A year ago, many Turks believed our ‘era of coups’ was over. But the threat of the Gulenists should have been clear. Even today, critical questions about the movement remain unanswered

By Taha Ozhan, Middle East Eye

I witnessed the 9/11 attacks in New York. I cannot forget the terror wreaked by the collapse of the Twin Towers.

I was an eyewitness to destruction and terrorism in Iraq, the suffering caused by the US invasion that followed 9/11.

I will never forget the bombings and massacres in Gaza either.

All of these scenes of pain and suffering only became worse with the Arab uprisings. The political fault lines triggered by the invasion of Iraq created ripples across the region. Dictators fell, but as soon as the order set by World War I was on the verge of collapsing, regional powers took action in Syria to suffocate the peoples’ demands for change.

If the Syrian revolution had not been halted, neither Egypt, nor other countries in the region would be as they are today. In the Gulf, a debate could have been started around emerging constitutional monarchies. But that’s not what happened.

Months before the July 2013 coup in Egypt, I wrote from Cairo that Egyptian liberals needed to understand that Tahrir was a good place for sending messages to Egypt and Morsi, but not the place to do politics. If they carried on this way “two inexperienced parties . . . playing with fire”, I warned that Egypt might find itself in the middle of a coup.

‘A coup every decade’

Could something similar have taken place in Turkey? The last coup, known as “the February 28th process”, was in 1997. It was a bloodless version of what happened in Egypt on 3 July. Military officers and “civilian elements” moved into action, Western capitals looked the other way, and an elected government was forced to resign.

Since 2002, AK Party-led governments have dealt with similar attempts. Those hoping for a coup, particularly since 2006, have looked closely for golden opportunities to clamp down on the government, only to be repelled by its steadily increasing electoral support. In 2007, when they tried to prevent Abdullah Gul’s election as president, the AK Party received more than 30 percent more votes than it had in the 2002 election.

After the “Sledgehammer plot” was shut down in 2010 and once people over the age of 40 who could remember the 12 September 1980 coup saw the plotters tried in court in 2012, they must have thought that the curtain had finally closed on Turkey’s era of coups.

Who could possible know that 40-year-old Turks would witness a third coup attempt in their lifetime? But a year ago today, the Turkish cliche of “a coup in every decade” was repeated.

A coup unlike others

The 15 July coup attempt was, of course, very different from the previous three coups. It is very difficult to explain the actors and the aims behind what happened, especially to people outside Turkey. It’s an intriguing story that involves esoteric elements, mystery and assassins, spies and foreign capitals, but it is not an easy one to understand.

As for my personal experience of the coup, as we were being bombed in Ankara by our own jets, in our own country, I thought about what I had seen from New York to Egypt, from Palestine to Iraq, and Syria to Libya.

I remember very clearly – without hearing it from anywhere – who I immediately thought perpetrated the coup attempt: the Gulenists! Only they could do this, not only because they had infiltrated the military, judiciary, and other state institutions, but also because only they could be this maniacal.

In the past, military coups meant overturning power, not attacking one’s own country with total firepower. At least the real target of all past coups had been the political elite alone. On 27 May 1960, the plotters targeted the prime minister. In 1980, young people from the left and right were targeted. Plotters forced the political party in government out of power and shut down the party itself in 1997.

Gulenists, however, were an entirely strange breed, which is why I tweeted in the very early hours of 16 July that “This is not a coup attempt. It is a full scale terror campaign against people, elected government and the army itself.”

In fact, tens of my tweets from the night of 15 to 16 July are like the script of a short film of what I experienced. When I read them back a year later, I don’t even remember how I wrote most of them. The aim of all my tweets in Arabic and English that night was to tell the world a threat I personally knew very closely.

Yet, Turkey did not face the Gulenist threat for the first time on 15 July. What was distinct about 15 July was that, compared to past coups, it was a fully fledged terrorist attack and literally a move for occupation.

The Gulenists’ first attempt at an armed attack had in fact come on 7 February 2012 when it tried to get the Turkish Intelligence Directorate (MİT) director arrested. Another coup attempt prepared jointly by the judiciary and police followed on 17 December 2013.

Therefore, to those following political events closely, there was nothing more natural than to use the term “coup” side by side with Fethullah Gulen. Given the allegations Gulen has filed to the Turkish courts against me, what I was witnessing was, in fact, my own personal story, played out on a national and global stage.

Warning the world

After they tried to arrest the MİT director on 7 February 2012, I wrote a piece titled “February 7 Coup”. Very few people were ready to accept the magnitude of the Gulenist threat at the time. Many saw calling 7 February a “coup attempt” both fiction and disinformation.

Trying to explain the Gulenist terror organisation outside Turkey was not an easy intellectual effort either. Claiming that a radical pacifist organisation with a deliberately deceptive civilian facade – an organisation with institutions all over the globe with names including “peace”, “harmony”, “dialogue” and “understanding” – had an armed wing was no easy feat. 

The reactions I received when I first used the term “disarmament” needed for the “Gulen group” in 2012 can still be read on social media and news websites. A particular assumption I grappled with and challenged after 2010 was that the Gulenists, who had placed tens of thousands of men in the military and police and further thousands in the judiciary, was somehow seen as an “unarmed organisation”.

July 15 provided a tragic confirmation of my informed and public suspicion. Similarly, when Gulenist activities attracted our attention, after they started to intensively show up in the national and global media after late 2015, I felt the need to write a piece, in early March 2016 –  four and a half months before the coup – titled “Coup Calls”. 

I wrote that any coup attempt was destined to fail because Turkey was no longer the same Turkey of the 1980s and 1990s. For a group invested so much in arming itself, it would hardly be possible to maintain calm. The gun that appears hanging from a wall in a movie scene, as they say, will eventually be used to shoot somebody, and an organisation that had tens of thousands of armed elements would eventually spill blood.

Disarming the Gulenists

The post-15 July process can best be summarised as “disarming FETO (Turkish abbreviation of Gulenist terror organisation)”. It is natural that various complications would emerge in a process of forcing an armed organisation to drop their weapons.

However, these problems cannot possibly be compared to the trauma and destruction that would have emerged if 15 July had been successful. As soon as I heard the fighter jets on the night of 15 July, it was not hard to predict how bad the trauma would be and how far it would go.

As someone who thought and wrote so often about the threat this apocalyptic organisation posed, I could tell on the night of 15 July that the end of this lunacy would be at the mercy of the fantasy world of Gulen, a schizophrenic missionary.

If we remember the fascist model of society in Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction novels, it is not difficult to predict what an organisation like FETO, managing the lives of hundreds of thousands men in a totalitarian fashion, could do. In Hollywood movies, “fascist societies” are often painted as intriguing and mysterious, but on 15 July, the Turkish people witnessed a surreal Hollywood fantasy become reality. 

Unanswered questions

A lot has been written about the 15 July coup attempt in Turkey, but what I find most interesting is the quality – or lack thereof – of this growing literature itself. It is not the intellectual poverty, the chronic inability to understand Turkey or lack of objectivity even. After all, I do not expect the media to remain healthy in this age of global political depression. 

But there is another and more important crisis, which is the lack of global intellectual, academic and journalistic interest in this unprecedented coup attempt in a country like Turkey.

Who was behind the coup attempt in Turkey? What sort of organisation is the Gulenists? Why and how is it the case that, despite serious societal divisions and polarisations, the majority of people in Turkey believe that Fethullah Gulen was behind the coup attempt? Who is Fethullah Gulen? What is the nature of FETO? Is there any other NGO, company or international organisation that hasbranches and franchises in 70 percent of countries in the world?

In the same way that the Islamic State (IS) group – its intelligence connections, relations with different countries, subcontractor nature, collection of very divergent types of people, and its selective carrying out of actions with no political logic in the West – has never been questioned, FETO as the perpetrator of the 15 July coup attempt and its leadership have so far been left unquestioned.

It seems that as the geopolitical depression deepens, militant groups such as FETO and IS will find more room to operate and will continue to be supported. Let’s remember that one of these two groups, IS, emerged in Iraq where the US is in fact the “owner of the house” while the other, FETO, with its entire leadership, lives in the US.

The lack of interest in FETO comes despite the fact this is such an interesting and rich terrorist organisation in terms of its leadership and methodology. The web of global relations FETO entertains would put those pioneers of the “new age terrorism”, al-Qaeda and IS, to shame.

This is an organisation that engages in “interfaith dialogue” with the Pope, but bombs the parliament in Turkey. Its leader condemns al-Qaeda in the pages of most powerful American newspapers and criticises Palestinian organisations for terror, but orders the killing of hundreds of civilians in Turkey.

The benefits of doing a serious political and psychological reading of this organisation would go beyond just understanding this coup attempt in Turkey. It would crucially inform us about the reasons organisations like IS and FETO are growing so fast today.

It would help us understand why and how people from different religions and nationalities chose to join IS, a terrorist organisation that promises nothing but death. It could help us understand how an organisation such as FETO would assume different faces and organise in 173 countries and yet would use its power to kill 250 innocent people in a few hours on 15 July.

As long as geopolitical depression continues, missionary and apocalyptic organisations such as FETÖ and IS will also continue.

Stopping an earthquake

From yet another perspective, 15 July was an attempt to infect Turkey with the bloody geopolitical breakdowns in the region since 2002. Instability in Turkey could bring irreversible and irreparable consequences in Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East.

Turks who stopped the tanks on 15 July did not just prevent a disaster in Turkey, they also forestalled an earthquake that would have shaken the region.

The saddest part of 15 July was the West’s abject failure to uphold democracy. Those who directly or indirectly supported the bloody coup in Egypt and willfully ignored massacres in Syria passively watched the coup attempt in Turkey. They even degraded themselves by accusing President Erdogan in the early hours of being behind the coup. 

These approaches, not unfamiliar from the 3 July coup in Egypt, will now go down in historical archives as shameful records, thanks to the Turkish people’s resistance for the sake of democracy. 

With the hope that the era of coups will now firmly close in Turkey, I commemorate the fallen of 15 July and all its heroes, especially my close friend, brother, colleague and neighbour, Erol Olcok, who was martyred at the Bosphorous bridge, will never be forgotten.

Erol was directly involved in the struggle for democracy and contributed to change not only in Turkey, but also in the Middle East and North Africa. He will be always remembered.

– Taha Ozhan is a member of Turkish Parliament and chairman of Foreign Affairs Committee. He is an academic and writer. Ozhan holds a PhD in Politics and International Relations. He frequently comments and writes for international media. His latest book is Turkey and the crisis of Sykes-Picot Order (2015).