When the teacher talks about the movement, she can barely contain her joy. “How can a person help you without expecting anything in return?” she said of the sisters who came to her aid.
After becoming the first woman in her family to attend college, she, too, helped high school students as a “sister.” Until July 15, she was a religion teacher at a Gulen-affiliated school. Her husband has been a Gulenist since his university years, and up until a few years ago he was the principal at a Gulen-affiliated student dormitory, she explained.
When the Erdogan-Gulen alliance shattered in 2013, the couple, once supporters of the ruling AK Party, refused to turn against 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.
The worst part was that worse could still happen. Fearful of arrest, they sought refuge in the husband’s mother’s house in another city. By that point, he was not talking to anyone and broke into rashes. “His eyes turned into black holes,” the teacher recounted. She herself wasn’t any better. “I thought, in such a situation, committing suicide would not be a sin.” She gave up the idea only after watching her son while he slept.
After suffering an emotional collapse, the teacher moved to her father’s house in a city neighboring Istanbul. Due to safety concerns, her husband stayed in an Istanbul apartment and worked at a sandwich shop. Her father, a fierce supporter of Erdogan, embraced her and her son on one condition: She must disavow Gulen, which would mean disowning a beloved part of her identity.
“OK, I was mistaken,” she recalled lying to her father.
And now, she told us, “I can’t look in the mirror.”
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.