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Letter from Istanbul: Failed Coup and Anti-Americanism

We were absently gazing at television news on July 15 around 10:30 p.m. when something strange caught our attention. On air was a bit of shaky footage, possibly relayed from somebody's cell phone, of some sort of fracas going down on the Bosphorus Bridge. Traffic was stopped at the European end and a crowd seemed to be milling around aimlessly. We thought it must be another of the "terrorism events" to which we're unfortunately somewhat inured. A few minutes later, however, we heard a word that immediately galvanized everyone in the room--"coup". What? A military coup? In this day and age? Weren't such things long buried in ancient history? Didn't everybody know that Turkey had put that sort of crude behavior behind after the army coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980--when 650,000 people had been arrested, thousands tortured, and hundreds killed?

Yet some sort of uprising seemed to be in progress. The longer we watched, the more we heard the "c" word, though still uttered in tones of disbelief. Yet events bore the air of theater drama, kind of like a staged moon landing, even when a member of the rebel faction, as it was now being called, appeared on state television and read the traditional announcement of takeover, complete with boilerplate about law and order, human rights, keeping calm, and so on. The streets and houses of our neighborhood were dark and quiet, only adding to the unreality, when suddenly the roar of a fighter jet shattered the night. Then there was a loud clattering of helicopters. They seemed to be headed south, where the airport lay. Sure enough, reports of fire-fights there soon appeared on the news. Military reality was catching up.

And then came religion--a first in the history of Turkish coups. Well past midnight, hours after the day's final call to prayer--prescribed for around ten p.m.--we were startled to hear a well-amplified prayer emanating from the local mosque, followed by a brief message in prose. The latter turned out to be an address prepared by the Ministry of Religious Affairs exhorting the faithful to take to the streets and resist the coup-mongers. This they did, putting their bodies in the way of tanks and bringing fresh-faced conscripts to heel with kicks and clubs. It was not a game. Over the next eight or ten hours nearly 300 citizens died, some crushed by tanks, some downed by rifle or machine-gun fire. Soldiers lost their lives to gun-toting police and knife-wielding partisans. On the Bosphorus Bridge an army sniper climbed a stanchion and picked off unarmed civilians below one by one, until in due course he himself was shot down.

There seemed to be little strategy in all of this. It was as if an after-match brawl between soccer hooligans had spun out of control into a free-for-all, or incipient civil war, it was hard to tell which. Then at about three a.m. the President, looking pale and nervous, appeared on CNN, speaking via cell phone. He assured the nation that, while he had narrowly escaped capture or death, he was safe for the moment. He urged patriots in the armed services to take up arms against the coup plotters and requested "lovers of democracy" and "anti-coup citizens" to hold rallies across the nation. People across the political spectrum heeded the call, and by noon the next day, July 16, it was clear that the extraordinary had come to pass: the so-called military coup had failed; the elected government would remain in power. Now what?

The finger-pointing began immediately. Suspicion at first suggested collaboration by hard-line Kemalist nationalists, traditionally hostile to Islamist ideologues, but soon shifted fully to the followers of Fethullah Gülen. Gülen is a cleric who has been living in Pennsylvania since 1999 and who seems to enjoy a vague umbrella of protection by Washington. The official name of his organization, or "movement," is Hizmet, meaning Service, but in recent years the Erdoğan government has dubbed it FETÖ, short for Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization. Politically the two were in bed together during the 1990s and early 2000s, united in the cause of bringing Islamist politics to the Republic. Around 2010, however, they began falling out with one another. Things went from bad to worse. The government closed the Hizmet network of private schools, source of much revenue and a lever of influence. Then in December 2014, state prosecutors filed spectacular charges of corruption, bribery, and nepotism against Erdoğan, his family, and the cabinet. Four ministers resigned. The government swiftly undertook a massive restructuring of the judicial system, firing prosecutors and judges associated with the case and ultimately sweeping the scandal under the rug. Erdoğan blamed it all on the Gülen congregation; the two allies became the bitterest of enemies.

The idea that the Gülenists were behind the failed coup took off like wildfire, especially after several of its leaders admitted to involvement with Hizmet. One even offered to put a captured general in touch with Gülen so that he could speak with him directly. Calls for Gülen's extradition from America rose in volume, not only from government officials but from their joyful supporters, who continued to gather nightly in the plazas to wave a sea of Turkish flags while Erdogan's image filled giant TV screens and military music poured from enormous speakers. The epicenter of these demonstrations was Taksim Square in Istanbul. The city made public transportation free so that participants could the more easily go. As days and evenings went by and the government began rounding up something like 60,000 Gülenist sympathizers and, therefore, FETÖ terrorists, these rallies and the pro-government media began stressing the fact that America had made no move to turn the arch coup-plotter over to Turkey. Moreover, Obama had been notably tardy in phoning the President to offer congratulations and support--unlike Vladimir Putin, who'd called first thing in the morning.

Suspicions hardened. In almost no time it became a given among the party faithful that Washington had, together with the Gülenists, orchestrated this heinous attack. There was little point in asking, rationally, what America had to gain by such a deed, for it was obviously to thwart Turkey's rise toward global dominance. Official denials from Washington were late and weak--it must have been hard to take this stuff seriously over there--and did little to stem the rising tide of anti-Americanism. Naturally the U.S. embassy issued a statement denying prior knowledge of or participation in the uprising, but at the same time it advised American citizens not to come to Turkey, and if they did, to avoid crowds. On the street, anyone admitting his or her Americanness even in, for example, casual chat with a taxi driver or shopkeeper, was soon bombarded with questions about what America meant by protecting the traitor. One of the President's speechifying minions asked pointedly what, if the tables were turned and Turkey were harboring Osama bin Laden, would America expect its ally to do? Washington's answer was: Give us evidence. Ankara's counter was: It's totally obvious, what more do you need? Thus the somewhat ironic situation in which democracy-lovers of Turkey are united in skepticism toward the self-declared gold standard of democracy.

It's been a month since the night of the would-be coup, and ninety percent of the news since then has been obsessed with it. As nearly all objective and critical news media have been shut down, this means near-total immersion in the government's narrative, though social media like Twitter offer relief now and then. Gülen and his followers are the burning issue at the fore. And yet, who are they? Yesterday's Gülenists could be today's Erdoganists, and vice versa, which leads to a dilemma. To which camp might your colleague belong? Your neighbor? Your boss? The police you call for help? In any case how could you tell? In some ways the whole thing boils down to a war between two secretive Islamic brotherhoods resembling somewhat the dervish orders of old. In this case, for a change, both of them are Sunni; and curiously both have been blessed by Washington at one time as "moderate Islamists," that peculiar phrase no one understands.

The outcome of the struggle remains far from certain; yet Americans, oblivious though they may be, will play a pivotal part in it. Will they or won't they hand over the "traitor"? Joe Six-Pack, of course, could hardly care less, and there are sound reasons behind him. One is that most U.S. citizens couldn't find Turkey on a map with both hands. A more interesting one, I think, is that we have never experienced a military attack on our government, with all its consequent chaos and terror and collapse of trust in public institutions. (With the Turkish army in shambles, for example, who can trust it to defend the country against ISIS and PKK terrorists?) Not to mention, on a personal level, the suspicion of possible treason around every corner. It's a poisonous atmosphere, one we hope never to experience firsthand. But it might not be a bad idea, in view of our current political climate, to learn a bit more about how and why the Turks have come to such a pass.

Cliff Endres © 2016

Cliff Endres is a writer living in Istanbul, he was a writer for the original Austin Sun.


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