, as clear a violation of democracy as a military takeover, the discourse and positions adopted especially by the “mainstream media” as well as various leading political figures comes across as wholly unacceptable.
In both cases, a majority of the Western press and governments started to vie with each other in finding excuses for either coup. Morsi (or Erdoğan), they said, had turned authoritarian, begun to oppress their political and religious minorities, embarked upon destroying rights and liberties, and were aiming at establishing majority dictatorships based on the votes they got. All these were presented by way of justifying the army takeovers, implying that these leaders were getting (or would get) what they deserved. As if this was not enough, they have kept spreading the illusion that compared with the existing, democratically elected governments, the military régimes in question might actually be better when it came to rights and liberties.
In Turkey, for example, even before the coup was suppressed and the danger alleviated, they started to call for the government to refrain from maltreatment, torture or similarly illegal acts against the putschists — as if this was a real possibility. They expressed concern that rights and liberties might be curtailed by using the coup as a pretext. They became worried about the declaration of a state of emergency. They began grieving that Erdogan might come out of all this stronger than ever. If they had only come out in loud and clear opposition to the coup itself, or supported the efforts to repel the military takeover, such cautionary calls might have had some real meaning and value.
In the event, however, they refrained from adopting a clear-cut stance against the putsch, not going beyond half-hearted reproaches with regard to those who staged the coup and even perpetrated some massacres in the process. Neither did they support the popular struggle against the would-be junta; they did not help the anti-coup movement to be heard by, and to gain the sympathy and support of international public opinion. Only now, after everything seems to be over, are we observing a slow change of outlook, though the hard reality is still there out in the open and staring us in the face.
For we do know that on an abstract plane, the same actors are against coups “in principle” — so much so that in some other cases or countries, they have been known to support, even glorify, popular movements against the army.
So why haven’t done as much for Egypt or Turkey? Instead, why have they tended to sympathize with, perhaps even support, these two military takeover attempts?
Several answers are possible, but I believe that two reasons have been most decisive in this regard.
First, the major powers operating in the international arena prefer to support those groups which, through either the official or the “deep” face of their respective states, are likely to cooperate or to form alliances with them When it is a matter of realpolitik, being pro-coup or pro-democracy does not make much difference. Indeed, such powers with operational capabilities in pursuit of their strategic ( military, economic or commercial) interests can easily prefer dictatorships to democracies in these countries or regions.
This is because in democracies, different groups and power balances must be taken into account, and multiple actors, institutions or groups have to be persuaded. Most importantly, in democracies governments have to bear the “burden” and responsibility of getting the people to adopt and support their policy decisions. It can be very difficult to persuade your public opinion to accept decisions in favor of this or that operational power (but perhaps against the interests of their own country), and the outcome is by no means certain. Hence, there is a certain logic to preferring to conduct business with a junta or a dictator or junta who is dependent on you rather than getting “entangled” in democratic decision-making processes.
The media, companies or NGOs supporting such powers or their client governments also fall rapidly in line, trying to promote local or global “legitimacy” and public support for such alignments.
The second answer to our key question has to do with the fact that some players in the West have different standards for Western Europe and for the rest of the world. The ideological background to such current attitudes comprises four main dimensions: Eurocentrism, Orientalism, a Jacobin Enlightenment approach, and Islamophobia as the latest arrival on the scene.
Here the fundamental idea is that Eastern and especially Muslim societies are not on the same civilizational level with the West. The Islamic world does not possess the requisite culture and consciousness for living under a free and democratic regime. These peoples, it is held, are incapable of properly utilizing the rights and liberties provided by democracy. The religious masses, making up the majority of society, are not civilized enough, it is held, and are bound to oppress secular or non-Muslim elements in such “so-called” democracies.
In point of fact, the real concern is that if they were to become democratically self-governing, such “inadequately secular and modern” societies would be likely to “choose badly” by voting to bring in religious-Islamist (rather than modern-secularist) parties.
In brief, as against democratically elected leaders or governments that at the same time happen to be religious or who have religious sensitivities, these Western actors prefer to throw in their support behind all kinds of military coups and dictatorships on condition that they are modern and secularist.
Compared with the faithful trying their hand at democracy, they see the protection and imposition of a Western lifestyle by military dictatorships as the lesser evil. They deem Muslims intrinsically unfit for democracy, and they outsource the mission of training and educating them to modern, secularist military juntas or dictators.
At the end of the day, their prejudices about and fears of Islamic religiosity drag them down, in total denial of their basic values and principles, into a position of preferring military coups to democracy.
My first answer to the question of why they sided with the abortive coup in Turkey is not ethically grounded, though it can still be found meaningful within a realpolitik perspective, as such coup-promoting actors will say that they acted in the interests of their country.
The ethical and intellectual position into which those in the second group have descended is much more pitiful. Saying that you uphold freedom, democracy, and human rights, and then going on to sympathize with or to provide outright support to an emphatically anti-democratic initiative, can in no way be explained or excused. Such groups or attitudes are actually the main culprit behind the surge of anti-Western and indeed anti-democracy sentiments within Muslim societies.
Are Western government or media attitudes that important?
Yes, they are. For they exercise enormous power and have a huge operational capability to change the course of events and influencing the fate of various countries. It is therefore imperative to launch an effective communications and public relations effort to explain the 15th July democracy movement to the outside world, and to obtain the support of Western and international public opinion.