On July 15, 2016, while President Erdoğan was vacationing in the Mediterranean coastal town of Marmaris, Istanbul and Ankara were shaken by an attempted coup d’état carried out by certain members of the Turkish armed forces.
About seven years before that, in May 2009, I received an award at the International Turkish Olympiad. The festival was essentially a cultural event consisting of Turkish songs, dances, and poetry recitals performed by students from Turkish schools around the world. It took place in a modern convention hall in Ankara with thousands of spectators in attendance. The event was sponsored and organized by members of the Hizmet movement, a Muslim community inspired by the preaching and writings of Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen. When I, together with a handful of other recipients, mounted the stage to accept our awards, there to shake our hands was the smiling Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The incident underlines how less than a decade earlier relations between Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (known by its acronym, the AKP) and the Hizmet movement guided by Gülen’s teaching were characterized by cooperation and respect. Foreign observers in Ankara even referred to Hizmet as “the religious wing of the AKP.” Although inaccurate even in those days, such a characterization reflected a commonly held view among Turks and others that there was some kind of ideological link between the AKP and the followers of Gülen.
There is no doubt that the Gülen supporters had great influence in Turkey. They ran the best high schools and college prep institutions, and students from those schools, year after year, obtained the top scores in the standardized college entrance exams. Hizmet members published Zaman, the most widely circulated and highly regarded newspaper in Turkey, referred to by Erdoğan himself as “the guardian of democracy in Turkey.” Hizmet members published scores of professional journals and popular magazines. They established associations of medical professionals, teachers, and business leaders. They set up hospitals and clinics, and in Turkey’s highly polarized society they conducted national “dialogues” that brought together Turkish thinkers and leaders: Right and Left, Sunni and Alevi, Turk and Kurd, and Muslim, Jewish, and Christian.
However, storm clouds were gathering. Perceptive observers could see trouble ahead. In a prophetic column in the left-center Hurriyet newspaper on October 5, 2010, the late political commentator Mehmet Ali Birand noted:
“I don’t know whether they are aware of it, but a danger that needs to be taken very seriously awaits the Gülen movement. In the eyes of Turkish society, which believes conspiracy theories, the Gülen movement is mythicized beyond its real dimensions. The power and influence of the Gülen movement is being so exaggerated that if no precautions are taken, this imagined power will one day destroy it… If the current trend does not change, future politicians will go after this movement with a view to annihilating it.”
Birand, who claimed to be neither a member of Hizmet nor opposed to it, believed that, “The power attributed to the Gülen movement is enormously exaggerated. It does not reflect the truth but the winds of exaggeration…”
The first overt sign of tension between Gülen, who lives in retirement in the United States, and Erdoğan can be dated to the pro-democracy Gezi Park protests of June, 2013, when Gülen criticized the Turkish government’s heavy-handed suppression of the protests. The real break came later that year when investigators reportedly associated with Hizmet pursued charges of corruption leveled against the sons of various ministers of the Turkish government, implicating Erdoğan’s own son. Since then, Erdoğan (President of the Republic since 2014) has sought to destroy Hizmet and break its influence on Turkish society. After last summer’s failed coup, Erdoğan has accused Gülen of masterminding the coup and his followers of carrying it out. The government has undertaken a “McCarthyite” witch-hunt, resulting in the dismissal and arrest of university presidents, police chiefs, military officers, and newspaper editors, and the imprisonment of an estimated 60,000 Turkish citizens.
Erdoğan’s anti-Hizmet campaign has even affected U.S.-Turkish relations. The Turkish government has demanded Gülen’s extradition to Turkey, while Secretary of State under President Obama, John Kerry, noted that the United States does not extradite residents on the basis of unsubstantiated requests, even those made by Heads of State. He noted that the process of extradition must begin with the presentation of hard evidence of wrongdoing and that no evidence of the involvement of Gülen or Hizmet associates in the failed coup attempt has been forthcoming.
Unsatisfied with the Obama administration’s refusal to bow under pressure, the Turkish government looked to the future: they discussed, with retired US Army General Michael Flynn, ways that judicial processes might be bypassed in order that Mr. Gülen might be “removed” from the United States and sent to Turkey. The fact that such actions could violate U.S. laws does not seem to have been a deterrent either to Flynn or to the Turkish authorities concerned. Flynn was at the time an advisor to presidential candidate Donald Trump, and he later briefly served as National Security Advisor to President Trump before being fired for lying about his relations with Russian officials. It is evident that the Turkish government was willing to engage in underhanded and apparently illegal activities to get Gülen extradited from the United States.
Guilty or not guilty?
For those who know Mr. Gülen personally or have had contact with the open-hearted and idealistic members of the Hizmet movement, claims of subversive “terrorism,” (in Erdoğan’s words) seem incongruous. I have known Mr. Gülen for over 20 years and find the retired, soft-spoken Qur’an-teacher to be preaching and living a particularly attractive interpretation of Islamic faith. His bedrock concept is that of ikhlas, which means doing everything, no matter how modest or unassuming, wholly for God’s pleasure. This spiritual principle, which is hardly original or unique to Islam, has motivated Gülen’s followers to commit themselves to administering and teaching in schools in places as diverse as Phnom Penh, Brussels, Accra, and inner-city Milwaukee and Cleveland. They are digging wells in Somalia and Mali, running clinics in Kenya, and establishing interreligious dialogue programs in more than 200 locations in the United States.
Many Americans have come to know the Hizmet movement personally through the well-organized cultural trips to Turkey sponsored by these local dialogue associations. For many non-Muslims, the trips are their first direct encounter with an Islamic community devoted to peacebuilding and being a living expression of God’s compassion and mercy.
I greatly admire these Hizmet members, of whom I know hundreds, and many of whom I count among my personal friends. I have been to their annual retreats, where they encourage one another to live up to their lofty Islamic ideals. I have heard the testimony of Catholic leaders in Turkey and Turkish Jews that the Gülen followers are their partners and allies in striving to build a truly inclusive Turkish society. I have talked to Christian students from Mozambique and the Philippines, graduates of Hizmet schools, who are grateful for the excellent educational foundation they received. Could all this good work simply be public posturing, a façade to hide a conspiracy aimed at achieving domination and power? I suppose that it’s possible, but it seems pretty far-fetched and unlikely.
One might say that an outside observer’s positive opinion of the Hizmet movement begs the question of whether members of the movement, with Fethullah Gülen as mastermind, were in fact behind the July 2016 coup. Despite all his bluster, threats, and posturing, Erdoğan has not been able to produce any credible evidence linking the coup attempt to a Hizmet plot. The most he has been able to offer are a few statements by implicated generals, obtained under duress, which could be interpreted as suggesting a tenuous link with Gülen. For his part, Mr. Gülen has categorically denied any involvement in the coup, which he condemned, and called for an international impartial investigation into the coup and its background, a suggestion which Mr. Erdoğan has summarily rejected. One must ask which of the two would like to see the truth come out, and which is trying to keep the facts from coming to light.
I originally published a version of this article in Commonweal magazine in November 2016. Since then, Mr. Erdoğan has continued to make unsubstantiated claims about Hizmet involvement in the coup. He is not talking about the possible sympathy of one or another military officer toward Fethullah Gülen, but a centralized, organized effort conceived and directed by Gülen and carried out through the institutions and networking of Hizmet members. This scenario has been investigated with the professional expertise of the intelligence services of the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and NATO, who have clearly expressed their views of who they believe to have been behind the coup. None of them has been convinced by Erdoğan’s noisy but empty accusations.
I am not alone in asking Mr. Erdoğan, “Please produce evidence, if you have any, for your claims. Otherwise, why should anyone take your word for what appears to be a slander of this conscientious religious leader and a community that is doing much good in the world? Could your anti-Hizmet campaign be an act of revenge for the whistle-blowing against your family members, or a distraction aimed at preventing a continuing investigation of the corruption charges?”
Turkey that I once knew as a hope-inspiring country on its way to consolidating its democracy and a moderate form of secularism has become the dominion of a president who is doing everything he can to amass power and subjugate dissent. Turkey, my homeland, is in need of help from the world to return to a democratic path.
Since July 15, 2016, following a deplorable coup attempt, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has systematically persecuted innocent people — arresting, detaining, firing and otherwise ruining the lives of more than 300,000 Turkish citizens, be they Kurds, Alevis, secularists, leftists, journalists, academics or participants of Hizmet, the peaceful humanitarian movement with which I am associated.
As the coup attempt unfolded, I fiercely denounced it and denied any involvement. Furthermore, I said that anyone who participated in the putsch betrayed my ideals. Nevertheless, and without evidence, Erdogan immediately accused me of orchestrating it from 5,000 miles away.
The next day, the government produced lists of thousands of individuals whom they tied to Hizmet — for opening a bank account, teaching at a school or reporting for a newspaper — and treated such an affiliation as a crime and began destroying their lives. The lists included people who had been dead for months and people who had been serving at NATO’s European headquarters at the time. International watchdogs have reported numerous abductions, in addition to torture and deaths in detention. The government pursued innocent people outside Turkey, pressuring Malaysia, for instance, to deport three Hizmet sympathizers in May 2017, including a school principal who has lived there for more than a decade, to face certain imprisonment and likely torture.
In April, the president won a narrow referendum victory— amid allegations of serious fraud — to form an “executive presidency” without checks and balances, enabling him to control all three branches of the government. To be sure, through purges and corruption, much of this power was already in his hands. I fear for the Turkish people as they enter this new stage of authoritarianism.
It didn’t start this way. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into power in 2002 by promising democratic reforms in pursuit of European Union membership. But as time went on, Erdogan became increasingly intolerant of dissent. He facilitated the transfer of many media outlets to his cronies through government regulatory agencies. In June of 2013, he crushed the Gezi Park protesters. In December of that year, when his cabinet members were implicated in a massive graft probe, he responded by subjugating the judiciary and the media. The “temporary” state of emergency declared after last July 15 is still in effect. According to Amnesty International, one-third of all imprisoned journalists in the world are in Turkish prisons.
Erdogan’s persecution of his people is not simply a domestic matter. The ongoing pursuit of civil society, journalists, academics and Kurds in Turkey is threatening the long-term stability of the country. The Turkish population already is strongly polarized on the AKP regime. A Turkey under a dictatorial regime, providing haven to violent radicals and pushing its Kurdish citizens into desperation, would be a nightmare for Middle East security.
The people of Turkey need the support of their allies around the world to restore their democracy.
Two measures are critical to reversing the democratic regression in Turkey.
First, a new civilian constitution should be drafted through a democratic process involving the input of all segments of society and that is on par with international legal and humanitarian norms, and drawing lessons from the success of long-term democracies in the West.
Second, a school curriculum that emphasizes democratic and pluralistic values and encourages critical thinking must be developed. Every student must learn the importance of balancing state powers with individual rights, the separation of powers, judicial independence and press freedom, and the dangers of extreme nationalism, politicization of religion and veneration of the state or any leader.
Before either of those things can happen, however, the Turkish government must stop the repression of its people and redress the rights of individuals who have been wronged by Erdogan without due process.
I probably will not live to see Turkey become an exemplary democracy, but I pray that the downward authoritarian drift can be stopped before it is too late.
by Sophia Pandya
Human rights violations in Turkey have increased exponentially in the aftermath of the July 15, 2016 attempted coup. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan blamed the plot on the Hizmet (Gülen) movement, and seized the opportunity to throw many of those he considered as opposition in jail. In all, over a hundred thousand people have been arrested, despite a lack of evidence against the vast majority of those detained. The UK Foreign Affairs Committee states there is a lack of credible evidence the movement was behind the coup, and Fethullah Gülen, Hizmet’s founding figure, flatly denies involvement.
Nonetheless, since July 15, women have been subjected to an uptick of a variety of intimidation strategies, including rape, the threat of rape, harassment, and other forms of violence—not only by Erdoǧan’s AKP-led (Justice and Development) government, but also by civilians emboldened by the new climate in which macho, hyper-masculinity and misogyny have become widespread. Many women whose families are affiliated with the groups currently targeted by the crackdown (i.e. Hizmet participants, Kurds, Alevis) have reported experiencing psychological trauma. Unsurprisingly, the political turmoil has also negatively affected children in a myriad of
Declaring a “state of emergency” (still in place for an indefinite period of time), and abandoning the European Convention for Human Rights, Erdoǧan has also fired thousands of educators, police, judges, prosecutors, journalists, and shut down (or taken over) schools, universities, businesses, and media outlets. On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the attempted coup, he sacked 7,000 more in a single day. This unprecedented onslaught is widely termed the “purge,” and the Turkish president appears willing to refashion the very fabric of society through oppression and violence. Internationally considered a populist authoritarian, Erdoǧan has also incited attacks against those he opposes. Recently, he called for the reinstatement of the death penalty and the beheading of those he deems responsible for the coup.
The Turkish president is also no feminist: he has stated that women who have not chosen to bear at least three children are “deficient” and “incomplete,” and that women have a “delicate nature” and are “unequal” to men. Not long after the putsch attempt, feminists noted an increase in attacks and harassment on the street. Journalist Pinar Ersoy writes that women have been “silenced” during the purge, and that women’s groups have been targeted. A soccer club executive actually tweeted that the wives of any coup plotters should be considered “spoils of war.” The lack of women during street protests also speaks to the heightened climate of fear.
During and after political conflict in general, women and children are the ones most severely afflicted by hardships such as poverty, displacement, insecurity, and sexual and domestic violence. In the aftermath, men tend to attempt to reinstate patriarchal “order,” sometimes through violent means. During the purge in Turkey, women from a variety of marginalized communities (Kurdish, Alevi, Hizmet-affiliated) have been particularly affected by financial difficulties, violence, rape, and demeaning treatment, even during and after childbirth. A forty year-old lawyer, Frank brought his family to the US despite his wife’s reluctance to leave Turkey, when he realized that the government was even “jailing mothers with ten day-old children.” He added, “I couldn’t take this risk.”
An estimated 16,000 to 20,000 women are currently held in prison; in some cases, they’re being used as hostages to coerce their male relatives to return to Turkey from abroad, and as an intimidation technique intended to silence dissent among their families. Tarik, a fifty year-old man in the construction business from eastern Turkey, fled his homeland but worried about his family being arrested in his place as he is affiliated with the Hizmet movement. He stated, “They also started putting wives in jail if they can’t find their husbands. So, my family came to the US in January.” In prison, women report being subjected to systematic humiliation, including naked searches by male guards. In a Muslim patriarchal society, a violation of a women’s body is a dishonor to her entire family, especially for her male kinfolk who are traditionally responsible for protecting her. An acquaintance in his twenties, affiliated with the Hizmet movement, told me that his fiancé abruptly broke off their engagement after her trauma of spending time in jail.
For many women not jailed or physically hurt, the psychological effects of the purge are nevertheless damaging. Fatma, a forty-two-year-old housewife from Erzurum, was briefly detained and interrogated about her husband’s Hizmet-related activities. After her release, she began having problems with her mental health. She confided, “Because my psychological state was so bad, I took medications. I’m still under this medication.” Her eighteen-year-old daughter, Hatice, also suffered from the stigma when her classmates found out about the allegations against her father, and they socially ostracized her.
Children exposed to political conflict are also in danger of suffering from PTSD or anxiety. Currently, over 500 children are being raised in jail by those mothers who are among the imprisoned, or left behind when their mothers are suddenly detained, in one case in a parking lot. Fatma’s younger daughter, Elif, 17, expressed frustration with being displaced by the coup. Now attending school in California, she said, “I feel stupid, because I don’t speak English. Yes, I cried when I left Turkey, because we were living with our grandparents. I miss all my family members. After we left, our grandmother got paralyzed because of these events.”
Tarik also spoke to me about the effect the purge had on his children. He explained, “My kids’ psychological well-being was disturbed because every time my car stopped, they worried that the police had stopped us. Police officers with rifles were coming to their schools during school hours, like SWAT teams.” When his younger daughter finally arrived in the US, she didn’t leave her room for the first two weeks.
Many children affected by the coup also found their education disrupted. A sixteen-year-old boy was stuck in Seattle, having arrived on a trip with friends, right before the events of July 15th. He said that the government had shut his old school down, and that if he returned, he would be assigned to a random public school. He was unsure about whether or not he would seek asylum in the US, or return, but he was most distressed about his family still in Turkey. He explained, “I’m sad about my family and their future, and what might happen to them. I’m concerned about their security.” Over two thousand educational institutes in Turkey have been closed, and tens of thousands of teachers and professors were fired. Due to the instability caused both by the purge and attacks by the Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), intellectuals are fleeing the country, leading to a Turkish “brain drain.”
Women and children are the unseen victims of Erdoǧan’s purge, and the effects will doubtless reverberate through Turkish society for decades. Those thousands of women jailed are acutely vulnerable to physical (including sexual), emotional, and psychological abuse. If they have young children, these children are either left behind, or they find themselves also behind bars. Those women at home whose male relatives are incarcerated risk financial hardship, displacement, and lack of physical security. The children at risk face the disruption of their education, as well as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. According to psychologist Jack Saul, survivors of collective trauma may also experience a sense of betrayal and insecurity, shattered relationships, and the inability for adults to effectively care for their children. For the most vulnerable victims, weaving lives back together again, and moving towards healing, will be an immense challenge.
Muslim’s have a responsibility to strengthen their immune system against violent extremism writes Fethullah Gulen, honorary president of Dialogue Platform.
SAYLORSBURG, Pennsylvania — The brutal, deadly attacks in London and Manchester on innocent civilians are the latest in a series of senseless violent acts carried out by the so-called Islamic State, a group that deserves no designation other than the world’s most inhuman criminal network.
In response to this threat, the world’s Muslims can and should help intelligence and security communities ward off future attacks and eliminate the lifelines of this menace.
From its founding amid the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS has dealt in deception as well as death. Despite its name, ISIS represents a perversion of Islam. The group’s dress, flags and slogans cannot hide their abhorrent betrayal of the spirit of this major world faith.
Denying this barbaric group a geographical base that emboldens them to claim statehood — an essential element of their propaganda to potential recruits — is a worthwhile goal that all Muslims should support. But the challenge isn’t only military.
ISIS, and other groups like it, recruits alienated Muslim youth by offering them a false sense of purpose and belonging in the service of a totalitarian ideology.
Countering that appeal will include religious, political, psycho-social and economic efforts. It will require that local communities and government institutions address structural issues such as discrimination and exclusion.
International organizations must protect citizens against violent persecution of the kind we witnessed in Syria and assist with transitions to democratic governance. Western governments, too, have a responsibility to adopt a more ethical and consistent foreign policy.
Muslim citizens and organizations can and should be part of these broader efforts, but we also have a unique role and responsibility in this fight.
Across the world, Muslims need to strengthen the immune system of our communities, especially our youth, against violent extremism. We must ask: How did our communities become grounds for terrorist recruitment? Yes, external factors must be addressed, but we must also look within.
Self-examination is an Islamic ethic. There are actions we can take, as Muslim parents, teachers, community leaders and imams, to help our youth protect themselves. We must defeat these murderous extremists in the battlefield of ideas.
A common fallacy of violent extremist ideologues is to decontextualize the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet (peace be upon him) and misinterpret them to serve their pre-determined goals. These ideologues turn snapshots from his or his companions’ lives into instruments to justify a criminal act.
The antidote is a religious education program that teaches the tradition in a holistic and contextualized way. To be able to resist the deceits of radical ideologues, young Muslims must understand the spirit of their scripture and the overarching principles of their Prophet’s life. We need to teach our youth the full story of how the Prophet moved his society from savagery into ethical norms shared by Abrahamic faiths.
A holistic religious education should start with a commitment to the dignity of every person as a unique creation of God, regardless of faith. When God says “We have honored the children of Adam” (Quran, 17:70), all humanity is honored. The Quran describes taking the life of even one innocent person as a crime against all humanity (Quran, 5:32). Even in a legitimate defensive war, the Prophet’s teachings specifically prohibit violence against any noncombatants, especially women, children and clergy. The belief that one can enter paradise by killing others is a delusion.
Violent extremists also commit another major fallacy: transplanting into the 21st century religious verdicts from the Middle Ages, in which political rivalries were often confused with religious differences. Today, Muslims have the freedom to practice their religion in democratic, secular countries.
The values of participatory governments align with core Muslim ideals of social justice, the rule of law, collective decision-making and equality. Muslims can and do live as contributing citizens of democracies around the world.
Proactively, we must develop positive ways to satisfy the social needs of our youth. Youth groups should be encouraged to volunteer in humanitarian relief projects to help victims of disasters and violent conflicts. In teaching them to help others, we will give them the tools to empower themselves and feel that they are part of something meaningful. We also have a duty to help the youth engage in dialogue with members of other faiths to help nurture mutual understanding and respect. As Muslims, we are not just members of a faith community, but of the human family.
Since the 1970s, the participants in the social movement Hizmet — the Turkish word for service — have founded more than 1,000 modern secular schools, free tutoring centers, colleges, hospitals and humanitarian relief organizations in more than 150 countries. By facilitating the involvement of young students and professionals as service providers, mentors, tutors and helpers, these institutions and their social networks foster a sense of identity, belonging, meaning and empowerment that constitute an antidote to the false promises of violent extremists.
Indeed, the best way to proactively protect our youth is to provide them with a positive counter-narrative. By offering opportunities for language learning and cultural exchanges, these kinds of institutions nurture a pluralistic outlook, critical thinking and empathy.
As part of their daily rituals, practising Muslims pray for God to keep them “on the straight path.” Today, the straight path means examining our understanding of the core values of our faith, how we embody those values in our daily lives and strengthening our youth’s resistance to influences that contradict those values.
Being part of the worldwide effort to help stop violent religious radicals from repeating the London and Manchester cruelties elsewhere is both a human and religious responsibility.
Fethullah Gülen is an Islamic scholar, preacher and social advocate.