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Letter From Istanbul: Aftermath of A Failed Coup

"Absolutely Convinced"  Dan Hubig © 2016

From where we sit, here on the edge of Europe staring out at Asia, it looks a lot like the world is burning while America fiddles. On the sunny morning that commenced Eid al-Adha, the four-day Muslim holiday commemorating God's mercy to Abraham, small Turkish and Syrian boys ran around the neighborhood showing off their new toy AK-47s. Eid, like Christmas, is officially an interlude of peace, but on that day a car bomb exploded in southeast Turkey, wounding half a hundred people. The government blamed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Maybe--even probably--it was right. The problem was that nobody could be sure, because nobody any longer knew who, or what, to believe about anything whatsoever.

The attempted coup of July 15 was a trauma that shook the country to its core, a fact belatedly realized by Washington, which has since moved to shore up relations with Ankara. At the September G-20 meeting in Huangzhou the two presidents were "Tayyip" and "Barack" to each other as they dispensed mutual assurances of support and cooperation. Never mind that they had avoided speaking to each other for much of the previous two years.

Back in Turkey the situation was less sanguine. The ruling party--the AK Party, or AKP--declared Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric residing in Pennsylvania, had masterminded the failed coup and his followers had spent maybe forty years burrowing into the military, the judiciary, the intelligence services, the education system--in fact every key bureaucracy in the land--in readiness for the move. Gülen denies involvement in any of this, claiming that President Erdoğan staged the events for his own political purposes.

What is undeniable is that the Gülen movement, calling itself "Hizmet," or "Service," ran a network of schools and universities in Turkey and at least a hundred other countries, including the United States. The group had its own charities, banks, and newspapers. Its schools were well regarded; in Houston, for instance, they were reckoned among the city's best. Hizmet also underwrote conferences at various universities, including UT Austin, under the rubric of "Inter-Faith Dialogue." Participants' costs were fully covered--a rare perk for academics. Moreover the organization arranged expense-paid junkets to Turkey for members of the US Congress and state legislatures so that they could "learn more about the country." None of this activity seems to have involved a hard sell; everybody had a good time. Yet in Turkey Hizmet stands accused of--among many other allegations--systematically stealing the answers to civil-service exams so that it could fill the ranks with its own people. And if those Americans who tasted Hizmet largesse found themselves in Turkey today, they could legally be carted off to jail.

Lest it be thought that a Gülenist conspiracy to overthrow the elected government of Turkey is the fantasy of a paranoid minority, note that polls show fully eighty-eight percent of Turkish citizens believe in it. This leaves room only for a few agnostics plus a tiny claque who agree with Gülen that Erdoğan orchestrated it in his quest to become dictator and, perhaps, caliph as well. It would be less than wise, however, to express this latter opinion in public.

For the fact is that somebody bombed the Parliament in Ankara, strafed the airport in Istanbul, and killed 240 people on the night of July 15. Official and popular narratives are both replete with stories of heroes who with bare hands fended off tanks and gun-toting soldiers in a glorious and triumphant struggle to save democracy from being trampled under the fascist boots of putschists. Those who lost their lives in that effort have been accorded the status of martyrs for the nation, and who can argue? Even people who felt a rush of relief at the prospect of seeing the last of Erdoğan soon realized this was not the way to go, for a successful coup would surely have spiraled into civil war. Clearly then the perpetrators, in their hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands, would have to be rooted out.

The purges began immediately. Grounds for arrest were "contact with any person or institution conceivably associated with the Gülen group." The Gülen group had been the AKP's closest ally in its rise to power, but now it was re-branded as FETÖ--the Fethullahist Terror Organization. FETÖ moreover was straightway linked to an invention called the PDY ("Parallel State Organization"). In reality, "FETÖ/PDY" was a widening of the dragnet to include Kurdish activists and sympathizers. Never mind that it was an improbable pairing, as Gülen himself had always been fiercely anti-Kurdish, opposing even the "peace process" adduced by the Erdoğan government in the run-up to the 2014 elections--it had its uses.

The government and Parliament declared Emergency Rule--OHAL-- for three months. Under OHAL, decrees carry the force of law; Parliament is superfluous. Overnight forty thousand people were hauled into jail while a court decided whether to arrest or release them (had the lists been prepared beforehand?). Anyone who ever had an account at a Gülen bank (Bank Asya), or wrote a piece for a Gülen newspaper (Zaman and Today's Zaman), or taught at or sent a child to a Gülen school was suspect. Fifteen private universities were shut down and every dean in the country--1500 of them--was ordered to resign. Newspapers--those that weren't closed--ran photos of people being led away in handcuffs for questioning: CEOs, university presidents, military brass, vice-governors, judges, prosecutors and, oddly, lots of policemen. Organizations suspected of links to Gülen were raided. Their directors were fired and/or arrested and "trustees" appointed in their place, their assets confiscated (such confiscations were worth about five billion dollars at last report).

On September 2, forty thousand public employees learned from the Official Gazette that they'd been sacked by decree on the day before. Among them were 28,000 members of the public school system, mainly teachers and principals from the Kurdish southeast. The rest included two thousand faculty members and administrators at state universities, eight thousand members of the police force, and hundreds from the bureaus of social security, state radio and television, and the gendarmerie. Commentators brought up the Stalinist purges of the thirties, the McCarthyism of the fifties, and Mao's Cultural Revolution of the sixties. But though the crackdown shared elements of those historic events, its logic was thoroughly Turkish.

At a local coffee shop a few days after the decree, an Istanbul University history student told me thirteen faculty members of his department--everyone who was Associate Professor or above--had been fired as FETÖ-ists and no one was left to whom he could turn in his thesis. What, I asked, was the evidence?

"They found dollar bills in their offices," he said.

He wasn't entirely joking. A story popular in the pro-government media was that the fellowship used American dollar bills as secret identity cards, with the letter of the alphabet next to the serial number indicating the holder's status--"F," for example, as standing for "Fethullah," signified the highest rank; whereas an "A" might represent a newcomer. Some writers furthermore suggested the society was modelled on Opus Dei, the secretive Catholic fraternity. Not only that, the Pope had made Fethullah Gülen a closet cardinal, although exactly why the Vatican would conspire with a Muslim cleric to topple the Turkish government was not made clear.

Turks have always appreciated a good conspiracy theory, but the latest ones took on an edge when the president declared he would feel better if he had 200,000 suspects in detention, and urged citizens to report suspicious behavior on the part of their neighbors. Many were not loath to do so. As suspicion and resentment seeped into popular behavior, tensions rose and tempers frayed. Ordinary Turks, normally the soul of politeness, turned into rude louts. On the streets routine fender-benders led quickly to road rage, with tire tools and knives brandished. A policeman shot and killed a security guard who called him a FETÖ-ist. A man shouting "You're the devil!" kicked a young woman in the face for wearing shorts. (He was arrested, released, and re-arrested.)

On 11 September, eleven thousand teachers were suspended for alleged links to the PKK. Nearly all, again, were from the southeast; most said they were being punished for joining a one-day strike--"Against war, For peace"-- called by a teachers' union last December. Under the same decree twenty-eight elected mayors were fired; twenty-four were from the southeast and belonged to the pro-Kurdish party, the HDP. In their place the AKP government appointed "trustees" to run the towns, neatly nullifying the election results. The first thing one trustee did was to provoke an angry demonstration by removing a sign in Kurdish from city hall and replacing it with one in Turkish. (The district governor reversed the move.) When the US ambassador expressed the mild hope that "local citizens will soon be permitted to choose new local officials in accordance with Turkish law," three cabinet ministers responded with fury and told him to "Know your place."

"We are not the fifty-third state of America," said the Foreign Minister.

Actually, under the heading of "Europe, Eurasia, and Rising Threats" a US Congressional subcommittee conducted hearings on the July 15 events, inviting Turkish and Turkish-American speakers to testify. The session was videotaped and released on the internet. Turkish Twitter users learned about it, but before they could pull it up a court decision blocked it; it became simply another of Turkey's approximately 65,000 forbidden websites.

On September 19 the schools opened, except for several in the southeast where there were not enough teachers to go around. The deputy prime minister announced that twenty thousand new teachers would be hired by October 10, but did not say where they would come from or how qualified they might be. An earlier announcement declared that 25,000,000 textbooks, allegedly tainted by pro-Gülen authors, would be burned and replaced with new ones.

It was an eventful first day of class. The Ministry of Education lost no time in preparing two booklets for students on the coup attempt and the heroism of the resistance--"The Victory of Democracy and Our Martyrs," and "July 15: The Attempt to Occupy Turkey." The pledge of allegiance was rewritten: "Let us never forget you. Let our tongues be forever silenced if we cannot protect what has been entrusted to us. Even if centuries should pass, I will never forget this blessed saga and the sacrifice of the martyrs." At some schools first-graders in military costumes acted out a sort of passion play depicting the events. Finally, there was a seven-minute film, professionally produced and bursting with enough iconic images and martial music to put American political pageantry to shame. It's available on the web.

At the same time the government was propagating its new founding myth in the schools, it was holding over three hundred journalists, authors, and academics in prison. Among these were the editors of Zaman, Taraf, Cumhuriyet, Özgur Gündem and a dozen or so smaller newspapers. The English-language version of Zaman--the largest-circulation newspaper in the country--had already been seized in February and handed over to "objective trustees." The last issue before it went dark carried the usual assortment of news and columns critical of the government. The first issue under the trustees featured a smiling Erdoğan on the front page, followed by a string of government success stories. In an Aha! moment, a humor magazine still in operation suggested that it might be well if trustees took over the president's office.

On September 10, police detained Ahmet Altan and his brother Mehmet. The brothers are household names in Turkey: Ahmet is a best-selling novelist and former editor of the opposition newspaper Taraf (whose last editor, Mehmet Baransu, is also in prison). Mehmet Altan is a professor of economics and a newspaper columnist. Their crime?

"Membership in a terrorist organization."

The evidence?

"Subliminal messages."

According to the prosecutor, during a talking-heads TV show on July 14 the brothers transmitted subliminal messages encouraging the coup. He reasoned that they couldn't have sent the messages unless they had prior knowledge of the coup; and they couldn't have had prior knowledge of the coup unless they were members of the terrorist organization. He did not explain how he had deciphered the messages. But six one-dollar bills were allegedly found in Mehmet Altan's home.

"Why didn't they accuse me of being Superman while they were at it?" he asked.

The Altans were in good company. Award-winning novelist Asli Erdoğan (no relation to the president) and writer and translator Necmiye Alpay, both women in their seventies, have been behind bars since August, much of that time in solitary confinement. Their offense, described as "terrorism," apparently consisted of having their names on the editorial board of Özgür Gündem, a left-wing newspaper shuttered a few days after July 15.

Freedom of the press is virtually a thing of the past in Turkey, with rule of law not far behind. Eight hundred press cards were cancelled for no apparent reason, and only loyalist reporters are allowed at official press briefings. Journalists in the Kurdish southeast say they've been told that under Emergency Rule reporting of any kind is illegal. The number of radio, television, and newspaper outlets shut down is at least a hundred, which translates into an estimated 2300 employees of printing houses, distribution companies, and related enterprises losing their jobs; and accounts due have of course gone unpaid. One of the more head-scratching closures for "separatist and subversive activities" is that of Zarok TV, a Kurdish-language children's channel dedicated to cartoons like "Smurfs," "Maya the Bee," and "Sesame Street." Who knew that Spongebob Squarepants was a terrorist?

The West has been slow to respond to all this, though Washington and Brussels regularly wring their hands and express "concern." There are however a few signs of life. Nobel laureates J.M. Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk, and Herta Muller recently initiated a letter to the Turkish government protesting the jailing of the Altan brothers. More than two hundred international literary figures have signed it. In another case, PEN International and European PEN associations have formed a delegation to observe the trials of four editors and reporters from Taraf newspaper charged with "divulging state secrets." Delegates reported that at the latest hearing the prosecution added new charges overnight, lifting forty-five pages verbatim from a 2015 indictment of Cumhuriyet newspaper editor Can Dündar, with Dündar's name still on them. The wholesale firing and jailing of Turkish academics has prompted the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) to condemn these actions in public statements and an open letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry. Joined by sixty American professional organizations, MESA declared, "The crackdown on the education sector creates the appearance of a purge of those deemed inadequately loyal to the current government."

As for everyday life in Turkey, a tale in a recent newspaper column nicely expresses its Kafkaesque nature. It seems that a middle-class woman friend of the writer, panicked over dollar bills, confessed to her friends that she had burned hers. How many were there? About twenty, she admitted. When her friends admonished her for wasting good money, saying she could at least have given it to a street beggar, she replied, "But how could I know he wouldn't be the secret police?"

It was a good point. Social media were abuzz about the high-profile detention of a man who was said to be both a leader of the putsch and a ranking member of MIT--the national intelligence agency. So, the natural question: If he was a double agent, who was his real boss? If the government, wouldn't he have warned the president about the plot? If the coup-mongers, what does that say about the spy agency's competence? Well, not to worry, it would all come out at the trial. Curiously, however, his file got lost, the prosecutor couldn't find it back, hearings were unable to proceed, and he himself disappeared into thin air.

"There's a heavy hand protecting him," mused one commentator. But whose?

The cultural life of the country is reeling from a double whammy of repression and lack of tourism. Istanbul's normally bustling thoroughfares are somnolent. Its arts scene, which during the last ten years had been blossoming into world-class status, is wilting. Small galleries and ateliers throughout the city have closed shop as their artists and customers fled. Even large institutions such as the internationally known SALT galleries are in trouble; SALT has closed one branch and lost its director. Censorship is rife: Istanbul City Theaters sacked four actors and a director on suspicion of being Gülenists; State Theaters announced the season would open with local productions exclusively in order to boost "national feelings"-- except for a play that was banned because its subject was a coup.

In Çanakkale, a city of 185,000 close to ancient Troy and modern Gallipoli, organizers canceled the 2016 Biennale, scheduled for September. AKP politicians demanded the mayor fire the biennale's co-curator on charges that she supported the coup and the pro-Kurdish party, the HDP. Rejecting the former and accepting the latter, she resigned, declaring, "Opposing the ruling party is now considered grounds for punishment"--an echo of MESA's statement. Locals thus missed the work of forty artists from Turkey, France, Chile, and Iraq who were dealing with the refugee crisis on their doorstep. Still, it's an ill wind that blows no good at all: satirical broadsides, comics, graphic novels, street art and other grass-roots forms whose stock-in-trade is black humor are thriving.

Meanwhile out in central Anatolia, the AKP governor of Yozgat province used his OHAL authority to shut down the drinking establishments of Yozgat town, birthplace of the modern poet Gülten Akin and setting for the charming film, "Yozgat Blues."

"I wanted to do it for a long time," he said. Governors, incidentally, are not elected but are appointed by Ankara.

On September 30 the government, to nobody's surprise, extended Emergency Rule for three more months. Indeed, remarked the president, "Even a year might not be enough to accomplish what we need to do."

We might ask: can or should Americans, understandably distracted, even crazed, by the baroque spectacle of presidential elections at home, interest themselves in the byzantine politics of a far-off country? Maybe not. Yet they might want to pay heed to a joke currently making the rounds in Turkey:

Question: "Why do Turks want Trump to win the election?"

Answer: "So Americans will find out what it's like to live in Turkey."

Cliff Endres © 2016

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

Art: Dan Hubig © 2016

Sources include Hurriyet Daily News, Al-Monitor, P24, The New York Times, and Halk TV


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