In Turkey / Türkiye

Feature article on Spiegel Online International, July 22 2016

Part 1: Turkey’s Post-Coup Slide into Dictatorship

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey (AP file photo, 2015)

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey (AP file photo, 2015)

The sun is setting over Ankara and people are pouring out of the subway onto Kizilay Square in the heart of the Turkish capital. They are waving flags and chanting: “God is great!” and “Death to the traitors!”

In a café located 100 meters (328 feet) away, Esra Can is quickly cramming her cigarettes and smartphone into her purse, rushing to make it back to her apartment before the demonstration in support of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gets going. “The mob on the street is unpredictable,” she says.

Can, a petite 30-year-old with brown curly hair and red nails, works as a graphic designer in Ankara. She smokes and occasionally enjoys a glass of wine — and when it comes time to vote, she casts her ballot for the Social Democrats or for left-wing splinter parties. Can says she has always believed in democracy and the rule of law in Turkey despite Erdogan’s despotic tendencies. Now, though, she is afraid that her country is sliding down the slippery slope to a dictatorship.

For the first time in almost 36 years, members of the Turkish military sought to topple the government last Friday. They occupied parts of Istanbul and Ankara and bombed the parliament building. Up to 300 people lost their lives and at least 1,400 were injured, including a number of civilians.

Like many people in Turkey, Can was relieved that the government was able to beat back the attempted coup and hoped that the horror of July 15 would unite people. Now, though, she is watching in dismay as Erdogan takes advantage of the conflict to grab for absolute power.

On Wednesday, Erdogan declared emergency rule and partially suspended the European Convention on Human Rights for three months. During that time, the president can rule by decree: He can ignore fundamental rights, such as the right to freedom of assembly and press freedoms, government authorities can impose curfews and media coverage can be outlawed.

A ‘holiday of democracy’

Erdogan has also announced his intention to “cleanse the state.” He wants to have parliament vote on the reintroduction of the death penalty to provide him with the ultimate punishment as he goes after those involved in the coup and he has called on Turkish citizens to occupy streets and squares across the country.

They have listened. Mostly in the evenings, thousands of demonstrators gather in prominent places, such as Ankara’s Kizilay Square or Taksim Square in Istanbul. The carry mock gallows and pay homage to their leader Erdogan: “Say the word, and we’ll die. Say the word, and we’ll kill.” Men shoot blanks and speakers incite the mob. Erdogan’s loyal prime minister, Binali Yildirim, has spoken of a “holiday of democracy.”

But for those in the opposition, for secularists, leftists and liberals — for people like Can — the pro-government demonstrations don’t seem like a democratic groundswell. Rather, they seem like an Islamist counter-revolution.

Turkey fended off a military takeover, which likely prevented a bloodbath, but the country is now facing weeks and months of agony and havoc. The state apparatus has been brought to a standstill by the wave of purges Erdogan has launched since last Friday and the economy is reeling. The military, too, is in upheaval, with neither a second coup attempt nor a civil war seemingly out of the question.

Western politicians are now looking to Ankara with bewilderment. Turkey has long been a cornerstone of global security architecture and has the second largest military of any NATO member. It is also a bulwark against both Russia and Iran and provides a base of operations for the fight against Islamic State (IS), with American jets taking off from Turkish military bases to launch airstrikes on extremist positions.

‘Gift from God’

European Union politicians must also take stock. Until last week, EU leaders — German Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular — had depended on Turkey to help keep refugees away from Europe. Might the controversial refugee deal now collapse? One of the promises made by Europe as part of that deal was to accelerate EU accession negotiations, but can it fulfill that promise with Erdogan pursuing autocracy?

Erdogan called the failed uprising a “gift from God,” a gift that now gives him the latitude to silence his opponents and critics. His government has claimed that a minority within the Turkish military was responsible for the putsch attempt, but the president has also accused Fethullah Gülen of instigating the coup — the Turkish cleric who used to be a close ally of Erdogan’s but has been living in American exile since the late 1990s.

The president and his entourage have left no doubt about how they intend to react to the revolt: With merciless severity. Erdogan has had over 2,000 soldiers arrested and several tens of thousands of civil servants have been fired. Among them are 36,200 teachers and officials in the Education Ministry, 8,000 police officers and almost 3,000 judges, many of them alleged followers of Gülen. Forty-seven provincial governors were forced to resign as were the deans of all of Turkey’s universities. Academics and scientists are no longer allowed to leave the country.

In recent years, it had become increasingly difficult for Turks to criticize Erdogan, with intellectuals and journalists having been arrested and opposition newspapers shut down. Investigative journalism is unlikely to come from the country’s large media organizations, says Erol Onderoglu, the Turkish representative of the organization Reporters without Borders. State repression has become too great and the economic interests between the media and the government have become too interwoven, he says.

Now, though, in the wake of the failed coup, what remains of public opposition is likely to disappear entirely. In the last few days, the government has blocked dozens of websites of small, independent media organizations while critical radio and television broadcasters have been taken off the air. “Those who thought Erdogan could be a partner for freedom and reconciliation must now abandon that hope once and for all,” Onderoglu says.

Part 2: A Parliamentarian Preparing to Die

It is likely that the government will soon launch a further effort to abolish democracy. After three terms as prime minister, Erdogan was elected president in 2014. Since then, he has been pursuing the introduction of a presidential system of government, which would formally grant him almost unlimited powers.

Thus far, his efforts to do so have failed because his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has not had the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament. But in the wake of his triumph over the military, he may be tempted to hold a referendum over a constitutional amendment or to call new elections — perhaps as early as this year.

His team is already busy writing the legend of July 15. Pro-government newspapers are full of stories of fearless citizens who stood in the way of putschist tanks and sacrificed their lives for Turkish democracy. But several details of what happened on the night of the putsch still remain unclear, such as who really stood behind the rebellion and what their motives were.

An Erdogan advisor told SPIEGEL that the government had been planning to dismiss several generals and admirals who allegedly belonged to the Gülen movement in August. It could be that these preparations triggered the coup attempt.

The order to launch the uprising was allegedly given by General Mehmet Dili, the brother of an AKP parliamentarian. The conspirators had planned to strike at 3 a.m. on Saturday morning, July 16, says the Erdogan confidant. But the Turkish secret service got wind of the plot at 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon, he says, meaning that the coup had to be launched prematurely. At 10 p.m., the first tanks rolled onto the streets of Ankara, with fighter jets flying low over the city. Soldiers then blocked off the bridge over the Bosporus in Istanbul.

At that moment, Mustafa Yeneroglu, an AKP member of parliament, was sitting together with several dozen politicians from multiple political parties in the parliament building’s plenary hall. Yeneroglu grew up in Cologne as the child of guest worker parents from Anatolia. He studied law and up until two years ago, he acted as a lobbyist for Erdogan in Germany as head of the Islamic organization Milli Görüs, before becoming an AKP parliamentarian in 2015.

Taking to the streets

When the insurgents began firing at the parliament building, Yeneroglu and his colleagues were in the process of formulating a joint statement condemning the coup. Security personnel led the lawmakers through the dust and smoke to a shelter in the basement. Yeneroglu stayed there for several hours, using his smartphone to try to find out what was going on outside.

In Ankara, the rebels attacked the headquarters of both the military and secret service in addition to detaining military Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar. Soldiers also stormed the editorial offices of state broadcaster TRT. In the basement of parliament, Yeneroglu prepared to die. He wrote a text message to his wife, who was in Cologne with their three children: “Stay strong, take care of the children.”

But the presumed leaders of the uprising — Muharrem Köse, a recently dismissed colonel, and Akin Oztürk, a four-star general and former supreme air force commander — only had a part of the military on their side. The coup quickly fell apart when leading generals and officers threw their support behind the government.

More than anything, though, it was the Turkish population that declined to support the rebels. All political parties condemned the uprising and Erdogan’s supporters and opponents alike took to the streets. By early Saturday morning, the uprising had largely come to an end.

But the solidarity that prevailed in the initial hours after the coup quickly disintegrated and mistrust took over. The country’s society has rarely been so divided, with one half of the population seeing July 15 as the beginning of an era of strength and the other seeing the failed coup attempt as the end of Turkish democracy.

Rumeysa Kalin, 22, essentially grew up with Erdogan. Her father, Ibrahim Kalin, is the president’s spokesman and she can’t remember a time when Erdogan didn’t determine the day-to-day life of her family. “He is a strong leader, a man who gives people direction,” she says. One year ago, Kalin completed her legal studies at a Turkish elite university and now works as a clerk in a law firm in addition to being active in the AKP’s youth organization. She speaks perfect English, but refuses to shake men’s hands.

Kalin belongs to a generation of young, devout Turks who venerate Erdogan. When the first news of the possible coup reached her last Friday via Twitter and Facebook, she was doing laundry in her parents’ house in Ankara. She immediately went to the local mosque to pray for a rapid end to the uprising. Her fiancée, meanwhile, a student of molecular biology, made his way to the city center to offer resistance against the putschists. He tried to reassure Kalin on the phone, saying: “Don’t be afraid. We have God on our side.”

A mood of vengeance

A few days later, the couple joined a pro-government demonstration on Kizilay Square, which people are now referring to as the “center of the national uprising against the traitors to the fatherland.” Kalin says the failed coup is a “wake-up call” for her generation. “July 15th has brought Erdogan and the people of Turkey closer together,” she says.

For those who harbor doubts about Erdogan, such statements sound threatening. In fact, Esra Can, the graphic designer from Ankara, is even thinking about leaving the country. In the last week, bearded men carrying baseball bats have been patrolling her neighborhood at night — to intimidate dissenters, she says. “I no longer feel safe in this country.”

Human rights activists have warned that a “lynch-mob sentiment” is spreading in Turkey. At the funeral of a victim of the coup, guests chanted: “We want the death penalty!” In Istanbul, Islamists assaulted people who were drinking beer in public while in several cities and towns in Anatolia, Muslim extremists have attacked churches and Alawi settlements. The deputy head of a large Turkish basketball club said of those involved in the coup: “The property and women of these sons of bitches are now the nation’s spoils of war.”

According to the wife of a military captain, people waving Turkish flags and showing their middle fingers now regularly pass through residential neighborhoods for soldiers and their families in Istanbul. The baker where another officer’s wife regularly shops has suddenly begun refusing to sell her bread.

The worst, says one woman, who asked to remain anonymous, is the uncertainty about the future. One of her husband’s comrades, she says, was arrested and his family still didn’t know why, even days later. Allegedly, weapons had been found in his car, the woman says, and he is now suspected of having participated in the attempted coup.

She says that last weekend,  police appeared in their neighborhood with lists of names and arrested several soldiers. “What if they suddenly come to arrest my husband?” the woman asks.

It is now up to the president to pacify the conflict and calm Turkish citizens. But Erdogan is anything but a mediator, preferring instead to divide and polarize. He calls the opposition a “cancerous growth” and promises a “bright future free of traitors.” A leading advisor is in favor of loosening the country’s gun-control laws so that the nation can “arm itself.”

Part 3: Erdogan’s archenemy

Erdogan wants revenge. More than that, though, he wants to use revenge to tighten his grip on Turkey. The autocrat Erdogan could now turn into a full-fledged dictator. He appears to have the necessary ambition and he has definitely always been a fighter.

It was, in fact, ambition and a lack of scruples that propelled him to the top in the first place. His worldview has always been “us against them,” and along the way, he has crushed several adversaries, including the secular elite, who disdain him as a devout outsider, and military generals, who threatened way back in 2007 to oust him with a putsch. When Erdogan had his police force brutally crush the peaceful protests of environmentalists in Gezi Park in 2013, many observers thought that his career would not last much longer. But he survived the crisis, just as he did the corruption scandal one month later, in which his son was implicated.

But with every battle Erdogan has won, the ranks of his enemies have grown. Until their dispute two years ago stemming from the Gezi protests, he still considered Fethullah Gülen, who he now accuses of having orchestrated the July 15 uprising, a friend.

He has now become his archenemy, and he isn’t easy to find. Gülen lives in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, located a short two hours west of New York by car. [See Globe and Mail article below.] Visitors to his complex are checked by a security guard dressed in black who wears a revolver in plain sight on his belt. Behind the gate lies an idyllic and expansive property. The grounds are well cared for and the buildings are modern.

Like Erdogan, Gülen is an Islamist and he poses as a reticent cleric who lives humbly before God in American exile. This modesty, however, is nothing but a façade: His movement is rich and powerful. His followers have founded newspapers, hospitals, insurance companies, universities and schools in 140 countries, including Germany.

Gülen claims that he seeks to spread a modern version of Islam. But critics say his community is a sect, just as secretive and difficult to penetrate as Scientology or the Catholic movement Opus Dei.

When Erdogan’s Islamic-conservative AKP party rose to power in 2002, the Gülen community initially seemed a logical ally. Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, appointed Gülen followers to key positions in the judiciary and administration. With the help of show trials, the Islamists aided the premier in sidelining his critics in the military and civil society.

Poisoned by power

Hanefi Avci, once a leading official in the Turkish police force’s intelligence service, watched closely as Gülen’s men then proceeded to infiltrate state institutions. He warned Erdogan’s government of the movement’s secret power grab — in vain.

It was only in 2013, when Erdogan and Gülen had their falling out, that the prime minister began to take an interest in Avci’s findings and started speaking of Gülen’s “parallel state.” The cleric’s followers in the police and judiciary opened a corruption investigation into Erdogan’s son Bilal and officials close to the prime minister. Erdogan responded by closing down schools operated by the Gülen movement.

Gülen is nestled in a beige-colored armchair in his home’s reception room and he talks about the political situation in Turkey for a good two hours. “It is absurd, irresponsible and erroneous to claim that I had anything to do with this appalling coup attempt,” he says. Gülen describes Erdogan as a tyrant seeking to brutally sideline his opponents and says his political style has pathological elements. “Erdogan comes from a poor background and now he lives in many palaces. Success and power have poisoned him,” he says.

Few in Turkey doubt that the Gülen movement has managed to infiltrate the military. But thus far, the government has produced no strong evidence that Gülen’s people were responsible for the July 15 coup attempt. Close observers of Turkey tend instead toward the belief that a coalition of various power centers within the military prepared the uprising.

But Erdogan is now using the coup to try and crush Gülen and his movement — in addition to his critics in the military high command and his political adversaries — and he is demanding that the US extradite Gülen to Turkey. US Secretary of State John Kerry has said his government will examine the request, but added that Ankara must present solid proof of Gülen’s involvement in the putsch.

Erdogan, it has become clear, wants to avoid showing any weakness. He prefers, it seems, to risk a worsening of relations with the United States. Indeed, his followers have spent the last several days stoking anti-American sentiment and his labor minister even suggested that Washington was behind the attempted coup — a crude provocation. Prime Minister Yildirim said that every country that supports Gülen is at war with Turkey.

EU accession unlikely

Erdogan’s open aggression, though, is creating problems with the West far beyond the Gülen issue. The refugee deal with the European Union is also now in danger. The deal calls for Turkey to both prevent refugees from traveling onward to Europe and to readmit those who make it to EU territory in exchange for money. But the EU also promised to introduce visa-free travel for Turks heading to Europe and to speed up European Union accession negotiations. In the wake of the coup attempt, however, visa-free travel isn’t likely to happen. One important criteria laid out by Brussels was that Turkish parliament change a law allowing Erdogan the ability to take rigorous measures against his opponents. Even before the coup, Erdogan was unhappy about the demand.

Furthermore, accession negotiations — already protracted — aren’t likely to speed up again soon. And they might be stopped altogether. The introduction of the death penalty would mean an end to Turkey’s EU aspirations, said Johannes Hahn, the commissioner in charge of enlargement, during a special session of the Foreign Affairs Committee in European Parliament on Tuesday.

Germany’s European commissioner, Günther Oettinger, says he is opposed to stopping Turkey’s accession negotiations because the talks allow the EU to exert pressure on Ankara. “In this decade and under the leadership of Erdogan, there won’t be an accession anyway,” he told SPIEGEL. But doubts are growing inside the European Commission. Formally, the refugee deal is still valid, but why should Erdogan stick to it if all the promises made by Europe, aside from the money, are reneged?

Criticism of the deal was already intense in the months before the coup. Europe, it was said, had sold out its values so that Erdogan would stop the stream of refugees coming to the continent. Now, many are having an “I told you so” moment. “Erdogan is now doing exactly what many had warned of when the refugee deal was made,” says one high-ranking EU diplomat. “He is cashing in the blank check he got from the EU.”

 Part 4: NATO fears and nukes

The German government is viewing developments in Turkey with great concern. The biggest question is the direction in which Turkey will develop. Chancellor Angela Merkel telephoned with Erdogan over the weekend and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke with his counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Even if there have so far been no signals from Ankara that the government there might revoke the refugee deal, most assume that will happen sooner or later. Similar fears are plaguing NATO at the moment. Last Friday night, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke with the Turkish foreign minister and then on Monday with Erdogan. In those conversations, Stoltenberg made clear how important it is that Turkey respect democratic principles — as he did in a SPIEGEL interview a few weeks back. “NATO is based on shared values,” he said in June. “Democracy, individual civil liberties and the rule of law.”

But Turkey is too important to the alliance, both strategically and geopolitically, for Western politicians to be able to do all that much to counter Erdogan. In addition, Article 13 of the NATO Treaty states that a member of the alliance can leave voluntarily. “NATO has no mechanism with which to impose sanctions against its members,” says one NATO official.

NATO partner Turkey had already become alarmingly unstable even before July 15. In the southeast of the country, the military has rekindled fighting in a hopeless war against Kurdish guerrillas. And the putsch attempt has now further weakened the state and the army.

In recent days, Erdogan has had around 100 generals and admirals arrested, about one-third of the military leadership. Many of those suspected to be behind the putsch held important positions within the armed forces, including Adem Huduti, the commander of the Second Army, who coordinated the deployment against the Kurds in southeast Turkey, and Bekir Ercan Van, chief of the Incirlik Air Base, which is used by the US and Europe in the fight against Islamic State.

That is not welcome news for the Pentagon: The US holds NATO’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons at Incirlik. Indeed, the putsch attempt in Turkey underscores the risk of storing weapons of mass destruction in an unstable country. In the US, too, more and more people are demanding that the US withdraw from Incirlik. “America’s Nukes Aren’t Safe in Turkey Anymore,” the magazine Foreign Policy declared in a recent headline.

‘Broadly defined, well-planned operation’

In early April, the Americans demonstrated just how uncertain they consider the situation in Turkey to be. Washington flew out family members of US soldiers for security reasons and at the same time reinforced its own units by deploying hundreds of additional Marines there.

To tighten his control over the army, Erdogan can now swap out the military leadership, but he cannot replace all of the soldiers. He doesn’t even know how many conspirators still remain among the ranks of the armed forces. In contrast to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan is not a man of the apparatus. He’s an outsider who has never been entirely recognized by the military. The army has always viewed itself as the protector of the country’s secular tradition, as the heir to the political legacy of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Atatürk. They’re suspicious of Erdogan’s Islamic fervor.

Istanbul-based political scientist Sinan Birdal, who has worked for the Turkish military for many years, contradicts the theory that the putsch was staged by a small group of people with connections to the Gülen movement. He says the group was composed of soldiers from a variety of different units and bases. “This was a broadly defined, well-planned operation,” he says. Birdal believes there was and still is a lot of pent up frustration over Erdogan within the military. He considers a second putsch to be an “entirely realistic scenario.”

But as much as Erdogan distrusts his soldiers, he is also just as reliant upon them — at least for as long as he continues to refuse to find a peaceful solution to the conflict with the Kurds.

Diyarbakir, the most important Kurdish city in southeast Turkey, is severely damaged. The military and special police units have engaged in bitter street fighting there with YPS, a PKK-aligned youth organization. In many parts of the historic city center, entire streets are blocked off.

Gray plastic tarps block views of the areas where the fighting is taking place and police monitor the entrances to the town. It has been reported that there are still corpses lying inside, and residents are unable to return to their homes. Business used to flourish here and tourists also visited, but residents now say that Diyarbakir is a “dead city.”

Fierce fighting

No one embodies the dashed hopes of Kurds as much as Selahattin Demirtas, a chairman of the pro-Kurdish HDP party. One year ago, his party landed seats in the national parliament for the first time, leading many in Turkey to hope for an end to the confrontation between the Turkish state and the Kurdish minority. But Erdogan, who had once pursued the peace process with the Kurds, felt that HDP’s success was a threat to his power and reverted to the 1990s policy of confrontation. He began fomenting hatred against the Kurds in order to profit politically.

On Erdogan’s orders, more than 10,000 soldiers attacked cities in the country’s southeast, imposed curfews and engaged in fierce urban combat with the PKK youth. They erected trenches and barricades and declared “liberated zones.” The youth reacted with brutality, killing around 500 police and soldiers, most of whom were shot by snipers. More than 1,000 people were killed and several hundred thousand were forced to flee.

Demirtas sits inside his party headquarters in Ankara. He is besieged by friends and looks pale, but he still takes time to talk. Demirtas believes the war against the PKK fueled the July 15 insurrection. He says it was Erdogan who equipped the military and gave the generals free rein in the country’s south. “The armed forces no longer felt bound by any laws,” Demirtas says. He warns that, following the military coup, there could now be an Erdogan coup — and possibly even a civil war in its wake.

Some observers fear that the crisis in Turkey could prompt Kurdish separatists to push for the secession of the Kurdish southeast, an idea that appears to be gaining popularity among Kurds. Ibrahim Halil Baran, a prominent Kurdish intellectual, says he thinks the putsch wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for Kurds. “The Turkish side is now occupied with itself,” he says. “We Kurds should take advantage of Turkey’s weakness in order to achieve our aims.”

Dictatorship? Putsch? Civil war? The Turks appear to be cursed by violence, and only a few appear to have the strength to look ahead to the future.

‘Not as simple as that’

Lawyer Osman Can agrees to meet at the Divan Pub on Baghdad Street, one of the best-known shopping streets on the Asian side of Istanbul. “When the first tanks rolled into the neighborhood, people in the restaurants applauded,” Can reports. “They said, this is a rescue. But it wasn’t as simple as that.”

A 48-year-old Kurd, Can grew up in eastern Turkey and would later write his graduate thesis on freedom of opinion at the University of Cologne in Germany. From 2002 to 2010, he served as a judge on the Turkish Constitutional Court in Ankara. He describes himself as being secular and liberal — and yet he nevertheless allowed himself to be persuaded by Erdogan in September 2012 to join his conservative-Islamic AKP. Only five days later, Can was elected to join the party’s 50-member executive committee.

Can says he had never intended to go into politics, but at the time he felt AKP was pursuing a liberal brand of politics. Erdogan’s government had reformed the constitution in 2010 and strengthened the rights of women. “Those reforms of course didn’t go far enough,” Can says, “but they were an important step.”

Erdogan also seemed prepared to accept advice from a person like him. “I told him that I would be critical of him,” Can says, “and he said that was OK.” At the time, an AKP constitutional commission was considering the question of what a presidential system might look like. Can studied the proposals and became alarmed. The president, for example, “was to be given the right to dissolve parliament,” he says.

Few listened to Can’s objections until he complained directly to Erdogan. “Afterwards, we created a new commission and worked for six months on proposals — for a parliamentary, but also for a presidential system that assured democratic structures.” In April 2014, Can’s commission presented its work. Erdogan reacted positively.

Unacceptable disgrace

But then he was elected president and Can’s proposals for greater democracy weren’t released, Erdogan apparently preferring to avoid a public debate. A short time later, Can’s AKP career came to an end: When the next parliamentary elections came around, his name no longer appeared on the party’s list of candidates. “Erdogan didn’t call me, nor did I go to him, he says. “I had seen that I could no longer be effective.”

Does Can’s story affirm the interpretation that Erdogan has let his power go to his head and that he is now unscrupulously clearing away any form of opposition on his path to autocratic rule? Can shakes his head. “I can understand this European view,” he says. But if the West sees only Erdogan as the bogeyman and disregards the Gülen movement, it won’t be seeing the whole truth, he adds. “The more powerful Gülen got, the tougher Erdogan became,” he says, and this conflict triggered a wave of irrational political actions.

And the putsch attempt? “I have no proof,” Can says, “but I am convinced it was initiated by the Gülen movement.” He says he didn’t applaud when the tanks rolled in on Friday. “My reaction was: Even if democracy in Turkey is in a sorry state, such a disgrace is unacceptable.”

According to Can, the only way out of the crisis for Turkey is through deeper democracy. “Without a democratic constitution, our system will remain vulnerable to further putsch attempts — and to populism.”

By Nicola Abé, Dieter Bednarz, Onur Burçak Belli, Eren Caylan, Konstantin von Hammerstein, Veit Medick, Peter Müller, Maximilian Popp, Roland Nelles, Christoph Schult and Samiha Shafy

Further reading:

Fethullah Gulen, Turkey’s most controversial cleric, by Murat Bilgincan, Al-Monitor, April 19, 2016

A coup was launched from here? Intrigue in rural Pennsylvania, by Joanna Slater, The Globe and Mail, July 22, 2016

Just down the road from a flea market and a maze made out of corn stalks sits the compound home to Fethullah Gulen, the influential cleric accused of masterminding last week’s failed military coup in Turkey

It is high summer in this rural corner of northeastern Pennsylvania – a time of blue skies, boating on the Delaware River, and, if Turkey’s president is to be believed, plots to overthrow his government.

Just down the road from a flea market and a maze made out of corn stalks sits the compound home to Fethullah Gulen, the influential cleric accused of masterminding last week’s failed military coup. It’s an accusation that Mr. Gulen has categorically denied.

Inside the compound, there is mostly silence, save for the chirping of birds and the buzz of planes high overhead. There are very few people evident – a handful of men walk the paths between sculpted pine trees and a couple of children ride bikes near a row of houses built to accommodate visitors.

The quiet here is a world away from the turmoil gripping Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared a state of emergency and detained or suspended more than 60,000 military personnel, judges, teachers, civil servants and police officers. Mr. Erdogan has urged his supporters to stay in the streets following the attempted coup, which left nearly 300 people dead.

For nearly two decades, Mr. Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in this hamlet of about 1,000 people in the Pocono Mountains. The founder of a movement known as “Hizmet,” or service, Mr. Gulen’s teachings focus on education. His supporters have started hundreds of secular schools and charities across Turkey and beyond. A moderate preacher rooted in the Sufi mystic tradition of Islam, Mr. Gulen is known for emphasizing interfaith dialogue.

But Mr. Erdogan calls Mr. Gulen and his followers a “cancer” and a “terrorist organization” that is building a “parallel state.” The rancour is personal. During the first decade of Mr. Erdogan’s tenure as Prime Minister, he and Mr. Gulen acted as allies, working to expand the range of Islamic expression in Turkey and to curb the sway of its powerful military. Since 2013, however, Mr. Gulen has become a vocal critic of Mr. Erdogan.

During an interview at the compound, Y. Alp Aslandogan, a spokesman for the Gulen movement, describes that he was in California on vacation when he learned of the attempted coup. “It was probably the worst day of my life,” he says. He feared there would be casualties and worried that Mr. Gulen would be blamed.

Mr. Gulen, 75, suffers from diabetes and cardiovascular disease and leaves the compound only for medical reasons. He is rarely seen outside his modest two-room apartment in the compound’s main L-shaped building. Mr. Gulen spends much of his day in spiritual practice, says Mr. Aslandogan. Two or three times a week, videos of his talks are posted online. He also meets regularly with a small group of graduate students.

Earlier this week, Turkey submitted materials to initiate the extradition of Mr. Gulen. But there has been no contact between Mr. Gulen and the U.S. government, says Mr. Aslandogan. He believes that it is “extremely unlikely” any request from Turkey would satisfy the conditions of the extradition treaty between the two countries, which includes the right to refuse to hand over people sought for “political” offences.

Mr. Aslandogan is executive director of the Alliance for Shared Values, an umbrella organization for non-profits run by Mr. Gulen’s supporters. He allows that it is theoretically possible that soldiers sympathetic to the Gulen movement participated in the attempted coup, but adds that such involvement would run counter to Mr. Gulen’s philosophy. It would be “a betrayal of what [Mr. Gulen] stands for.”

In the wake of the coup, the rhetoric against Mr. Gulen and his supporters has become “very, very alarming,” says Mr. Aslandogan, who believes it could be a prelude to organized pogroms or worse. An enormous banner in Istanbul’s main Taksim Square recently warned Mr. Gulen, “We’ll hang you and your dogs with your own leashes.” A pro-government newspaper shared a purported hotline for reporting people suspected of being Mr. Gulen’s supporters, while a semi-official news agency urged Turks to make reports to police or prosecutors.

Mr. Erdogan is “using this as carte blanche to get anyone who is critical of the government or ever would be,” said Jenny White, a professor at the Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies and an expert on political Islam. Prof. White says she has never seen anything violent in nature in all of her interactions with Mr. Gulen’s sympathizers, who were notable instead for their sheer number of civic works. But the movement’s opaque organization and tendency toward secrecy have drawn critics, who say its ultimate goals are not clear.

During a tour of the compound in Pennsylvania, Kadir Bulut points out the place where Mr. Gulen lives, in a corner of the top floor of the main building. The apartment leads on to a narrow balcony, where a row of pine trees sit in planters. Beyond the building and down a hill, there is a small pond, a grassy area for picnics and a jungle gym for children.

Mr. Bulut used to work for Zaman, a newspaper associated with Mr. Gulen that was seized last year by Turkey’s government. “Here we are free,” he says of the United States. “Here we are safe.” His parents, who arrived for an extended visit several months ago, were supposed to return to Turkey this week. But now they have postponed their departure indefinitely.

A few doors down from the compound, a 30-year old woman who asked that her name not be used said that Mr. Gulen and his supporters were courteous if unusual neighbours. A couple of times, she said, helicopters have landed in the field beyond their home, carrying visitors for Mr. Gulen.

Then, in recent years, groups of pro-Erdogan protesters began turning up on their small lane, shouting expletives and drawing a large police presence. “You don’t know who to believe,” she said. “Some say he’s the worst person in the world and some say he’s a really good guy.”

Down the road at the Sunset Inn, a nearby bar, it’s clear that Mr. Gulen and his compound are the subject of much speculation in this small village, known mostly for its giant corn maze and the haunted house by the lake that opens each Halloween.

“Did you go inside? Is it nice? Is it beautiful?” asks Jennifer Johnson, 35, as she works behind the bar. “He’s a multibillionaire, you know.” Until about three months ago, Ms. Johnson had no idea Mr. Gulen was in the area. Then she started doing her own research on the Internet. She says she’s unnerved by the fact that outsiders aren’t allowed into the compound and by the presence of armed guards.

Tim Koller, a local industrial mechanic, interjects. “If you are a religious and spiritual powerhouse, you have to protect yourself and your followers and your family,” he says.

Mr. Koller, 59, says he has heard some locals make cracks about the “terror camp down the road” but he has no issues with Mr. Gulen and his followers.

“This country was founded by people escaping oppressive governments trampling on their religion,” Mr. Koller adds. “People fought and died for just that right.” [End article]


EDITOR’S NOTE: We remind our readers that publication of articles on our site does not mean that we agree with what is written. Our policy is to publish anything which we consider of interest, so as to assist our readers in forming their opinions. Sometimes we even publish articles with which we totally disagree, since we believe it is important for our readers to be informed on as wide a spectrum of views as possible.

Recent Posts
Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Start typing and press Enter to search

Translate »