What happened in Turkey? Look for two words -- 'secular' and 'Ataturk' -- in news reports

So what was the attempted coup in Turkey all about? It seems pretty clear at this point that no one really knows (or they are not saying). Were experts at the White House and the U.S. state department really flying blind on this one, as appeared to have been the case?

I'm no expert on Turkish history in the 20th century, but I have been to Istanbul twice and heard the local experts explain that nation's unique standing as a "secular" Muslim state. In recent years, Turkey has been swinging in the direction of some form of Islamist regime, under the leadership of President (some would say "strongman") Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

During the modern era, the Turkish military -- with strong ties to the West -- have acted as defenders of the secular state, using blunt power to crush attempts to move toward any form of Islamist rule. Is that what happened this time? Or did some rebel group within the military actually try to take Turkey in a more radically religious direction? That would be a stunning development in a nation under pressure -- in the form of terrorism, at the very least -- from the Islamic State and its supporters.

Read the coverage. Do the experts not know the answer to this question or they are not saying?

As you read, look for two words -- "secular" and "Ataturk." How far did you have to read to hit those crucial terms?

We are, of course, talking about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, not the airport named in his honor. Here is the opening of a History Channel biography on this giant in modern Turkish history.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) was an army officer who founded an independent Republic of Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. He then served as Turkey’s first president from 1923 until his death in 1938, implementing reforms that rapidly secularized and westernized the country. Under his leadership, the role of Islam in public life shrank drastically, European-style law codes came into being, the office of the sultan was abolished and new language and dress requirements were mandated. But although the country was nominally democratic, Atatürk at times stifled opposition with an authoritarian hand.

That opposition his followers kept crushing? He kept crushing his Islamic opposition, in the name of his radical (think France) secularism.

So what is missing from most of the coverage? In a word, religion, in the form of this clash between secularism and more religious, traditional, forms of Islamic government. I watched CNN for several hours and never heard this issue discussed.

If you read deep, deep into the New York Times coverage today you finally hit this:

Since the founding of modern Turkey in 1923, the military has staged coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, and has intervened in 1997. The military had long seen itself as the guardian of the secular system, established by the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But in recent years, a series of sensational trials had pushed the military back to its barracks, which analysts said had secured civilian leadership over the military.

So who would be attempting a coup now?

The Times team ended up talking with an interesting local authority -- a cab driver who certainly sounds like a secularist. Note the references to the rise of religion in the Turkish present -- a trend we have discussed here at GetReligion (think Islamist prayers in the Hagia Sophia "museum").

Mr. Erdogan attracted a wide-ranging constituency in the early years of his tenure, including many liberals who supported his plans to overhaul the economy and remove the military from politics. But in recent years, he has alienated many Turks with his increasingly autocratic ways, cracking down on freedom of expression, imposing a significant role for religion in public life and renewing war with Kurdish militants in the southeast.
“The people tried to stand up against President Erdogan, but they couldn’t, they were crushed, so the military had no choice but to take over,” said Cem Yildiz, a taxi driver.
Mr. Yildiz said that recent terrorism in the country attributed to Islamic State militants, including an attack on Istanbul Ataturk Airport that killed dozens, was “the tipping point” for him. He blamed Turkey’s policy on Syria for the terrorist attacks. Early in the civil war there, Turkey supported rebel groups fighting the Syrian government. Many of the fighters who traveled through Turkey to Syria joined the Islamic State, and critics have blamed Mr. Erdogan for enabling its rise.
“He has destroyed this country, and no one will stand up to him but the military,” Mr. Yildiz said. “There was no choice but this.”

Voices representing the Erdogan government are pointing in the other direction, claiming that THIS coup was linked to a fallen religious leader. This is the dominant theme in the mainstream coverage today.

In the Associated Press coverage, there is this:

The coup attempt began late Friday, with a statement from the military saying it had seized control "to reinstall the constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms, to ensure that the rule of law once again reigns in the country, for law and order to be reinstated."

That sounds like the secular past, or this statement was meant to sound that way.

But then there is this claim:

In his TV address, Erdogan blamed the attack on supporters of Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan has long accused the cleric and his supporters of attempting to overthrow the government. The cleric lives in exile in Pennsylvania and promotes a philosophy that blends a mystical form of Islam with staunch advocacy of democracy, education, science and interfaith dialogue.
By Saturday morning, a top Turkish official said the coup attempt appeared to have been repelled. The senior official told The Associated Press that all government officials were in charge of their offices. The official requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

That's all for now. If you see coverage (I am actually away from my home office much of this weekend) that takes seriously the secular/Ataturk angle, please let us know, in emails or in the comments section (with URLs).

In terms of the politics of this, there is an interesting question looming in the background: Would the current U.S. government have preferred a secular Turkish state, rooted in military power, over that of a democratically elected government that is been evolving in the direction of an Islamic state? Or was this something new, a pro-Islamist military coup?

Journalists will need to ask these kinds of questions, immediately, about the religious elements in this not-so-surprising event (for those who know Turkish history).

Stay tuned.

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