How we decided to film COUP

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923.
Image via Wikipedia

Tonight’s nighttime festivites were much more animated than those of the morning. This time, instead of being organized by the city’s ruling religious party, the pro-Ataturk march was organized by the Kadikoy district on the Asian side of Istanbul. The Kadikoy mayorship is from the CHP (Ataturk-left) party, and their walk was promoted as “Let’s walk for the bright future of the Turkish Republic,” which meant, “Let’s walk for Ataturk’s thoughts and secularism.”

For no reason, I felt not merely entertained, but at home in a crowd of tens of thousands of people screaming “Turkey will STAY SECULAR!” We walked for several kilometers, and it was a big difference from last year; when we visited Elif’s parents, I remember when Elif and I got caught accidentally walking in the midst of a religious-fascist coalition protest march to make the middle schools start three years earlier so the children could get more Islamic (and less secular) education, with thousands of skullcapped men shouting “Allah is great!” This felt like a march on Washington – we were packed like sardines on Bagdat Caddesi, holding candles, waving flags, carrying framed Ataturk pictures, screaming “We will not go under Koranic Law!” and “Stand shoulder-to-shoulder against religious people!” and “Hooray for the Red and White!” and shouting to the people cheering us on from their balconies: “How’s the weather up there? Come down and join us!” Such a huge turnout. There were even fireworks.

I saw a very sad sight at the parade, however. A poor gypsy boy was sitting on the sidewalk, crying. All over the sidewalk was a broken bottle of shoeshine polish, glass and ink everywhere. It was a pathetic sight, this boy, already down on his luck, now deprived of his sole means of income. I asked Dilek what we should do for him, and she said, “Nothing. Last week I saw the exact same boy with the same broken bottle routine, and I gave him 500,000 lira.”


On the boat back to Heybeliada, my head was spinning from what people on the street were saying: they were telling us that they hoped the military would come to forcibly impose a new democracy on the country, one that would rid the country of all remaining traces of Islamic rule in the cities. I asked Elif, “Do you know how odd that sounds, wishing for the military to come impose a secular democracy on a people?”

Every 15 years, it seems as if Turkey has a coup. Last year, the army brought down the government simply by issuing a memorandum. Here’s how it happened, as far as I can make out:

In 1980, Turkey was leaning socialist, which America found displeasing. Economic incentives were offered to not fall as a Soviet domino, martial law was declared after internal violence, and finally in September 1980, there was a military coup, in which the army razed socialist communities in the north and imprisoned and murdered their leaders. Over the ensuing period, the Mafia strengthened immensely; at first, the government hired them to kill off Armenian terrorists who were bombing Turkish embassies worldwide until the Armenians got their own country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Years later, Tan?u Çiller came to power, an American-style Yale-educated technocrat who quite impressively amassed a $50 million personal fortune during her brief term. And for years, to pursue Turkey’s war against socialism, Islamic education and development had been tolerated, encouraged, and funded until economic reforms took hold. (How naïve outsiders can seem when they rue a country’s politics “turning fundamentalist,” as if it were the people’s own stupidity, fecklessness, or poor taste which allowed it to happen.) Because of this, and partly as a reaction to Çiller and the Mafia’s corruption, Erbakan’s Islamic Refah party came to power in a multiparty election with a mere 21% of the vote.

The Refah party shut down the casinos, which were overrun by Mafia and where there often were gunfights. Tourism (especially from Britain and Israel) plummeted, and the economy worsened. Erbakan moved too quickly, encouraged even more Islamic education, and started to take the country too close to Islamic law for the army’s comfort. This finally caused the army, last year, to threaten another coup and even a treason trial of Erbakan – after which (given the fact that in 1960, Prime Minister Menderes was executed by the military after being on the wrong end of such a treason trial), the Prime Minister hastily stepped down. The current national government is transitional, and elections are slated for February of next year.

Since last year’s “coup by memorandum,” the country remains divided. All over Turkey last month, I saw Istanbullians, Anatolians, Armenians, Kurds, and Arabs with very different lifestyles and visions of what the future of Turkey should be. And much of the east seemed occupied. Dilek’s office has a huge array of Ataturk photos – not as callow hero-worship, but, rather, as a symbol for modernism and all that it entails (secular law and freedoms, a modern constitution, women’s rights, democracy, etc.). In many places here, hanging the country’s own flag is a political statement wrought with meaning, saying not just “country,” but “I support modern Turkey,” which is to say “all people who want an exclusively religious country on my land should drop dead.” Last night, in the religious Fatih section of Istanbul, every home and store with a Turkish flag hanging on it had their windows broken.

Meanwhile, a significant percentage of Turks would welcome love to live a country with no alcohol, no work on Fridays, and a fixed ancient document of law interpreted by religious heads instead of judges and legislators. Which is why Istanbul’s official daytime celebration of the anniversary of the public was subdued, with Mayor Tayyip Erdogan making gesticulations of benediction like an Imam. Ankara’s mayor is in hot water for ripping down posters promoting the 75th Anniversary celebrations. Ararat’s mayor (oops – the TV just reports as I write this: “Ex-Mayor-Under-Arrest”) joined in on the fun, appearing on TV calling Ataturk a drunk who was a traitor of Islam, and said that since Jews fought for their own land (terrorism implied) couldn’t religious Turks, well…

But the question is: With the country so divided, for whom would this forcibly-imposed secular democracy be forcibly imposed? And what would another one now bring?

Elif told me stories about how, as a child in 1980, she hid under a desk when they shot up her classroom during the violence leading up to that September’s coup, and how happy her family was when the military intervention began. I found it fascinating. I wanted to learn more about what it means for a country to take anti-democratic measures in an attempt to preserve a democratic system. I wanted to understand the effect of the military’s involvement in the political process. And the idea of a military-patrolled democracy seemed so crazy that it would be the great subject for a documentary film.

Could we make a movie about it together? Could we? I asked Elif with nervous excitement on a boat on the Marmara Sea, just as I did on a boat on the Bosphorus when we decided to get engaged three years ago. And like before, her answer was yes.

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