By his own account, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey received a phone call from his brother in law on July 15th while vacationing with his family in the resort town of Marmaris on the country’s Mediterranean coast. Told of unusual actions by the military in the capital and unable to get in touch with his intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, he reportedly began to fear the worst: a military coup was underway in the country.
According to one report, this phone call may have saved his life, prompting him to leave his hotel immediately after. This was “because the plotters in operational charge of the event, fearing the imminent discovery of the coup, had brought forward its timing by six hours and were unable to tell this to the soldiers targeting Mr. Erdogan, who escaped shortly before they arrived.”
If this is true, things may have taken a very different turn that night and Turks may have found themselves once again waking up to a country under military rule.
A History of Coups
The Republic of Turkey has, since its founding by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, been prone to such coups. This goes back to the military’s dominance throughout the Republic’s early history and their self proclaimed role as the defender of secularism in the country. To be blunt, the generals long believed they knew better than the politicians what was best for the Turkish state and usually felt strong enough to impose their will on it, something they did at least four times between 1960 and 1997.
The election of Erdogan, the popular former mayor of Instanbul, to the post of Prime Minister in 2003 was seen as victory for political Islam in one of the most modern of Muslim nations and a model for other such peaceful, albeit conservative, movements in neighboring countries. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) sought to break the hold over the country’s institutions by what had come to be called the ‘Deep State’, run by the military and security services and existing outside, and often in opposition to, the government’s control.
The weak Turkish left, which might have moderated the Islamists, was always the main target of this Deep State and has, perhaps unsurprisingly given their somewhat radical conservatism, also been in the cross hairs of the AKP since they took power. Considering that at least 60,000 people have been accused of participating in the coup attempt, it will come as no surprise if we find some of them are leftists unrelated to the events of July 15th.
Now the Turkish military, along with almost every other sector of Turkish society, finds itself being purged of a very different faction, not the secularists (called Kemalists after the nation’s founder) usually associated with the Deep State, but a self described social movement based on Islamic principals previously allied to the AKP. Followers of this movement stand accused of creating a confrontation that led to the deaths of at least 265 people as supporters of the government took to the streets to put a stop to the coup plotters.
Purging Another Deep State
Crucial to loosening the security forces’ grip on power in the years since Erdogan’s 2003 election was a cleric named Fetthullah Gulen and his movement, Hizmet (‘Service’). The organization presents itself as promoting a “tolerant, liberal Anatolian Sufism”, a more worldly, mystical school of Islam. Hizmet claims its focus is on education and charitable works, not politics, and as proof of this they can point to the hundreds of schools they run throughout the world, including many in the US and Canada.
Living in exile on a 25 acre compound in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, Gulen, who suffers from heart disease and diabetes, left Turkey in 1999 for medical treatment but never returned as soon after he was accused by the Kemalists then in power, “of setting up an illegal organization to undermine the secular government.”.
After President Erdogan’s recent call for his extradition from the US, he took to the editorial pages of the New York Times to deny any connection between himself and the plotters, writing, “If somebody who appears to be a Hizmet sympathizer has been involved in an attempted coup, he betrays my ideals.”
It must have once seemed to both men that their two movements, Erdogan’s political one and Gulen’s social one, would make for an unbeatable combination in Turkey’s politics. In fact, there is evidence that the 75 year old cleric’s followers in the police and judiciary spearheaded two major criminal cases that helped the AKP consolidate its power, the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations, beginning in 2008.
They also show that some of Gulen’s followers were not too fussy about crossing ethical lines.
The most serious charges leveled by these investigations concerned an aborted coup plan by high ranking officers, which prosecutors claimed had been hatched shortly after the AKP took power. Unfortunately, there were inconsistencies with the evidence, not the least of which was that the documents detailing the alleged 2003 plot were found to have been created using Microsoft Word 2007.
Regardless, the result of the investigation was 275 convictions that, in a recent twist, were overturned by the country’s highest court of appeals at the end of April of this year. There are many who doubt that the plot ever even existed at all, but one thing was clear: the Gulenists allied with the AKP had used their own Deep State in the form of adherents in the courts and the police to deal a nearly fatal blow to the Kemalist faction in the army.
In Erdogan’s Turkey, paranoia has reigned in recent years, partly due to terrorism concerns amid deteriorating conditions in neighbors Iraq and Syria, but also due to the President’s authoritarian behavior. Journalists critical of the government have been jailed and media outlets of all political persuasions shut down, including quite a few believed to be Gulenist, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
There is little doubt in my mind that coup or no, the President and the AKP had been preparing a showdown with Hizmet for some time. As noted by several sources, the speed that lists of people, as least 60,000 of them, were produced in the chaos after the coup attempt seems to confirm this, but there were earlier signs of a rupture.
Erdogan began to make his intentions regarding the organization clear in late 2013 by calling for the closure of private schools in the country, including the more than 1,000 affiliated with Hizmet. His argument that these institutions were creating an unfair advantage for the rich has some merit; one prestigious Gulen school in the capital, Instanbul, was charging students “about $11,325 (US), nearly the equivalent of Turkey’s per capita income of $14,600” each year, not including the cost of books and supplies.
That same year, the Gulen movement was accused of being behind corruption charges brought against high ranking AKP members, including the head of the government controlled Halk Bank. Police alleged these individuals had profited from a ‘gas for gold’ scheme with Iran, itself under strict international sanctions at the time.
One person involved in the scandal, a dual Turkish-Iranian national named Reza Zarrab, was arrested at the end of March in the US on charges of evading the sanctions as part of the scheme. The Turkish government tried to portray the American prosecutor, Preet Bharara, as a Gulen ‘associate’.
After the initial arrests in Turkey there were said to be more planned, with the President’s son Bilal implicated in the corruption in a recording leaked to the press. However, on the 7th of January, 2014 the government removed 350 police officers from their posts and the investigation, which Erdogan referred to as “a judicial coup”, ended.
Erdogan will probably be the biggest winner politically out of this failed coup whether the Gulen movement were actually behind the it or not, a question we may never have a full answer to. Hizmet is being dismantled in Turkey using the powers granted by the state of emergency announced shortly after the events of July 15th. It only took a few days for the government to begin the process of closing 1043 private schools, 1229 charities, 15 universities, 35 medical institutions and 19 trade unions associated with the movement.
Moves to pressure other countries to go after Gulen schools and other assets may further squeeze the organization financially. Nearby Azerbaijan just closed the Gulen affiliated Qafqaz University at the request of the Turkish government.
In Pakistan, Turkey is also bringing pressure to bear on that government to close at least 21 schools and an unreported number of businesses. While the Gulenists are reportedly less secular in their teachings in Pakistan than elsewhere, the loss of so many schools with high academic standards due to politics could be really damaging to the country.
As explained by James Dorsey in the article cited above, one of the major beneficiaries of this could be Saudi sponsored madrassas that offer little more than an education in the Wahhabi interpretation of the Koran that has fueled religious reactionaries in that country and throughout the region, especially next door in Afghanistan.
The calls for Gulen’s extradition will no doubt cause headaches for American diplomats if there is insufficient evidence produced of his involvement in the coup attempt. Besides the fact that the man accused of being behind it lives in the US, many of those accused of plotting it were found at the Incirlik airforce base vital to the American effort against the Islamic State across the country’s borders in Syria and Iraq.
Many Turks believe, rightly or wrongly, that US intelligence knew in advance what would happen on July 15th and didn’t warn the country’s political leaders. Many are understandably calling for a change in relations between the NATO allies on the basis of these suspicions.
The recent thaw with Russia, along with noises of similar diplomacy with Iran and possibly even the Assad government in Syria, signals that Erdogan is keeping his options open after several years of erratic and often disastrous foreign policy decisions. This will likely worry US and European policymakers, not just in terms of the Syrian war but also in terms of refugees and energy projects.
The longer Erdogan holds power the more he seems to be trying to keep and extend it, even taking the unconstitutional step of trying to create an executive presidency after term limits forced him out of the Prime Minister’s office where real power is supposed to be held in the country’s politics. In the end, it’s my belief that Erdogan will use these post-coup purges to further entrench his and the AKP’s own Deep State in the country, an entity that may survive long after he and his government are gone.