Last week, there was an attempted coup in Turkey that left hundreds dead, thousands jailed and a troubled world even more troubled. In the aftermath of this failed coup, Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan is going on a witch hunt. He’s dismissed 2,500 judges and is threatening life sentences for those soldiers who participated in the coup attempt.
Blaming the coup on on his former ally, Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s, Erdogan has asked the United States to arrest Gülen and send him back to Turkey for trial. He has also officially designated Gülen’s organization as a terror organization. Gülen himself has denied any involvement in the coup, telling reporters, “Through military intervention, democracy cannot be achieved.”
The Gülen organization has created more than 100 charter schools in the United States and schools for both boys and girls worldwide. It promotes a peace-loving form of Islam, and has backed study missions for thousands of Americans to Turkey. Along with dozens of other American Leadership Forum members from Sacramento, I visited Turkey with the Gülen Pacifica Institute in 2008. I thoroughly enjoyed my 10-day study mission. We were constantly on the move, visiting Turkish schools and media outlets, spending a night with a Turkish family, attending services at the mosques, seeing the sights and drinking a lot of tea. Our guides, who were generous and knowledgeable, gave us a nonstop education about all things Turkey.
When I spoke with Turkish journalists who were worried about being jailed for writing stories critical of the military, or when I saw the joy of parents watching their elementary school children dancing in a festival, I saw a complexity of Turkish history and culture that I had not previously been aware of.
When I returned to Sacramento I attended the Natomas Charter School One Voice event. Natomas Charter School students connected up with a Gülen movement high school in Turkey. Working together, students from these two schools produced a wonderful performance focusing on the concept that the students’ similarities as humans were so much greater than their differences.
These experiences have given me a profound appreciation for both the Turkish people and their history. The Gülen movement supported education and media, they sought out interfaith activities and dialogue and they called for a peaceful interpretation of Islam. The followers of Gülen played a major role in Erdogan’s original rise to power and supported his efforts to curb the military. But in 2013, they were critical of corruption in the president’s office. The Gülen newspapers and television stations which revealed those corruption scandals have been shut down. Erdogan has designated the Gülen organization as a terror organization, and now has called for Fethullah Gülen’s extradition from the United States, claiming that he instigated this coup. And Erdogan has dismissed 2,500 judges, putting himself in a position to control the judicial system in Turkey.
My hope is that the schools and newspapers and TV stations that I visited in Turkey will be allowed to reopen or continue to function and that democracy will prevail in Turkey. My fear is that Erdogan’s response to this coup could lead Turkey closer to dictatorship than democracy.