Turkey's 'Traitors' Speak Out
A weekend referendum has further empowered a president who has tried to crush his opposition.
Updated on April 17, 2017
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.
Overnight, studying at a Gulen-affiliated university or possessing a book written by the cleric became evidence of membership in so-called FETO, the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization. Once known as the “religious movement of Gulen,” it was praised by Erdogan himself. But in 2013, conflicts of interests between Erdogan and Gulen resulted in a power struggle.
The government’s crackdown has extended well beyond the Gulenists. Leftist activists, Kurdish politicians, and dissenting academics have all been targeted. Under the ongoing emergency law declared immediately after the coup, almost 100,000 people were dismissed from their jobs without trial. More than 47,000 people were imprisoned in relation with the coup.
On April 16, Turkish citizens voted in a referendum that will give Erdogan even more power over the country. Ahead of the vote, we were desperate to find out more about those who had been affected by the crackdown—their lives, hopes, and dreams. What follows is our months-long attempt to map the current course of one of the most geopolitically important countries in the world, through the eyes of those who are now deemed its traitors.
There was a time when 31-year-old Fatih Yagmur, an award-winning Turkish journalist, thought his biggest problem was convincing his editor to run a story. But last July, three days after the coup attempt, Fatih found himself in a jail cell listening to 40-odd naked, beaten, bloodied young men screaming. Everywhere was a heavy stench of urine. Those men were soldiers who had been detained at the Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen airport on the night of the coup attempt.
“Please don’t!” Fatih’s cellmate begged the police officer punching prisoners nearby.
“Why?” the policeman yelled back. “Do you want me to take you among them? Are you a FETOist too?”
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.”
Fatih was stopped at the Sabiha Gokcen airport while trying to flee Turkey. Luckily for him, he was stopped over a non-coup related incident in which he allegedly insulted the president. None of the officers was aware that he was a “wanted” journalist in the incipient coup investigation.
Fatih faced trial the next day. The judge released him. He immediately hit the road to the airport again.
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.”)
So began Fatih’s life as a “blacklisted” journalist in Turkish society. He couldn’t find a job. He co-wrote a book about corruption allegations. He and his colleagues started a news website, but the venture lasted only one month, at which point police arrived at the editors’ houses. His blog was also short-lived, blocked by the court after just one story. He returned to his hometown in southern Turkey, where he spent most of his time in court.
Now, months later, Fatih is trying to survive with broken English in an African country where he doesn’t speak the local Zulu language and doesn’t know a single person. He spends hours in his hotel room watching films, then strolls around the city. He stays away from places Turks might frequent. To escape notice, he has changed hotels more than 20 times. He also had to fight malaria disease alone.
Despite the support of PEN International, an association defending freedom of expression, his attempts to be resettled in a Western country have not paid off. A Western country recently granted him a visa, but he cannot leave his current country because his African visa has expired.
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.”
Still, Fatih is prepared for wherever life might take him. “I wouldn’t be embarrassed to work as a cleaner,” he said. “It is the Turkish state that put us in this situation. They should be embarrassed.”
When the tanks rolled into Istanbul’s streets, a 28-year-old teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, was playing Legos with her 4-year-old son in their apartment, unaware of the tumult outside. Then a call woke her up to the new reality.
“This is all because of you!” her father shouted into the phone.
The teacher, in shock, could only muster a few words. “Wait a minute, Dad,” she recalled replying. “We don’t know anything yet.”
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.
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.
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.
But she draws the line at criticism directed at Gulen himself, saying, “I believe in him more than I believe in my father.”
The student first thought about killing herself on a warm day in August. Maybe she’d jump off a bridge into the winding Bosphorus she grew up around. It would be fast—a return to where she came from, almost. She knew she didn’t want to hang herself. Her two little sisters might find her body, and she couldn’t leave behind a legacy of more trauma. Plus, suicide is a sin in Islam. But she was sure even God wouldn’t want her suffering like this.
“I feel like I’ve lost everything,” said the 16-year-old, who wished to remain anonymous, strumming her guitar one Friday night at her home in an Istanbul suburb. Nearby stood a desk covered in her scrawl: Eminem lyrics.
Her parents are Gulenists, and she attended a Gulen-affiliated school before the coup attempt. After that bloody July night, she threw away all her books written by Gulen and those related to her Gulen-linked school. Still, her record will always show that she was once a student of an alleged terrorist network.
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.
“You feel so naked,” she said, referring to her newly unveiled persona, “yet you feel so invisible.”
She has since made friends. But she hasn’t revealed her Gulen-affiliated past.
“You live a lie,” she said, still strumming her guitar. “You feel like a stranger in your own body, in your own home.”
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.”
When Zelal Ekinci was born in 1959, her parents committed a courageous act by giving her a Kurdish name. At the time, claiming one’s Kurdish identity—much less celebrating it through naming—was revolutionary. Zelal means “clean” or “pure.”
“I wasn’t even aware I was Kurdish growing up. My siblings and I didn’t even speak Kurdish,” Zelal told us while drinking tea in her Istanbul apartment.
It wasn’t until they moved to Ankara from Diyarbakir (now the de facto capital of a largely Kurdish province) that she realized she was different. She recalled an occasion when children did not want to play with a girl coming from “that city.” After five years in Ankara, her family decided to move back to Diyarbakir.
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.
After the 1971 coup, her father spent two or three years in prison. She remembers visiting him with her neighbors, and seeing him behind bars. In 1980, following yet another coup, he was held in Diyarbakir No. 5 prison—notorious for torture cases—for another two or three years.
Zelal, a quietly fierce, bookish woman, said she never thought she would be involved in political activities like her father was. If anything, she was resolute in forging a non-activist path by going into medicine. But in Turkey, one becomes an activist accidentally—even, perhaps, inevitably.
“You live in disturbing times … people are being killed, children are being shot,” she explained. “I have politics inside of me.”
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.
“Did you take orders from a PKK commander?” she recalled the police asking.
From that day on, she was afraid she’d be fired. Eight months later, her fears turned out to be correct.
Her name appeared in the government’s official gazette as a threat to national security, alongside some 30,000 other names. Under the emergency law, anyone can be dismissed without the chance to mount a defense and these decisions cannot be taken to court.
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.
So far, 312 petition signatories have been dismissed from their jobs; the total number of academics taken out of the university system is 4,811.
“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.