IO – Modern Turkish politics is no stranger to revolts. Turks, either having witnessed political turmoil firsthand or having read about pivotal events of Turkish history in their history books, can recall the coups d’état in 1960, 1971 and 1980, with various interventions in between. Each coup led to crackdowns, losses in civil rights and waves of exiles.
Because of this tumultous past of military takeovers, most Turks are aghast even at the thought of another coup happening in their country. Which was why, exactly four years ago on a balmy Friday evening, the entire country was petrified when they saw on their television screens an attempted coup being played out by various factions of the military. Where would it end? Would the military, like it had in the past, grab power and rule over Turkey once again?
As news flashes came in at a ferocious pace, Turks quickly learned the Bosphorous Bridge had been blocked by soldiers. Tanks were in the streets. On social media, there were reports of the Parliament being bombed, scores of dead bodies lying in the streets and jets flying low over Turkish cities. Rumours of top military officers being taken hostage were rife, and with news of Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport being seized, it seemed like the military masterminds behind the revolt had the upper hand.
At midnight, a news anchor for Turkish Radio and Television appeared on the air. Forced to read a statement by the plotters, who called themselves the Peace at Home Committee, the anchor recited a damning critique: the government was not only corrupt, the plotters claimed, but it also supported terrorism and didn›t respect human rights.
The cabal behind the coup attempt had managed to seize critical infrastructure, control the media and detain loyalists of the A.K.P. within the higher ranks of the military. It was a classic strategy, straight out of the playbook for coups d›état.
Yet, as dawn approached, it became apparent the attempted coup had failed. The plotters had made some huge mistakes. A helicopter that was tasked to locate President Tayyip Erdogan in the resort town of Masmaris failed to capture him. They only managed to control one television station, and with cellular-phone networks left to operate, Erdogan managed to call for Turks to go out into the streets in protest. They did so, and in large numbers, leaving the rebels having to choose between killing large numbers of people or laying down their arms.
When it was all over, more than two hundred and sixty people were counted amongst the dead. Thousands had been injured. The Parliament, which had been strafed by F-16s, had gaping holes in its facade and its hallways displayed a debris of shattered concrete. It stood as a stark reminder that Turkey had literally and figuratively dodged a bullet.
For the vast majority of Turks, the news of the coup attempt coming to an ending came as a huge relief. Even more liberal-minded Turks and the liberal media, which at times had been critical of the government, were jubilant.
Yet there was a bizaare twist to the story, one that could easily have been part of a Hollywood thriller, revealing that the coup attempt wasn’t simply the work of some errant officers.
Now, after having narrowly escaped from being kidnapped by the rebels and speaking before the national press, the president told the nation what had really happened, that the plotters «were being told what to do from Pennsylvania.» Which meant, as most Turks understood, that the mastermind was in fact Fethullah Gülen, a seventy-eight-year-old Turkish cleric who, for the past two decades, had been living in exile in the Poconos Mountains, an area known for its scenic forested peaks and lakes located in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania.
Gülen, who had fled Turkey in 1999 out of fear of being arrested by the ruling military junta, managed over the years to became a well-known preacher. His followers eventually numbered in the millions within Islamic communities across the world, and his image as a ‘moderate’ cleric friendly with the West won him praise from American politicians such as U.S. President Bill Clinton, even an audience with Pope John Paul II and leaders of Jewish organizations.
Highly charismstic, Gülen was eventually able to raise huge amounts in donations, using the monies to build up a network of test-preparation centers that helped students gain entry into universities, military academies and the civil service. He also used donations to buy newspapers, television stations and businesses, culminating in an empire that is thought to be worth over a billion dollars.
In Turkey, Gülen managed to build scores of schools, graduates of which would eventually enter the military, the police, judicial system and the ranks of career government bureaucrats. Identifying themselves as Gülenists, they came to represent what many would consider as a ‘deep state’ and gave the preacher an enormous amount of influence.
How Gülen intended to use that influence was, until recently, a well-guarded secret. Former Gülenists, who served high-ranking positions within the organization, have openly admitted that although they denied in public about having no interest in politics, in private they talked about it incessantly. One follower, who left the movement in 2003, said “the goal is power–to penetrate the state and change it from within.”
Although Erdogan and Gülen were once allies, there was eventually a falling out between the two in 2013 when the former learned that Gülen loyalists inside the judiciary were plotting to use a dubious corruption case as a pretext to discredit the president and his party. The case was later dropped, but the damage was done.
Later, on Christmas Day 2015, Turkish intelligence officers discovered a large network of Gülenists, at least forty thousand, were using an encrypted messaging app. Most of them came from the police department and judiciary. In May, two months before the attempted coup, the government started suspending users of the app. Then, in early July, intelligence officers notified the military that they had identified six hundred officers, many of them high ranking, as users of the app. Plans were then made to start suspending them in August. Not long after, the Gülenist officers decided on a pre-emptive strike. The rest is history, and it is a moment in time that Turks will not forget any time soon.