Hale Akay
May 04 2018

Finding comfort in mudslinging at those you dislike as 'Gülenists'

My most shocking discovery in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, was that someone I shared an office with long ago was a member of the Gülen movement, blamed for the failed attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and had already fled the country.

What shocked me was not that he was a follower of the reclusive U.S.-based Turkish Islamist preacher and former Erdoğan ally-turned-enemy Fethullah Gülen. I had always known him to be religious. What shocked me was that he had hidden his identity in one of the rare havens in Turkey – a university – where no one was judging anyone. The rest of us were cherishing that opportunity, proudly revealing our identities and beliefs. Now, looking back in time, we are sometimes amazed at how lucky we were. Well, those were the days!

If I am going to describe the moment in the aftermath of the failed coup when I felt most ashamed…

For the past decade I have worked on a large number of projects, in the course of which I had to meet or work with public servants with a wide variety of political views. Several months after the July 15 coup, sometime in the autumn, I suddenly realised there might be many members of the clandestine sect whose numbers were recorded on my phone. I wondered if I should delete them. Should I cross reference the names on my phone with the lists of public servants sacked by government decree? How would I know if those lists were even correct?

Having steadfastly refused to engage with any enterprise lacking in transparency until that moment, I felt insulted by my own cowardice. Those numbers are still on my phone.

Long before July 15, when we were just becoming acquainted with this secretive Gülenist movement, I tried not to participate any event I knew to be, or might be, organised by its members. I warned people who did and I criticised those who got too close.

This was not because I wished to criminalise the movement, it was because structures like it, structures that are neither open nor transparent and whose objectives are unclear, damage trust and disrupt the functioning of society, gnawing at it from the inside.

Those of us who come from a political science or economics background know how important trust is for the healthy functioning of society. We also recognise that structures with covert ambitions may emerge from time to time, and try to find a solution through regulation.

So for years, whenever I was confronted by people who were complaining about the Gülen movement, I asked the same question: “How can you struggle against such an institution without violating people’s rights and freedoms?” And each time the response was a shrugging of shoulders. I don’t have an answer either.

Many people now expect the Gülen movement to publicly come to terms with its past, but I believe this will never happen. The movement is fed from those same muddy waters it is forcing us to share. At the core of the movement is a self-serving cadre that cares for nothing but itself.

In the meantime, there are, I fear, others benefiting from those muddy waters, for the movement turns out to be a very useful political tool in a country where it is common practice to throw mud at those you do not like, where hypocrisy and smear campaigns are the norm.

So, for instance, someone who is not fond of me may read this article and declare me a Gülen supporter, saying that I once shared an office with a movement member and had the phone numbers of former public servants who have also been exposed.

This would be so easy, for in Turkey, politics is conducted by stirring up the dirt, and all the while blaming others for doing the same.

I have been living outside Turkey for more than a year. What I have witnessed among others recently arrived from Turkey has sometimes left me speechless. Every time they meet someone new, they check to make sure this person is not a Gülenist. They have been warned by countless officials in Turkey about people’s links to the movement, and so naturally no one trusts anyone. Recently, I was warned that a Facebook group used by recent arrivals looking for basic information was managed by people linked to the movement. What should I do? Do I really have to leave a Facebook group that I have occasionally used to find out where to buy baklava or what price to charge for a particular service, just because it might one day incriminate me?

Absurd as it may sound, this is a legitimate question, for the moment someone starts telling others that you are linked to the movement, or even worse, that you are getting money from it, there is nothing much you can do other than pray to be strong. Natural instinct tells you to keep any potential threat at a distance.

We must bear in mind that there is no clear definition of what type of relation with the Gülen movement might constitute a crime. The hard core of senior Gülenists are lumped in the same basket as those who once received a scholarship from the movement, those who once wrote a column in one of its newspapers, those who formerly worked in one of its educational institutions, and those who simply and naively became a disciple.

What constitutes a crime is defined arbitrarily. It is not the act that counts, but the person.

For example, though they may come from the same backgrounds and both worked in a Gülen-affiliated university, one person may be denounced for supporting the sect, while another remains a permanent fixture in the opposition media. If working in a Gülen-affiliated university is a crime, shouldn’t both be treated the same?

Someone who once worked in an allegedly Gülen-linked media outlet or may have produced an article using information provided by the group could still denounce others for being columnists in a newspaper controlled by the movement. Those allegations are usually spread through insinuation, with nothing said openly. If cooperating in some way with the movement as a journalist is a crime, shouldn’t all those who have done so be treated the same way?

People remove from their CVs anything from the past that could be linked to the movement, as if they had sinned. Did they actually commit a crime or do they fear being incriminated? Yet, those people, armed with their refreshed CVs and burnished image, can still turn against others and denounce them.

For some time, I have been listening to rumours about the Gülen affiliations of people I know, not those with whom I have simply shared an office, but people I know well, whose entire lives I have witnessed. No one has any evidence; they all find their way by trusting the words of those they love and labelling everyone else. No one cares about the consequences, or the damage they might cause for someone still in Turkey.

As much as I understand, those working in the Turkish media are most enjoying the uncertainty created by the movement. This opacity is useful not just for the government, but for the small islands of power within the opposition.

But what about the rest of us? This involuntary intelligence-seeking is driving us all to desperation. It is making us feel guilty, and fear being seen as guilty, and for no reason. We are turning a blind eye to human rights violations against Gülenists, afraid that something might happen to us if we speak up. We are trying to stay away from anyone who has been denounced by others for being affiliated to the movement, sometimes even if we know for certain that it is a lie. In short, we are trying to survive by mastering the acrobatics of smear avoidance.  

I know that I am writing this in vain. I know after all these years that for every political group in Turkey, the rules of the game require us to live in muddy waters. A call to come clean and be fair will never be answered. And yet the only thing that can make a person feel proud of herself under these circumstances is to reject those very rules. So I ask again: “How can we escape from the Gülen movement?”

My own answer on this occasion is to submit this highly personal account to a news site that stands accused by some of being affiliated to the Gülen movement, to which many dare not contribute.