LAUREN BOHN AND TUGBA TEKEREK
The referendum may empower a president who has turned their lives into a never-ending nightmare since July’s failed coup.
In Turkey, a national trauma has turned into a never-ending nightmare for hundreds of thousands of citizens. Following a failed coup attempt in July, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan targeted alleged coup plotters, who he believes acted at the direction of Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled Islamic cleric living in Pennsylvania. But Erdogan didn’t stop there. He aimed to root out all Gulen sympathizers and turn them into what one local columnist called “socially dead people.” They have been ostracized, declared traitors, and dismissed from their state jobs.
The man stopped pleading.
In that moment, Fatih later recalled to us over FaceTime, he accepted one of the most difficult truths of his life: “I should leave my country.”
In Turkey, a national trauma has turned into a never-ending nightmare for hundreds of thousands of citizens.Following a failed coup attempt in July, Erdogan aimed to root out all Gulen sympathizers and turn them into what one local columnist called “socially dead people.” The government’s crackdown has extended well beyond the Gulenists. Leftist activists, Kurdish politicians, and dissenting academics have all been targeted.
With some cunning in the face of a travel crackdown, he traveled to neighboring Georgia visa-free. But days later Turkey unlawfully canceled 50,000 passports, and he once again had to flee. He ended up in an African country, where he has been stuck for the last eight months.
Fatih had already attracted the anger of the Turkish authorities in 2013, with his stories on corruption allegations against the government. But it was his January 2014 story about Turkish intelligence agency trucks carrying weapons to Syria that really darkened his life.
“I was completely a target for the government,” he recounted.
Even as Fatih was deemed a traitor by the government for working against the interests of the state, he received the EU Investigative Journalism Award. He tried to continue his work despite significant threats. But three days after Erdogan won the presidential elections in August 2014, Fatih was fired from the liberal-leaning Turkish daily Radikal —a paper that was later shut down. (“We cannot resist anymore,” Fatih recalled his editor telling him. “Erdogan demanded it be done.”)
Fatih tries to stay hopeful that he will be freed from his adopted open-air prison. Yet freedom won’t mean his difficult days are over.
“To start a new life from scratch is frightening,” he told us, citing the examples of colleagues in similar situations. “An ex-anchorman is now a worker in a European factory and another one is a cleaner.”
Nevertheless, she could intuit what was coming. They would pin the coup attempt on Gulenists like her and her husband, who was on a business trip at the time. She turned off the lights, went to a back room with her son, and waited in fear.
Like many Gulenists, she had been transformed by the movement. Her introduction to it came in high school, when the group’s so-called “sisters” helped her and other students with their lessons. The movement prides itself on education and fills in where the state has left vast gaps, by way of tutoring and scholarships. But many outsiders criticize the movement for an evangelizing core that resembles a cult of personality—the central personality being, of course, Gulen.
The teacher still feels indebted to the Gulenist movement, which some Westerners regard as a softer, more inclusive form of Islam than, say, Saudi-exported Salafism, or Wahhabism. “I learned to be more flexible and softer,” she said, noting that she was once rigid in her ideologies.
Three days after the failed coup, the teacher lost her job—and the possibility of ever getting it back again. She’s not the only one: 21,000 other teachers working in Gulen-affiliated schools saw their licenses revoked. On the following day, her husband, an engineer at a private company, was fired via email from his boss. The boss’s explanation? “Because your wife is a terror suspect.”
The couple’s accounts at the Gulen-affiliated Bank Asya were almost immediately frozen. All of a sudden, they were left with the equivalent of 5 dollars in their pockets, shamed relatives, and neighbors slamming doors in their faces.
At her father’s house, she did her best to hold onto any semblance of normal life. She found a job at a supermarket, but it lasted only one month. She was underpaid, the hours were horrendously long, and the emotional toll was devastating. When students from the nearby school poured into the market at lunchtime, she would run to the back in tears, overcome with emotion for all her students she hadn’t seen since the coup.
According to the teacher, the coup attempt gave Erdogan the perfect opportunity to link the Gulenist movement to terrorism. Yet she conceded that her movement made some mistakes. When discussing the common accusation that Gulenists had been cheating on university and public employee selection exams, her voice cracked with embarrassment. She said some Gulen followers legitimized the cheating by saying, “Faithful people should get posts in the state.” She also suggested that some people in the movement abused their power, leaving innocent people like her to pay the price.
Her Gulenist parents, subject to arrest, could no longer afford to send her to a private school; her father had lost his job. So she transferred to a public school. The students there knew she had come from a Gulen-linked institution, and some of them started calling her “terrorist girl.” She switched schools once again, and even stopped wearing her headscarf so people wouldn’t suspect she was associated with the movement.
She planned to spend that weekend inside watching Teenage Vampire Diaries. Despite her mother’s pleas for her to socialize, she felt going out would be too depressing.
“I don’t know when I’ll be able to be myself again.”
Numbering an estimated 35 million people, the Kurds are sometimes described as the largest stateless ethnic group in the world, stretched across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. In Turkey, it was not until 1992 that the state recognized “the Kurdish reality”; previously, according to the official discourse, Kurds did not exist at all. A decades-long war between the Kurdish armed forces (PKK) and the Turkish military has claimed more than 40,000 lives.
In 2013, the government lifted a prohibition on the use of the letters Q, X, and Y, which appear in the Kurdish but not the Turkish alphabet. To this day, many Kurdish children don’t have access to Kurdish-language education.
Zelal certainly didn’t. When she was in fifth grade, policemen raided her house. They arrested her father, a doctor and a parliamentarian, for engaging in activities against the state—as they did to many others advocating for Kurdish rights.
A successful doctor and professor specializing in pediatrics, Zelal established one of the few pediatric rheumatology centers in Turkey. But that was before she signed an Academics for Peace petition on January 11, 2016.
Normally, petitions by the Academics for Peace are signed by only 200-300 people, but this time Zelal was among 1,128 academics from Turkey and 355 from abroad (including Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler). The petition, which came after the death of many civilians who’d been caught in clashes between state forces and PKK militants in southeastern Turkey, called on the state to end its “deliberate massacre.”
The president slammed the act as “treason.” Kocaeli University, where Zelal had opened her rheumatology center, released a statement accusing the academics of supporting terrorism. Then one morning Zelal saw police cars in front of her apartment on the university campus. A police investigation began. Zelal was detained all day.
This left Zelal unable to work in a public university or at a public hospital. Following her dismissal, the pediatric rheumatology center was closed, and all patients now have to travel to other cities to receive treatment.
“The worst part of the situation is that they leave you without anything all of a sudden,” Zelal said. “You don’t have any salary. You don’t have health insurance. You don’t have your retirement benefits. You don’t know when it will end. Your passport is canceled. Everything is canceled.”
Just as the resistance was passed on to her, she has passed it on to her 25-year-old son, Baris. His name means “peace” in Turkish. Currently working toward his PhD in Physics at Cornell, he also signed the petition that turned Zelal’s life upside down, so if he comes back to Turkey, he might not be allowed to leave. Last summer, he decided to stay in the United States instead of going home for the holidays. The situation is the same for Zelal’s brother, Lezgin, a professor at Boston University who likewise signed the petition.
Save for a morning bike ride along the Marmara Sea, Zelal rarely ventures outside. She hates spending any money knowing that her father, who lives across the way, is helping to support her.
“My parents are sad because I’m sad,” she said. “But they’re used to it. This has been their life.”
Minor details in this story have been changed to protect anonymity.