The request reached me as I was visiting an European capital. It was a kind note. ‘A group of us want to discuss our suffering and we would be happy if you could listen to us,’ it said. I wondered why. Because there was an urge to find journalists with a fair and open mind, and there are so few nowadays, I was told.
They all identified themselves, one way or another, as Gülen followers. Some of them were forced to leave Turkey under strained circumstances. Others felt the heat, wherever they lived in Europe, threatened by a network which they claimed was linked to the external intelligence branch of the ruling AKP.
It was a specific group, comprising of seven. All men. Many were known as hard core business people; once known and praised by Turkish President Erdoğan – for example, in 2012 – as ‘Anatolian Tigers’. I had met some of them in business congresses in Turkey, in their heydays. They were representing Turkey’s globalist face, aggressively expanding foreign markets, pushing exports.
When we met at a restaurant, I quickly noticed that there was not much left of the self-esteem they once radiated, all you could read was a deep sense of defeat.
No wonder, Erdoğan’s war against the entire movement – as the German media reveals so powerfully over allegations on how the ‘official’ imam networks loyal to Erdoğan – has reached such proportions that it in many ways evokes memories of medieval hunt of sects declared evil. In Turkey and abroad, the entire grassroots of a religious movement are now totally stigmatized, marked and to be chased for life.
In an apparent shock, traumatized, I heard them tell me story after story over how brutalized even the most ‘distant’ Gülen followers have been.
I heard stories of torture, blackmail, snitching on even close relatives, family disputes, families split because of oppression. Then I was given some anecdotes over how vast properties and assets belonging to the business circles were seized, assets were taken over, and given to what they call ‘Islamist newcomer business wannabes’ entirely loyal to the AKP. I insisted they make a quick and rough calculation over how much money confiscated by the AKP in the past year they were talking about. I turned to the one I knew would know his figures. They negotiated across the table the list of big and midsize Anatolian Tigers who were now penniless, some in prison, some abroad and agreed that it was somewhere between 70 – 90 billion Euros. Initially some of them had managed to move out some bank assets, but many of them had to see their enterprises – employing thousands of people – getting ripped off from them overnight, citing State of Emergency and anti-terror laws.
‘Like what happened to Ottoman Armenians a hundred years ago,’ I commented and looked at them to see the reaction. They were numb; it was as if I was talking about another galaxy. Perhaps their thoughts were so lost, such comparisons did not ring the slightest bell. They probably tought something of this sort was happening only to them the first time in Turkish history.
Then, I asked them, what sort of legal defence strategy they had to defend their rights. Had they engaged any go-getter lawyers in Turkey? Or abroad?
The responses were vague. But this was clear: Oppression had hit this movement with such an impact that Gülenists were totally thunderstruck, shell-shocked. They had not expected such full-scale, die-hard assault.
Yet, even if they had, it was doubtful they would be ready. Gülen followers are a strange blend of people; often well educated and smart, but what they have in common is that, as part of their pious nature, they have never developed reflexes of civilian disobedience to the state, which has for decades been known for constantly inventing and destroying ‘domestic enemies’ – leftists, non-muslims, Kurds. They played a part in the AKP’s power politics, hoping to be part of the power, and they never had thought that they would be used and thrown away.
But it was their turn. It stands now clear that Erdoğan and his AKP was not really after solving the crime of the coup attempt and bring those really and specifically responsible for it. Backed by all the dark forces placed within the state, he is determined to destroy everyone within, even those outsiders who have been in contact with, Gülen movement. It is, of course, a social tragedy – exposing hundreds of thousands individuals, ‘guilty by association’, as pariahs or doomed to remain in a diaspora.
Reminding them that I am there only for a frank conversation, I have pressed them a while with the question: Were Gülenists involved in the coup attempt? Did Fethullah Gülen order the coup, or did he know but did nothing to prevent it?
There was confusion, rather than unwillingness to go into a subject. All except two of them agreed there was an involvement of Gülenists in the coup, but a row erupted when I asked to what proportion they were in it. Some fiercely opposed when I said that there were estimations that the main bulk of colonels and one-star generals were estimated as Gülenists. ‘It’s far less than 50 %’ said one. The most senior figure at the table assured me that Gülen may not have known, that the mutiny could be an act of despair. ‘I swear by Allah that I want all of them Gülen followers or not to be put on trial and be sentenced to this crime’ he concluded.
They seemed dizzy about their future, and what steps to take. I told them that it was surprising that they were so unprepared for a legal battle. The other oppressed parts of Turkey, Kurds, leftists, and liberals, intellectuals and students had given it the highest priority, making it clear for observers like me that this was now an era of defence for basic civil rights and nothing else.
One of them wondered if there was any future for Gülenists to be engaged in politics anymore. All I could do was to make clear for them how they were perceived by the other opposition parts: as accomplices of Erdoğan, and partly responsible for the collapse of the Kurdish Peace Process. I reminded them of the consensus among independent Turkey observers that the solution of Kurdish problem in Turkey was of the highest importance for democracy’s entry into Turkey and the greatest mistake Gülenists ever did was not to shake off its Turkish nationalist background (many of their members in state apparatus had a past linked with the MHP) which made them unable to grasp the solidity of the Kurdish dynamic.
I told them also that I had not met a Gülenist who had given a serious thought why Fethullah Gülen had ranked so low in the popularity ratings, why he now became the public enemy number one.
‘And I wonder as a journalist’ I told them, ‘when many key institutions such as German BND chief or some American Congress sources question the coup attempt, why Gülen remains silent? Isn’t it his responsibility to come out publicly and tell whatever he knows of the dirty power games, the coup, and responds to all the questions that are still hanging?’
There was no clear answer. A brief silence followed.
Dinner was soon over.
The new underdogs of Turkey all dispersed to different directions, in gloom, as they came.