This man stood up to Trump. In Turkey he was branded a terrorist

Fatih Yildirim with his family during the Chicago O'Hare airport protest (Fatih Yildirim)
Fatih Yildirim with his family during the Chicago O'Hare airport protest (Fatih Yildirim)

Date posted: February 10, 2017

Laura Pitel

A photo of Fatih Yildirim’s protest beside a Jewish family took America by storm. Back home the reaction was very different

It was a picture that melted hearts around the world. Two dads – one Muslim, one Jewish – with their kids on their shoulders, united against Donald Trump’s executive order banning citizens of seven countries from travelling to the United States.

But for Fatih Yildirim, the Muslim dad in the picture, becoming a viral sensation has been bittersweet. While he was lauded in global media outlets as diverse as Time and Good Housekeeping, back in his native Turkey Yildirim became the subject of a hostile media campaign that branded him a terrorist.

His experience is a reminder of the often topsy-turvy nature of politics in Turkey, a Muslim-majority country that has high hopes for Trump’s presidency.

It is also a personal story about how families have been ripped apart by one of the most spectacular political rifts in the country’s modern history. The photograph has put his already strained relationship with his family in danger of permanent rupture.

“Because this picture came out, I lost my last remaining ties with my family,” he said. “I’m scared to call my dad or mum now.”

Yildirim, a warehouse manager, is part of a deeply contentious group known as the Gulen movement. Founded by Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric from northeastern Turkey, it began amassing supporters from the late 1960s.

By emphasising the importance of education, over several decades Gulen forged a network of high-achieving but secretive followers who went on to secure jobs in the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the military and the police.

When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party came to power in 2002, it forged a marriage of convenience with the Gulen movement. By harnessing the strength of its followers, the party was able to push back against those in the state structure opposed to its open embrace of Islam.

Hundreds of officers were purged from the military in cases that were later shown to be based on thin or fabricated evidence.

Yildirim, now 37, became a follower of Gulen when he was in high school after being introduced to the movement by a friend.

He has lived in the United States since 2002 after first travelling there on an exchange programme. He met his future wife, Amy, while working in a pizza restaurant. They got married, had three children and lived what Yildirim describes as a normal, quiet family life in Schaumburg, a suburb of Chicago.

Growing tensions

Back in Turkey, the relationship between the Gulen movement and the ruling AKP was growing increasingly fraught.

In 2013, it imploded. Leaked recordings, apparently taped by Gulenist police officers, allegedly showed corruption reaching right to the heart of Erdogan’s inner circle. The former allies were now publicly at war. Erdogan accused the Gulen movement of forming a “parallel structure” inside the state and vowed to flush it out.

Yildirim’s family, staunch supporters of the AKP, grew ever more upset by his continued devotion to Fethullah Gulen. In 2015, the father-of-four lost his job as a sales and ticketing agent with Turkish Airlines, the national flag-carrier — a decision Yildirim believes was based on his links to the movement. His mother and father had no sympathy.

“They said you got what you deserved,” he said. “Since then, things became difficult. They made it very clear.”

On July 15 last year, a violent coup attempt shook Turkey to its foundations. Putschist officers opened fire on civilians and bombed the Turkish parliament, leaving 248 people dead.

The government claimed that the plot was masterminded by Gulen, who since 1999 has lived in exile in a mountain retreat in Pennsylvania. For Yildirim, that meant that the tensions with his family grew worse.

The rise of Trump

Just four days after the failed coup, Donald Trump won the Republican nomination. Having previously bristled at the billionaire businessman’s calls for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, Erdogan began to warm to him.

It emerged that members of the Gulen movement had donated to the campaign of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation. Trump, meanwhile, praised the Turkish leader for his “impressive” success in thwarting the attempt to overthrow him – and dodged a question about human rights concerns.

An article by retired general Mike Flynn, now Trump’s national security adviser, suggested that the United States should support Turkey’s demand that Gulen be extradited to Turkey.

Less than a month after Trump’s inauguration, analysts warn that Ankara’s hopes will almost certainly end in disappointment. The idea that his administration will reduce US support for Syrian Kurdish forces, seen by Turkey as a grave threat to its own national security and stability, already seems likely to be misplaced.

But for now, Turkish officials and pro-government media appear to be pursuing a wait-and-see policy. It was left to the prime minister, Binali Yildirim, to criticise the controversial travel ban. Erdogan has said that some of the new president’s language is “disturbing” but has also praised him for publicly chiding a CNN reporter.

A different perspective

It was into this context that the photo of the protest at Chicago’s O’Hare airport emerged. While international media leapt on the image of Yildirim and Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell as a symbol of interfaith harmony, Turkey’s pro-government outlets branded Yildirim a member of the “Gulenist Terror Organisation”, known in Turkey as FETO.

The channel 24 TV, owned by a businessman who once said that was “in love” with Erdogan, hinted at a wider conspiracy. Its news report asked: “After the defeat of Hilary Clinton, who they openly supported, what kind of role is FETO going to play in protests aimed at weakening Donald Trump?”

Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara, claimed that Gulenists were working in conjunction with the billionaire financier George Soros to undermine the new president.

Yildirim says openly that he is a supporter of the Gulen movement but dismisses the claim that his protest was somehow orchestrated by the group as “nonsense”.

He and his wife made a spur-of-the-moment decision to join the airport demonstration, he said.

“We were following on the news, we saw the protests. My wife went on the woman’s march in Chicago. I said why don’t we go and take some cookies to those lawyers giving pro bono services. She said it was a great idea.”

“The Turkish media is trying to manipulate the situation but it’s not true. No one sent me there.”

He rejects the label that he is a terrorist. He also says that he remains “unconvinced” by the Turkish government’s accusations against the Gulen movement, insisting that he has never seen any evidence of wrongdoing or criminal activity.

That view of the group would be challenged by the many prominent Turks convinced that they were targeted by the opaque network. While questions remain about the coup, British ministers and diplomats have said repeatedly that they believe the movement had a hand in it.

Alan Duncan, a foreign office minister, told the foreign affairs committee last month: “It’s very clear that there were many Gulenists involved in the coup, but we don’t have the information or evidence to decide definitively.”

Yildirim believes that the Turkish campaign against him was an attempt by the Turkish government to turn the Trump administration against the Gulen movement.

He said: “I think they’re trying to use me to say to the Trump administration: ‘Look this movement here is working against you. So you should persecute them or extradite Gulen’.”

Swept up in the moment

The biggest blow for Yildirim was personal. While he was able to shrug off some negative news stories, Yildirim fears the damage with his family may be far more lasting. He does not know if he will speak to his parents again.

He had no idea the photograph would capture the world’s imagination in the way that it did. “I didn’t know it was going to go viral,” he said.

“How could I know? I thought I was doing something normal. I didn’t think I was doing anything extraordinary – and I still don’t think that. We weren’t saving someone from a fire, or a river. We were just standing up for human rights.”

He has asked himself if it was a mistake to give his name to the photographer but, ultimately, he believes that the picture has done more good than harm.

It shows, he said, that “all these minorities, all these oppositions, can get together and stand up for something.”

“It is bad for me but around the world it is creating a better image,” he said. “I’m happy to be part of it.”

Source: Middle East Eye , February 10, 2017

Related News

Once They were Brothers – Bir Zamanlar Kardeştiler

Kanter himself has faced legitimate threats from Erdoğan’s government. In 2017, Kanter escaped Turkish agents in Indonesia while working at a basketball camp for his foundation. He was detained in Romania for several hours and Turkish authorities had already cancelled his passport, making him a stateless man. Eventually, he was able to return to the United States, but not without a Turkish arrest warrant and a four-year prison sentence.

Mr. Gülen’s felicitous advice on Kurdish issue, freedoms

BÜLENT KENEŞ The interview Mr. Fethullah Gülen, a well-respected Turkish-Islamic scholar, gave to Rudaw, an online newspaper in northern Iraq’s Arbil, resounded powerfully in the Turkish media. I must note that it would be wrong to analyze the views Mr. Gülen expressed in this interview within the scope of the developments that have occurred in the wake of […]

More than 60 countries attend panel organized by GYV at UN

Representatives of more than 60 countries attended a panel discussion organized by the İstanbul-based Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV) at UN headquarters in New York.

Police raid prominent journalists’ foundation GYV in Turkey

GYV’s members strongly protested the police measure. Underlining that the raid violated standard protocol, high-ranking GYV official Recep Usta expressed; “the protocol states that VGM technical teams can come to the building and conduct examinations; and should they find any violation, a period of a month is granted to us [to fix any issues].

Now, speaking Turco-Tweetish is more challenging

Volunteers from the Hizmet movement are overseeing the campaign on Twitter to criticize the Turkish government by introducing followers to a trending topic with a new hashtag every day, and since the Hizmet movement has active members in more than 150 countries, their actions on Twitter have exploded.

Couple jailed for watching Fethullah Gülen videos at Internet cafe

An Ankara couple has been sent to prison after they were caught watching videos belonging to US-based Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen at an internet cafe earlier this week.

Latest News

Fethullah Gülen’s Condolence Message for South African Human Rights Defender Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Hizmet Movement Declares Core Values with Unified Voice

Ankara systematically tortures supporters of Gülen movement, Kurds, Turkey Tribunal rapporteurs say

Erdogan possessed by Pharaoh, Herod, Hitler spirits?

Devious Use of International Organizations to Persecute Dissidents Abroad: The Erdogan Case

A “Controlled Coup”: Erdogan’s Contribution to the Autocrats’ Playbook

Why is Turkey’s Erdogan persecuting the Gulen movement?

Purge-victim man sent back to prison over Gulen links despite stage 4 cancer diagnosis

University refuses admission to woman jailed over Gülen links

In Case You Missed It

Terrorist organization seeks to fill void in Southeast after closure of prep schools

Religious leader: I was told to blame Gülen movement for police banning my group meeting

Think over extradition request [for Gulen] with care

Chatham United Methodist Church Hosted Abraham Interfaith Lunch

Turkish school threatens students who refuse to write poems on coup attempt

World renowned NGO-rating Global Geneva stands by Kimse Yok Mu

Totalitarian interference in individual sphere

Copyright 2023 Hizmet News