Story Publication logo March 8, 2014

Turkey in Turmoil


Turkey Under Protest

When protests flooded Turkey, they revealed deep problems. Police brutality, authoritarianism, and a...

Media file: sarigul2.jpg
Mustafa Sarigul on the campaign trail. Image by Jenna Krajeski. Turkey, 2014.

Although the Turkish Parliament is frequently the scene of rowdy discussion, it's not often that a lawmaker leaves with a bloody nose. But these are not ordinary times in Turkey. On February 15, in a debate on a bill that would increase the government's authority over the judiciary, an opposition speaker called Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a "dictator" who wants to "control the entire system." In response, members of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) asked the speaker, "Are you drunk?" and rushed the podium. A video of the brawl that circulated on the Internet shows a blurry knot of dark suits, lawmakers in a group tantrum. Republican People's Party (CHP) representative Ali Ihsan Kokturk emerged with a broken nose. The bill passed.

The fight marked another day in a tumultuous nine months. Last May, a sit-in to save Istanbul's Gezi Park blossomed into nationwide protests characterized by the stunning brutality of riot police. Five people died, dozens lost eyes to plastic bullets—and for the first time in eleven years, Erdogan's grip on Turkey seemed to be faltering. Then, in December, an investigation into corruption among government officials went public with an early-morning raid that uncovered shoeboxes full of cash and led to the arrests of prominent businessmen and sons of cabinet ministers. The highlight of the investigation so far has been leaked phone calls allegedly between Erdogan and his son, Bilal, that seemed to catch Erdogan red-handed. "There is your money in the safe," Bilal appeared to remind his father.

Erdogan went into battle. Just as he had during Gezi, he blamed outside forces for the corruption probe. This time, the accusation focused on a Pennsylvania-based Islamic cleric named Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan said enlisted his vast network of followers to conspire in a "judicial coup." Erdogan purged the Turkish police and judiciary of people perceived to be "Gulenists" and fired cabinet ministers, replacing them with officials prized for their loyalty. His party introduced a bill to control the Internet, where information on the investigation found new life, and tightened its grip on the mainstream media, which in turn defended Erdogan's claims, when they reported the scandal at all. He spoke in no uncertain terms: "History will not forgive those who have become mixed up in this game," he said in a New Year's address. "Whichever party you support, this plot targets all of you without exception, the bread on your table, the money in your pocket, the sweat of your brow." When Bilal was first named in the investigation, Erdogan assured the Turkish public that if his son turned out to be guilty, he would disown him. He insisted the leaked conversations were fakes and, for good measure, an invasion of privacy.

Erdogan is adept at counterattacks, but the past nine months have carried unprecedented threats. "[Erdogan's] enemies are also resourceful and will not refrain from using what options they have as this war of attrition deepens," wrote journalist Semih Idiz on the news site Al-Monitor. The leaked phone calls likely represent a fraction of these "resources." But while this tactic revealed flaws in Erdogan's leadership with all the subtlety of a fireworks display, it also showed the limitations of his challengers. With local elections scheduled for the end of March, and the coveted Istanbul mayoral seat in the balance, the focus shifted from what was wrong with the AKP to what was wrong with the Turkish opposition.

* * *

When Erdogan helped to establish the AKP in 2001, the country was changing. Religious Turks, long forced to suppress their beliefs in a rigidly secular state, had become upwardly mobile and more visible. Islamist political parties had also been gaining ground, but were regularly banned by the courts or the military. The AKP chose not to define itself along religious lines—Erdogan, especially, rejected the term "Islamist"—but its politicians wore their Muslim identities proudly. This balance between piety and modernity appealed to both religious and secular Turks, and Erdogan became a magnet for votes. He came from a hardscrabble, working-class background and attended an Islamic school, not an elite private one. Instead of denying his past, he broadcast his hardships. Erdogan's people were Turks with modest backgrounds and poor connections but new ambitions. They felt unrepresented in government, and they looked like, and looked at the world like, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"A lot of people think Anatolian voters are irrational," H. Akin Unver, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, told me. "I think they are overly rational. They don't vote for secondary matters. You have to change their everyday lives." After becoming prime minister in 2003, Erdogan rolled back restrictions on head scarves, built roads and reached out to isolated groups. He understood the trauma Turks felt in the aftermath of the 1980 coup, when whole villages were uprooted. "Erdogan animates that anger," Unver said.

The AKP also focused on the campaign for accession into the European Union, building a strong economy and challenging a too-powerful military. The party won three consecutive elections but entered a landscape virtually devoid of strong opposition voices. After the 1980 coup, the military had terrorized Turkey in an attempt to eliminate dissent, essentially wiping out the left. A strong Kurdish opposition concentrated itself in the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which launched an insurgency against the state that has raged throughout the AKP's tenure. But the Kurdish opposition was marginalized by its nationalism, and it periodically supported the AKP. Secular Turks, including members of the CHP, got used to second place.

In power, the AKP passed some liberal reforms, but it also further chipped away at the opposition, imprisoning journalists, Kurdish activists and secular Turks for supposed links to terrorism or coup attempts. The crackdown on the Gezi protests displayed little tolerance for dissent, even from a prime minister who was once imprisoned for reciting a poem. And the list of threats grew to include Fethullah Gulen and the Gulen movement—alternately referred to as the hizmet (service) or the cemaat (community)—which had once aligned with the AKP in its attempts to root out threats to its authority.

"I think [Erdogan] believes that there is no benign reason why people should not like him," Hakan Altinay, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me when I met him in a Taksim cafe near Gezi Park. "If you don't like him, you must be a traitor or have some kind of malign motive. If that's what you believe and you think you know best, then who cares about due process? That stuff should not get in the way of your relentless pursuit of a better Turkey."

* * *

On a clear February weekday morning, I visited the Gulen-run Fatih College, a primary and secondary school in a far-flung Istanbul neighborhood near Ataturk airport. I was escorted by Fatih Ceran, the public relations manager at the Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV), an organization that does outreach (some would say propaganda) on behalf of the Gulen movement. Ever since Erdogan accused Gulenists of being a "parallel state" in Turkey, the GYV has been working overtime to convince Turks (and foreign journalists) that the Gulen movement is, as GYV vice president Cemal Usak told me, "a cultural movement with nothing to do with politics."

Fatih College is housed in an imposing building that more closely resembles the municipal offices of a small, wealthy city than a school. Excavations for future developments pockmark neighboring fields, and low-flying airplanes make the air hum. Kemal Pehlivan, vice general manager of the school, buzzed us through a maze of doors leading to halls and classrooms so clean, so well appointed and so full of smiling children as to seem slightly otherworldly. Science labs that looked like catalog photos were proudly described to me as "fully loaded." Large color posters celebrated award-winning projects. Last year, a Fatih student discovered that you could increase the omega-3 content in certain fish by adding purslane to their food.

"Thirty years ago, people had problems with the education in Turkey," Pehlivan said. "We want our children to get a better education and to be better people. Fethullah Gulen advised us to open schools." Gulen schools have opened in 110 countries, with some 140 charter schools in the United States. Gulenists travel far outside Turkey to teach in the schools, work often regarded as service in gratitude for a subsidized education. They consider themselves ambassadors of Turkey and their faith, participants in what Joshua Hendrick, a sociologist at Loyola University in Maryland and the author of Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World, calls "the battle of ideas for who speaks for Islam." At Fatih College, a decal affixed to nearly every classroom door in the elementary wing reads Fatih College: Represents Turkey to the World.

Gulenists argue that their prominence in Turkey is the result of education and ambition, their numbers owing to the wide appeal of Gulen's message. Figures like Gulen, who took out an ad in The Washington Post condemning the September 11 attacks the very next day, are sorely needed in the Islamic community, they argue. Pehlivan employed a commonly used term to describe Gulen-educated Turks: "This is the golden generation," he said.

Gulenists are accused of courting Turkey's promising students and grooming them to excel on behalf of the movement, cementing their loyalty with scholarships and a religious education. Members are encouraged to donate money each month—a common religious practice, but this accumulation of funds raises suspicion. Critics also say that Gulenists aspire to positions within Turkey's police and judiciary, where they can wield decisive influence over the future of the country (and also control outsiders) without taking the risk of forming a political party. When Erdogan called the movement a "parallel state" launching a coup, he was one-upping those critics.

He was also contradicting himself. The AKP and the Gulen movement come from different traditions of Islamic politics, but for years they worked together, increasing Turkey's influence abroad and garnering votes at home. They challenged the powerful Turkish military, targeting coup leaders, but became overzealous; the court cases, known as "Sledgehammer" and "Ergenekon" (and named after the coup plots), are now behemoths threatening all dissenters. Gulen criticized Erdogan for turning away from the EU; for condemning Israel after the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident; and for negotiating with Turkey's Kurdish minority. In 2011, Erdogan began trying to wrest control of the judiciary from the Gulenists, marking the start of a feud that boiled over this past December. "It is not something I find tremendously surprising," Hendrick said. "It has always been a coalition of mutual interests, not an equal partnership of shared identities.

"I don't think there's a winner in this battle for position," he continued. "Both political brands are being tarnished dramatically. Despite allegations of a parallel state, it is impossible for the AK party to prove this outright. The Gulen movement is much more equipped to win the public conversation on the pages of Turkish newspapers and in the arena of international public opinion by employing categories associated with democratization, liberalism and human rights. Notwithstanding, the AK party is much more equipped to win structurally. They can actually remove police chiefs, encourage the divestment of banks, cancel contracts with airlines."

In the fight against the AKP, the Gulenists are not unarmed. They have the gleaming halls of Fatih College; the eager, articulate defenses of hardworking employees like Ceran; and an overarching message, hammered home in every interview, of tolerance and education. They also have followers in high places. Today's Zaman, one of Turkey's leading English-language papers, is owned by a Gulen-affiliated media group and is now aggressively critical of Erdogan. The movement's size is a tool, allowing it to assign glorified ideals to the collective and transgressions to the individual. The Gulenists shrug off a few bad, politically ambitious apples. "Of course the followers of hizmet are interested in politics as citizens of Turkey," Usak told me. "But as long as hizmet does not establish a political party, it is not a political movement."

Even so, the Gulenists may be undone by their own secrecy. They refuse to make public their financial records or explain the specific obligations of followers. Their tendency to downplay their size and influence ("We are a cultural organization, and the [AKP] is a political party ruling the country," Usak said to me, annoyed) is getting harder to swallow. While opponents of the AKP might welcome evidence of corruption, they do not necessarily embrace the shadowy figures accused of tapping phones. "If anyone wants us to believe that the only thing they care about is the schools, I think that defies common sense," Altinay of Brookings said. "The biggest challenge is their lack of transparency. No sensible society with half self-respect would tolerate a social movement of this size to be this opaque."

After the tour of Fatih College, we ate lunch in the faculty dining hall, sitting on plush chairs that would not have been out of place at a wedding reception. A waiter served us pasta, and Pehlivan's young son came in, kicking a soccer ball. Energized by the meal, Ceran was less cautious than earlier, when he spoke mostly to underline the goodness of the movement. "Our lack of transparency is a lack of PR," he said. "We did not focus on telling people who we were, because we were confident that we were doing good stuff. But if you don't define yourself, someone else will define you." He was bitterly angry at Erdogan. "The prime minister is humiliating us," he said, and he didn't understand why. The AKP, he insisted, in the dining hall and again during the car ride home, was so much more powerful.

* * *

A few heroes emerged out of last summer's Gezi demonstrations. Among them was a film director and politician named Sirri Sureyya Onder, who famously stood in front of a bulldozer headed for the park. He became a symbol of the protests, and when he announced his candidacy for mayor of Istanbul, Hurriyet Daily News wrote that it "appears likely to be one of the most hotly contested races in years." Erdogan was mayor before he became prime minister, and the future of the city was at the heart of the Gezi protests: losing Istanbul would signal a drastically weakened AKP. Late last year, Onder joined the new pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), intending to challenge "Turkey's nationalist mentality and the AKP's conservative nationalist regime," he wrote to me in an e-mail.

In January, a cold fog rolled over the city, blotting out an unseasonably warm winter, and a crowd gathered in a small square to wait for Onder. They held HDP flags and wore red, yellow and green scarves, the Kurdish colors. A transgender HDP candidate waved a rainbow flag beside an activist celebrating Gezi. On the sidewalk, a woman in a head scarf helped form her daughter's fingers into a peace sign. They seemed to complete what Onder described to me somewhat opaquely as "the concept of multitudes."

From atop a bus, Onder highlighted his supporters among minority groups, criticized the AKP's focus on development—"Human beings are not just customers," he said—and recalled his past as a left-wing activist, which included seven years in prison. He called Gezi a revolution, and emphasized that he was the candidate whose ideology differed the most from Erdogan's. But eight months after Gezi, there remained little hope that Onder would win. "We loved him once," Professor Unver told me. "In June, he was the most popular person. Everybody said they would vote for him, but he lost a lot of that support."

After joining the HDP, Onder tweeted photos of himself with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned founder of the PKK. Kurds view Ocalan as a hero—chants for his freedom are common at HDP rallies—but the Turkish government considers the PKK a terrorist organization, and that classification dominates mainstream thought. Last year, new peace negotiations between the PKK and the AKP made many Kurds reluctant to participate in Gezi, which angered some activists, and Onder's new allegiance paints him as more pro-Kurd than anti-AKP. "Ocalan's photo is a one-shot gun," Unver continued. "When people vote a month later, they will remember those photos."

As a leftist, Onder was best represented by the Kurdish party, but he was also caged there. Turkey's more pragmatic opposition voters would be forced to turn to the CHP, the party established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk nearly ninety years ago. The CHP emphasizes Kemalist values like secularism and a unified Turkey, and it has survived disbandment following the 1980 coup, accusations of links to the "deep state" and decades of internal upheaval. It has the second-highest number of seats in Parliament, the support of liberal voters with few options and now, maybe, a chance at more. Erdogan's bad year was a gift that the CHP was eager to unwrap.

Onder's rally seemed like a funeral compared to the day I spent with Mustafa Sarigul, the CHP candidate for Istanbul mayor. A bus with Sarigul's face emblazoned on the side took the candidate, some colleagues and a group of corralled journalists from Sisli, where he is currently mayor, to Atasehir, a historically working-class neighborhood in the throes of gentrification. Supporters wearing bright-yellow scarves (sarigul means "yellow rose" in Turkish) ran next to the bus, reaching toward the open window where Sarigul stretched out his hands. He banged his palms hard against the windshield, as if to shatter the glass in a show of strength.

Like any Istanbul politician, Sarigul campaigns on promises to solve the city's gridlock, but that day he happily created his own traffic jam. The bus crawled while a barker shouted jovially to pedestrians. "Thank you, traffic policemen, my friends!" he said to motorcycle cops. To an older woman, waiting for a public bus, he shouted, "Hello, lady! Pray for us!"

Sarigul was once expelled from the CHP because of corruption, and critics liken him to his AKP counterparts; but the party, in second place behind a wounded AKP, welcomed him back as its best chance of winning the mayor's race. Compared with Onder and Erdogan, Sarigul seems the most like a politician—kissing babies, avoiding tough subjects and awarding constituents with weekend getaways. He employs religious language while appealing to the CHP's secular base. His charisma functions like a blinking sign reminding people that the CHP is open for business.

But the CHP is notorious for being out of touch. It doesn't relate to ordinary people nearly as well as the AKP; officials don't canvass small Anatolian towns or focus on practical improvements. The CHP's Kemalist outlook can seem glaringly antiquated, and though it is not the most nationalistic among Turkey's top parties (that title goes to the aptly named Nationalist Movement Party), inside the CHP's liberal rhetoric there persists a narrow, at times xenophobic view of Turkishness. "For a long time, they called Anatolian voters backward and ignorant," Unver said. "That ended up benefiting Erdogan."

Nevertheless, Sarigul radiated confidence, perhaps because similarly out-of-touch party members had told him that the AKP was finished, or he had read as much in partisan newspapers. Often it feels like there are few easily discernible facts in Turkey, only a tangle of competing theories. When a companion of Sarigul's asked me in English what I thought of the caravan, I said I was impressed. He translated to a beaming Sarigul: "See, even the American thinks it's a done deal."

* * *

Gezi fostered hope that individuals can create change, but it remains to be seen what that hope will turn into. Cem Koksal and Teo Kumbaracibasi founded the Gezi Party, giving up their day jobs as a rock musician and actor, respectively. But politics is performance, and they were adjusting well. "Take the word 'park' and replace it with 'party,'" Koksal said in a meeting at their office in the hip Kadikoy neighborhood. "What has changed is that we are not at the park; we are at the table. We have the same heart. But we have more time."

The Gezi Party may eventually develop into a force, but in early 2014 it is a collection of ideals packaged under a brand, and that brand is losing its punch. It's hard to know what "Gezi" means now. Demonstrations faded by late summer, and Taksim was back to normal seemingly overnight. On ritzy streets, wealthy Turks buy heavily taxed Levi's and tourists ride a slow cable car up Istiklal Avenue. On some nights there are violent protests, but by morning they amount to little more than overtime for sanitation workers. Gezi altered the way countless individual Turks relate to their government, but the protests were too diverse, too unpredictable and too fleeting to become a unified opposition.

In response, the AKP has worked to make protesting more dangerous. Thirty-six Gezi demonstrators have been charged with terrorism. In February, the AKP deported a foreign journalist for two offensive tweets. A law was passed that criminalizes informal medical care (i.e., treating injured protesters), and Turkey nearly doubled its annual order of tear gas. Sporadic demonstrations carry grave risks. A Turkish TV journalist reporting live from a recent protest was hit by a water cannon; an image of her flying above the ground, still clutching the microphone, went viral. It resembled a photo that had sparked the original protests in May, of a policeman shooting pepper spray inches from a woman's face, except in the new photo the reddish spray is much bigger and the protests in response much smaller.

When Kumbaracibasi described Gezi, it sounded like he was reciting a fable. "First, there were thirty people who went to defend the park, and they were lonely," he began wistfully. But there is a moral to the Gezi fable, and it's aimed at Erdogan. An established opposition would be proof that Turkey is a democracy, something the AKP claimed to want over a decade ago. "If he were smarter, [Erdogan] would have celebrated Gezi," Altinay said. "He'd say, 'You know what? I'm proud of these kids. No other Turkish government could have cultivated a generation that's so independently thinking and willing to stand up for their rights—and I will reconsider the plans for the [park].' But he's not that man."


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