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The Telegraph

Erdogan should be nervous about this lesson from Turkey’s past

A general rule of modern military coups is that victory goes to whoever takes control of state television studios. However, when troops tried to topple Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016, they forgot that today’s leaders have access to smartphones. Minutes after they announced on state television news that his “autocratic” rule had ended, Erdogan FaceTimed a host on a rival channel, insisting he was still in charge and urging his followers to fight back. Thus, Erdogan loyalists took to the streets to thwart the coup plotters, who feared their Islamist populism was undermining the secular republic of Turkey. Yet in the harsh retaliation that followed, he may have proved his point about his autocratic streak: More than 50,000 people have been jailed on suspicion of sympathizing with the coup. On the other hand, as Jeremy Seal points out in his new book, Erdogan has good reason to be nervous. A coup in Turkey tells the story of a previous elected Turkish leader, Adnan Menderes, who was the target of a previous military coup, in 1960, which ended in his execution. Like Erdogan, Menderes was a populist who courted religious devotees. And similarly, that drew the ire of Turkey’s secular elite generals, who, Seal says, are wary of any politician seeking the “prayer rug vote.” Today, Erdogan cites Menderes as one of Turkey’s greatest political martyrs, although in the West the name is barely remembered. In 1959, Menderes briefly made headlines in Britain when his official plane crashed near Gatwick, killing most of those on board. He left with hardly a scratch, convincing his religious followers that he was “in the care of Allah.” Seal opens his book with that fateful plane crash episode, showing how Menderes’s rise and fall are echoed in the Erdogan era. Then, as now, Turkey lived in the shadow of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, who led the country towards secularism after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. Education became compulsory, women voted, and the role of Islam in politics was reduced. The pace of Westernization was such that when Turkey’s Arabic-style writing was replaced by a Latin one, the Turks had only four months to master the new alphabet before the old one was outlawed. At first, Menderes and his new Democratic Party seemed a benign influence in this aggressive modernization. After World War II, he defended freedom of the press and democracy, ending a period of one-party rule by secular Republicans. He brought pipes, roads and buses to rural voters in Turkey, whom the Republicans had rejected as ignorant peasants. His followers, who gave him three electoral victories between 1950 and 1960, hailed him as the man “who had removed his feet from rawhide sandals.” At the same time, however, Menderes allowed mosques to prosper once more, enraging metropolitan secularists, for whom each temple was “a breeding ground for fatalism and provincial inertia.” As Seal says: “In the land of Atatürk, the unforgivable sin was to court religious reaction and condemn the country to darkness and superstition.”

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