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What's Going On in Turkey?

July 18, 2016


Mrs. Chatterbox and I visited Turkey in 2010, and Turkey remains Mrs. C’s favorite travel destination. We found the people warm and friendly, eager to engage with Americans, and there are few places on earth with such a long and impressive history. But we were troubled to learn about the attempted military coup over the weekend. This is a brief attempt to explain what’s happening.


At the end of WWI, the Ottoman Empire found itself on the losing side; Istanbul was occupied by European forces, including France and Britain. Mustafa Kemal, a brilliant Turkish general, decided to unify his country and throw out the occupying forces, which he was successful at doing, earning himself the moniker of the “Turkish George Washington.” Atatürk, “Father of the Turks” as he would later be known, set Turkey on the path to greatness by insisting on a secular government for his country, not one based on Islam’s Sharia Law, even though the country was overwhelmingly Muslim.


Before passing away in 1938, Atatürk, in addition to implementing western reforms to improve the lives of his people, made an unusual decision; he handed responsibility for protecting Turkey’s democratic government to…the military, unusual in that it’s usually militaries that overthrow governments. Turkey has had several coups since the 1960s and each time the military has supported democracy without permanently seizing power.




Atatürk, Father of the Turkish Republic



In 2010 we learned much about Turkish culture from Selçuk, our guide. Turkey’s aggressive but popular prime minister, Erdogan, was defying Atatürk’s legacy by pushing the nation in the direction of Sharia or Islamic Law, giving religious leaders a much stronger role in his government. When Turkey’s constitution forbade Erdogan from running again for prime minister, he ran and won the presidency, which up until that time had been a mostly ceremonial position. He then began passing laws giving himself more and more power.


Recently, Erdogan had been jailing journalists and others hostile to his administration, and he’d been sacking and replacing military leaders for fear of a coup, which turned out this weekend to be a valid concern. We don’t yet know the details of this failed coup, but there must have been those in the military who believed Erdogan’s power grab was itself a threat to Turkey’s democracy.


Ironically, it was the journalists and members of opposition parties targeted by Erdogan who saved the president by taking to the streets to support their democratically elected leader, with whom they disagreed on most issues. The big question now is how Erdogan will respond to all this. Will he consolidate his power by cracking down on all opposition like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and other tyrants? Will there be a bloodbath in Turkey, a NATO member and our biggest regional ally in the war against ISIS?


Will the legacy of Atatürk prevail, or will Turkey’s success unravel should the country turn back the hands of time to move in a direction many would prefer—an eighth century caliphate based on the teachings of Mohammed? Troubling times lay ahead for Turkey, a magnificent country with an astonishing past, a tourist destination for millions and one of the places our civilization cut its teeth.


I fear for our charming friend Selçuk, a gay man living in a country that might be on its way to branding him a criminal and separating him from his head. 


A few pictures of Turkey from our travels:















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It was terrible to hear about that this past weekend. A lot of people were killed in the process.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on July 18, 2016
Stephen, from what you write, I'm sorry the coup failed.
By: Snowbrush on July 18, 2016
the entire world seems to be giving into violence and religion. I would love to visit Turkey one day and hope it remains a secular country. religion stagnates progress.
By: Ellen Abbott on July 18, 2016
An interesting perspective from someone who has actually been there. Thanks for sharing, Stephen. I agree, Ataturk's vision of a secular Turkey has enabled it to grow and prosper for almost a century now. Compare this with the rest of the Muslim world who practices fundamentalist Islam or even Sharia law. If our fears (yes, I share your fears) come true and Erdogan succeeds in seizing autocratic control of the country and the military, Turkey will have a very bleak future. And the world will have another seriously flawed Islamist regime that will likely NOT be an active participant in making the world a safer place to live.
By: scott park on July 18, 2016
When we visited in 2013 it was a wonderful experience. The people are warm and friendly.
By: Daniel LaFrance on July 18, 2016
Istanbul is one of my favorite cities. A fascinating brew of cultures, a virtual bridge of east and west. A positive note in this last attempted coup is the resilience of the democratic spirit-the people supporting a duly elected leader even one who is unpopular and in trouble. Your photo file is lovely.
By: Tom Cochrun on July 18, 2016
It would be sad to see this beautiful nation become a war zone.
By: messymimi on July 18, 2016
I'm concerned that there will be one more insane country leader in the mid east.
By: red Kline on July 18, 2016
Turkey seems (seemed) like a modern, progressive country - I would hate for it to be thrown back to thinking more fitting for the middle ages.
By: Pixel Peeper on July 18, 2016
Thank you for the insight into Turkey's recent history. Normally military coups are bad things and when I heard about it my reaction was relief that it had failed, but it sounds like they are a good counterbalance to corrupt power. Intriguing.
By: Botanist on July 18, 2016
oh dear- it feels like we will all be in the midst of a religious war .... those poor people in Turkey- very scary and sad. Your photos are outstanding!
By: Kathe W. on July 18, 2016
Thank you for a much better look into the country now in the news and teetering. You really gave me an inside look that I don't get from the news and I now better understand what is going on. Well done.
By: Arkansas Patti on July 19, 2016
I know very little about Turkey and world affairs. But I DO love your pictures!
By: Val on July 19, 2016
I predict bloodbath. I hope I'm wrong.
By: Al Penwasser on July 19, 2016
Wow - tensions are rising all over the place. It's frightening and sobering that one or a few leaders can make decisions that destroy so much and so many. But journalists are always there, courageously fighting for what's right. That's impressive.
By: Robyn Engel on July 19, 2016
I always planned to return to Turkey and probably wont for the forseeable future now. The situations indeed sad. I find the Greeks are also wonderfully charming and hospitable, even though their country and Turkey dislike each other. Strange, when in some ways theyre so similar.
By: Jenny W on July 20, 2016
Very education post. I had no idea. R
By: Rick Watson on July 22, 2016

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