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Turkey’s Civil Rights Movement and the Reactionary Coup: Segregation, Emancipation, and the Western Reaction

Turkey went through a civil rights movement, or a “silent revolution,” under the AK Party governments between 2002 and 2013, in which the legally sanctioned segregationist measures that had previously structured the country’s political and social order were gradually abolished. This civil rights movement allowed for the public expression of religious observance and ethno-linguistic distinctiveness, thus elevating the status of previously denigrated religious conservatives and ethno-linguistic minorities to the level of equal citizenship. These reforms deprived the Gülenists and the PKK of their raison d’être. The PKK offensive in July 2015 and the Gülenist attempt at a military coup in July 2016 can be interpreted as the most violent reactions to-date against the non-violent civil rights movement Turkey went through under the AK Party governments.

Turkey s Civil Rights Movement and the Reactionary Coup Segregation
As the coup plotters were bombing the Turkish National Assembly, the speaker of the Parliament, İsmail Kahraman, and many MPs came together at the General Assembly Hall to announce their resistance to the coup attempt. AA PHOTO / BÜLENT YILMAZ
 

Introduction and the Argument 

The failed coup attempt of 15 July 2016 in Turkey, poses a conceptual puzzle for political scientists and historians of democracy. When the Turkish people’s massive civilian mobilization and resistance defeated the coup, very different explanatory frames and narratives began to compete in order to make sense of what had happened and why, both in the media and among the scholarly community. In this article, I argue that Turkey went through a civil rights movement, or a “silent revolution,”1 under the AK Party governments between 2002 and 2013, in which the legally sanctioned segregationist measures and categorical inequalities that had structured the country’s political and social order since the founding of the Republic were gradually abolished. Most importantly, this silent revolution allowed for the public expression of religious observance and ethno-linguistic distinctiveness, thus elevating the status of previously denigrated religious conservatives and ethno-linguistic minorities to the level of equal citizenship. Removal of the headscarf ban in education, public service, and elected office, which affected roughly sixty percent of Turkish women,2 and the beginning of publicly-funded broadcasting and education in Kurdish, Zaza, and other minority languages, are the most spectacular examples of this egalitarian movement. The political capital that the AK Party accumulated as a result of these reforms cannot be overstated. Religious conservatives and ethno-linguistic minorities, which together make up a large majority of the electorate, were emancipated from their positions as second-class citizens. The moral high ground that the AK Party gained as a result of these emancipatory reforms helps to explain its successive victories in eleven national electoral contests, including local, national, an

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