How coups have Pakistan and Turkey inching towards puritanical Islamism

If a successful coup in 1977 promoted Islamism in Pakistan, a failed coup seems likely to have the same effect in Turkey. Turkey’s failed coup has highlighted how far that country’s political choices have shifted towards the religion-based right, the way the entire frame of Pakistan’s politics shifted towards Islamism during General Zia-ul Haq’s regime in the 1980s.

People take selfies after soldiers involved in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey on 16 July 2016.  Reuters

People take selfies after soldiers involved in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey on 16 July 2016. Reuters

Now that the coup has been defeated and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed his one-time mentor Fathullah Guelen, he has opened the way to fill the ranks of his country’s army with loyalists who endorse his relatively orthodox Islamism. The coup gives him a reason to purge the army not only of officers sympathetic to Guelen but also staunch secularists.

The way the attempted coup has been projected, Erdogan has sought to narrow the choice in Turkey between the Islamist politics of Erdogan and the relatively Sufist base of Guelen. In the political arena, Kemalist secularism does not seem to have much space. From Erdogan to the Istanbul street, Guelen has been named as the likely coup organiser. There is little talk of secular politics – of which the army was hitherto seen as the bastion.

This could well mark the sort of shift that took place in Pakistan a few decades ago. The Pakistan Army, which had been encouraged to be secular and liberal under General Ayub Khan, was 'Islamised' during General Zia’s years in power. So was the country’s politics. By the time Zia’s decade in power ended in a 1988 plane crash, Pakistan’s political choices too had been generally linked to one sort of Islamist group or another.

It was General Pervez Musharraf who came to represent a relatively secular alternative when he seized power in 1999. After Zia, Nawaz Sharif inherited the support of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which formed the core of Zia’s support. To counter Jamaat’s influence, Benazir Bhutto propped up the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman.
Over the past couple of years, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) led by Selahattin Demirtaş has represented the minority Kurds, along with the country’s avowed secularists. The fact that the latter had to link their political fight with that of Kurds is an indicator of how weak secular politics had become.

Modern Turkey was established by the staunchly secularist Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Although he is still acknowledged as the father of the modern nation, Ataturk’s legacy appears to have been overwhelmed. Relatively wealthy urban residents – the sort who participated in the Gezi Park resistance against a park being cut for a high-rise in 2013 – are the flag-bearers of secularism in today’s Turkey.

Erdogan has spoken openly about a return to Islamic norms and to Turkey’s Caliphate. His regime promotes such symbols of Islam as the head-scarf, which were strongly discouraged by Kemal’s version of modernism.

Ironically, Guelen was once seen as Erdogan’s mentor. He represents a relatively liberal Sufist version of Islam, and has apparently been uneasy about the more puritanical Islamism that Erdogan now represents. In fact, Erdogan’s politics is closer to the Islamism of the Egyptian Brotherhood – and the royal family of Qatar.

Guelen, who lives in self-exile in the US, runs an extensive network of schools and other institutions across Turkey. The coup attempt on Friday night demonstrates that he has a wide following in the ranks of the army. Army units tried to take over installations across the country.

The popular resistance to the coup demonstrates that, in the minds of most Turks, Erdogan represents Turkish nationalism. Although the coup was not seen as a foreign plot, people generally rallied to the established government. It surely helped that Erdogan had purged many pro-Guelen officials and army officers. More have been arrested on Saturday after the coup attempt.

The political spectrum in countries like Iraq and Iran has already been largely limited to religion-based options. Although the Iraqi government is meant to be secular, it has earned the ire of Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis. Both view the regime as essentially Shia, backed by important seats of Shia religious authority.

Although Bashar al-Assad of the secularist Baath party remains President of Syria, the wars there have alienated most Sunnis and Kurds of that country too from his regime. The Salafist Islamic State controls large slices of territory in both Iraq and Syria.

The portents for that entire region are towards more authoritarian regimes, far more informed by religion-based politics.

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Updated Date: Jul 16, 2016 18:39:48 IST

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