I just spent two weeks visiting South Africa and Tanzania with a small group from Florida and Georgia, and working with a Turkish ex-pat community. I made new friends, learned a great deal, and came back refreshed and energized. But above all else, in those who planned and executed on our trip, I experienced compassion and self-sacrifice; I saw humility, love and compassion; and I heard personal stories from from Turkey about being targeted and oppressed by Erdogan and his government to the extent that I cannot sit silently by. It’s time for me to do what I can to shine a bright light on some of the horrors and terrors of the current Turkish administration.
The Turkish Coup
Last July I was in India in relationship with the same community when news came in of an attempted coup in Turkey. The coup sounded badly planned and poorly executed and it was hard, from what I read, to give it credence as a legitimate attempt to overthrow a government. President Erdogan, however, not only took the coup as justification for solidifying his position, accruing to himself emergency powers, and subsequently changing the constitution to strengthen the authority of the president, but he specifically asserted that the coup was masterminded by Fetulah Gulen.
Fetulah Gulen is the spiritual guide of the community I have befriended. I know many people in this community in Atlanta extremely well and have gotten to know others throughout the world, and from what I see in their behavior and their understanding of Gulen’s teachings, I consider it highly, highly improbable that Gulen in any way had a hand in the coup. Could a disillusioned follower have decided to take the law into their own hands and, in doing so, implicated Gulen? Of course. There are any number of possibilities, including that I might am wrong in my assertion. But if I am wrong, I am convinced that most of Gulen’s followers would be as aghast and appalled as I would be. And either way, Erdogan’s efforts to eliminate every vestige of Gulen’s teachings and works has gone far beyond what could conceivably be required to respond to the threat, and become not just a violation of human rights, but also an intentional suppression of domestic opposition to his grab for totalitarian power.
The Gulen Movement
The founding principle of Gulen’s teaching is that to heal the world – to have peace, health and happiness – we need peaceful dialog among our diverse peoples. Supporting people’s ability to engage in dialog (as well as to move themselves out of poverty), Gulen argues, they need to be educated. Accordingly the most basic work of the movement is to build schools that provide robust, affordable, secular education.
And build these people have. At the last count, right before the coup, there were over 1,000 such schools in Turkey and another thousand throughout the rest of the world, in such places as the former Soviet Republics (Azerbaijan, etc), India (where I traveled last year) and Africa (including South Africa and Tanzania, where I was visiting, as well as more difficult environments such as Somalia and Angola). The schools are independent, locally funded and supported; they are secular with emphasis on science and with no religious component; and they intentionally include an ethnic and cultural diversity of teachers and students (they support student diversity by being reasonably priced and by offering a robust set of grants).
Beyond the schools the movement has a focus on alleviation of poverty, and also builds organizations with a specific emphasis on interfaith, intercultural and inter-socio-economic dialog. And it has also inspired the building, for example, of a number of substantial independent hospitals and independent news organzations.
But now those who funded the building of the schools, those who built the schools, those who taught in the schools languish in prison. Many of those previously educated at the schools have also been imprisoned. And family, friends, and business acquaintances have been rounded up and imprisoned as well. Erdogan is using his announcement that the Fulen movement is a terrorist organization whose intent is to overthrow the Turkish government as justification for a progrom. Security forces are looking at phones, wallets and bookshelves and taking into custody anyone who owns a copy of any of Gulen’s many books (most of which are about spiritualism or democracy); anyone who shows any indication of being sympathetic to his teachings; even people possessing a one-US-dollar-bill (which is asserted to be a sign of support). Many of those incarcerated are released after several months by a judiciary that has itself been massively purged, but which nonetheless recognizes the illegality of many of the imprisonments.
Erdogan is seeking the support of foreign governments and media to extend his purge beyond the Turkish borders. As a result I understand some have followed: for example, I believe the Pakistani government has agreed to close the schools in its country, and may even be repatriating some ex pat Turks to Turkey where they face almost certain imprisonment with no serious legal process.
My understanding is that at the height of apartheid in South Africa, 17,000 political prisoners were incarcerated; by way of comparison, Erdogan has over 40,000 asserted Gulen followers in jail or prison…and the number is growing. To create the prison capacity for this progrom, last year Erdogan released 38,000 “traditional” prisoners and appears to be building additional prison space.
Many of those detained begin their time in inhumane circumstances. Often they are rounded up from their homes, mothers arrested in front of children who are left unattended and unsupervised at home. Some are arrested at the airport, where again children are left unsupervised. After arrest, detainees are placed in shared cells, often for several weeks. Jail cells which are, I understand, crowded and unsanitary to the extent of the communal prison cells those I saw in Johannesburg and Robben Island. Children, too, are arrested (I believe there are 500 children in jails).
Suppression of Education
One of the first steps of every emerging dictator is to eliminate the intelligentsia and to take control of education. It should come as no surprise, then, that Erdogan took advantage of the coup attempt to justify taking over the movement’s Turkish schools. He did not, though, take control of the schools and repurpose them to his own ends: rather he closed them and not only fired the teachers, but revoked their teaching licenses. With over 1,000 schools affected, the number of affected teachers is large.
Erdogan went further than firing teachers: he fired police officers, judged, and lawyers. And he has arrested them – along with journalists – in vast numbers. And not content with arresting business owners who have financially supported building schools, the Turkish government has seized their assets and appropriated their businesses. This has frequently happened without legal due process; individuals are identified as enemies of the state, and government forces are immediately empowered to move against them. This is not a targeted move against a shadow terrorist state that threatens to overturn the government; it is the whole-scale suppression of those responsible for the civil infrastructure that is the mainstay of democracy itself. It is the intentional elimination of any voice that would challenge an increasingly totalitarian authority. It is the removal of Turkish society’s ability to rebuild that democratic, educated, civil voice in the future. This is the first move of a dictator.
The Gulen Movement’s Diaspora
There are a great many participants in this education and dialog movement scattered around the world, including the US. Those working in the schools or the dialog groups generally enter their country of work with appropriate visas, but retain their Turkish passports. As such they are still very much subject to the long arm of Erdogan, who continues to move against them in every way he can. At the largest scale he has hired a PR firm and local lawyers to seek the in-country closure of schools. Some nations have succumbed out of solidarity with the emerging totalitarian government; others have said they will not do so, since the schools are helping their country; and still others are refusing to do so as a simple matter of the rule of law (Erdogan has not produced evidence supporting his assertions about the schools or the movement).
But there are other tools available.
Many of those I know have family and friends still in Turkey, and Erdogan has arrested and imprisoned many of these. Threats have been made and individuals told that if the people Erdogan really wants – often teachers and business people living abroad – return to Turkey and submit to the authorities, the family members will be released. (Experience, of course, suggests they will not be released!) And those overseas on temporary papers (eg work visas) are at risk of Erdogan cancelling their passports (which he has already done, apparently arbitrarily, for a great many). Imagine you are a teacher who obtained a wonderful overseas assignment, but now you are living in fear that your family will be arrested and imprisoned; that your passport will be cancelled; and that if you ever do go back to Turkey, not only will you be incarcerated without recourse to any meaningful legal system or due course, but your family will not be released either. I’d find that pretty terrifying!
I should mention another category of diaspora participant; those who have managed to escape from Turkey. Often business owners, and sometimes one-time owners of really large businesses (now seized by the Turkish government), I’ve heard amazing stories of escape that include paying for the use of established human trafficking routes, walking knee deep through snow in desolate remote landscapes, and fearing death at any time. Stories of leaving everything behind but knowing, nonetheless, that there are family and loved ones in Turkey who will be arrested and used as tools to try to force you to return. I have heard many horrific stories of great courage and humility and I know I will hear more. These are the stories of political refugees, and I hope to have permission from individuals to relate some in future posts.
The Bravest People I Know
The bravest people I know are members of this Turkish, Gulen-related Diaspora. Through watching the country they love fall from its democratic path into the horror of an emerging dictatorship; through watching internal divisions, intolerance and oppression of minorities (e.g. of the Kurds) being intentionally fueled by the government; through watching the assault on the substantial educational network they helped build; through hearing of family and loved ones being incarcerated without trial; through the threats leveled at them by the Turkish authority and the real possibility that one day they many just have to go home, or that one day Erdogan may take the next step and start killing their family and friends; through all of this and more, the bravest people I know refuse to engage in divisiveness, refuse to surrender their love and compassion, and instead continue to teach the children, to engage in dialog, and do the work that they feel called to. They retain a commitment to the next generation, to peace in the world, and to the basic principles of democracy and freedom. They retain their humanity, their integrity, and their moral compass. Throughout it all this wonderful group of people display a humility and courage that is a wonderful lesson to those of us who have had the opportunity to get to know them.
And there is more at stake here than the lives of this group of people and their friends, more even than the future of Turkey. This is about speaking truth to power, about being willing to stand up for what we believe, and about some rather disturbing global trends. I am reminded of the words of Niemöller, who was put in a Nazi concentration camp in 1937:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.