His story was typical of thousands of people. He had fled Turkey before police could detain him as a prominent supporter of Hizmet (Service), a moderate, pious and tightly organised Muslim movement that had attained considerable international outreach. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Hizmet a terrorist organisation after the failed military coup against him of 15 July 2016. It was set up by Fethullah Gulen in the late 1970s.
I suppose that makes me “a terrorist-sympathiser”, not because I supported the attempted coup, but because I support the many Hizmet members who didn’t support the military coup and played no part in it but are now persecuted.
He was sitting alone in the back of the restaurant. At first I didn’t recognise him, wrong man in the wrong place, a surprise. The last time I’d seen him was in Istanbul, a confident, smart and erudite journalist from a major media outlet analysing trends in Turkey’s politics, impressing the assembled academics. Here in London he seemed diminished, bereft.
The process of seeking asylum as a refugee had already taken him eleven months; under British regulations he was barred from getting a job. Although remarkably stoic, the impact of loss was detectable both on him and on the Turkish colleagues who soon joined us for lunch. It was bad enough being a journalist and political analyst, but being also a so-called Gulenist qualified you, with near certainty, for arrest and prison.
According to the Hizmet-linked turkeypurge.com website set up by concerned journalists, by early March 2018, 133,000 people had been detained in Turkey of which 65,000 were subsequently arrested. 319 of these were journalists or media workers of which, according to the Pen International and the Stockholm Centre for Freedom, 170 journalists were languishing in prison, mainly in pre-trial detention. So my unexpected lunch companion had good reason to leave.
Some 3,000 schools, and universities have been shut down and 5,800 academics/teachers sacked. The organisation was set up by Fethullah Gulen in the late 1970s. Together with religious tolerance Hizmet prioritised educational attainment. Not surprisingly, its members achieved considerable upward mobility into the professions – otherwise described by opponents as infiltrating the judiciary, police, banking, construction industry, civil service and media. That would make the UK’s public schools the leading entryist organisations in the country.
By the turn of the millennium Hizmet shared with Erdogan’s nascent AKP (Freedom and Justice Party) the hope of disempowering the military and secular establishment that had ruled Turkey since Ataturk. It was not unreasonable for them to wish to see their religious values reflected in the life and governance of a predominantly Muslim country. But, while wanting to avoid the pitfalls of a formal political profile, Hizmet formed what amounted to a loose tactical alliance with Erdogan based on a shared vision, or at the very least wished the AKP well.
Implementing an almost Gramscian formula, Hizmet set about changing the conversation about Islam in civil society while Erdogan manoeuvred no less successfully at the state political level. It was a winning combination. But it couldn’t last. Fethullah Gulen openly began disagreeing with Erdogan’s policies, most notably on his dealing with the Kurds. Prior to the 2011 elections Erdogan was weeding out Hizmet from AKP positions, and those in government were put under pressure. With rival secular elites defeated, in November 2013 Erdogan set about dismantling Hizmet’s key recruitment infrastructure: starting with their preparatory schools. This was no Mussolini-Pius XII clash over schools and scouts partially patched up for mutual advantage to preserve a Concordat and Lateran Treaty. Hizmet members hit back with highly damaging corruption charges against the President and his family. Henceforth Hizmet and its educational establishments became the new enemy and experienced mounting attrition.
The military and Turkey’s secular protagonists historically have been virulently anti-religious. So the movement was poorly represented in the traditionally secular armed forces. Nonetheless some Hizmet members in the army and air-force, after four years of watching their movement take punishment from government, joined in what now seems to have been a secular-led coup attempt. The President survived. Presidential palace, Parliament and Police headquarters were attacked by the air-force. Some 300 died. This gave Erdogan ample pretext for accelerating his passage towards a dangerous cult of personality, military sallies, autocratic rule and human rights violations, worthy of the early stages of something worse.
Turkey stands today at the confluence of not only West and East, Russia and NATO, but of several of the big and complex questions confronting liberal democracy: the growth of autocratic regimes with electoral vestiges of democracy and widespread populist support, the future of Islam, the treatment of minorities, and the future of the Middle East. It could go in any direction. Do we really, under Boris Johnson, have an elaborated foreign policy to navigate a way through these questions, or indeed a Foreign Minister competent enough to formulate and implement one? Yet Turkey stands as the bellwether of stability in post-Cold War geopolitics. This worrying reality is not reflected in our mass media or distribution of foreign correspondents.
As I tried on parting to find something positive to say to my journalist friend, I thought sadly about his predicament and that of the Turkey he and I loved and once enjoyed. What a terrible, tragic waste.