Tukey’s iPhone Revolution


"Religion is an important institution. A nation without religion cannot survive. Yet it is also very important to note that religion is a link between Allah and the individual believer. The brokerage of the pious cannot be permitted. Those who use religion for their own benefit are detestable. We are against such a situation and will not allow it. Those who use religion in such a manner have fooled our people; it is against just such people that we have fought and will continue to fight. Know that whatever conforms to reason, logic, and the advantages and needs of our people conforms equally to [Islam]. If our religion did not conform to reason and logic, it would not be the perfect religion, the final religion" --Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

In August 1996 I attended a capacity building program at a facility adjacent to London’s Regents Park. The program fully delivered on my set objectives. But it was one of the classes facilitated by the legendary Public Relations guru Sam Black and what he said at the tail end of his lecture that is of relevance for the remainder of this discourse.

In 1996, the internet age was still in its infancy compared to now. Although the Soviet Union had unbundled in 1991, the words ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika’ were yet to recede from the lexicon of international relations. South Africa had also dispensed with apartheid as the institutionalized form of governance only two years previously. The rest of Africa, the Middle East and Asia still had its strongmen fully ensconced in power.

That was the context in which Sam Black chose to inform the class, made up predominantly of international delegates that with the advent of the internet, and the free flow of information across the world-wide web, there was no longer any hiding places for strongmen and dictators that held sway in most of the developing world at the time.

He went on to deliver a lengthy lecture in which he envisioned a new world order in which ‘the people’ will be more empowered by the enhanced access to critical information that would, in turn, make their leaders more accountable to them.

Today, I have no way of knowing what his impressions are on the role of the social media in the socio-economic development of nations which he predicted, but there can be no denying its impact in the ability of the Turkish masses to swiftly mobilize to halt the attempted overthrow of their democratically elected government by a pampered military establishment with a profoundly misguided notion of its role as the supreme protector of the nation’s secularism.

Indeed, with what transpired before our very eyes this past weekend, it will be safe to conclude that all the previous military coups in Turkey succeed largely because of the paucity of a veritable platform for mass mobilization we now take for granted in the internet age. The Turkish military establishment staged three coups between 1960 and 1980. In 1997, it also forced Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan out of power and appointed a successor of its liking. Significantly, all the coups took place before the advent of Facebook (2005) and Twitter (2013). That view, of course, proceeds on the hypotheses that what happened in Egypt with the military overthrow of the government formed by the Muslim Brotherhood was an aberration.

In the present context, it was instructive that the swift mobilization of the Turkish citizenry was made possible through the live telecast of a message from the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who requested his supporters to resist the coup by defying the curfew imposed by the plotters. Even more telling was the fact that the medium through which the message was transmitted was an iPhone!

Even so, it will amount to the highest injustice if we merely recognize the role of the internet and social media, without recognizing the tremendous courage and patriotism exhibited by the Turkish people in the successful abortion of the coup. Even if the late Steve Jobs whose parents hailed from Syria were to be alive today, he would also have sneered at the suggestion that his invention alone accounted for what transpired in Turkey over the weekend. That the iPhone played a critical part is beyond denial; but it wasn’t the only factor in the successful unravelling of the coup.

Among those who matched against the coup last weekend was a nonagenarian who fought for the Ottoman Empire!  His gesture was monumental since in the history of modern Turkey the compelling image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk looms very large. He, it was, who inherited the ashes of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat by allies in World War 1.

The monumental military reversals triggered the rapid unravelling of the Ottoman Empire, a major superpower at its zenith. It also left an impact on Ataturk. His subsequent writings –including the quotation cited above – indicated that he never forgave the Arab tribes mobilized by the legendary British Captain T. E. Lawrence, more popularly referred to as “Lawrence of Arabia” in popular folklore, for their betrayal.

His feelings undoubtedly gave birth to “Kemalism” a series of political, cultural and social reforms calculated to remove or comprehensively dilute or expunge whatever Arab influence from the firmament of the new Republic of Turkey he founded in 1923.

The reforms dispensed with the Islamic calendar, and drastically curtailed the influence of Islamic Sheiks. He modelled the new republic in the image of the West and encouraged Turkish men and women to dress like Europeans. He expunged Arabic words and inscriptions from the Turkish language. He regarded the Fez cap which Sultan Mahmud II had introduced into the Ottoman Empire’s dressed code in 1826 as a symbol of feudalism and promptly banned it as well.

He invested his entire legacy on the separation of the state from the Islamic religion. But he also opened the door for the education of girls and granted women equality in workplaces. He invested his entire legacy on the separation of the state from the Islamic religion.

Yet, in spite of all his efforts, it will seem that political trends in the past two decades are poised to threaten his legacy. In many respects, therefore, what transpired in Turkey was not just an iPhone revolution it was equally a revalidation of the new direction Turkish politics appears to be headed. 

There may be pockets of resistance, but if the majority is expected to carry the day in any democracy, the political show of support for Erdogan and the government he leads, is a major vote of confidence that cannot be wished away even Western capitals. In the snap elections held in November 2015, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, also known as the AKP, and seen as being “Islamist” in the West, gained the majority seats in the 550-member parliament. More worryingly for those opposed to the current government, even the opposing political parties have joined in opposing the coup. If at all his influence appeared to be waning before, the purge that is sure to follow will also enable Erdogan and his party to consolidate their hold on power for now. I need not add that his government has already liberalized the wearing of veil by women among other things.

Quite easily, the biggest losers from the weekend’s events in Turkey has to be its military establishment which had for long viewed itself as the unelected guardians of the nation’s secularism. But what game were the various Western governments also playing?

It was obvious that most of the Western governments hedged their bets while the dramatic events played out on the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. The biggest culprits were, of course, their media. Even as their own pictures revealed the plotters were being resisted and arrested in the streets, many still astonishingly expressed their wishful thinking. They pretended to be oblivious of which way the wind was blowing.

Their attitude betrayed the habitual flaw in judgement commonly associated with the West when it comes to the defence of democratic institutions in mostly Muslim and Third World nations. We saw in Egypt how they sat back and watched a popularly elected government was overthrown because of its Islamic Orientation. This time, an analyst on Fox News even unashamedly remarked that “if the coup succeeds win, we win”   

Back home, to Nigeria; the events in Turkey should serve as a timely warning to the anti-democratic forces in the National Assembly currently mulling over the impeachment of the President to protect their ‘investments’. The people of Turkey in their uncommon resolve, have shown the way to resist the overthrow of popular governments with their courage, and the help of an iPhone and their history will not be the same again even in the shadow of Kemal Ataturk.