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How it begins, how it ends
I borrowed the title of today’s column from an old essay by the late Umberto Eco. The Western reaction to the Gülenist putsch attempt in Turkey last year made me go back to it. Eco was a columnist for Il Verri, an Italian literary magazine, between 1959 and 1961. “How to travel with a Salmon & Other Essays” is a translated English language collection of his essays from that period. Just have a look at this particular essay and see what I mean.
The reasoning is very simple, mind you. If you missed the first act of Hamlet for some reason, you’ll never understand “why he was so down on his uncle, who seemed a perfectly nice man.” Look at the way Western media is still depicting the self-exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen and you’ll know what I mean. “Why is Erdoğan so tough on this peaceful little man?” a casual observer of the Western press might say.
Then you “saw Othello perform his dread act, but had no notion why such a docile little wife was being placed beneath a pillow and not on top of one.” Whenever I see reporting about the excesses against the Gülenist network, this bit of Othello comes to mind. Why are there so many purged from the military, judiciary, and police forces? There’s often a sense of disbelief in the question, as if whoever is doing the purging must be some sort of a madman, torturing people for the fun of it. But I’ve been in Ankara long enough to know that the network is very real and I was there when Turkish jets were bombing the parliament. I’ve seen the first act, so what’s happening now makes sense.
Missing the first act of a play is exactly like experiencing art as real life, said the essayist. “Where we enter after the trumps have been played, and we leave without knowing who’s going to win or lose the game.” In our case, the Gülenists have long infiltrated the state and accelerated this process in 2008, initiating silent purges in the military, judiciary and other institutions to open the way for their cadres to rise up the ranks. Too many people in Ankara have credible stories of how they’ve been wronged by this network for this to be forgotten easily.
To understand how this happened, you need to know the history of Islamist politics in Turkey. There have long been two types of Islamists in this country: The populists and the elitists. The late Necmettin Erbakan was the leader of the populist branch, and Gülen lead the elitist one. Both wanted to reform the system along Islamist lines, but had different methods of taking control of the state. Both were kept out of the system by secular elites.
Populist Islamists depend on the ballot box; they were going to win elections until it was impossible to ignore them. Erbakan, later the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), and now just President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, are doing just that. The elitists on the other hand, planned to infiltrate the state, soften its resistance, then capture it. Elections were not interesting to them. Who needs a battering ram if you have a Trojan horse?
The moral of the Eco essay is very simple: In order to assess the current situation, you need to know how it began. In this task, the West has either been insensitive or willfully ignorant, so I understand the fierce Turkish criticism of western coverage. Yet I also think that a Turkish proverb is relevant on our side: You need to know your own faults before blaming others.
Turkey’s communication strategy on this has been an unmitigated disaster. Did we in Turkey start meticulously compiling personal histories of the victims of Gülenist infiltration in Turkish schools, bureaucracy, military, judiciary, police force, hospitals, and universities over the years? Especially the largely visible injustices since the 2008 show trials would have helped. This would have required the AK Party to engage in some real self-criticism, but it would have paid off with sympathy among the international audience.
It has been a year since that dreadful night in Ankara, and we only just got the first court order naming the Gülenist network as a terrorist organization. The Higher Court of Appeals has approved the decision only this July, and the final decision is still pending. A strong court decision to define membership to this terror network is also still pending. How can Turkey ask friends to treat Gülenist network as a terrorist organization if it does not have a Turkish court case legally defining it as such? It goes to show that we have become a country of bombastic rhetoric rather than strategy and legal procedure.
Turks care about how this episode will go on. Ankara cares enough to put together a valid and universally acceptable legal case against the Gülenists. We in Turkey often muddle along before putting ourselves together and doing the right thing. Our allies, in turn, need to make an effort to understand us despite our significant faults. They need to understand how it all began.