Middle East Studies teach-in deconstructs the coup and the future of democracy in Turkey

September 16, 2016

It’s clear that the Brown community relishes extracurricular intellectual engagements: Before the Middle East Studies’ teach-in, “The Coup, the Purge, and the Future of Democracy in Turkey” began on Thursday evening, an electric buzz filled List Art 120. Long after the teach-in’s Q&A session concluded, many in the packed auditorium lingered to learn more. “We wanted to bring the panelists’ larger geopolitical and personal perspectives on Turkey’s critically central role and the coup’s impact on Turkish academia to students and faculty,” explained Beshara Doumani, Joukowsky Family Professor of Modern Middle East History and Director of Middle East Studies, who chaired the panel discussion.

Doumani confessed that he is “completely obsessed” by the July 15 coup, “which felt like a big earthquake [jeopardizing Turkish democracy].” That thousands of academicians – university deans and professors and elementary and high school teachers – have been summarily purged from their positions, with no rights to appeal, should concern us here, he said. Too, President Recep Tayyip Erdogen’s message, disseminated on a Turkish journalist’s smartphone Facetime, urging Turks to resist the coup was a turning point. Even two months later, the horrific after-effects of the coup, such as imprisonments and suppression of civil rights, continue. 

Watson Institute Senior Fellow Stephen Kinzer analyzed Turkey’s evolving political alliances through the lens of history. Erdogan’s break with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, once his close ally, was “a foreign policy based on emotion, [which] is always the enemy of wise statesmanship.” Kinzer recommended the United States “not try to snarl back at Erdogan,” as we can’t afford to lose what he has to offer. 

Concurring, Chas Freeman, also a senior fellow at the Watson Institute, asserted that Turkey is more important to the United States than vice versa, largely because the United States is an irrelevant or a negative factor in Ankara’s exhaustingly complex political decision-making. Nevertheless, U.S.-Turkish relationships will have decisive impacts for decades to come. Given several international developments, Turkey, once considered a model of Islamic democracy, is seen as an atavistic autocracy that has lost it ways, said Freeman.

Audience members peppered Kinzer, Freeman, and the other panelists – Engin Akarli, Joukowsky Family Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Modern Middle Eastern History; Meltem Toksöz, visiting associate professor in Middle East Studies; and Kutay Onayli ’17 – with questions: Who do you believe was behind the coup? Were you pro- or anti-coup? What does it mean that Germany evacuated its embassy in Ankara? Might Fethullah Gülen [whose movement inspired coup leaders, asserted the Erdogan government] be extradited from the U.S. to Turkey? 

Drashti Brahmbhatt ’19, who spent two summers studying in Turkey, watched the coup in Azerbaijan, where she was studying. She found these presentations engaging and informative, due in large part to the panelists’ different perspectives. “I came to understand more about Turkey’s historical and cultural perspective … it put everything in context for those who don’t know the intricacies of Turkey. [I now want] to do more research and learn more about this issue.”

– Nancy Kirsch