Protestors in Istanbul march in opposition to Erdogan. Photo: Emrah Oprukcu/NurPhoto
It has become normal for George Orwell to creep into political conversations in Turkey: the parallels are too numerous to resist.
A year on from a failed coup attempt, more than 150,000 people have been arrested, fired, or driven into self-imposed exile. The group President Erdogan accuses of orchestrating the revolt are the shadowy followers of an Islamic preacher called Fethullah Gulen. Turks are told that they act as if they are secular—drinking alcohol and wearing revealing clothes—to cover their real pious identities. Consequently, anyone could find the finger of blame pointed at them. Being in possession of a one-dollar bill bearing a certain serial number has been enough to land some people in prison; for others, it was wearing a t-shirt printed with the word ‘Hero’ (both are claimed to be secret signs that Gulen’s followers use to communicate between themselves). Book dumping became common as the crackdown hit—no-one wants to be caught with one of Gulen’s tomes on their shelf.
Meanwhile, the justice system is in meltdown. More than 4,000 of those who have been purged are from the judiciary, slashing its manpower by a quarter at the exact moment that thousands of coup cases are beginning to move through the courts. Many of the 50,000 being held in prison are yet to find out exactly what they are accused of. In court, the prosecution’s case is often just a chronology of all that happened on the night of the coup.
I travel to drab concrete neighbourhoods at the end of Istanbul’s metro lines to meet the people caught up in the purge. They have often retreated into the shadows, shunned by friends and family members who either believe the accusations against them, or are scared of being tarred by association. They tell me their ways of coping; one woman, discharged from her job and now living in fear of arrest, has turned to God and started covering her head.
“After my dismissal, I started to study the Koran again. Gulen people have the tendency to do this, but I don’t care because the people don’t care about me,” she said. “When I was first trying it [the headscarf] I tried different styles. I thought I looked too much like an AKP supporter (Erdogan’s ruling party). We all have prejudices.”
Back in my central Istanbul neighbourhood, with its tattoo shops and small dogs and hipsters, the drinking and good times continue. Most Turks believe that the Gulenists were involved in the coup attempt—they had already spent years infiltrating Turkey’s bureaucracy and security services. A decade ago, Erdogan and Gulen were allies (of sorts) and the government turned a blind eye to the group’s growing power. The Gulenists used their positions to wiretap phones and pursue spurious cases against secular opponents and high-ranking military officers, and the government acquiesced—until December 2013, when the relationship combusted.
That was the first time I heard of Fethullah Gulen: when the streets of my neighbourhood exploded into a riot of Molotov cocktails and tear gas. A police investigation had revealed a huge corruption scandal, involving the sons of Erdogan and three of his government ministers; gold deals and Iranian sanctions-busting. The state-owned Halk Bank was implicated, and its branches were smashed up in the protests. Graffiti covered the streets: “Thieves everywhere”, it read. It looked like the government might fall—but everyone knew that the scandal was not all it seemed. Within days, Erdogan had accused Gulen of orchestrating it, sacked hundreds of high-ranking police officers, and clung on to power by his fingernails.
Even during the height of the protests, those partaking knew what might happen. “We fear that we may be seen as acting with the Gulenists,” one young woman told me. “Actually, we want the people of Turkey to have the power.”
How prophetic, I think now as I look back on my notes from those protests, almost 4 years ago. Everyone knows that Erdogan and his party have questions to answer about their relationship with the Gulenists. But everyone has also learnt the rules. Don’t criticise. Don’t question. Keep quiet.
But there are people who refuse to keep quiet, and the government doesn’t know what to do with them. Last week, 17 employees of the Cumhuriyet newspaper—a secular title staunch in its opposition to both Erdogan and Gulen—went on trial, accused of aiding terror groups including the Gulenists. The journalists in the dock included Ahmet Sik, an investigative reporter who has previously served a year in prison for his expose of the Gulenists – back in 2011, before Erdogan started his war on the group. There is another loop in this Gordian knot: the prosecutor who brought the case against Cumhuriyet is now himself accused of links to the Gulenists.
Sik’s defence statement, on the third day of the trial, was a raging indictment of the government.
“Now, they act as if they had nothing to do with the transformation of the Gulen movement, which was undeniably one of the parties involved in the bloody coup attempt, into a monster,” he said. “They want us to keep silent about their guilt and to not tell the truth. They are using the blood of the victims killed by the putschists as a demagogic part of a cheap and shallow political strategy. Because those who hold power in their hands have only one goal in mind: to continue their totalitarian rule no matter what.”
The judge was due to deliver the verdict on Friday evening. Instead, he postponed it until September. Seven of the Cumhuriyet defendants were released on bail, but Sik remains in detention—and the prosecutor is bringing fresh charges against him for his defence statement.
“Orwell would think it too far-fetched,” a friend observed over dinner that evening. Turkey's pro-government press has said little about the trial. Perhaps even they realise it is pushing the boundaries of credibility.