Neither 9/11 nor its aftershocks resulted in a dramatic shift in the Turkish public sphere. However, the coup attempt of 2016 provoked government measures to rapidly shrink the public sphere. In this post, I explore why it was not 9/11 but the coup attempt of 2016 that turned out to be Turkey’s “9/11 moment.”
Why 9/11 Did Not Hit Turkish Shores
The 9/11 attacks exposed the precariousness of the public sphere. As the United States and many parts of the Western world struggled to come to terms with how such an attack so close to “home” could have happened, Turkey experienced an aftershock in 2003. That year, al-Qaeda terrorists attacked strategic financial, diplomatic, and religious centers in Istanbul. Bombs exploded near a global bank, a consular building, and several synagogues, which collectively led to the death of around 60 people and left more than 750 injured.
Yet, these terrorist attacks did not result in an immediate “post-9/11 mentality” in the Turkish state apparatus. No immediate or restrictive measures were taken to amend the Turkish Anti-Terrorism Law, for example. Neither did the government initiate or double down on its efforts to shrink the public sphere by increasing its surveillance activities. Turkish intelligence no doubt investigated the attacks, as did the Turkish police forces and judiciary, but the political elites and the country hardly experienced a “rally around the flag” moment as was arguably the case in the United States under the Bush presidency. Nor did Turkish legal scholars argue in favor of state-sanctioned torture, unlike some of their American colleagues. In short and on balance, Turkey did not adopt a “post-9/11 mentality“.
How come? Why did Turkey, perhaps surprisingly, not pursue mass surveillance, more intrusive means of monitoring public and private life, as well as tighter anti-terrorism measures during the early 2000s? That Turkey did not give a knee jerk reaction in the face of terrorism, in and of itself, points to a potential flaw in our collective post-9/11 narrative, which is our erroneous tendency to lump the post-9/11 experiences of a multitude of countries in a single basket. That is a mistake. 9/11 itself, as well as its aftershocks, were perceived differently by each and every country, and perhaps especially differently in Turkey for a variety of reasons.
For one, despite resulting in tragic losses, the Istanbul bombings were not comparable in scale to what happened in the United States; hence, my use of the word “aftershock” to describe the Istanbul bombings of 2003. Second, the fact that 9/11 happened on American soil especially shocked the American psyche and, of course, the American military complex, which had not witnessed a foreign attack of such scale since the Pearl Harbor bombings. That was hardly the sentiment in Turkey when the 2003 bombings happened. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Turkey is a Muslim-majority country, which arguably afforded Turkey a distinct advantage over other Western countries struggling with effective and proportionate responses to terrorism perpetrated in the name of religion in the early 2000s: thanks to its Muslim-majority population, as well as its political elites reflecting that demography, Turkey avoided the dangerous pitfall of associating one religion or a particular interpretation thereof with terrorism, thereby also avoiding discriminatory practices on religious grounds in its enforcement of anti-terrorism measures. Fourthly, Turkey was deeply engaged in the now-stalled European Union membership process in the early 2000s, which required relaxing draconian anti-terrorism laws. All of these factors collectively ensured that Turkey did not adopt the “post-9/11 mentality.”
Why the Coup Attempt Was Turkey’s 9/11 Moment
The picture has become less rosy in the years since then, though. Turkey’s knee jerk reaction followed in response to the coup attempt of 15 July 2016, as well as to public disturbances that have happened ever since. Indiscriminate purges within the judiciary and the bureaucracy in response to the coup attempt are a case in point: they went beyond even the government’s stated purpose of ridding the civil service of Gulen-affiliated members, which the Turkish government and judiciary have designated as a terrorist organization responsible for the coup attempt. These purges quickly evolved into a purge of dissidents. In a tacit acknowledgment of its disproportionate reaction, the government set up a quasi-judicial commission tasked with reviewing applications from purged members of the civil service who believe they were unlawfully dismissed from their positions.
Since the coup attempt, there have been numerous government attempts to shrink the public sphere. Two instances stand out. The first involved a Turkish Constitutional Court decision invalidating a provision in the Law on Assemblies and Demonstrations prohibiting the freedom of assembly in inter-city highways. The majority of the Court ruled that the prohibition violated the constitutionally protected right to peaceful assembly, reasoning that in a free and democratic society, as a general rule, people should be allowed to choose the venue in which they prefer to exercise their rights. The ruling prompted harsh criticism from the government, such that the Minister of Interior, known for his polemical tone, chastised the Turkish Chief Justice for the ruling, attacking him for what the Minister considered to be a decision out of touch with reality. “Given that we’re a free country […] you don’t need police protection,” the Minister mockingly commented, addressing the Chief Justice. “Let’s see if you can bike to work! […] I’m ready to drive myself alone [to work]. How about you?” That the ruling prompted such attacks from the government may have to do with the “Justice March” led by the main opposition leader and member of Parliament, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. In 2017, in protest of the post-coup attempt measures taken by the government, he walked from the nation’s capital Ankara all the way to Istanbul — spanning around 280 miles in roughly three weeks, all the while using numerous inter-city highways. Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s march, which some thought was inspired by Gandhi’s Salt March, was an inflection point in Turkish politics in many ways, but first and foremost, it was Exhibit A in demonstrating how the innovative use and the politicization of the public space and sphere — in this case inter-city highways — has the potential to disrupt competitive authoritarian regimes: many dissidents, regardless of party affiliation or politics, clustered around the main opposition leader during his march, marking the first moment of the multi-party coalition against the current government. Add to that the Gezi Park protests of 2013, which loom large in the minds of the ruling party members, who describe the protests as “riots” instigated by Western forces.
The second instance concerns the recent ban on recording video or audio of on-duty law enforcement personnel. The ban was introduced in early 2021 through a ‘circular’ issued by the central police force, that is, through a simple administrative order rather than a law enacted by parliament. This particular prohibition demonstrated an extreme attempt to regulate the public sphere: clumsily based on the justification that video and audio recordings of law enforcement personnel by citizens (especially via smartphones) interfered with the performance of their policing duties. The prohibition purportedly aimed to ensure the orderly performance of law enforcement. The Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, blocked the measure, pending a final review, ruling that the circular appears to be an infringement on the freedom of the press and that all such infringements, in order to be justified, need to be made via law as opposed to administrative measures.
What does this picture tell us about the public sphere in Turkey? Several things:
- Turkey did not experience an immediate shrinking of its public sphere in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, primarily because 9/11 — or more precisely the 2003 bombings in Istanbul that I have referred to as Turkey’s 9/11 “aftershock” — was perceived differently in Turkey than in other parts of the world, including the US.
- The Turkish government’s reaction to the use of public space by protesters deteriorated in terms of its disproportionality, in the aftermath of the coup attempt of 15 July 2016. In this sense, the failed coup attempt was, Turkey’s 9/11 moment, so to speak.
- The government has relied on existing laws (e.g. the now-invalidated provision in the law prohibiting inter-city highway demonstrations) and also enacted its own measures (e.g. the administrative measure prohibiting citizens from recording on-duty law enforcement personnel, which the courts have now blocked, pending their full review) to shrink the public sphere.
- Despite this grim picture, as the two examples discussed above demonstrate, courts are cautiously willing to intervene and stop government incursions. Arguably, they are increasingly more willing to do so, which may very well have to do with the fact that the government’s future election prospects are growing increasingly dim, as more and more polls indicate waning public support.
- A decrease in electoral support, in turn, makes it costlier for governing elites to use “rally ‘round the flag” tactics in the face of serious national security threats to whittle away at the public sphere.
Why the Coup Attempt – and not 9/11 – was Turkey’s 9/11
So why was the coup attempt Turkey’s 9/11 moment? Or for that matter, why was 9/11 some of the Western world’s 9/11 moment?
The answer is complex. The scale of the coup attempt and the 9/11 attacks as well as their momentousness, that is, the fact that they happened in a relatively short period of time, might be part of the answer: perhaps when perpetrated quickly and impactfully, the gravity of the crime is better processed and understood by us. Additionally, our perceptions of what constitutes a threat versus a grave threat ultimately depends on our understanding of what crime rises to the level of threatening national security. The identity of the perpetrator matters. That the perpetrators of 9/11 identified as Muslim and perpetrated an attack on a predominantly non-Muslim nation surely had some significance. That the Turkish government believes that the coup attempt of 2016 was perpetrated by Gulen affiliates – once the government’s stern ally, now its sworn enemy – surely mattered.
So, scale, timing, identity, and possibly many other factors, all matter. The definition of what constitutes a national security threat is therefore quite malleable and will be decided by authorities based on a combination of some or all of those factors. It’s a matter of interpretation.