I'm sitting at my desk, it's nearly 1:00 a.m., and I can hear car horns blaring, people shouting and at times chanting "Allah Akbar," as they celebrate civilians who prevented the coup from succeeding. This was a victory for the people, and they are certainly within their right to want to celebrate. Those brave civilians who took to the streets even before President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's call that night to protest the coup and stop the tanks that barreled down streets and the soldiers that pointed automatic machine guns at them. In the days following the coup attempt, in appreciation for this undeniably crucial contribution to efforts that ultimately resulted in the coup attempt being thwarted, President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım urged citizens to continue holding "Democracy Watches" on streets across Turkey, warning too of a possible rearguard attempt by the junta. Everyone knows that this is a real possibility; there is something hanging in the air like a lingering odor, telling us that it is not over yet. In all honesty, this feeling is quite overwhelming.
About three weeks ago, I was having a cup of coffee and great conversation with a group of friends at a cafe in Istanbul's Cihangir district, a family-friendly, trendy neighborhood that is popular among expats and hippies. The cafe was very crowded, as it usually is, and our group consisted of about five or six people with very different political views, including a pro-government supporter, a pro-Kurdish separatist and even one of Gülen's followers. From there in that cafe, a friend suddenly read a tweet out loud to us in an alarmed tone: "The Bosporus Bridge was closed down by soldiers with tanks." My initial reaction was that it might be a troll. However, the news kept coming, and in only a few seconds we started fidgeting. We called our friends and family on the phone and confirmed the news with them before deciding to leave the cafe. When I stood up from my chair, I looked around and quickly realized how quiet the cafe had become, with few people looking as relaxed as they had only moments before.
"Let's go to my place and watch the news," a friend, whose house is just a block away, told us. It was as if we had reached an unspoken agreement as we trudged behind her and her husband, asking questions while glued to our telephones and watching our Twitter feeds like a hawk. I called my mother, asking her if she had seen anything on TV regarding the bridge closure, but she said, "No, there is nothing." However, within just minutes of reaching a friend's house, the news that I had dreaded hearing was now becoming clear. When I heard the anchorwoman's trembling voice reading through a written coup statement on television, I was with my friend who was in another room praying in the dark, while others remained glued to the television screen. It was such an intense moment of despair for me that I felt it was over. It was then that I began to worry about the bloody possibilities the next day would bring us. I could not even dare to imagine, instead resumed praying in the dark, hearing automatic gunshots from afar.
We were all equally upset, yet not all of us were terrified by the idea of a coup. "Maybe it would be a good thing," said one person, while the rest of the people in the room looked confused. Apparently for some, it meant a shortcut to get clear of the government they so despise so much. I lived through my younger years under governments I despised that took away my basic educational rights because I wore hijab. However, wishing for a coup never occurred to me. There was only one way to get rid of the government, and it was to vote it out of office.
That night, we first heard from Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım live. He said there was an uprising by a faction in the military, and all of a sudden the Twitter rumors and the ideas we were throwing at each other made sense. The U.S.-based, secretive followers of Fethullah Gülen who had infiltrated the army were taking that final step against Erdoğan's government that had been long rumored yet thought to be unrealistic by many, including myself. Within half an hour, there were F-16s flying low overhead, breaking the sound barrier. The sound feels like a bomb being dropped right next to your building. The jets terrorized us that night with that sound, shaking the buildings and breaking the windows. This was a terrorist act against the people of Turkey, not only the government. This was to make us surrender by making us feel unsafe. However, people had already taken to the streets, heroically cutting the roads, facing tanks head-on and soldiers with their bare hands, as these crowds got bigger and bigger.
Meanwhile, back in the apartment we were too stunned to have a real discussion about what to do. We were constantly on Twitter, which was a faster and more reliable option for the news that night. Gülenist Twitter users, who were previously tweeting fervently about anything going on in the country, are either silent or urging people to stay inside, to not resist. A hashtag appeared #SokağaÇıkma (Do not go out), prompting people to stay inside and "be safe." I found myself going over everything related to this movement in my past, my friends, my memories, schools I studied in and jobs I had -- a sort of life-changing epiphany. I had already been decided about my stance against this movement-turned-cult in recent years, but that night changed everything, connecting all the dots leaving no uncertainty.
The Gülen Terror Group's (FETÖ) infiltration of all elements of the Turkish state dates back to the mid-1970s, if not earlier. Gülenist members have the most Turkish schools in the country and abroad. The movement operates 150 charter schools in 25 states in the U.S., controlling half a billion dollars, despite being subjects of numerous investigations for money laundering and kickbacks there. In Turkey, similar allegations turned into scandals.
Once a respected, well-supported Islamic humanitarian movement, FETÖ has failed itself and been defeated by its own greed for more power and establishment. It is now a pathetic cult, a sheer fiasco. Most of its followers are moving to Europe and to the U.S. due to the purge in Turkey. I find it quite strange how these people with dubious backgrounds magically get through impossibly hard visa processes and move in masses!
Western media and the West: What would you do?
As a core figure in Middle Eastern politics, Turkey is one of the least understood countries in the world. During the first hours of the coup, NBC spread a completely false report that President Erdoğan had asked for asylum from Germany. At home, we looked at each other in disbelief. My friend asked me, "Handan, do you think he left?" in a nervous tone. I said, "No! Of course he did not." In an hour, he was on CNN Turk via a Facetime connection. Seeing him alive assured us that things could be aborted and that this whole nightmare would end. In that good faith, that very feeling carried a nation through the darkest night of its modern history.
From NBC and CNN to FOX and the New York Times to the Guardian and the Independent, all mainstream media of the Western world did not shy away from spreading misinformation during the bloody coup attempt. A total of 240 civilians were killed and 1,535 were injured by tanks, automatic machine guns and jets that opened fire on innocent people. The foreign media, meanwhile, was busy with theories that it was staged by President Erdoğan to gain more power, which is exactly the same claim made by Gülen. It's interesting to see a self-exiled cleric taken more seriously by the West than the actual intelligentsia -- regardless of their political background, education or experience living in Turkey. I wonder if Gülen's influential circles in the U.S. and Europe, or the Gülenists' hiring of the Clinton-connected Podesta Group to lobby for them have anything to do with that kind of PR. Is this a PR campaign that took Gülen to New York Times columns and led him to a CNN International interview? What he didn't say on international television is on the Internet for anyone interested. To comfort his followers, the controversial preacher said: "Let those stupid people [referring to the millions celebrating democracy] celebrate, let them have festivals they call 'democracy rallies,' but the world is making fun of them. If they manage to stay alive, they will get so ashamed of what they do today." When I noticed the threatening undertone in this I was in utter and complete shock at his limitless ego. What is even more disturbing is that he keeps bringing up the mainstream Western media's approach as the entire "world."
What is also troubling is that Western media outlets seem to care more about the safety of coup plotters than the actual civilians they brutalized in the streets that night and left for dead. The democratically elected government, regardless of its public approval ratings, was threatened by this junta, which was supported by Western media.
I would like to ask you, dear reader, what would you do if the same scale of events happens to unfold in your home country? To put this whole thing into perspective, let me share a breakdown of the "scale of threat" from a U.K.-perspective. Ziya Meral, a U.K.-based Turkish academic, translated the scale and a few important points are included here:
- House of Commons bombed while MPs in the Chamber were making statements against the coup
- Three helicopters with SAS soldiers attacked a hotel the prime minister had just left in Devon
- Tanks closed Westminster Bridge, and infantry fired at civilians challenging them
- BBC, ITV and Sky studios raided, presenters forced to res statements at gunpoint
- British Tornado jets flew over London (breaking the sound barrier) to scare people and dropped bombs in areas populated with civilians
- MI5 and MI6 were attacked by helicopters.
I hope this makes it clear for you to imagine the horror Turkish people had to endure on July 15. What would you say to your children when they ask you what all the scary noise is about? Would you worry what'd happen to the coup plotters if they fail? What would you do when you have a gut feeling that this would lead nowhere good? Even if you surrender and they succeed, would you be sure that things will be okay? I know what I felt and I know what I saw. A civil war would have been inevitable and probably even planned for had they not failed.
That night was also a turning point for our society, the EU, the U.S. and all the others who dictate human rights and democracy every chance they get. Some even wrote that this coup could mean hope for it could overthrow Turkey's "authoritarian" president. The hatred and obsession focused on Erdoğan typically blinds observers. Arriving at quick conclusions and making assertive political analysis based on one-week, on-site visits or conversations with friends from certain circles that are taken out of context does not make one an expert. The Independent's shameless front-page on July 30: "Five years ago I thought Syria could become like Turkey. Now Turkey is becoming like Syria" with a sub header that read, "After a week in Istanbul, Patrick Cockburn laments his beloved country" is an exceptional example of the Orientalist phenomena. This type of provocative reporting reads more like wishful thinking and propaganda.
On Aug. 7, the biggest democracy rally in modern history took place in Istanbul, and approximately 5 million people attended. I keep seeing reports full of phrases like "Erdoğan's supporters" calling for "capital punishment," which is actually very unlikely to happen, and disgusting comparisons to "Hitler's Nuremberg." First, the people in the rally were not only Erdoğan supporters. There were the main opposition parties' leaders and supporters too because it was a rally against the coup and for modern Turkey. Biased reports or intentional misinformation does not surprise me anymore. What still surprises me and breaks my heart though is the trauma being faced by my country, a civil movement that morphed from something I once associated with really nice people to an intelligence-obsessed, disguised means for geopolitical destruction. I'm not angry, though I have every right to be, but I am truly heartbroken for my country and due to personal memories. I am heartbroken for the innocent lives we lost and the stolen years and opportunities of generations of bright minds. A part of me - probably of the entire country too - is damaged beyond repair because trust is a very rare and very delicate virtue.
Days passed and I'm now on the balcony of my apartment typing my final thoughts. This time there is no chanting, no sound from the square nearby. Democracy watches all around the country ended with President Erdoğan's call. Today is Aug. 15, the first-month anniversary of the failed coup. It has been an almost surreal collective experience. Revisiting the coup night in my memory, I left my friend's place in the morning at around 10:00 a.m. The news channels reported that the coup was averted, and it was under control save for a few ongoing clashes at certain locations. It was about 6:00 a.m. when I heard the last explosion nearby; now, I gather from the videos and witnesses that came out later that it was tanks firing at civilians on the Bosporus Bridge. When I stepped out of the apartment's gate there was an eerie silence on the streets. Walking down the streets of Cihangir I looked up at the Galata Tower looking down over the neighborhood, my body was still buzzing with the crushing threat of the night before. There were only cats randomly sitting around. Life at the ferry station looked ordinary; I even spotted a few tourists in their sandals and big hats that drew me into some sort of normalcy. That morning on the ferry, going across the Bosporus, I imagined what it would be like if things had not worked out. The beautiful shimmering blue sea, beautiful view of Istanbul, its beautiful people, what would have happened to them? Would I be on the next rubber boat to another country where I knew I am unwelcomed?