By Suzy Hansen
April 13, 2017
The police officers came to the doctor’s door in Istanbul at 6 a.m. — dawn raids usually start then, sometimes 5:30 — and one of them said, “You are accused of attempting to kill President Erdogan.”
The doctor couldn’t help it; he laughed. “Really? I did that?”
The police officers smiled, too. “Yes. Also for attempting to destroy Turkey and for being a member of a terrorist organization.”
“Really?” He looked at them. They carried pistols. “Can I have a cigarette then?”
The police seemed surprised. They didn’t expect a Gulenist to smoke. I’m not a Gulenist, the doctor insisted. That didn’t help him. He would soon be one of the many thousands of people in Turkey caught in the machinery of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s purge.
The police searched the doctor’s house and his books and overturned his things, looking for evidence that he was a Gulenist, or a supporter of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric who began preaching in Turkey in the 1960s and whose followers number as many as five million. Gulen has been living in exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, which partly explains why the police were looking for American $1 bills whose serial numbers start with “F” — the Turkish government claims that these were used in some mysterious way by something it has branded the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization, or FETO, which it blames for the attempted coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016.
At present, several pieces of evidence can suggest that you may be a member of FETO, including having had an account at Bank Asya, which was founded by Gulenists; running the ByLock encrypted communication app on your phone (thought to have facilitated planning for the coup attempt); possessing those F-series dollar bills; sending your children to a school associated with Gulen; working at a Gulen-affiliated institution (a university, say, or a hospital); having subscribed to the Gulen newspaper Zaman; or having Gulen’s books in your house. One action implicated the doctor: When he returned to Turkey after living abroad for three years and moved into a new house with his wife and children, he opened an account at the nearest bank up the street: Bank Asya.
The police officers — in the doctor’s recollection there were as many as 10 of them — seemed to regard him curiously. “Who are you?”
The doctor described his background, his education, his professional accomplishments, his travels, none of which I can include here. But I can confirm that his résumé is impressive. Like many doctors, he possesses the confidence of someone who has always placed first.
“I haven’t met a criminal like you ever,” one officer told him.
They took the doctor to police headquarters in Fatih, where he spent a couple of days in the basement. The Fatih station is on a wide avenue in the heart of Istanbul and has the tinny, sinister ambience of many bureaucratic buildings. Detainees have been kept in the basement holding cells, in darkness and without space to move, for as many as five days, without being allowed to see a lawyer; post-coup-attempt “state of emergency” laws also permitted them to be held for 30 days without a hearing. It is here, in detention centers like Fatih, where the torture of prisoners, which was mostly discontinued in the early 2000s, is happening anew.
The doctor was not tortured, but he met a fellow detainee who told him: “They took me into a dark room and made me spend three days sitting in a chair with my hands bound behind me. They only fed me water with sugar. Do you have any food?”
When the doctor appeared in court, the prosecutor said, “Besides putting money in Bank Asya, there’s nothing else here on you.” And then the prosecutor asked, “Who told you to put this money in the bank?”
“I don’t know who owns this bank,” the doctor replied. “I don’t know who owns any bank. There are 30 banks in Istanbul. I chose the one closest to my house.”
The prosecutor asked for the doctor to be arrested. The judge asked the doctor what he had to say for himself.
“I am not going to respond to anything about the accusation, because the accusations are that I tried to kill President Erdogan, that I am trying to destroy Turkey and that I am a member of a terrorist organization, and that is ridiculous,” he said. “So I am just going to tell you who I am.” He described his career achievements, his modest origins. The judge denied the request for a formal arrest. But once the doctor was back at home, he was unable to fall asleep before 6 a.m. For weeks, he slept one hour a night.
The doctor’s lawyer predicted that he would be detained a second time. Letting people go only to round them up again is a common occurrence. Turkey today is a land of ambitious prosecutors. If the police came again, he would be taken to the sulh ceza mahkemesi, or criminal court of peace, established in 2014 and now well known to be used for political ends. Hearings conducted there during the purge have often resulted in formal arrest and imprisonment.
The doctor happened to have a visa for a foreign country, so he decided to escape Turkey. At the airport, though, he was stopped. This has become a ritual repeated all over the country. People become aware of their imminent detention or arrest and try to catch a foreign flight, only to have their passports seized or canceled before they can board the plane. Even those who have not been labeled members of a terrorist organization or been accused of trying to kill Erdogan have arrived at the passport line and been made to wait while a clerk calls someone and reads their Turkish ID number over the phone to confirm that they are allowed to leave the country.
The doctor had by then heard the reports of the torture, of endless imprisonment with no legal recourse; he knew he had to flee, even if it meant leaving his family. He found a smuggler online — in this, the Turks have followed the lead of the Syrian refugees in their country by searching through Syrian Facebook groups — and went to the coastal city Marmaris, where he paid the “V.I.P.” rate to board a speedboat into international waters. For the Turkish exiles, many of whom are wealthy, the smugglers have raised the price of a getaway to as much as 20,000 euros. Now the doctor is one of the estimated thousands of Turks living in exile, in places like Germany, Sweden, Greece, Britain and the United States.
The doctor is hiding in a European city, full of 19th-century buildings and arched arcades and grand squares; it can, like a lot of old cities, even look like Istanbul sometimes if you squint. Every day here, Gulenists, Kurds, journalists, academics and people like the doctor — a cross section of Turkish society that has been demonized by Erdogan or simply refuses to support him — pass by one another on the street, unaware of the presence of their fellow countrymen. They have lost their livelihoods and their citizenship; they have been separated from their husbands and wives and children. Many of the traumatized men and women I met abroad — I interviewed more than a dozen exiles living in different European cities, in addition to many people inside Turkey — believe that families are being deliberately destroyed, as if the aim is to end lineages. As one of the purged — a young engineer with delicate features, pale skin and wire-rimmed glasses, who wept as we sat in a high-ceilinged restaurant reminiscent of soe cosmopolitan past — said to me, “This is a kind of genocide.”
It was a strange attempt at a coup, at least at first. “What kin of military coup is this?” Turks asked one another when they first saw the soldiers on TV or Twitter occupying the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul. It was only 10 p.m. — coups happen before dawn, Turkish elders pointed out. The internet and the phone lines had not been shut down; TV stations, for a while, anyway, were still broadcasting freely. The Turkish military would never have staged a coup like this, they said. Turks know their coups; many had lived through four of them already.
The terror probably set in fully when they saw video of the army firing on civilians protesting in the streets. No one was used to seeing that in western Turkey, in Istanbul. The huge booms of fighter jets breaking the sound barrier echoed throughout the city. Tanks and soldiers moved into Taksim Square, where thousands of protesters had challenged the government’s construction plans for Gezi Park just a few years ago.
Amid the chaos, the Ministry of Religious Affairs texted the country’s imams and muezzins and instructed them to sing a special prayer from mosque loudspeakers to exhort Erdogan’s conservative supporters to take to the streets. In neighborhoods throughout Istanbul, men flooded the avenues. Some of those with guns shot wildly at the helicopters overhead.
And then it was over. The coup had failed. The death toll would reach 276, with an additional 3,000 injured, according to Turkish officials. Successful civilian mobilization against a coup attempt was unprecedented in Turkey. For Turks, it was a defense of democracy.
The government immediately condemned Gulenist military officers as responsible for the attempted coup, before eventually spreading the blame to all of Gulen’s followers. Over the last two decades, four main factions have been particularly prominent in Turkish politics: the Islamic conservative A.K. Party; the military and its secularist supporters; the Kurdish militant group P.K.K. and various Kurdish political movements; and, finally, the Gulenists, the most inscrutable group of all. Gulen and his followers have advocated a conservative Islamic lifestyle mixed with Turkish nationalism, high education standards and — unlike many Muslim brotherhoods — a selectively pro-Western worldview. Their proselytizing efforts, as well as the promise of education and career opportunities, enticed many Turks and Kurds among both the underprivileged and the elite to join the movement. Gulenists built schools abroad, including in the United States, in which followers worked as teachers. They also founded banks, nonprofit orgnizations, publishing houses, universities, newspapers, television stations and a profitable chain of tutoring centers that prepare students for the college entrance exam. Education, Gulenists said, was their priority.
In contrast to the Gulenists’ international business and political ties and their technocratic expertise, the A.K. Party’s strength was its deep social and electoral networks within the working and middle classes. When it came to power in 2002, the A.K. Party and its Gulenist allies — by now employed throughout the judiciary and the national police force, as well as the news media — together began subjecting military officers and other opponents, including journalists, Kurds and secularists, to sham trials and imprisonment. Humiliating details about personal lives ended up in court documents and on mysterious websites; careers were ruined; officers were rounded up without legal justification; wiretapping was rampant. People had been worrying that the Gulenists were running their own parallel state; now the fight was apparent.
Over time, the Gulenists and the A.K. Party were rived by policy disputes — the peace process with the P.K.K., for example, and above all the financial-corruption cases that Gulenist prosecutors brought against Erdogan. By 2014, each side was trying to destroy the other. Most Turks found it entirely plausible when Erdogan pinned the blame for last July’s attempted coup on the Gulenists: Some 65 percent of the population, according to one opinion poll taken just after the event, believed the claim; many well-regarded foreign and domestic experts believe it was possible, too. (Gulen himself has denied any connection to the coup attempt.) Turks also remain furious at the Gulenists for their secretive and oppressive tactics while in power.
In the A.K. Party’s view, anyone devoted to Gulen, the man accused of being behind the coup attempt, is assumed to do whatever he says, and so all Gulenists, even teachers and tradesmen who couldn’t possibly have been involved, can also legally be considered terrorists, or members of FETO. In defining his enemies so broadly, Erdogan is also grabbing an opportunity: He is finishing off not only the Gulenists but all opposition, including journalists, academics, liberals and Kurdish activists. The result is a state that seems to be eating itself — entire institutions, as well as the bonds and structures that once held Turkish society together. When that happens, citizens suddenly lacking the protections of law or even loyalty will do whatever they can to escape from the house collapsing upon them.
On April 16, Turks will vote on a referendum that would give the president vast powers, including the ability to dismiss Parliament at will. Erdogan would be able to run for president again and potentially extend his 14 years in power to 26, or until 2029, an outcome that his supporters believe will bring stability and that the opposition talks about as “the end” — the triumph of authoritarian rule in Turkey. Erdogan evidently worries about this being a possible end for him, too, because in the months leading up to the referendum he has waged a campaign of overt intimidation. “No” voters are terrorist supporters, he has declared. Organizers of “No” campaigns have been detained. The government’s distribution of antismoking leaflets was stopped, as if the presence of the word “No” might exert subliminal influence on voters. Female activists urging “No” votes have been beaten by thugs. For the people of Turkey, this referendum is about survival.
One way to destroy a country is to make lists. In Turkey, there is a website called Resmi Gazete, which means Official Gazette. It is the outlet in which the government posts bills passed by Parliament, but after the attempted coup, the Official Gazette became a site of lists — of the names of the first thousands of those who would eventually be purged from government ministries, schools, courts, universities, nongovernmental organizations, police departments, military battalions, hospitals and banks.
Since then, news periodically ripples through Twitter or Facebook that new lists have been released. They are often posted after midnight, and in the terrifying hours that follow, people go online and check for their names, which will also be visible to their neighbors, their bosses, their parents, their sons and daughters. This is how the listed learn that they have lost their jobs, their pensions, their passports. Once on a list, you are stuck in Turkey — with little means to survive. You are subjected to a form of professional death, and in some cases a form of social death: children bullied at school, families vilified in their neighborhoods. The government metes out other punishments too during this extended state of emergency, or Olaganustu Hal, which can also be read as Extraordinary State. Some people are put out of work. Others are arrested, imprisoned or tortured.
The lists aren’t just of people. Entire organizations, however innocuous seeming, show up on them: the Holistic and Alternative Medical Foundation, the Love Trees Protect Forests Live Humanely Foundation, the Gastrointestinal Oncology Foundation, to name just a few. Many of these are not Gulenist but Kurdish or leftist. If it seems as though Turkey’s purge lists are touching every part of its society, that’s because they are.
The purge worked its way through the country slowly, the intentions behind its advance at times difficult to discern. I started hearing stories from friends: One was taking his mother for a checkup and arrived to find that the physicians had all been arrested. A clinic specializing in in vitro fertilization was suddenly shut down, before any women could reclaim their stored eggs. The arrests became more bizarre: members of the family that owns the Gulluoglu chain, the oldest and most beloved baklava makers in the country, and Barbaros Sansal, a fashion designer, who was jailed for “insulting the Turkish nation” on social media. Entire universities have been closed and their graduates’ diplomas canceled. One private university was so decimated that its website showed a picture of the same man as rector, professor of Islamic theology, dean of the tourism department and more. Policemen have been known to wait outside delivery rooms to arrest new mothers. Some purged academics can no longer travel, or take posts, abroad.
So far, some 140,000 people in Turkey have had their passports canceled, according to a recent report by the main opposition party. More than 100,000 people have been suspected of being part of the coup attempt; 71,000 people have been detained, and 41,000 have been arrested. About 35,000 have been detained and then released. Six thousand people in academia have lost their jobs, as have 4,000 judges and prosecutors, 24,000 policemen and security personnel and 200 governors and their staff members. Seven thousand military personnel have been relieved of their posts. Fifteen universities, 1,000 schools, 28 TV channels, 66 newspapers, 19 magazines, 36 radio stations, 26 publishing houses and five news agencies have been shut down. The moderate Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas is in jail, accused of inciting violence with words, and as of February, a total of 5,471 people from Demirtas’s political party, H.D.P., had been detained and 1,482 had been arrested. Kurdish activists live in fear of the knock on the door — many no longer sleep at home — because once you go to jail, you may never get out.
The military has declared states of emergency several times in Turkey’s history, though usually after actual coups, not failed ones. Even if the aftermaths of earlier coups saw greater violence — more torture, more hangings — there was the promise of an end. Martial law could be expected to come to a close; free elections would be held.
But with Erdogan, as one journalist who fled Turkey told me, a “long-term project” seems to be underway. There is no prospect of a return to any other kind of normal, no sense that this destructive present will reach an end. “They call me Dictator Shmiktator!” Erdogan once said. “It doesn’t bother me at all. It goes in one ear and out the other!” For Erdogan and many of his supporters, the catchword that justifies the purge is “kandirildik,” or “We were deceived” — by the Gulen movement, that is. A.K. Party politicians say it on television; a woman said it to a Turk I know while waiting in line at the airport: You know what happened to us, don’t you? Kandirildik — we were deceived. It is the phrase that absolves the A.K. Party of its own transgressions and condemns everyone else.
The only thing citizens have that stands between them and an autocrat, it seems, are lawyers. In Turkey, defense lawyers are heroes, because the central mechanism for administering Erdogan’s purge is the justice system. Recently, I met with Levent Piskin, Demirtas’s lawyer, who is 27, at a cafe in the Istanbul neighborhood of Kurtulus, where lawyers for H.D.P. often meet to go over their cases. After the failed coup, Piskin himself was detained for three days. These Kurds are victims of the purge not because of any involvement with the coup attempt but because of the state’s long-existing suspicion that they have links to the P.K.K., the Kurdish militant group. But Piskin and many others believe there is a larger reason for their mass imprisonment: their popularity in the last elections. The fact that prosecutors do not bother to present evidence in court, he says, betrays a political motivation.
There is “no rationality or reason” behind the prosecutors’ cases, Piskin told me. “For example, Selahattin Demirtas has 102 cases against him, and all of them are about his speech. He’s a member of Parliament, and Parliament members have immunity, so he can say what he wants to say, except for hate speech.” Demirtas’s public statements mostly urged an end to the war in southeast Turkey, where government forces are battling the P.K.K. “But if you speak about peace in Turkey, you are considered a supporter of P.K.K.”
The judiciary in Turkey has never been independent of ideological or political pressure, but neither has it been a broken system. The European Union and the Council of Europe spent millions of dollars training Turkish judges to follow European human rights standards. But the purge has swept out some 4,000 judges and prosecutors, including many of the trainees and at least two judges from the Constitutional Court, the highest court in Turkey. Many new, younger judges have been fast-tracked as replacements for the purged ones — and they have no idea what they are doing, according to lawyers who have dealt with them. Defense lawyers try to uphold legal standards and procedures, while judges and prosecutors operate in an absurd alternative reality.
“We act as if the law exists,” Piskin said. “But the prosecutors and judges are not going by the law. They really don’t even know the law.” Don’t know and don’t care, he said. “Judith Butler said insolence is fascism — they are really insolent.”
As part of the state of emergency, the government also has the ability to introduce laws without parliamentary debate. The Constitutional Court has ruled that it does not have any power over these executive orders. According to the European Court of Human Rights, to which Turkey is a signatory, a country has the right to deviate from the law during a state of emergency — but there are limits. A country cannot, for example, reinstate the death penalty, but it can change course on laws that guarantee, say, the speediness of a trial. In Turkey, the conditions have been extreme: Some of the accused can see their lawyers only one hour a week. There is no confidentiality in the relationship. Visits are recorded on video, and copies of all documents must be given to a prison minder who stands in the room during every conversation.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that 81 Turkish journalists were in prison as of last December, which was more than in China, Egypt, Iran, Russia and Syria combined. In total, about 150 people working in the media are locked up. For a time, the manager of the cafeteria at one of Turkey’s oldest newspapers, Cumhuriyet, was detained for saying he would not serve tea to Erdogan.
“This is about hijacking the system,” says Tobias Garnett, a British lawyer working for P24, a press-freedom organization based in Istanbul that represents many of the jailed journalists, including Mehmet and Ahmet Altan and Sahin Alpay, who have been jailed without trial since shortly after the attempted coup. “It’s not like in some countries, where they sideline the legal system entirely and just start assassinating people extrajudicially. What is happening here is getting rid of your opponents by using a system many people actually respect.”
Another impediment to justice in Turkey is its Constitutional Court. The court has received some 100,000 cases (on behalf of people in jail and those who have lost their jobs) since the failed coup — an unmanageable number for a court that usually processes 20,000 cases a year. Since purge cases began to reach the court about seven months ago, the court has not ruled on a single application. And this means that technically none of the Turks can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which requires you to exhaust every legal remedy in your home country first. If Turkey’s Constitutional Court refuses to hear cases, there is no way to exhaust anything. And yet Turks are not giving up: Thousands of people file their cases over and again, sometimes monthly, at home and in Europe.
The respectability of the justice system is deteriorating for an even darker reason: torture in its prisons and detention centers, which the government denies is taking place. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented many instances in two recent reports: keeping detainees cuffed and forcing them to kneel for 48 hours; letting them go hungry; beating and punching their heads and bodies; threatening rape with a baton; and threatening to rape one’s wife. There have also been reports of the sick dying of neglect, and of suicide as well.
The worst abuses have fallen on soldiers, Gulenists and Kurds, in part because they have been publicly and legally branded as terrorists. “There is a lot of serious torture,” Piskin told me. “And they don’t hide it. You see the photographs in the papers.” But there are many more acts of violence, Piskin said, that no one sees. “There is a forest, I don’t know where it is,” he said. “They took some of my clients there and sexually abused them. I have to go to court today for one of these men.”
In one of the European cities I went to, there is an apartment where Gulenists who have fled Turkey gather. It is rented by a married couple, Cevheri Guven and his wife, Tuba, who were journalists in Turkey. When I visited the modest apartment recently, several other callers were present: a policeman, a teacher and a female journalist, all of whom fled Turkey via smugglers. The hosts have two young children, a girl and a boy, who played with Legos on the floor, building a prison.
Cevheri grew up in a Kurdish family in the northeastern city Erzurum, and Tuba in a Turkish family in Anatolian Eskisehir. He is slight, with a shy demeanor; Tuba is open and charismatic. Cevheri had worked in Gulenist-affiliated media outlets, and Tuba was a reporter at TRT, the state-run broadcasting agency. In 2015, before the coup attempt, Cevheri, the editor of the magazine Nokta, was jailed for publishing two controversial magazine covers: a doctored photo of Erdogan taking a selfie at a soldier’s funeral, and another predicting a possible civil war in Turkey. After the failed coup, Cevheri was detained again — this time on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization and making propaganda for the attempted coup.
“In the media, we were seeing that there was a lot of torture, so I didn’t want to get arrested again,” he told me. Cevheri said that detainees being taken to prison were made to listen to recordings of poems read by Erdogan — as if to give the message that he personally was arresting them. It was clear that no one accused of participation in the attempted coup would have access to a fair trial. “I started to hide myself somewhere secure,” he said. “After I left, the police came to my house three times, and I knew that the next time they might take Tuba instead” — the arrest of a wife being a common concern — “so she started hiding herself too.”
On TV, Cevheri said, Erdogan had been urging Turks to turn in FETO members, even offering rewards. For 55 days, Cevheri never left the house. A friend brought him food.
“Then the kids had to go to school, and I had to earn money,” he said. Mostly he feared imprisonment and torture; six legal cases had been brought against him. Cevheri began researching Syrian refugee sites and found a smuggler. “This was not a sustainable life. We had to leave.”
Eventually the family landed in a refugee camp abroad — with other Turks, as well as P.K.K. fighters. I heard multiple stories of such Turkish-Kurdish encounters in detention, which fascinated me, because Gulenists are virulently anti-P.K.K. But the P.K.K. fighters, according to people I spoke to, often welcomed their fellow Turkish citizens, with mixed results. One P.K.K. fighter was friendly to Cevheri. One policeman, a tough man, told me with a red face that he was afraid to tell the P.K.K. fighters that he was a police officer. One Turk told me his wife refused to drink tea a Kurdish fighter brought her. Outside Turkey, former enemies sleep side by side, exiled by the same force but at times still afraid of one another.
In Turkey, group identity is important. As the journalist Mustafa Akyol has written, the Turkish state has been a “Leviathan” that controlled everything, and it was for a long time dominated by Kemalists, the secular and nationalist elite. Other groups — Kurds, Islamists, communists — existed outside this state, and some dreamed of controlling it. The P.K.K. arose in response to the Turkish state’s attacks on Kurds and their culture. The Gulen movement emerged at a time when it was dangerous to deviate from the Turkish state’s official version of Islam. In the context of Turkish history, the reasons to join either the P.K.K. or the Gulen movement seem understandable, as is, to some degree, an elected government’s fear of such groups. But in circumstances like these, a cycle of collective revenge continues unabated, and Turkish society’s root problem — the inability to share power with all citizens — will never be solved.
In February, the Turkish government released a new list — and this time, it was sinister in a new way. The latest wave of purges hit academia again, not just Gulenists or Kurds but especially liberals and leftists, which meant that the purge was spreading. Hundreds of academics, some of the most prominent and well known in the country, found their names on the lists. They, too, face the prospect of losing their passports and their pensions and being unable to seek state employment in Turkey again.
I met the sociologist Nese Ozgen at a smoke-filled cafe in a European city. She is in her 50s and has dyed magenta hair and a confident, warm smile. “I worked 31 years as a sociologist,” she said. “But I always had problems.” Her focus is border studies, the way communities are shaped by living almost between nations. After the military coup in 1980, she was barred from academia because of her participation in leftist activities, though she eventually found university employment. Later on, it was the Gulenists’ turn to bully her.
“After the ’80s, the Gulenists came, and they had their lists, too,” she said. “They forced me to get my retirement because of my work.” Border studies was controversial because the areas she focused on were often militarized. “Then I was rehired as an adjunct some years later. And then I was dismissed again by Gulenists for participating in the Gezi protests.”
She added: “I am a socialist, and a supporter of gender rights and human rights, and generally an opposition person. When you are always an outsider in Turkey, you cannot really succeed.”
Ozgen was also one of many academics who were harassed or lost their jobs for signing a peace petition that called on Turkey to stop the fight against the Kurds in the country’s southeast. For people like Ozgen, the war — in which thousands have died and whole cities have been leveled — is the real tragedy of the Erdogan era. Professors who oppose the conflict have had X’s spray-painted on their doors or have gone to jail. Often, Ozgen said, they cannot return to their offices to retrieve their belongings or step foot on campus, and they are threatened on social media with violence.
“There is a moral decay,” she said. Shortly after such threats, and the loss of her academic freedom, she decided to find work abroad.
Those who are stuck in Turkey endure a kind of social torture, too, which will most likely remain the silent kind. Kurds have been suffering for 100 years. In official histories, the government will probably reduce Gulenists to their alleged treason. Many journalists, even those who are not imprisoned, can no longer practice journalism. And liberal academics endure the strange, simultaneous abuse of being seen as jobless pariahs and members of some oppressive elite. Everyone is branded as somehow having attacked the A.K. Party government, and Erdogan rhetorically reinforces his victimhood, even as he assumes more and more power — a manipulation so effective that it seems impossible to stop.
Erdogan once offered great hope. He improved the lives of millions in Turkey, and that is why many people will vote “Yes” for him in the April 16 referendum. They remember what it was like when a family member was dying of cancer and they had to pay every last cent for substandard care; they remember what it was like to be looked down upon for being religious, for being poor and unsophisticated. Erdogan could very well win his referendum fairly; Turkish elections are normally efficient and monitored. Few Turks are entirely convinced that he could simply steal the vote after the fact. Instead, the state seems to be trying to do so in advance, through intimidation.
Such attempted coercion raises a question: How popular is Erdogan really? After all, this pre-referendum bullying is only a more intense version of what daily life in Turkey is like, with Erdogan on TV and the radio, all day every day, demanding that his people love him. His proclamations about his popularity — amplified by a media he dominates — are drowning out the genuine opposition to him: not just the so-called secular elite, but Alevis, Kurds, Armenians, atheists, the pious, feminists, leftists, independents — all sorts of ordinary people who simply do not want to have to worship this man. New hospitals, free health care and clean streets are little good to a Turk or a Kurd who is not free to go to work or live in a house that won’t be shelled by the government. Do the choices in this referendum — “Yes” or “No” — offer the real prospect of a better nation for the Turks?
There are, after all, less visible ways in which the country seems to be breaking apart, no matter how its citizens vote. The all-encompassing fury over the attempted coup has meant that some Turks have no sympathy for the victims of the purge; some are afraid of being tainted by them, and some snitch on them to save themselves. Such distrust is a disease for a society, and it has spread to anyone who dares to criticize the A.K. Party. As the referendum has grown nearer, what you hear from opposition Turks at home is unimaginable stress, a smothering weight, the panic of the unknown. What you hear from Turks abroad is their loneliness and loss, that strange, tender feeling of being exposed and unprotected, of having no legal or human rights, and of having perhaps forever lost their country.
“Most friends don’t get in touch out of fear,” Tuba said. On the last day I saw them, their young son had begun to rebel comically against these long days of talking with a foreign stranger, and Tuba sat snuggling and kissing him repeatedly to quiet him. “They don’t say anything on Instagram, and sometimes I call them on WhatsApp, and they don’t answer me. It’s very painful. I erased my old history. I have no friends.”
She laughed a little and then her voice got stronger. “Sometimes even mothers or fathers refuse to speak to their children because they blame them for being FETO” — for staging the coup attempt. “Come on, your daughter or your son. Can you imagine it? Because of this, I blame them — you know the truth. Everybody knows the truth. They know me; they know their son or daughter. Choose! Who will you believe? Me or Erdogan? Even my grandmother is a little like, What did you do? She’s not A.K. Party or Gulenist. People like her just believe the state.”
She went on: “Conservative people in Turkey had many, many problems, and they want to believe in the A.K. Party. Because the A.K. Party was their dream, the conservative people’s dream. They don’t want to give up their dream. For this dream, they expend their relatives. They expend their sister. They expend us.”
Suzy Hansen is a contributing writer for the magazine whose first book, “Notes on a Foreign Country,” will be published this year. She last wrote about residents of Istanbul confronted with Syrian refugees.