On Military Coups and Post-Colonialism

The failed military coup attempt in Turkey will possibly bring an end to a pernicious feature that has been around throughout the postcolonial period. Military coups and interventions are a permanent feature of the postcolonial state. While the Turkish experience with direct colonialism is non-existent, the effects of Eurocentric discourses and the shift toward Europe after World War I has ironically produced a distinct postcolonial pattern in the form of military coups and interventions so as to prevent a normative state of development.

Turkey’s march westward was secured by a heavy-handed military that at every turn worked to prevent any recourse that might bring about a change of direction, emphasis or a reconnecting with a distant problematized past. One has to appreciate the long struggle in Turkey for the regular person, middle class and working class for space in the political order in a country whereby the military consistently acted to prevent such an occurrence. Indeed, since the forming of the modern Turkish state, the military and Eurocentric-trained elites set in motion an antagonistic relation with Islam and its expression in society. This approach, for the most part, shutout the poor and middle class who constituted a significant portion of the religiously inclined population. Being modern and Western meant having an expressed distance and a professed antagonistic relation with Islam, which included the elite and military’s attempt of its total erasure from society.

The normative development of the modern Turkish state was further complicated by the Cold War, which subverted all internal and external processes to the single goal of winning the war against communism. Certainly, we can point to the fact that at the regional level, as well as in Turkey itself, a certain level of toleration was evident for Islam during the Cold War, but it was an instrument to counterbalance communism rather than epistemic. Time and time again, the military and Eurocentric elites acted to prevent any normative expression and incorporation of an Islamic ethos into society, thus creating an otherness in one’s own land and country.

Consequently, and after the Cold War, the persistence of negation and hostilities directed at institutions and individuals who had the temerity to insist on viewing the world from an Islamic ethos was institutionally maintained by the military. The military, with the self-assigned role of custodians of an extreme version of secularism, constantly acted to prevent, at all costs, any reconnecting with the past, which included regular usage of coups often coordinated with U.S. and European intelligence services. Coups are the norm in the colonized global south and, contrary to popular opinion, they are not a result of an inability to govern, but rather part of the postcolonial control structure.

Certainly, the colonized state was secured by a number of important structures, political, social, educational and religious with violence and military power brought to maintain order and keep the natives under total control. In addition, colonial structures depended on the recruitment of a segment of the native population to undertake a number of tasks, including internal policing, and act as the middlemen in the administrative structure.

In essence, the postcolonial state was the colonized state minus foreign troops. However, the colonial enterprise managed to construct a new elite that enacted policies in the best interest of the colonial motherland, doing so even after independence. The colonially suckled and nurtured elites governed the independent state, its economy and institutions for the benefit of the colonial motherland. If one understands that the colonial context touched every aspect of society alike – politics, economics, society, education and religion. As such, the military’s role was to secure and maintain order during the colonial period, which likewise was maintained and extended in the postcolonial era.

Military coups and intervention was an instrument utilized to keep the postcolonial state in a permanent state of dependency and prevent it from leaving the sphere of influence of the colonial motherland. If states can be metaphorically considered in the same way as a person, then they go from birth to adulthood, maturity and old age. In this context, coups and military interventions are intended to maintain the postcolonial state in a permanent infancy, constantly needing the colonial motherland to oversee it as the only mature adult entrusted with this role.

Military coups’ function was to disrupt normative political processes and stop existing contradictions in the various forces in postcolonial society form being worked out. Every military coup manages to set the clock back to a starting point and allows the same postcolonial custodian elites to invite and engage the international colonial masters to supervise another’s political, social, cultural, economic, educational and religious rehab program.

Today in Turkey, we have multiple processes underway, a democratic shift, economic re-orientation and attempts at constituting a new and different elite that is not beholden to Eurocentric universalism. How to reshape people’s consciousness away from a state and a military that was antagonistic toward Islam and this negative view was set as the basis of Turkish nationalism since the inception of the modern nation-state. Being secular in Turkish discourse meant the state must be visibility anti-Muslim in the political, social and economic spheres, not only a separation of the mosque and state. In this context, separating religion from the state in the Turkish case meant separating people from Islam as the basis of their political, economic and social ethos and moral conduct.

In the post-Cold War period, a new elite formed across many parts of the Muslim world that is not beholden to Eurocentric thought and no longer views imitation of Europe’s trajectory as the highest purpose in life. The new, intellectual, Muslim class is rather young, as most are between 25 and 50, and are as well read on European history as they are on their own Islamic tradition. Turkey’s new elite is highly educated, well-versed in all the contemporary intellectual trends and globally connected, which means they cannot be dismissed with the same type of orientalist rhetoric common among think tank talking heads. It was very telling to see the responses coming from Western think tank people in the early minutes of the military coup since it represented in their mind an opportunity to set the clock back and bring their nurtured elites into seats of power again.

The current Turkish leadership has brought about major developments in the domestic spheres first and foremost, as economic growth focused on the middle class and the poor, opening access to education with 70 new universities and colleges that provided opportunities to those that would never have dreamed of taking a picture in front of existing institutions, asserting a meritocracy in the selection process for positions within the state apparatus and making it possible for people to express their Islamic tradition openly.

I do know that Turkey’s civilian leadership was constantly worried about a military coup and how best to navigate their way through it, and this is the basis of the internal tension that shaped their actions and responses. One can say they are paranoid about military coups, but if one understands the nature of the postcolonial order and the constant intervention by the U.S. and Europe in the affairs of the global south, then the recent action serves as a reminder of what is at stake.

If we are thinking in broad historical strokes, from the end of World War I when Islam was removed from society and deemed to be the problem, then Turkey’s experience 100 years later is an important one. Turkey’s attempt to re-normalize Islam’s role in society is the key issue at hand, and military coups in the past and present are the instrument to disrupt it. Certainly, the success or failure of Turkey’s attempt will have profound and long-term implications for the Islamic world and Europe for sure.