Seven Pieces to Read to Understand the Coup Attempt in Turkey

turkey-coup-attempt-is-no-laughing-matter

The Turkish Parliament After the Coup Attempt (Source: Sheknows.com)

Now that a major thing happened in Turkey, all TV channels in the West are flooded with Turkey “experts”. Also, social media is swarming with the op-eds of the expats living in their cozy bubbles in Turkey and the overrated analysts that are oceans away from the reality.

Assuming that you would like to avoid the righteous wrath of Ziya Meral, I selected some of the best pieces that are written by the people who really know and follow the country. For good quality analyses and stories, you would do well to follow them.

 

  • The view from Taksim Square” by William Armstrong – The times Literary supplement (TLS). William is an İstanbul-based writer and a journalist. He regularly writes a column for Hurriyet Daily News in which he reviews books on Turkey and has a blog that he uses to publish his podcasts/interviews with the authors of the books he reviews.
  • Turkey’s Baffling Coup” by Dani Rodrik – Project Syndicate. Dani Rodrik is a Turkish economist at Harvard University. In 2011 his father in law was jailed in Balyoz inquiry. His and Pınar Doğan’s relentless efforts exposed many unlawful practices -especially those in Ergenekon and Balyoz cases- of the Gülenists nested within the state institutions.

The Birth and Rebirth of Gezi Protests

A protestor looks on during clashes with Turkish police near Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan office, between Taksim and Besiktas, early morning on June 4, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

June 4, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images) Source.

A year ago, the Turks poured into the streets to voice their demands of freedom, justice, and their right to live in a non-concrete environment. Young and educated people had been fed up being constantly alienated, insulted and discriminated by the ‘pious’ rulers of the country. And they defied. In a great sense of solidarity, people of very different ethnicities, political thoughts and socio-economic backgrounds got together and stood against police brutality, oppression of basic rights. Gezi Park protests inspired songs, various artworks, documentaries, other protests in even faraway countries… It was elegant, it was colorful, creative and magnificently humorous. I daresay, even too post-modern for a country like Turkey. Gezi changed lives of many.

It was Gezi protests that prompted me to start to write this blog. I had always been a political person but the last summer was the first time that I felt compelled to write. Not in Turkish, as the Turks already knew what was happening. But in English, as I thought the world had to know about our perspective of the events, too.

I am not talking about a memory. Even as you read this, protesters are trying to get over the roads that are blocked by the police and access to Taksim Square. We are marking only the beginning of Gezi. It did not end and nor will it, any time soon. Because firstly, when you create something that beautiful and powerful, it will not die out easily.

And secondly, the problems that sparked the protests off remain unresolved. Actually, they got even worse. The PM who was accused of lacking sense of empathy in 2013, now goes to a disaster-hit town where 301 people died and physically attacks a mourner, turning what was supposed to be a solemn national mourning into a farce. He can interrupt a ceremonial speech, shout at the speaker and storm out. He can ignore court decisions and refuse to answer for strongly-substantiated corruption allegations. Now in this a country social media can easily be banned. There’s now a bigger deficit of empathy, understanding and tolerance. Compared to the Turkey 2013, we now face more authoritarianism, less justice, rule of law and individual freedoms…

We shouldn’t think Gezi didn’t achieve a great deal, though. It did. Things may get much worse before getting better. But we don’t have the luxury to fall into despair. To eventually prevail, right should at least be as persistent as wrong.

A Possible Game Changer in Turkey’s Presidential Race: The She-Wolf of MHP

Meral Akşener at Grand National Assembly of Turkey.

Meral Akşener at Grand National Assembly of Turkey.

Turkey will go to polls to choose its first elected president on the 10th of August and still no party officially announced any candidates yet. Rumors are a lot, though. It is considered almost certain that PM Erdoğan will run for president. Whereas what the opposition’s choice will be remains more mysterious. The idea of a common candidate endorsed by both Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Republican People’s Party (CHP) is the hope of many who are weary of Erdoğan’s increasingly egoistical and authoritarian rule. Among the possible candidates mentioned, one name seems more distinctive than the others: Meral Akşener.

Undoubtedly, Akşener, currently serving as Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, is the best option of MHP. She is so adored by her party’s base that some even see her as their next leader. She is nicknamed Asena, that is, according to Turkic mythology, the female wolf that led the Turks out of their legendary homeland of Ergenekon. Unlike most Turkish female politicians, she doesn’t owe her position to male guilt of extremely male-dominated Turkish politics, or shallow and symbolic PR attempts to gain women’s votes. A historian by training, she holds a Ph.D and worked as an academician at three different universities. She has been actively in politics since 1994. She was the right hand of Tansu Çiller, Turkey’s first and to date the only female Prime Minister, and served as Minister of Internal Affairs in her government.

Gender, Modesty and Balkans

She was born in İzmit but her parents are from Drama, Greece. And there has always been a sense of solidarity among the Turks originating from Rumeli that is the European part of the Ottoman Empire. It is hard to give a number but suffice to say that they comprise of a good percentage of the country’s population. Akşener is likely to enjoy their support, if she decides to run for president. Also she addresses women quite masterly. Being able to hold key positions as a woman in Turkey’s harsh and male-dominated political climate has to inspire a special admiration among women. In an interview to daily Vatan in 2007, she described herself as an “ordinary, average Turkish woman”. She has lived a rather modest life, stayed with her husband’s crowded family in the same house for 12 years.

Akşener visiting Tatarstan.

Akşener visiting Tatarstan.

MHP-CHP Alliance?

CHP’s leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu dismissed the rumors that his party has decided to nominate Akşener but it is unclear whether they made up their minds on the matter. The official results of the 30th March local elections reveal that MHP and CHP have to partner up, if they have a hope of preventing Erdoğan from becoming Turkey’s worryingly strong president as described by his Putin admirer advisor Yiğit Bulut. There are signs that there could be co-operation between MHP and CHP. For example MHP’s leader Devlet Bahçeli talked of a candidate that addresses the all segments of the society and CHP’s leader seems to be open to the idea of nominating someone outside of his party. But the steps -if they are steps- are too slow, too little.

CHP understands that it doesn’t have much chance to consolidate wide support as a party that emphasizes its leftism. That’s why, wisely, it nominated Mansur Yavaş -a former member of MHP- for Mayor of Ankara and almost got the city. Seeing the perks of going a little right, CHP is likely to endorse or nominate a candidate from the right.

In case of a MHP-CHP partnership, HDP -the new pro-Kurdish party- could stand out as the player holding the key to the country’s future. Naturally, they would never support a Turkish nationalist candidate. However, depending on the AKP’s attitude towards the peace process with terrorist PKK, they may support Erdoğan. But HDP’s support could also prove problematic as it carries the possibility of upsetting nationalists thinking to vote for Erdoğan.

Consequently, Turkey’s opposition needs a presidential candidate that could unify non-AKP right and CHP, and also steal votes from AKP. I think, Meral Akşener, arguably the most influential female politician in the country, is the best option of not only her own party but also other opposition parties. With good campaigning and co-operation among opposition parties, she could become Turkey’s Margaret Thatcher and prevent Erdoğan from becoming its Vladimir Putin.

Will Corruption Scandals Turn Turkey into Ukraine?

Turkey has been in an exhausting cycle for quite some time: just when you think the country has hit the rock bottom, something extraordinary comes up and proves that there is always capacity for things to get much worse. Last week, it was proven again by a scandal tape. Now this kind of tapes have become a very usual part of Turkish politics, but it’s the first time that we encounter with something this big and this nasty.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Viktor Yanukovych

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Viktor Yanukovych

The eleven minutes long tape purportedly revealing five phone calls between Tayyip Erdoğan and his son Bilal went viral last week. (By the way, weirdly, the video was blocked for a time due to a copyright claim by a Montreal based company called Canipre Inc.) In the tape, PM Erdoğan tells his son to ‘zero’ the money stock in his home in wake of the December 17 graft probe. He also wants his son to have a meeting with other family members -the conversation suggests that they, too, are involved in the whole thing and have some amounts of cash at their homes- to figure out how to ‘melt the money’. In the fourth call, Bilal says “We (handled it) mostly” and adds “But there’s still 30 million euros that we could not yet dissolve”. And in the last call, the PM tells him that he is being listened and warns him not to talk openly.

On January 17, in relation to the graft probe the PM said “I will say this very clearly: If any of my children is involved in such corruption, I will disown him”. But from the conversation one understands it to be true that Bilal is not the mastermind and is just doing the tasks the PM gives, thus serving as a tool to his father. And not a very smart one, considering that in one call he didn’t know whether it’s him who called his father or it’s his father who called him.

Are the recordings real?
Erdoğan furiously dismissed the tape as fake calling it “a vile attack”. He said “They published a play that they have montaged and dubbed themselves”. Reportedly, AKP produced “proofs” that the tape was fake. Pro-government Haber7 reported that AKP sent the tape to USA to “one of the most advanced studios in the world” and the studio confirmed that the whole thing was doctored “word by word”. Haber7 reported also that “a worldwide famous criminal lab in New York” confirmed the same conclusion. But apparently neither the advanced studio, nor the worldwide famous criminal lab has a name. Though later, they published a report that was written by Robin Lai, owner of Jou Production and an employee of John Marshall Media. He signed the document with only his own firm’s name but Haber7 put a business card of JMM on top of the document, misleading the readers into thinking that it was from JMM. JMM’s CEO John Marshall Cheary strongly denied that they ever gave an opinion on the recordings in question, adding ‘To those news agencies that reprinted this obvious forgery: Shame on you” on his Facebook note. After Cheary’s condemnation, pro-AKP Haber7 changed its article, removed JMM’s card and gave credit only to Jou Production and its owner. But Lai said that the interview and statement were obtained from him via deceptive and underhanded methods. ‘Statements and document reported in the Turkish media attributed to me are not to be trusted in the context in which they are being reported’ he told in his Facebook post.

The opposite argument seems to have way more solid expert opinions: An American cyber analytics firm that analyzed the audio at the request of McClatchyDC and has a name –Guarded Risk– found the recordings to be authentic. ‘If it’s fake, it’s of a sophistication that I haven’t seen,’ said Joshua Marpet, a cyber-analyst and the managing principal of Guarded Risk. Also, two Turkish audio engineers, Atilla Özdemiroğlu and Erdem Helvacıoğlu, who analyzed the recording confirmed it to be genuine.

On the other hand, the PM doesn’t really seem to bother trying to get exculpated or even offer a satisfying explanation. Although opposition deputies urged him to have a test by TÜBİTAK (The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey) to reveal whether it’s really his voice or not, he has done nothing so far to present any kind of proof that the tape is fake.

The ‘f-type organization’ or the ‘parallel state’
During Ergenekon and Balyoz cases Turkey saw many irregularities and illegalities: cooking evidence, illegal wiretappings, leaking tapes to the media, way too long detention times and so on. (To know more, check out Pınar Doğan and Dani Rodrik’s blog.) Of course, while all the soldiers, journalists, officers who are critical of AKP were becoming victims of these, Erdoğan and his party watched it in joy. The victims and their supporters believed that it was the Gülenists in the police force and judiciary -then allies of the government- who were responsible of these brutal practices of injustice. It was first Adil Serdar Saçan, a former security directorate and later a convict of Ergenekon case, who coined the term “f-type organization” referring to Fethullah Gülen’s loyalists within the police organization. Then Hanefi Avcı who was also a security directorate, wrote a book revealing the existence of a Gülenist structure in the police organization with documents. Avcı that was once close to the Gülen Movement, is a known right wing person. Yet after writing the book, he got convicted for being a member of a far left terrorist organization and was given 15 years in jail.

Despite compelling evidence from various sources, existence of “f-type organization” was mostly treated as a crazy Kemalist conspiracy theory by AKP and its supporters. Moreover, pro-government and pro-Gülen media didn’t see any problems with broadcasting illegally-obtained tapes for hours including some private conversations. The military, Kemalists, some others in opposition were cruelly humiliated by fierce smear campaigns, some of which even led to suicides. Now it looks like that some of those injustices came back to haunt Erdoğan. As the Frankenstein that Erdoğan created and allowed to nest within the state, turned on him; he had to embrace the theory he wasn’t so eager to accept. But instead of “f-type organization”, he called Gülenists in the police organization and judiciary “parallel state”.

The PM believes that December 17 graft probe was not a corruption probe but a coup attempt by the “parallel state” seeking to unseat him. Now he is so angry with the Gülen Movement that he even used the words “viruses” and “assassins” -a medieval terrorist cult in Seljuk Empire- in relation to them.

He blames them also for a recent mass wiretapping scandal. On February 25, he said “They are listening to the government’s encrypted phones; that’s how low they have sunk.” This statement, of course, raises an important question: was the PM’s son using an encrypted cell-phone? If so, that would definitely explain why the PM and his son are speaking so freely in the recording without feeling to need to use a more subtle language. Apparently, these devices are so fancy things that only six NATO countries can produce them. Turkey’s one of them and these phones, as website of TÜBİTAK that produces the devices states here, are for use of Turkish Armed Forces, President, Prime Minister and some other top state officials. If Bilal Erdoğan uses one, that’s another scandal in the scandal. An opposition deputy also asked whether Bilal Erdoğan has an encrypted cell-phone. Yet the question, like many others that were asked before, remains unanswered. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Science, Industry and Technology launched an investigation on five employees of TÜBİTAK who are, apparently, suspected of being Gülenist moles. Minister Fikri Işık said “TÜBİTAK, unfortunately, is one of the institutions that the ‘parallel structure’ wants to infiltrate.”

Open war: Erdoğan vs Gülen
The PM thinks it is open war and thus, extraordinary measures are warranted. After the graft probe was launched, he saw no problems in sacrificing four cabinet ministers. But when it was edging near him, the purges began. Hundreds of high ranking police officers were relocated at midnight. Prosecutors, including those who launched the corruption probe, were also removed from their posts.

Erdoğan is using also legislative power in full to deal with Gülenists in state organs. Now two newly passed laws and a proposed legislation are regarded to be huge blows to separation of powers, rule of law and individual freedoms in the country. The first law greatly increases Justice Minister’s power over High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK). The main opposition CHP filed an appeal to the Constitutional Court, stating “it (the new law) makes judicial control over administrative moves nearly impossible.” The second is the internet bill that was recently passed into law by President Abdullah Gül. The law authorizes the president of TİB (Telecommunications Directorate) to block websites for a privacy violation without a court permission and forces internet providers to keep records of users’ activities for two years and make them available to authorities. However, some changes were made at the request of the President. Now the TİB was made to have to take its blocking decisions to court within twenty four hours. The court would either approve or cancel such decisions within forty eight hours. Meanwhile, the blocking decisions of the TİB would be in effect. And thirdly, a proposed legislation that would give immense additional powers to the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) was approved by Internal Affairs Commission and is planned to be voted on after local elections. The bill will enable the MİT to get unrestricted access to records of state institutions and also private companies without a court order. It means that if demanded by the MİT, private firms will have to reveal their trade secrets to the MİT personnel.

The Turkish Constitutional Court

The Turkish Constitutional Court

The secret service seems to be a particularly important player in the government’s battle against the Gülen Movement. Much before the corruption investigation, in 2012, a probe was launched into Hakan Fidan, the chief of the MİT, is thought by the government to be an operation of the “parallel state”. In response, the government had passed a law making any probes into the MİT personnel impossible without the PM’s permission. Critics argue that soon the MİT will be pretty much above the law. So, in short, ironically, Erdoğan is empowering the MİT against the police organization that he once used to empower to encounter the military’s influence.

The people’s mood
In a normal functioning democracy, even ten percent of this tape’s content is reason enough for resignation. Whereas in Turkey now, nobody truly expects the PM to resign. AKP’s base thinks that all this is a coup attempt by the ‘parallel state’ and ‘the strong will’ Erdoğan should not and will not give in to it. And most of the rest just think that a PM who is shameless enough to turn into a blatant dictatorial thief cannot feel ashamed enough to resign.

Social media is full of brilliant jokes and gags mocking Erdoğan and his son. There’s even a website called “zero the money” that features a game in which users try to melt $1 billion in a minute. But in all this, there is also a defeatist attitude, a hopelessness to get rid of the filth that each day Turks discover to be worse than they thought it was. Such jokes are very much like the Soviet Russia jokes that Ronald Reagan used to tell. And just like them, perhaps they are a way to cope with the indignities that people are hopeless to change.

A gag mocking the PM. Source: Bobiler.org.

A gag mocking the PM. Source: Bobiler.org.

Erdoğan seems to be ready to risk anything -freedoms, rule of law, separation of powers and stability- to keep his seat and not to answer for strongly-substantiated corruption charges. The consequences are not only political, it is a fact that the corruption probe, Erdoğan’s attitude towards it and his civil war with Gülenists within the state affected the Turkish economy negatively. Turkish Central Bank’s interest rate hike is also expected to diminish growth rate this year and the move was not very successful in stopping the decrease in Lira’s value. So justice has long been forgotten by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, not before long development may share the same fate.

Naturally, like many Turkish citizens, I am full of rage. But out of respect for presumption of innocence, I tried and am trying to choose my words carefully. For that’s what the law requires – the law that is often bent or ignored for wicked political purposes here. So what should we do, if the law that is supposed to protect citizens has become the shield and toy of the corrupted? What do you do when the law isn’t used to punish the corrupted but is used to censor and suppress those who are after corruption? In short, what happens when the word “law” doesn’t have any shred of meaning left? I guess what happens then is a more intense level of instability and uncertainty, violent social explosions, economic collapse; guns, smokes and corpses… In sum, what happens then is Ukraine! I am not saying we are there and I wholeheartedly hope and believe we never will get there but that seems to be the direction we are headed. Speedily.

İstanbul’s Third Bridge: Why So Grim?

The 2nd Bosphorus Bridge, named after Mehmet the Conqueror.

The 2nd Bosphorus Bridge, named after Mehmet the Conqueror.

In 1995, then the Mayor of İstanbul Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said:

A third bridge is a murder for İstanbul. It is nothing but massacring the remaining green areas in the city’s north by zoning the area for construction. I hope the government will change without this murder being committed.

The government of the time changed and so did Erdoğan’s position, dramatically. Now he is taking the credit for building that third bridge that he once fiercely opposed. As can be seen from Erdoğan’s past remark, topic of a new bridge on Boshphorus has always sparked controversies. But distinctively, the current debate focuses more on the bridge’s name than on concerns about urban development. Without any open criteria, surveys or consultations with NGOs, the government announced it had named the bridge after 9th emperor of the Ottoman Empire Yavuz Sultan Selim (Yavuz being his nickname, usually translated as “the Grim” or more correctly “the Stern”) who is, to put it mildly, a highly unpopular figure among Turkey’s large Alevi community that practices a uniquely heterodox way of Islam.

Alevis openly expressed their opposition, due to the fact that many Anatolian Alevis were persecuted and killed during Selim’s campaigns against Safavid Iran at the beginning of the 16th century. Ali Balkız, head of Alevi-Bektaşi Federation, said “We, Alevis, will not pass through that bridge.” Columnist Yavuz Semerci stated he would continue calling it “The Third Bridge” instead of “Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge”. Prof. İzzettin Doğan, honorary president of an umbrella association of many Alevi NGOs, said “A mistake was made at a time when sectarian wars are being provoked in the region. Selim is believed to be responsible of massacre of countless Alevis…” Renowned historian Prof. İlber Ortaylı suggested that the name Mimar Sinan who was the chief architect of three Ottoman sultans, would be more appropriate. Even Fethullah Gülen, a cleric who is controversially close the ruling party AKP, spoke up: After talking of cultural and emotional “bridges” between Sunnis and Alevis in Turkey, he said “Because of one bridge, let’s not destroy many others”. Other intellectuals also voiced similar concerns and suggestions.

Of all the thirty-six sultans the Ottoman Empire had, choosing Selim the Stern sends a message, people believe. This issue is clearly a part of a wider “war of symbols” that is now occurring within an extremely polarized Turkish society. But to understand this domestic squabble that has historical roots, we should separate it from the bigger picture and take a look at Selim’s legacy and what it means for both conservatives represented by the ruling AKP and also Alevis.

As can be understood from his nickname, Selim was ferocious: he killed his brothers Prince Korkut and Prince Ahmet along with their sons and dethroned his peaceful father Bayezit II in a coup. (This kind of makes Erdoğan’s praise of Selim ironic, considering how he dramatically portrayed himself and Mohamed Mursi as victims because of “coup attempts” in Turkey and Egypt’s actual coup.) He was always very war-like. Even when he was Sancakbeyi (a title close to governor) of Trabzon and a prince, he attacked Georgians, took Kuban and made bold moves against the Safavids — actions greatly exceeding his authority. He had a very angry character. He never tolerated the officers who failed and lied to him, was famous for having his Grand Viziers executed. There’s no doubt that he was a military genius: He won every battle he fought decisively, used the latest technology of his time to bring his enemies to their knees. İlber Ortaylı points out that he passed through Sinai desert with fewer casualties than Cemal Paşa did during World War I.

Selim’s reign was not long -only 8 years- but in his short era the Empire’s lands more than doubled. He visited İstanbul only once, in his childhood and during his rule, he spent almost all his time on military campaigns. So, he barely lived in İstanbul, which according to some, makes his name less relevant for the bridge which will become one of the symbols of the city.

At the beginning of 16th century, Shah İsmail I of Safavid Empire made Shia the official sect of Iran, had it embraced as also a kind of ideology and was trying to export it to Anatolia. The Shah sent his militants to Anatolia to spread the Safavid doctrine of Shi’ism. Even as a young prince Selim was aware of the threat and angry at his father for not taking action against the Safavids. So after taking his father’s throne by force and eliminating the possible candidates for emperorship, he started his Iranian campaign in 1514. After following Shah’s army for months, Ottoman army met Safavid forces on a plain called Chaldiran. There, the Safavids suffered a disastrous defeat that forced the wounded Shah flee from the battlefield. The Ottomans advanced even further and took Tabriz which was then the capital of Iran. During the war, many Alevis were killed and the incidents left a mark in the memory of their community. It’s said that 40.000 Alevis were killed, although some experts question this figure as 16th century’s census documents (a.k.a. tahrir defterleri, special documents that include many statistics for taxation) do not indicate such a loss of population.

There was also a cultural side to the war. The Safavid dynasty and its army were Turkish, as well, which made it easy for some Turkmen Beys in Anatolia to pledge their allegiance to the Shah. The Ottoman Empire was more cosmopolitan, urban, and orthodoxly Islamic. The Safavids, however, were representing a more rural and Anatolian culture, more tolerant of Turkmen Alevis’ nomadic roots and heterodox ways, therefore, I daresay they were “more Turkish” in some respect. For instance, today an average Turk in Turkey would understand poems of İsmail I much better than he would understand Selim’s poems, for Selim used a Turkish that is mixed with Persian and Arabic (in some poems he used only Persian), whereas İsmail’s Turkish was pure, clear and closer to modern Turkish.

The conflict was ultimately more strategic than sectarian. Selim was relentless towards Anatolian Alevis not because he believed their faith was twisted but because he saw them as collaborators of the Shah. He didn’t give Alevis the kind of autonomy that he granted the Kurdish tribes who were located to today’s South-East Turkey to encounter Iranian influence.

His Mamluk campaign is another factor that enhances Selim image in minds of today’s conservatives. Between 1516 and 1517, with three battles, Selim annihilated Mamluk Sultanate, ruled by a Turkish-Circassian dynasty, conquering much of the Middle East including the sacred cities of Islam. For that he took the title “Servant of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina”. Most of the sacred objects exhibited today at Topkapı Palace in İstanbul were brought in his time. More importantly, he was the first Ottoman emperor to officially take the title “Caliph of Islam”.

Tomb of Selim the Stern (Photo taken by Sinan Doğan)

Tomb of Selim the Stern (Photo taken by Sinan Doğan)

Hence, for most of those represented by AKP, Selim is a hero, whereas, for Alevis, he is an oppressive and atrocious figure. A well-known law professor Hüseyin Hatemi, went as far as saying “For Alevis, Selim is what Hitler means for Jews.” Undoubtedly, the bridge bearing his name will be a reminder of past sufferings and bloodshed for the country’s large Alevi community. And instead of pride, they will take offense from that grandeur structure. Among all Ottoman emperors, Selim is perhaps the most divisive figure. That’s why many other names that are more relevant and less controversial were recommended to the PM. But his “my way or the high way” attitude still continues.

For long, Alevis have been at odds with the AKP government over a number of matters. They have been expecting reforms regarding the status of their temples, structure of Directorate of Religious Affairs, contents of compulsory religion lessons at schools and so forth. Yet the PM’s recently unveiled democratization package addressed none of these issues, causing disappointment and anger. For that, they now feel even more excluded.

Plus, choosing Selim the Stern seems to be a promotion of an identity that is more Muslim and “Ottoman” less Turkish, more “imperial” less national. That’s why he has a special place in conservative minds. That’s why 122 schools in Turkey bear his name. That’s why the bridge’s foundation ceremony was conducted with prayers and lots of references to Ottoman glory. Yet, a part of the society, the part that is socio-economically more developed, the part that joined massive Gezi Park protests, does not intend to wear this identity whatsoever. This is not because they hate “Ottoman” and “Selim” images particularly, but because they hate the fact that the government tries to make them to be like its own voters who are more pious and obedient.

A bridge is supposed to connect, but considering the motives of the government, it seems that this one is doomed to divide.

Head of the Turkish Constitutional Court: If This is Islam, I am not Muslim

Haşim Kılıç

Haşim Kılıç

By many, Head of Turkey’s Constitutional Court Haşim Kılıç is considered to be controversially close to the ruling party AKP. The fact that he’s been occupying the highest position in the judiciary which was once seen as the second strongest guarantor of secular order in the country, is a source of discomfort to secularists. And this makes his statements on Islamic countries even more interesting.

Today he visited a university in Eastern Turkey where he made those quite sharp remarks on current situation of Islamic countries.

I translated some of what he said for you:

…If we are to analyze Islamic countries, (we see) Iraq, Iran, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria are places literally on fire. We can’t talk about human dignity in (those places). We see it on TV everday. Someone becomes a suicide bomber and explosions occur. What kind of culture, what kind of belief is this? How do we explain this savagery in these countries that have a faith saying ‘If anyone kills a man, it’s as if he killed entire mankind; if anyone saves a man, it’s as if he saves entire mankind”? *… If this is Islam, I am not Muslim. Getting in a church and blasting the place, causing deaths of 80-100 people… where in the religion there is a permission for this? Cutting off heads, holding people’s organs in the hands: How can we explain these savageries, such inhuman actions by Islam? There is something wrong here.

I don’t what you will make of this but it’s hardly shocking to me. I think Kılıç’s remarks should make those who put Turkey in the same basket with Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and the countries where such organizations are very active and running things; think and study more on the Turkish exceptionalism. I am also naively hoping for a similar effect on those who try to explain anything about Turkey with the overused pattern of “Islam vs Secularism”.

* – “…if anyone kills a person– unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land– it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind.” Al-Ma’ida, (The Feast), 5:32, The Quran, Translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford World Classics.

Gülen Schools, Their Goals and How They Are Perceived in Turkey

A scene from a new Turkish school in Sendai, Japan.

A scene from a new Turkish school in Sendai, Japan.

Gülen schools is a strange subject, so much information is actually available on it but not the information you search for. For instance, we don’t even really know how many Gülen schools there are. Because there isn’t an organizational structure that ties the schools directly to Fethullah Gülen. (To get to know him, you should definitely read this piece by Claire Berlinski.) He’s more like an honorary leader who inspired them. The schools are generally founded by members of Gülen Movement (a.k.a. Cemaat in Turkey, meaning “the Communion”) that is neither an NGO nor a group that requires any kind of registration. But in 2011, Helen Rose Ebaugh of University of Houston, said on CNNTürk “the best estimate is that there are around 2000 schools, half of them are abroad.” These schools include universities, language schools, high schools, elementary schools and dersanes – that are privately owned schools that prepare Turkish students for university entrance exam (YGS), public personnel selection exam (KPSS) and so forth…

Gülen schools abroad definitely have more sympathy and respect in Turkey than those at home do. They enjoy quite a lot of intellectual support, not only from notoriously pro-government and pro-Gülen Movement (GM) authors, but also from truly respected names of various sides of the political spectrum.

“Bridges of Peace: The Turkish Schools That Opened to the World”, first published in 2005, contains articles and interviews of twenty seven academicians and writers on Gülen schools abroad, sheds some light on possible goals of the schools. A big proportion of the contributors are well-known supporters of AKP and the GM yet to see some names there might really surprise Turkish readers or informed non-Turkish readers. The first surprising name is the late Bülent Ecevit, former Prime Minister of Turkey, who was leading a left-wing party and was very fond of secularism. The first thing impressed Ecevit who was also a poet, was the importance given to teaching of Turkish language at the schools. For him, Ottoman Empire didn’t bother much teaching Turkish in its lands and these schools are now fixing that very mistake. It can be inferred from his statements on the interview that Ecevit saw Turkish way of Islam as the best alternative to Saudi Arabian and Iranian kinds, which, according to him, do not fit to our age and therefore Gülen schools representing Turkish Islam should be favored. In a trip to Albania he received teachers of a Gülen school there and he said “I know I will be criticized by some, but I appreciate the works done here.” And as he anticipated, he was criticized vigorously. Another name worth mentioning is the late Gündüz Aktan who served as Turkey’s ambassador to Kenya, Switzerland, Greece and Japan respectively, and was an MP from MHP (Nationalist Movement Party). Aktan argues that while judging merits of these schools, internal squabbles should be put aside. He tells how he was amazed by success of the language schools opened in Japan: “First they opened a language school. It was to teach Turkish, then they decided to add courses of other Turkic languages and Russian, imported teachers. When I was leaving Japan in middle of 1998, there were -if I am not wrong- three language schools in three different cities. And I saw reports in the Japanese press that Turkish was ranked as the 4th foreign language that the Japanese were most interested in.” He says that the teachers who made Turkish language popular there in just two years, had a missionary spirit and they were working for very low salaries. “I sometimes even wondered whether they were hungry”, he adds.

Prof. İlber Ortaylı.

Prof. İlber Ortaylı.

İlber Ortaylı, a professor of history who has a huge following in Turkey, also implies that Gülen schools could actually be called missionary schools: “A society that felt disturbed much by the missionary activities in 19th century… now spreads similar schools.” He argues that such schools abroad are a matter of political influence and should be supported, emphasizing “Secular France is behind its Catholic schools. Britain is behind its Protestant schools.” But he also notes that conversion is hardly observed, just like happened at missionary schools within the Ottoman Empire. For Ortaylı, perhaps the biggest perk of the schools is that they would create Turcophile communities in other countries, especially among the elites: “We have seen no Russian who became Muslim. But the kids learn Turkish and grow very fond of Turkey… In future, this will, of course, create a well-educated Turcophile class. Because those are smart kids, selected by exams and are being trained meticulously at low-size classrooms… They embrace Turkish traditions and lifestyle, like showing respect to the elders, being clean and not drinking alcohol… That’s why parents in St. Petersburg and Moscow -including the elites of the cities’ bureaucracy- fancy these schools much.” He also points out that the schools also help Turkish entrepreneurs who do or want to do business in foreign countries and in return, they are glad to make contributions to the schools. There other interesting names in the book: Strictly Kemalist academician Prof. Toktamış Ateş (one of the editors of the book); worldwide famous Kyrgyz author Cengiz Aytmatov and Prof. Büşra Ersanlı who is a socialist and a supporter of pro-Kurdish BDP…

Surely not everyone thinks these schools are such houses of endless goodwill. For instance; some Kemalists and socialists believe that Gülen schools, especially those in Central Asia, are actually tools of American imperialism and they were established to bring the people there a new ideology and identities that are pro-American. But the real dissidence surfaces when it comes to activities of GM within Turkey, which, of course, include its educational works.

To get the view, we need to mention ışık evleri (can be translated as “houses of light”) that are houses where the GM trains university students. These rented houses are supervised by older students called ağabeyler (elder brothers) and ablalar (elder sisters). The GM, in general, selects especially poor, smart and hardworking students when they are preparing for university entrance exam (or much earlier) and when the students get in a university, they transfer them to an ışık house. In these houses, they have to obey their supervisors which often means they have to read certain newspapers like Zaman, journals like Sızıntı; watch TV channels like STV and some religious channels, join religious conversation meetings, study and practice their religion, avoid wearing open clothes and having a girlfriend or a boyfriend… Although they do not bluntly force the students -anyone is free to stay on or leave-, they constantly suggest to pray and be religious. A study titled “Being Different in Turkey: Religion, Conservatism and Otherization” done by Boğaziçi University in 2008, presents some interesting stories from students who stayed in ışık houses and the GM dormitories. A teacher from Aydın complains about one of his/her 6th grade student’s decrease in performance and constant sleepy look. After investigating, the teacher finds out that the student’s dormitory makes him wake up very early for the morning prayer and read books of Said-i Nursi, a deceased cleric that the GM hugely respects. Another teacher from Batman, who found out that one of his students suffers from the same problem, says “The kid wakes up 4:00 am in the morning to perform morning prayer, then studies Arabic. He hardly has any time left for the school’s lessons.” The teacher also points out that the GM “catches” bright students from rural areas when they are at 6th or 7th grade. There are also complaints that some kids estranged and turned hostile to their families after staying at GM’s houses.

And there’s the matter of dersanes. Since public schools ridiculously fail to train their students for university entrance exam (YGS), there are private schools focuses specifically on preparing students for such exams and they’re called dersanes. The GM is known to have many of those. According to a report by daily Cumhuriyet, there are 4.000 licensed dersanes in the country and 60% of them are the GM’s. 80% of dersane publications are also theirs.

In 2005 and 2006, I also attended to a dersane that is said to be tied to Gülen Movement. I chose that school not because I had a great sympathy for the movement but because it wanted the lowest tuition. So my choice was entirely economical which was perhaps a sign of that I would end up being an economist. As I observed, teachers were very warm, friendly and doing their jobs pretty well. I never witnessed any direct indoctrination based on religion or the GM but I have seen some out-of-the-ordinary things, too. For example; there were some religious references even in math problems (like choosing names from Islamic sagas) and in the biology book, along with the evolution theory, there was mention of creation which the teacher preferred to skip… There was a praying room in the dersane, something cannot be had at public schools. Some of the female teachers wore headscarves but not at the class. There were also headscarved students -again something cannot happen at public schools- who were once sent off to their homes when inspectors of the Ministry of Education came to pay a visit. And when we were watching the movie Troy at the dersane’s conference room, a teacher incompetently attempted to censor sex scene of Orlando Bloom and Diane Kruger, which actually made us see the scene twice instead of once. Thus, based on my own observation, I can say that the GM’s dersanes are not such conversion centers. I had two close friends there, one from high school and another I have met there, and all three of us were very very distanced to AKP and the GM. And in 2013, our thoughts on the two remain unchanged for the better.

Of course, there have been more serious developments than the funny little things I have personally seen. For instance; in 2010, head of ÖSYM (Student Selection and Placement Center) Ünal Yarımağan resigned due to allegations of cheating in KPSS (Public Personnel Selection Exam). The allegation was that the questions were stolen and given to GM’s dersanes. After Yarımağan who publicly complained about the changes imposed on ÖSYM by the government was replaced by Ali Demir, about a dozen of scandals occurred including shady exams allegedly tied to the GM and its dersanes and a plagiarism accusation to Prof. Demir. (The British academic who made the accusation accepted a written apology published in a magazine, aborted the investigation on Demir.) A report also revealed that majority of ÖSYM personnel are first and second degree relatives of each other. The scandals stained reputation of ÖSYM that supervises all the exams that select and place personnel for state institutions, and increased existing suspicions about the GM. It’s widely believed these current corruption cases including the ones in the police organization (some of them were revealed and documented in a book by Hanefi Avcı, a former chief of police) are related to the GM. We have a disastrous educational system and many corrupted state officials but in past we at least knew that exams and selection processes were fair. Now hardly anybody thinks so. A poll published in 2011, suggests that 72% of people do not trust ÖSYM and only 18% think that Ali Demir should not resign.

A scene from 10th Turkish Language Olympiads, 2012.

A scene from 10th Turkish Language Olympiads, 2012.

Having said all this, I also see a structure that takes young students early, injects them a certain lifestyle (or in most cases ensures that students retain conservative lifestyle of their parents); helps them get in good universities through providing studying opportunities and shelter either for free or at very low costs; and expects support (financial support or various favors) of the students when they reach good positions in the civil service and private sector.

In conclusion, whether Fethullah Gülen is a benevolent man or not, whether his schools are exporting an ideology based on religion or not, whether they have an ultimate plan of turning Turkey into an Islamic state or not; existence of an entity this big and influential and has its arms and legs in business, police organization and elsewhere in the state; is doomed to alienate others. That is why, while at annual Turkish Language Olympics GM shows off its muscles by shipping its students from 140 different countries and all pro-government media -including the state television TRT- covers the event, a very good proportion of the Turkish society really creeps out. (Though 2013’s event was overshadowed by Gezi Park protests.) Not because they don’t like foreigners learning Turkish; not because, as some would like to assert, they dislike and look down on rural people and Islam and therefore AKP and the GM; but because they feel besieged. And they have very good reasons to feel so.