By Nick Ashdown, published in the LA Review of Books, Nov 27, 2016
THERE ARE MANY THINGS I remember about the night of July 15 in Istanbul. I was with my then girlfriend and her friends when we heard a military coup was taking place. We decided to do the most sensible thing we could think of: buy beer and sunflower seeds; put on some Ahmet Kaya, a popular dissident singer of Kurdish descent; and watch the surreal events unfold on television.
I remember the stone-faced platinum-blonde television announcer reading the would-be junta’s declaration. I remember the hugs, tears, and swearing, as we all took photos and videos of the TV screen’s unbelievable string of headlines. I remember the ruinous beauty of the low-hanging, blood-red moon.
But mostly I remember the birds — thousands of them taking to flight like one giant, avian beast, ghostly white in the darkness, spooked by the deafening, glass-shattering sonic booms from a low-flying F-16. We all hit the deck instinctively, but I peeked through the window and saw the afterburner flickering by like a firefly, wondering how something so tiny could make such a terrible roar. We’ll never forget that sound, the millions of us who heard it that night, wondering what we’d wake up to in the morning.
Dreadful images flash before us in real time on social media: tanks turning civilians into road kill; bullets like laser beams, raining down from unseen gunships somewhere in the inky sky above; anti-coup crowds, livid from being shot at by coupist soldiers, dragging, beating, and even slaughtering wide-eyed, clueless-looking conscripts barely old enough to shave.
Soon footage also emerges of the heroes, from the ranks of those brave and concerned enough to risk their lives to stop the murderous putschists. The lone, young headscarved woman who walks right up to a group of soldiers and tanks to give them a stern scolding. The soldier who abandons his weapon and weeps after seeing the news in a shop window’s television and learning that he’s unknowingly participating in a coup. The man who survived being run over by two tanks after trying to stop them with all he had — three stones. And countless others.
A commentator and American friend of Turkish descent concludes that “everyone in Turkey has gone bonkers,” referring to the out-of-control conspiracy theories, bitter invective, and frenzied vengeance-seeking atmosphere following July 15. Imagine the fervently nationalistic Us versus Them atmosphere of the United States after 9/11, coupled with the McCarthy-era witch hunts, but exponentially worse.
In fact, imagine this:
An American liberal elite, leery of the ruling Republican Party and its “backward” religious conservative followers, dominates the bureaucracy and military. In order to dislodge the liberals from these key positions, the Republicans form an alliance with Scientologists, greatly accelerating the decades-long silent ascent of the latter’s well-educated followers into various public services, including the military, police, intelligence, and judiciary. Massive sham trials are opened against not just the top liberal military brass, but also any prominent voices that criticize the Republicans or Scientologists, including respected journalists.
Eventually the Republicans and Scientologists, having mostly displaced the liberal elite, go to war with each other. The former relentlessly purges the latter, whose followers happen to be some of the civil service’s best and brightest employees. Police raid the Scientologists’ many media organs one by one, sometimes in the middle of live broadcasts, and the state takes them over, kills them, and resurrects them as pro-Republican zombies overnight. The Scientologists, now dubbed the Scientology Terror Organization, or STO, by the government, release incriminating voice recordings of top Republicans and attempt to have Cabinet ministers arrested, but they’re simply no match for the government. One day, there’s a prematurely executed military coup, which fails miserably, but not before hundreds of innocent people in New York and Washington are killed, the president is nearly snatched, and Congress itself is heavily bombed. Even as it’s happening the government immediately blames STO.
This brings us to the purges. Imagine further that the alleged top coup plotters are quickly found, and soon images of them, showing signs of serious torture, are paraded not just on Fox News, but on CNN and all the other major networks, which long ago fell into line with the increasingly powerful Republicans. Many die in custody under mysterious circumstances. Pregnant women in jail lose their babies. There’s a spate of suicides. The government forbids prayer services for their funerals and builds a special Traitor’s Cemetery to dump the bodies.
All real and suspected Scientologists across the country are rounded up and thrown into overflowing prisons. This includes even former Scientologists and people caught with Scientology books or other memorabilia. Family members of suspected Scientologists on the run are held hostage by police. Lawyers refuse to take their cases for fear of being called terrorist supporters.
Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and other prominent Scientologists are arrested or flee abroad. There are cases of people being dragged off by police for having Top Gun or Pulp Fiction posters in their homes. Scientology bookstores are ransacked. Hundreds of Scientology-linked companies worth tens of billions are seized by the government and handed off to party loyalists. Parents disown their children after they’re accused of being Scientologist sympathizers. The government encourages ordinary citizens to report potential Scientologists, and soon everyone is accusing everyone else. Immigrants are attacked and accused of having supported the coup attempt. Pundits have screaming matches on news panels over who hates STO the most. Republicans accuse Scientologists of being secret Muslims, and blame them for everything from the Kennedy assassination to 9/11 to ISIS.
An effigy of L. Ron Hubbard is hanged from a noose for public display in Times Square, and giant banners pledging to murder Scientologists are hung in public places for all to see. Huge crowds of the Republicans’ followers go wild with their support. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church and prominent mafia leaders allied to the Republicans are invited to give anti-STO speeches at public gatherings. They encourage citizens to snatch the property and belongings of Scientologists as war loot.
Soon Noam Chomsky and other prominent dissidents, many of whom have long criticized Scientology, are apprehended. Even opposition politicians such as Ralph Nader are thrown into jail when they criticize the government’s actions. Democratic senators are shot in the streets by angry Republican supporters. The few critical outlets and programs daring to criticize the government, such as The Nation and Democracy Now!, are raided by the police and shut down. Mainstream liberal outlets such as The New York Times, who’ve always hated Scientologists even more than the Republicans, turn a blind eye, express weak condemnations, or even encourage the purges. They lack the courage to criticize the government for fear of being labeled as unpatriotic traitors and seized by the state.
The equivalent of every single one of those things has happened in Turkey since July 15. All we can do is report on the unraveling of a country that used to be considered an almost miraculous success story, as if we were watching a car with its brake lines cut, hurtling downhill. As we peer into the murky pall of the future, wondering how far it will all go, I recall how the author Ece Temelkuran explained Turkish politics to me years ago: “Only power rules.”
Somehow stubborn Istanbul, the city that’s seen everything, perseveres. The day after the coup is sunny and calm, with street life as lively as usual in my friendly neighborhood.
A flag-filled atmosphere of jubilance at having defeated the coup breaks out across the country. Parks overflow with entire families celebrating into the wee hours of the night.
It’s true, most of these people support an authoritarian leader responsible for massive abuses of power, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But they and tens of millions of other devoted followers adore him and voted for him in free, if unfair, elections.
My ex and her friends detest Erdoğan and would like nothing more than to see him out of power, but like millions of other government critics, they opposed the coup from the very first moments. This was a flicker of unity rarely seen in such a shattered country, triggered by the emergence of a shared enemy. Now, however, many secularists and government opponents live in terror.
“Polarized” is one of the most common clichés employed to describe Turkey, but as Gareth Jenkins, an analyst and long-term resident in Turkey once explained to me, it’s not quite the right word. “I hesitate to say polarized, because it’s a lot more fragmented than there just being two poles,” he said.
It is misleading to divide society into “pro-government” and “anti-government,” since both of those sides are endlessly complex and diverse. Each of Turkey’s often-overlapping factions — Erdoğan supporters, Kemalists, Islamists, leftists, Kurdish nationalists, Gülen supporters — are themselves highly varied and fractured. Nonetheless, sometimes it does feel as though there are two perpetually warring sides in Turkey, and that one of them has finally lost. A fragile balance has been disrupted, and Turkish society begins to fall apart.
The last year and a half in Turkey has been hell. Entire neighbourhoods of cities in the Kurdish southeast have been leveled during the never-ending insurgency. A string of monstrous terror attacks has robbed the lives of hundreds of civilians in major urban centers. The government grows more and more authoritarian, cracking down on its many critics — journalists, opposition politicians, activists, academics, and even ordinary citizens, many of whom are actual children. All the while, the world’s worst conflict spills over the border from Syria.
A sort of mental exhaustion slowly builds, the kind that can’t be cured with a single good night’s rest or a short vacation. The sleepless week or two following the coup attempt is a blur of never-ending anti-coup rallies, Twitter, and wistful conversations.
Erdoğan calls the coup a “gift from God,” allowing him to ramp up the years-long crackdown against his opponents. Critics call it the purges. With wild abandon, the government immediately embarks on a colossal liquidation against accused followers of the Islamic cleric and leader of a global, opaque Islamic movement, Fethullah Gülen. Erdoğan’s support reaches an apex, and soon it becomes clear that the public wants blood, with many demanding a return of the death penalty. The better angels of our nature have no place here.
A state of emergency is declared, and over 110,000 people are arrested, detained, fired, or suspended, as purges expand far beyond Gülen’s followers to include anyone critical of the government. A carapace of fear descends, as analysts write their eulogies for Turkish democracy.
“The government is trying to take revenge on us,” Fatih Yağmur, a critical journalist who’s fled to a country he won’t even name, tells me in July. He has no connections whatsoever to Gülen, but has reported critically on the government in the past. “Now there will be dictatorship in Turkey,” he laments.
I receive emails every day from purge victims, begging me to help them, or to at least tell their story. Many of them have been disowned by their relatives and ostracized by society.
“Already my friends are looking at me as if I have the plague,” a 27-year-old former civil servant who was fired in the purges writes. “Why would anyone give me a job, why would they give themselves a headache from the state?”
“The thought of ‘when will it be my turn’ has psychologically devastated us. When the door buzzer rings everyone falls into distress,” writes a 40-year-old fired English teacher.
“We cannot even go out in public [because] our acquaintances humiliate and insult us. We cannot go back to our village; all of our relatives have turned their backs on us,” he says.
Many of the purged are couples who taught at schools linked to Gülen. They’ve been left jobless without a pension, and the trauma often takes a heavy toll on their children. A father of three who’s been fired and whose imprisoned wife is a sewing teacher who has Wolff Parkinson Syndrome tells me how his family struggles. “It’s been especially hard to get my three-year-old daughter to eat since [my wife was taken],” he writes. “Her question ‘Where’s Mom,’ never ends […]. My [nine-year-old] son has had anxiety and stomach problems since that day.”
A fired teacher who taught math for 17 years, and whose husband is now in jail, writes, “My [13- and eight-year-old] kids keep asking me, ‘Mom, are you and dad terrorists? What does terrorist mean?’”
With the purges the government has created perhaps many tens of thousands of unemployed, blacklisted, and vengeful people.
“The state cannot act like the mafia,” the 27-year-old civil servant tells me. “We may be governed by the law of the jungle right now, but one day, the law will go back to normal and they will pay. Long live hell for the tyrants.”
Nick Ashdown is a Canadian freelance journalist, writer, and photographer based in Istanbul, Turkey.