Weeks After Turkey’s Failed Coup, Thousands Have Been Arrested Over a Book

By definition a political coup—even an attempted coup—is about power. It is about using force to oust someone with power, perhaps someone abusing power, with military force. It’s not usually about religion. In Turkey, however, things seem to be different.

For one thing, the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is the leader of the Justice and Development Party (which goes by its initials in Turkish, AKP), that has taken a socially conservative position on many religious issues. In a country where the first president, Kemal Ataturk, banned the use of the headscarf by Muslim women, the AKP has taken a more religiously tolerant position. Erdogan’s own wife wears a headscarf.

Moreover, some of Erdogan’s closest allies have been religious groups. One of the largest was the movement associated with the progressive Turkish imam, Fethullah Gulen, who has preached a message based on Muslim principles of social service, religious inclusiveness and an entrepreneurial spirit that matches the modern values of many educated Muslims. Gulen has requested that his ideas rather than his name should be promoted, so although the network of supporters is sometimes described in the press as the Gulen movement, his followers usually refer to themselves as part of the movement for “hizmet,” or social service.

When Erdogan came to power as prime minister of Turkey in 2003, Gulen and his Hizmet movement were among Erdogan’s staunchest allies. It seemed to be a marriage made in heaven. Gulen was advocating that Muslim values be the basis for social service in the public arena, and Erdogan was a politician who seemed to be pledged to that same vision in the political sphere. Since the Hizmet movement was particularly strong among the police force and the judiciary, they were useful connections for Erdogan, especially as he sought to gain support from the military, who were known to be defenders of Ataturk’s vision of a secular Turkey and wary of Islamist politicians. Though the Gulen supporters were pro-Muslim their followers among the police and judiciary were channels for reaching into military circles for support.

Like many modern marriages, however, the one between Erdogan and Gulen was doomed for failure. The relationship began to fall apart in 2013 when allegations of corruption were leveled at the Erdogan regime. But worse than that, it got personal. Erdogan’s own son, along with the sons of three of the ministers in his cabinet, were said to be involved in an illicit deal with Iran, trading gold for oil. The investigations of corruption in Erdogan’s nest were conducted by police intelligence working with the judiciary, both of whom were said to be led by supporters of Gulen.

Here’s where the story gets complicated, or rather divides, since there are two different interpretations of the Erdogan-Gulen split. On the Gulenist side is the notion that Erdogan turned against the Gulen movement in anger over Gulen supporters’ revelations of corruption in his inner circle. On the Erdogan side is the claim that the corruption charges were trumped up excuses by the Gulenists to drive Erdogan out of power.

Whatever the case, the relationship soured. Turkey’s most-read newspaper, Zaman, which had connections to the Gulen movement, was relentless in its stories about corruption and manipulation in the government. For its part, Erdogan’s cabinet proclaimed the Gulen movement to be a terrorist organization, and closed down Zaman, arresting hundreds of journalists associated with it and other publications. Gulen himself was out of Erdogan’s reach however. He had long ago moved to Pennsylvania where he was ensconced in a woodsy estate in the Poconos. Still, Erdogan alleged that the imam was orchestrating evil doings from his mountain hideaway.

All of this happened before the attempted coup this summer on July 15. As coups go, it was a botched affair almost from the beginning. Units of the military cordoned off a bridge across the Bosphorus in Istanbul in the early evening when the streets were still crowded. A military helicopter bombed the parliament building in Ankara during the night when it was empty. Erdogan, who was at a resort in the coastal town of Marmaris, escaped capture and flew back to the Istanbul airport where he held a news conference seated beneath a portrait of Ataturk, the secular founder of modern Turkey. He announced that the coup, such as it was, was over.

Even before an investigation into the coup attempt, however, Erdogan said he knew precisely who was behind it: Fethullah Gulen and his Hizmet network. Immediately the round-up began, but it was not just military officials who were arrested. Thousands of police officers, lawyers, judges, journalists and academics were also arrested with allegations that they might be associated with the Gulen network.

Within weeks, the numbers had swelled to the tens of thousands. The vast network of Gulen-related schools was closed. All university professors, regardless of the institution in which they taught, were constrained from traveling outside the country. Every university dean in the country was arrested or suspended. Ordinary prisoners were set free in order to make more room in the jails for anyone suspected of having any sympathy with Gulen or his movement.

Human Rights Watch, among other international observers, was alarmed at what appeared to many outsiders to be a travesty of human rights. Even if some inner circle of the Gulen movement, or even Gulen himself, was involved in the coup—and no evidence has been put forth to prove either case—certainly the tens of thousands of people who may have read a Gulen book and liked the ideas could not be regarded as aiding and abetting in a crime.

But within Turkey, as some of my friends who are there have told me, those sympathetic to the AKP political position regard it as a given that Gulen and his movement were responsible. They are also convinced that the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency was involved in some way, and that the Americans are harboring Gulen for that reason. Erdogan has demanded that the U.S. extradite Gulen as a terrorist suspect.

Secretary of State John Kerry has responded that any extradition request will be considered on its own merits once a formal request is made. In August, several weeks after the attempted coup, a formal request was made, but curiously none of the charges mentioned in the extradition request actually related to the coup itself. There has still been no evidence that would prove that Gulen or his movement was involved in the plot, and the AKP party has not supported the requests of other political parties in Turkey that a formal inquiry be held.

One of the rumors that is circulating both inside and outside Turkey is that the coup was an attempt to stop Erdogan from becoming a Putin-like dictator. According to this theory, a rebellious group of military officials who held to Ataturk’s secular image of Turkey were alarmed at the increasingly authoritarian direction that the Erdogan government was heading, and they spearheaded the coup attempt. Another rumor speculates that Erdogan himself might have orchestrated the attack in order to shore up his power and give an excuse to round up his critics.

Among Erdogan’s supporters in Turkey, many are convinced that the unwillingness to extradite Gulen or accept the Turkish government’s version of events is due to the ability of the Gulen movement to charm its way into leadership networks in other countries around the world. In the United States, for example, the movement has a network of schools and interfaith centers, and has been known to provide free trips to American academics to show them the Hizmet activities in Turkey.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am one of those academics who have benefited from a casual association with members of the Hizmet movement in the United States. But I didn’t get a free trip to Turkey. In my case I had given talks in spring of 2015, that were jointly sponsored by a Hizmet interfaith center, the Pacifica Institute of Long Beach, California, and two academic institutions, the religious studies department at Cal State University, Long Beach, and the Bayan Claremont Islamic School in the Claremont School of Theology. At the Claremont occasion, I mentioned to one of the Hizmet sponsors that I would be in Turkey that summer and had planned to meet with refugees fleeing ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria. The Hizmet supporter said that he could help me make contacts to meet some of the refugees, an offer I gratefully accepted.

So although Hizmet did not pay for my trip to Turkey, I did meet with people who were related to Hizmet organizations in Turkey and Iraq. They were very helpful in locating refugees for me to interview in Istanbul, at refugee camps near the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, and near the ISIS border outside Erbil, Iraq. My Hizmet helpers were businessmen and academics volunteering for the movement, and none of the organizations with which these Hizmet volunteers were associated were called Gulen Movement, or even Hizmet. Rather, they were called, for example, the Journalists and Writers Foundation, Dialogue Middle East, and the Entrepreneurs’ and Businesspeople’s Association. From what I could tell, these were independent service and professional networking organizations that were loosely affiliated with Hizmet but not directed by it. At least this was my impression—I do not profess to be an expert on the organization of the movement.

I also visited one of the social service centers set up by the Hizmet organization in Istanbul that provided basic services to Syrian refugees and distributed food and clothing. Nothing I saw was ideological, and the people associated with Hizmet were frank and forthcoming about their network of associates and the social service that they were performing, and while they appreciated Gulen’s philosophy, they made no attempt to proselytize. They didn’t appear to be any kind of cult, much less a terrorist one. My impression was that the Hizmet movement was exhibiting the best merger between traditional Muslim values and modern notions of networking and social service.

I recently talked with a member of the Hizmet movement who apologized to me for having to cancel plans for an interfaith seminar in Manila to which I had been invited to speak. He explained, somewhat regretfully, that their plans had been interrupted by the crisis that the movement was facing in Turkey and dealing with thousands of their friends who were either being incarcerated in their home country or fleeing to find shelter somewhere else. Either way, he said, the movement would persevere.

“Look at Christianity,” he said, referring to my own religious tradition. “It was once persecuted, and then it survived and thrived.”

Whether this will happen to the Hizmet movement of Gulen supporters or whether Erdogan will successfully crush it is an open question. Whether any of them had anything to do with the failed coup attempt is also a question that at least for now remains a mystery.

I have no way of knowing what is the case. But it is clear to me that the tens of thousands of people whose greatest crime was owning the book, Love and Tolerance, by Fethullah Gulen have had their lives turned upside down, their personal and professional futures uncertain. Their hopes for a vision of a modern Muslim modernity have been postponed, perhaps defeated, by the powerful forces of a different vision for post-secular Turkey.