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Wednesday 6 December 2023

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Turning Away From Gulen's 'Golden Generation'

The schools are part of Fethullah Gulen's stated effort to aggressively pursue educations in the natural sciences and in foreign languages while also being committed to Islam and "Turkish national objectives." 
The schools are part of Fethullah Gulen's stated effort to aggressively pursue educations in the natural sciences and in foreign languages while also being committed to Islam and "Turkish national objectives." 

In the mid-1990s, Aygul attended one of the hundreds of "Gulen schools" that were established throughout Turkey by the unregistered network of Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric who has lived in exile in the United States since 1999 and is at the center of an extradition wrangle.

It began around two decades after Aygul's Kurdish-Alevi family migrated to Ankara from a village in the eastern Turkish region of Tunceli. Southeastern and eastern Turkey are traditionally home to many of the country's estimated 8 million to 10 million Alevis, a branch of Shi'ite Islam, and there are both ethnic Turkish and ethnic Kurdish Alevis.

Alevis differ from Sunnis and Shi'a in many ways, including the way they pray. They don't pray five times a day. Their spiritual ceremonies are accompanied by music and folk songs. They attend neither mosques nor the hajj pilgrimage, as most Muslims do. Alevi women needn't cover their heads and arms in public in the fundamentalist style. And drinking alcohol is not banned in the Alevi faith.

Aygul -- whose name I've changed to protect her privacy -- had been born in the Turkish capital and had grown up as something of an urban girl, maintaining her family's Alevi faith but adopting Turkish as her first language.

Her father was employed as a "kapici," or doorman, in charge of maintenance and cleaning in a building with multiple apartments. Her mother didn't usually work but occasionally cleaned a few homes to augment the family budget.

"We started to send Aygul to one of Gulen's schools when she was 15," her father told me. "Why not? Those schools were very good at preparing students for college. They had excellent teachers. They were also very cheap, and we couldn't afford other, expensive, good schools."

Gulen, who was still in Turkey at the time, had a wide network of schools, foundations, charities, and media outlets, amounting to perhaps thousands of institutions with many thousands of employees. After first appearing in Turkey in the 1970s, the Gulen schools and universities had multiplied for decades and expanded abroad beginning in the 1980s.

The schools -- which were said to have been funded by sympathetic businessmen and other, undisclosed sources -- were part of Gulen's stated effort to build a "golden generation," one aggressively pursuing educations in the natural sciences and foreign languages and also committed to Islam and "Turkish national objectives."

After a while, Aygul's parents started to see changes in her behavior: wearing the Islamic head scarf, praying regularly, refusing handshakes with men. Her mother feared that her daughter was "being brainwashed in school as well as in those lengthy after-school hours."

Newcomer students at universities, schools, and in private after-school tutoring courses under the auspices of the "Hoca Efendi" -- or Master Teacher, as supporters referred to Gulen -- had senior colleagues or occasionally "imams" to help and "guide" them. Senior brothers "abis" or sisters "ablas" were assigned to upper-school boys and girls, respectively. The Gulen movement rented thousands of apartments where such students gathered -- girls and boys separately -- for tutoring, guidance, and training in the sciences, English, ethics, and religion.

They were the "agents" of Gulen's missionary and sectarian work launched in the 1970s.

Aygul's father told me he liked Gulen's school "as long as they provided my daughter with good and cheap lessons and ensured a university entrance and later a good job." The latter was particularly attractive in Turkey, where national exams and oral interviews presented (and still present) major hurdles to admission to university or government service.

But Aygul's mother rebeled after two years. As a result, her parents withdrew Aygul from the Gulen school and sent her to a regular public school and "regular" after-school tutoring to get additional support in the sciences and foreign languages and to prepare for university exams.

Nobody could have predicted at the time that some two decades later, in July 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would blame a failed coup attempt on Gulen and his purported sympathizers within Turkey's army, courts, education system, and other government institutions, in addition to its private sector.

Since the failed coup, the government has closed down all public and private institutions identified by the government as "related to the Gulen terrorist organization." That has included 15 universities and 934 schools and tutoring centers, as well as hospitals and clinics, foundations, associations, and businesses. Around 77,000 government employees -- including army and police officers, judges, prosecutors and teachers -- have been fired.

Aygul, meanwhile, is an optimistic and ambitious junior lawyer with a degree from an Ankara law school.

I asked Aygul about her feelings and whether she was pleased that she had left the Gulen school after two years.

"Yes," she said, "especially after finding out that, as you know, they kept stealing the university and government employment exams' questions to [elevate] their sympathizers in the government ladder." She was referring to a scandal in 2010 in which so-called Gulenists in higher education and the government-placement bureaucracy were accused of providing other Gulen supporters access to exam questions in advance.

Aygul's father chimed in, saying: "Not only illegal; it is also against any religion's principles, while they claim to be the true faithful. ... But what makes me angry is that Erdogan and Gulen were the right and left hands of the same body until 2013, supporting each other. Now one [Erdogan] is fighting a war against the other [Gulen], laying all the blame in the world on his former ally."

When Erdogan's AKP won Turkish parliamentary elections in 2002 and built a one-party government, it appeared to have enjoyed the active support of the Gulen movement. Such backing looks to have continued in the next elections and, in return, the movement and its activities were tolerated and even supported by the AKP government from its inception until 2013.

Beginning in 2010, however, Erdogan seemed to be distancing himself from the Gulen movement and purging government agencies of its supporters. Within three years, Erdogan appeared to have broken entirely with Gulen after the emergence of a series of audio and video recordings -- which the president suspected the Gulen movement of leaking -- hinting at corruption in the AKP government and Erdogan's inner circle.

According to some estimates, since the coup attempt 77,000 public servants have been suspended, 5,000 fired, 19,000 detained, and more than 11,000 people arrested.
According to some estimates, since the coup attempt 77,000 public servants have been suspended, 5,000 fired, 19,000 detained, and more than 11,000 people arrested.

On August 17, the Turkish prime minister issued a "special decree" announcing the release of 38,000 prisoners, not including any sentenced for murder, sexual abuse, or rape. This includes financial crimes.

Tukey's overcrowded prisons and slow court processes have forced all governments to issue some sort of amnesty every year to make room for new prisoners. But the unprecedented scope of the clampdown on suspected supporters of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been accused of masterminding the July 15 coup attempt, seems to have played a major part in inducing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government to move quickly and include as many inmates as possible in the amnesty.

Thousands of prisoners suspected of actively or verbally supporting Gulen are awaiting court in big detention halls across the country. They need places in a regular prison.

"Are we releasing thieves and criminals to make room for coup plotters?" is a question widely discussed in Turkish media these days.

There's no question -- the answer is yes.

Today I took a look, as usual, at top news from Turkey. Let me give you a summary of the detentions, arrests, and suspensions of the last 24 hours related to the coup attempt. I will also include separate terrorist attacks related to the Kurdish insurgency:

-- 24 detained journalists of the newspaper Ozgur Gundem sent to prosecutor's office;

-- In a terrorist attack in a village close to the southeastern city of Bitlis, four security officers were killed;

-- No trace of detained teacher Demirtas;

-- Per "special decree," 187 businessmen to be detained;

-- Bomb attack on the police center in Van, eastern Turkey: three dead, 73 wounded;

-- Anti-Gulen operation against Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas's son-in-law;

-- National Radio and TV Committee bans reporting on the bomb attack on the police center in Elazig, eastern Turkey;

-- Colonel detained in Gulen-related case tries to defend himself;

-- Governor of Elazig in eastern Turkey says three policemen killed, 146 people wounded, 14 of them seriously;

-- A "special decree" on the dismissal of 2,360 people from police department and 112 people from armed forces personnel;

-- Detention of 86 judges and prosecutors planned.

All that in just one day.

To be sure, "special decrees" by the president or the prime minister play the role of laws in the current state of emergency.

I think the list is not complete. Let's for one moment forget about the terrible terror attacks mostly related to the Kurdish insurgency.

How can you follow the daily detentions and dismissals that have been continuing since July 15 without any break? You can't. Nobody but the security agencies can. Journalists try to keep up, though, with statistics.

According to some estimates, since the coup attempt 77,000 public servants have been suspended, 5,000 fired, 19,000 detained, and more than 11,000 people arrested.

The same sources estimate that the number of 77,000 suspensions will soon rise to 100,000.

The president has warned that the "viruses," as he calls Gulen supporters, "are everywhere." He has called on everyone to report them to prosecutors and security agencies "even if they are your friends."

With the "special decree" issued on August 17, 2,360 police staff and 112 employees of the Turkish armed forces were fired.

Obviously, it is virtually impossible that 77,000, let alone 100,000, people were armed or active supporters of the abortive coup.

Anybody suspected of having even talked positively about Gulen in the past is being reported and eventually suspended or detained. Some have reported that occasionally even friends of Gulen supporters were detained. There are also claims that some people spy on others and report them as "Gulenists" to the security services just to take their jobs or businesses.

A clarification of these tens of thousands of allegations and cases in open and fair trials may take years -- if it comes to a transparent court process at all.

Meanwhile, the accused have lost their jobs and financial security. Together with their families, they will probably amount to around half a million people -– or more.

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About This Blog

Turkey Notebook is a blog written by Abbas Djavadi, regional director of programming at RFE/RL and a longtime Turkey specialist. The blog presents Djavadi’s personal take on events and is designed for Turkey-watchers and all who want to get the most relevant news, views, issues, and insights on the country that you might not find in the daily news stream. Also check out Turkey Notebook on Facebook or Twitter.