Visitors to Istanbul in these first few days after the failed military coup will find a nation that is not yet at war – but not entirely at peace either.
For the most part, Turkish people are still calmly going about their business, running homes, holding down jobs and drinking tea on the terraces of restaurants. And yet, in the background, Turkish society is undergoing a massive purge of those deemed a potential threat to the state.
It began with those directly or indirectly involved in the botched coup attempt that started on the night of July 15. Since then, an estimated 45,000 people have been arrested or dismissed from their positions in the military, police, judiciary and other public institutions. Among them are around 2,700 judges and 15,000 teachers in schools and universities.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry is quite clear about who it holds responsible for the failed power grab. A communiqué on the ministry’s website blames the political movement of Fethullah Gülen, a powerful and controversial Muslim cleric residing in the United States.
Gülen’s movement – known in Turkey as Hizmet – has been declared a terrorist group by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Ironically, just a few years back, Erdoğan regarded the same movement a “brother” organization of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), since they both share strong Islamist ideals.
In recent years, however, Erdoğan has shifted his view of Gülen and his vast network of supporters, increasingly claiming they seek to establish a “parallel state” and grab power. Among the visible signs of tension between the two are accusations of corruption in Erdoğan’s political circles that were reported in Gülen-linked media outlets. Gülen has also been held responsible for embarrassing leaks of sensitive conversations from within Erdoğan’s government.
Both Gülen and Erdoğan support a return to Turkey’s Islamic identity, moving away from the secular ideals of Mustafa Kamal Atatürk, the father of the modern Turkish state. However, despite their common religious convictions, the two men eventually became rivals, with Erdoğan focussing on his own brand of political Islam while Gülen emphasised a cultural form of Islamic revival, based partly on a vast network of schools and charity institutions.
Gülen has sought to portray himself as a promoter of religious dialogue, meeting with heads of several prominent Jewish organizations and also Pope John Paul II. The difference in approach was illustrated by Hizmet’s refusal to support Turkish efforts to break the blockade of Gaza, an effort that Erdoğan promoted strongly. Meanwhile, Erdoğan has expressed concerns that Gülen is too close to both the United States and Israel, even suggesting that a "Gülen-Israel axis" was out to get him, according to an Economist report.
A demonstrator hold pictures of Erdoğan and Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen (R), June 30, 2016 (photo: Reuters).
'Backed by the CIA'
Gülen has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, USA, since 1999, but the Erdoğan government says his organization has been working behind the scenes for years, aiming to take control of Turkey by any means necessary.
Erdoğan blames his former ally for arranging corruption allegations against members of his government in 2013, an episode that prompted Erdoğan to go after Hizmet in earnest, closing thousands of private schools run by the movement. In 2016, Erdoğan officially declared Hizmet a terrorist organization and has a standing extradition request registered with the US authorities.
While Gülen is clearly the Turkish government’s prime suspect in the coup attempt, the exiled cleric has denied the allegations, even suggesting that Erdoğan “staged” the coup attempt in order to justify the massive purge now taking place.
Supporters of the Turkish government are very open in their condemnation of Gülen, saying that his current state of freedom in the United States says a lot about his connections. According to the dominant narrative in Turkey right now, the coup was a joint operation between the Hizmet movement and the CIA, which increasingly views Erdoğan as incapable of meeting the geopolitical needs of NATO.
In a sign of fragile relations between NATO and Turkey, while the coup was still ongoing, Turkish authorities cut water and electricity supplies to the Incirlik airbase, which is used by NATO nations to launch airstrikes against Islamic State targets. It also houses 90 nuclear weapons that were supplied by the United States and are under joint US-Turkish control.
Turkey’s determination to hold Hizmet responsible for the coup can be seen in the arrest on Saturday of two figures close to Gülen. One is a key aide to the cleric named Halis Hanci who authorities claim entered the country just two days prior to the coup. Another is Gülen’s nephew Muhammed Sait Gulen, who may face charges of terrorism and leaking questions from the 2010 civil service exams.
Anti-coup protesters with signs taunting America over its support for Gulen's 'terrorist' movement (photo: Sándor Jászberényi)
The massive scale of the purges currently underway, and the speed with which they have been implemented, seems to suggest that Erdoğan’s government was aware something was afoot and had been gathering data for some time on who poses a threat to the state.
In recent months, police officers have been visiting university campuses and professors have been taken in for questioning or put under surveillance. But it is only since that coup that authorities have been able to act on their leads.
In addition to the thousands of academics and civil servants targeted for the sack, there is also a push to close down Gülen’s network of institutions, which the government claims are part of the "parallel state" that threatens democracy. On Saturday, officials announced the closure of 1,000 private schools and more than 1,200 private associations.
While there were signs of a reckoning long before the crisis in mid-July, the huge wave of sackings has shocked the Turkish elite, with many in tears as they received news of their dismissal from jobs. It seems nobody in the academic sphere was prepared for the huge scale of Erdoğan’s response.
Many Turkish intellectuals with alleged Gülen sympathies are in a state of panic. Aside from losing their jobs, an order has been given banning university professors from travelling abroad for the time being.
Amid all the arrests and raids on homes and offices, it seems nobody is willing to openly express support for the coup, nor give their reasons for wanting Erdogan removed from power. Foreign journalists in Turkey find their enquiries met with evasive answers or blank refusals to discuss the matter.
Meanwhile, requests for interviews with academics are routinely rejected, despite promises of anonymity, so widespread is the fear of secret police lurking in the shadows.
Supporters on the street
Meanwhile, in much of Istanbul, those who support the Turkish president are continuing their lives calmly – even cheerfully.
In the early hours of the coup attempt, supporters of the president took to the streets on the orders of religious leaders, seeking to disrupt the military takeover and persuade soldiers to lay down their weapons. Since then, the city transformed into a political stage on which opponents of the coup display their patriotic credentials, often draped in the national flag.
The president's men show up at the city’s busiest hubs and in areas that foreign visitors are certain to pass though, such as Ataturk Airport. With the help of the police, entire lanes of roads are blocked by cars at night while the celebrations continue. People wave flags and listen to political speeches broadcast through loudhailers at roadblocks.
Sometimes the tone of the demonstration is dominated by music and clapping hands. The traffic is forced to a crawl and the spectators have enough time to learn who has the power in Turkey now – and the support of the majority.
Despite the clear show of political bias on the streets, some are still hesitant about explaining what’s going on, our taxi driver among them. As we pass the third group of protestors, he finally answers our request for comment, saying only: “Do you like this beautiful Turkey? It's beautiful isn't it? Well, those people are there to keep it beautiful."
He gives us long and detailed stories about the centuries-old history of the Bosphorus, but we can't get him to provide any concrete information on current events.
Erdoğan’s popularity in Istanbul right now seems clear from a glance at the road traffic. Every third or fourth car is decorated with a national flag on one way or another. As they pass by the groups of protesters, the cars slow down, their occupants shouting support, and the protesters wave back, smiling. It seems the protectors of the "beautiful Turkey" find and reinforce each other in these days.