Resetting Citizens' Mindset: Coups and Education in Turkey

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak analyzes the immediate measures that have been taken by the Turkish educational system, which are intended to shape public opinion about the failed July 2016 coup and its perpetrators.
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Logo of the Turkish Ministry of National Education

Many Turks perceived the failed coup attempt of July 15, claiming 240 lives,[1] as an unexpected, extraordinary event. The core reason for this surprise at the Turkish Armed Forces' (Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri – TSK) actions was that starting with the Ergenekon probe in 2007, over the last decade, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) has had relative success in downgrading the TSK’s role in the decision making process. Additionally, abolition of trade barriers, penetration of satellite TV channels, relatively cheap flight tickets, Internet access, and usage of social media platforms have exposed the Turkish people to Western democracies, weakening the TSK’s position. These developments made it difficult for the TSK to legitimize itself through the Turkish education system and textbooks.

Historically, Turkey suffers from a tradition of coups and military interventions. Turkey is the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, which experienced six successful military coups in 1512, 1622, 1807, 1876, 1909 and 1913. Later, having liberated the country from the allied forces during the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1922) under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), the TSK began to see itself as the true owner of the republic and became intertwined with Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – CHP). Thus Adnan Menderes' Democrat Party's (Demokrat Parti – DP) victory over the CHP re-triggered the coup culture in Turkey. In order to provide themselves with a legitimate platform, the 1960 coup perpetrators misused TSK's Inner Service Law's (1935) article 34, which underlined army's obligation of preserving the republic. In 1961, to pave the way for potential military interventions in the future, the article was reformulated as article 35. Its language was simplified and further emphasized TSK's right to act as the watchdog of the republic. Indeed, the article granted the legitimate basis for the 1971 and 1980 classic military coups, as well as the 1997 and 2007 military interventions. However, despite the counter-democratic nature of these acts, many Turks have seen TSK's interventions as legitimate acts, perceiving the military as a built-in check and balance on the state.

Until recently, this perception has been shaped by the Turkish education system. In addition to militaristic rituals and flag ceremonies at schools, the portrayal of TSK by history, civics and national security studies textbooks provides insight into this mechanism of indoctrination. It should be noted that TSK's self-legitimization efforts did not start with the 1960 military coup. A history textbook first published in 1932 serves as concrete evidence of this phenomenon. In its preamble, the textbook included the portraits of prominent Turkish leaders, who dominated key positions in government, such as President Atatürk, Prime Minister İnönü, head of the Grand National Assembly Kazım Paşa, and the Chief of Staff Fevzi Paşa.[2] This highlights the importance attributed to the TSK under Atatürk and İnönü. In other words, this preamble section visually demonstrates the status that the TSK gained in the early days of the republic and explains the consequences of its behaviors in the post-single-party period, when it was challenged by various governments.

Besides the leaders' portraits in the history textbook, TSK's status in the education system was also strengthened by a course called National Security Studies (Milli Güvenlik Bilgisi), introduced into the curriculum in 1926. The main aim of the course was to prepare the Turkish youth for army service. Unsurprisingly, textbooks penned by the office of the Chief of Staff portrayed army service as the highest national duty of all Turkish citizens.

In order to avoid reliance on a civilian teacher, the course was taught by army officers or retired soldiers. In the aftermath of the 1980 military coup, besides presenting educational material on army service, the textbooks expanded their scope, and sought to inculcate Atatürkism in the masses. In this context, the TSK was portrayed as the watchdog of the republic. TSK's Inner Service Law was frequently quoted to legitimize TSK's role in the decision making process.[3] Additionally, the National Security Council (Milli Güvenlik Kurulu – MGK), a semi-military-civilian government body, was given a special importance, highlighted as the shadow cabinet responsible for the most important decisions.[4]

Despite the institutionalization of these indoctrination machineries, following the crisis at the office of the Chief of Staff, which led to the resignation of General Işık Koşaner in 2012, former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seized the opportunity to make changes, removing the National Security Studies course from the curriculum. However, even after removing the TSK's self-legitimizing textbook passages Turkish textbooks continued to lack information about the coups. 

Civics textbooks serve as the most important examples of this phenomenon. Apart from the textbooks that were published in the aftermath of the military interventions,[5] the textbooks did not provide any information about TSK’s involvement in the constitution making process.[6] The words coup or military intervention were not even mentioned.[7] Instead, the students were provided with a superficial list of constitutions without any information on the core reason for their replacement.[8] Therefore, students tend to believe that the entire legislation process was carried out in a democratic way. 

This attitude came to an end with the latest July 15 coup attempt. Having grasped the importance of the education system's impact on public consciousness, on September 19, the first day of the academic year, in an unprecedented act, the civilian government gave students free booklets praising the anti-coup resistance. While making direct correlations to Turkey's war of independence, the booklet provided information about the coup attempt. The booklets included pictures of the coup night, martyrs, and democracy rallies, as well as "the coup attempt timeline." These educational materials were accompanied by a section called "July 15 Dictionary," in which concepts like coup, republic, and junta were addressed. Since Fethullah Gülen's Hizmet Movement was held primarily responsible for the coup attempt, this body was de-legitimized and renamed as Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (Fethullahçı Terör Örgütü – FETÖ).[9]

Besides this booklet, in order to create further awareness in the schools, Turkey's Ministry of National Education declared the 19-23 of September to be the "July 15, Democracy Victory and Commemoration of the Martyrs" week. In this context, Turkish Literature, History, Social Studies, and Religious Studies courses' teachers were assigned to cover the coup attempt in their classrooms.[10]

The Turkish Ministry of National Education’s post-July 15 measures mark a revolutionary change in the history of Turkish education. For the first time ever, anti-coup themes were openly added to the national curriculum. While in the short run, this was carried out by printing superficial booklets, in the long run it is highly likely that most of the textbooks will be re-written to include comprehensive information about the coup attempt. With this bold move, the government seeks to shape future citizens' structures of thought, and aspires to defeat coup culture in Turkish society.



Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak is a junior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (MDC) – Tel Aviv University. He serves as Turkey analyst for the Doron Halpern Network Analysis Desk’s social media watch bulletin, Bee Hive and is editor of Turkeyscope.  hayeytan[at]

[1] “15 Temmuz darbesinin acı bilançosu açıklandı”, Sabah, July 19, 2016 

[2] For More Details: Tarih IV, (Istanbul, Kaynak, 2014) preamble

[3] Milli Güvenlik Bilgisi, (Istanbul, Milli Eğitim Basım Evi, 2000) pp.52-53

[4] Milli Güvenlik Bilgisi, (Istanbul, Milli Eğitim Basım Evi, 1987) pp. 4-5

[5] Kemal Dal and et. al, Vatandaşlık Bilgileri (Istanbul, Milli Eğitim Basımevi, 1985) pp.104-105

[6] Fehimdar Çiftçi and, Vatandaşlık ve İnsan Hakları Eğitimi, (İstanbul, Milli Eğitim Basımevi, 2000) pp.13-15

[7] Emine Aşan, Vatandaşlık ve Demokrasi Eğitimi Dersi (Ankara, Ekoyay, 2013)

[8] Fehimdar Çiftçi and, Vatandaşlık ve İnsan Hakları Eğitimi, (İstanbul, Milli Eğitim Basımevi, 2000) pp.13-15

[9] ”15 Temmuz Demokrasi Zaferi ve Şehitlerimiz Anısına” (Milli Eğitim Bakanlığı, 2016)

[10] “Okullar “15 Temmuz Demokrasi Zaferi ve Şehitleri Anma“ etkinliğiyle açılacak”, Milli Eğitim Bakanlığı,