When the coup attempt happened on July 15th, 2016, it was immediately blamed on the Gulen movement in Turkey. People within the movement had already given up the fight for their rights against the state after a three-year crackdown. The victims of the purge were the kind of least likely people to dare a skirmish with the state apparatus, yet nearly fifty thousand of them are currently in prison for terrorism charges.
Until four years ago, the followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and the supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were in the same camp, the same boat, struggling not to be taken down by the secularist forces that were attacking them. After 17 December 2013 corruption investigation, however, it became too hard to keep track of the threads being cut between these two old allies as the Erdogan camp used all legal and illegal means of the state structure to destroy this social movement, which was deeply and widely settled in various areas of the Turkish society. Hoping that the elimination efforts of the government would be temporary and unsuccessful within the rule of law, the movement people called it “sureç” which means process, or phase.
The human aspect of this “process” was mostly overlooked with the tendency of seeing this conflict as a power struggle between two Islamist groups -when looked from a secular perspective. Or, the human right violations that were executed by the Turkish government in their effort to root out this wide-scale social movement were only seen after the massive purge that followed the failed coup.
But the purged professionals who used to work at Gulen-affiliated institutions tell a different story, as they are trying to understand how they ended up being seen as the number one enemy of the state, while they had no intention to do so. An academic from a now-closed private university told me how this “process” effected their business and finally ended it: “Soon after the rift happened, we started to see the concrete effects of the crackdown in our institution, as we were denied our basic rights as a university, like government-sponsored grants, intimidation of donors to the research projects, and finally rejection of work permits for our foreign staff.”
For them, the end was near as they imagined it in the form of a change of ownership. Private companies whose owners have sympathy for Mr. Gulen were one by one taken over by the government, and the people who worked in these businesses were trying to come to terms with this apocalyptic future.
So this is how they dealt with it: “Then the trustees came, and took over the administration of the university. For the first week we expected to be fired, and when that did not happen we were convinced that the trustees did not want the body to die, but live as a different person. It seemed like we would be kept to run the body until they found new staff to transform the identity of the university into a pro-Erdogan one -and they were quite open about declaring this plan.
“Three days after the coup attempt, we were altogether exposed to a rude and insolent threat by the new owners of the university to comply with their ideas and ideologies in order to keep our jobs. Even after that, we were still silent, and unwilling to have any trouble with the government,” he went on to say.
People just wanted to live freely, keep their jobs, and have nothing to do with political activism for the rest of their lives. In other words, they had already surrendered as they did not dare to undertake a fight against the state of Turkey. These people belonged to the deliberately apolitical 1980s generation, which took its lesson from the brutal suppression of all forms of political activism by the military junta. This generation was told over and over again to stay out of politics, thus trouble, and be safe from the wrath of the state.
With an exception of some journalists, writers, and few die-hard fans of Gulen, people had already given up the idea of institutional ownership of the numerous schools, businesses and companies in exchange for living in safety and peace.
It was obvious that the government would confiscate all their properties and give them away to Erdogan loyalists. They could do nothing to prevent this, and they lack any form of the leftist resistance skills. Before and after of the coup, companies one by one were taken over by the government appointed trustees.
Apart from a small protest at Ipek Media Group in October 2015 and the final protest during the takeover of the Zaman Media Group in March 2016, trustees saw no form of resistance. They also did not face any obstacle to their business from the people who worked in these institutions after the government takeover. This pacifism — to the extent of not knowing how to resist — made it difficult for President Erdogan to make the public believe that the Gulen community is an armed, violent, terrorist organization.
While people within the movement thought that the process of elimination, purge, and crackdown was nearing to an end after the loss of businesses and arbitrary imprisonments of hundreds over a three-year period, the coup attempt happened in 2016 summer.
“On Friday, July 15, I made my usual long commute back home crossing the Bosphorus bridge, that was later blocked by the putschists. When I saw the news headlines, I thought the bridge was closed for a security reason. The possibility of a military coup was totally outside of my realm of thinking. I was trying to believe in the reality of the events of the night as I was hiding behind the door being afraid of the noise of the fighter jets that were flying so low in the skies of Istanbul,” the same academic spoke of the moments of horror during that night.
“But I also knew that this was just the beginning of the nightmare of a different sort, of great magnitude when I saw in the news that Gulen followers were blamed for the coup attempt,” he said regarding what the abortive coup unleashed for members of the movement who faced an unrelenting crackdown, sweeping purge and massive dispossession of properties en masse, a social tragedy that never seen in this scale in living social memory.
President Erdogan himself immediately declared that this failed attempt was a ‘gift from God’ to them because now they could finish off the movement (i.e. the people) without worrying about what remained of the rule of law. More than 1,500 schools, including 15 universities, were shut down with a single executive order on July 22, 2017. Things went so crazy that holding a book written by Mr. Gulen in your personal library, having an account at the Gulen-affiliated Bank Asya, making a donation to the Gulen-affiliated relief organization Kimse Yok Mu, being a member of the Gulen-affiliated labor union for teachers is enough for someone to land in prison.
In a sign of breakdown of social trust and bonds, anonymous tips by unknown people about being an affiliate of the ‘FETO’ (the acronym the government uses for defining the movement as Fethullahist Terrorist Organization) is now one of the ways for someone to end up in custody for 30 days with no access to their lawyers. People are summarily arrested with no court appearance in a foreseeable future, properties being confiscated with no court order, being suspended from their government-sector jobs and dismissed from all their positions and benefits with a lifetime ban on taking public jobs again.
The very same people who wanted to have no trouble with the state had to face the criminal accusation of being a terrorist and inhumane treatment at the hands of the state apparatus. Those who found the necessary survival skills fled out of the country, facing exile, unemployment, and statelessness. Many of these people had never been kept at a detention center, a prison, or a courthouse before. Indeed, many of them had thought that anyone who is punished by the state in the past must have done something wrong to deserve that punishment. Unfortunately, they had to learn the truth the hard way.