Understanding The Attempted Coup In Turkey

Photo: AP Images.
On Friday afternoon, the Turkish military attempted to overthrow the government and people started freaking out.

Though the coup turned out to be unsuccessful, it was a concerning moment for American leadership. While politicians were up in arms, many of us were a little left in the dark about what was at stake. We've gathered the important facts and what to know about why Turkey is so important and what was at risk last night.

Turkey is a primarily Muslim nation, but liberal and democratic.

Though 99.8% of Turkey’s population is Muslim, the country does not have an official faith and freedom of religion is protected in its constitution. The country is officially a parliamentary republic, which means it holds democratic elections for their national leaders. All adult citizens have the right to vote. Turkey began membership talks with the E.U. in 2005 and has been trying to enter the union for more than a decade. Istanbul, which sits on the crossroads between Europe and Asia, is a major tourist destination: 12.5 million tourists visited Istanbul in 2015 according to a MasterCard-sponsored study, making it the fifth-most visited city in the world, just ahead of New York City.

The military historically plays a big role in Turkish politics and coups are relatively frequent.

Coups are fairly common in Turkey’s recent history. The military has overthrown the government no less than four times since 1960, with the last coup taking place in the 1990s. Since then, the push to present a unified, democratic nation as a qualification to enter the European Union has helped ease tensions, according to Vox. However, political limbo around E.U. entry has slowly chipped away at the ideological ceasefire.

Apparently, groups can get out of practice when it comes to political revolution. In a press conference the day after the attempted coup, Kerry said that it “does not appear to be a very brilliantly planned or executed event,” The New York Times reported.

Turkey is an important U.S. ally and NATO member.

Turkey is a major factor in U.S. foreign interests. The country has been a NATO ally since 1952 and, as it straddles the line between Europe and Asia, is an important foothold in the region for the United States. The country acts as something of a home base for American operations against ISIS, as it sits directly above both Syria and Iraq. Many of the air attacks flown by the United States against ISIS leave from Incirlik Air Base, in the southern part of the Turkey bordering Syria. Moreover, the base is one of several tactical sites storing nuclear weapons placed around Europe, as part of the country's role in NATO. Though historically allied, the U.S.-Turkish relationship has seen some strain in recent years over disagreement about how to deal with the Syrian crisis and President Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian leanings, according to the BBC.

The coup may be rooted in a long-standing distrust and ideological conflict between the Turkish government and an exiled religious cleric.

In the aftermath of the coup, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blamed the conflict on followers of Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who draws on a traditionally moderate branch of Islam called Sufism. Gulen is a former Erdoğan ally who is now in a self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. A New York Times article from 2012 suggested that critics were concerned about the proliferation of Gulen’s followers in government, with some calling it a shadowy movement and suggesting that the influential Gulenist movement undermined Turkey’s efforts to democracy.

In turn, some accused the government of using the Gulenists as a “stalking-horse” for issues the government didn’t want to address publicly. However, a corruption scandal in 2013 led to Erdoğan disavowing his former ally. After Thursday’s coup attempt, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States would entertain requests to extradite Gulen if the Turkish government could adequately prove his involvement.

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Turkey's corruption scandal happening in 2015. The scandal actually began in December 2013. Refinery29 regrets the error.

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