A year after the coup attempt, Turkey wrestles with the truth


Standing outside Istanbul’s Ataturk airport a year ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pointed across the ocean to the man he blamed for an attempted coup that had almost wrenched Turkey out of his grasp.

Rogue soldiers still held parts of the city, generals were on the run and the government was in disarray, with key ministers missing or in hiding.

But Mr Erdogan knew who to blame: a long-time ally turned sworn foe called Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric living on a farm in Pennsylvania.

Mr Erdogan’s assertion ignited a purge that has strained the Nato ally’s relations with the west and tarnished Turkey’s human rights record. At the same time, it has strengthened Mr Erdogan’s hand, allowing him to rule under a state of emergency justified by the nature of the threat he had described.

“”There can be no question of lifting emergency rule with all this happening,” Mr Erdogan said on Wednesday. “They ask when emergency rule will finish. It will finish when this business is completely out of the way.”

In many ways, Mr Gulen was a compelling suspect: his followers in the judiciary have been linked to past attempts to undermine Mr Erdogan, while his shadowy movement, which penetrated much of Turkey’s bureaucracy, has persecuted other rivals, including journalists and military officials.

But a year after Mr Erdogan first declared Mr Gulen guilty, few, if any, of his allies share his conviction that the cleric’s group masterminded and carried out the coup single-handed.

In the past few months, British MPs have complained of a lack of proof for Turkey’s version of events, the German spy chief has declared himself unconvinced and Washington has declined to extradite Mr Gulen — US officials say privately the evidence provided is thin. Mr Gulen vehemently denies the charge.

“The attribution of blame solely to the Gulenists is especially important because it has justified and sustained an effort by the government to remove, root and branch, perceived Gulenists from positions of public influence in Turkey,” the House of Commons foreign affairs committee said in March.

But Turkey’s allies are being misled by Gulenists abroad, justice minister Bekir Bozdag said this week, as he lashed out against “dirty perception operations against Turkey as a part of a smear campaign”. He added: “We are all open to the investigation of international institutions and agencies.”

Within Turkey, the still blurry events of July 15 last year have divided an already polarised nation. For Mr Erdogan and his allies, that violent night was the result of a secretive, pro-western plot to weaken, even destroy, Turkey’s strong Muslim leader.

First anniversary: Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s version of events dominates the official narrative © Getty

For the other half of the nation, split between secularists, nationalists and minorities such as Turkey’s Kurds, the failed coup remains unexplained.

“Mr Erdogan is adored by half the nation and loathed by the other half of the country. Whatever narrative he shapes will be embraced only by one half and rejected completely by the other half,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, a US think-tank. “He is casting it as a series of attacks against Turks and Muslims, from the Crusades to the first world war. One side thinks it’s the most significant event since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the other half sees it as something he uses to crack down on them. Turkey was traumatised, and we may never know what really happened that night.”

The failed coup has quickly turned to political myth, although not one leading alleged coup plotter has yet been convicted for their role that night. “July 15” has become part of a long list of equally unexplained events that have shaped Turkish history.

“Turkey is a country of taboos, we rarely have in-depth and critical analyses of key events in our history,” said Aykan Erdemir, who served as an MP for the opposition Republican People’s party between 2011 and 2015. “From the pogroms [of Greek families] of 1955 to the mass killing of Alevis [non-Sunni Muslims] in the 1970s, rarely do we end up fully unearthing the people and the institutions and processes responsible for these events.”

But Mr Erdogan’s hold over the media and government means that his account of Mr Gulen’s role in the coup is omnipresent: children read it in schoolbooks, adults hear it on television, and foreign visitors often sit through slickly produced videos that border on what one diplomat described as “coup porn”.

As Turkey commemorates the coup’s first anniversary, Turks can drive across the July 15 Martyrs’ Bridge to a July 15 monument, past stylised posters of the violence on July 15, hang out in the July 15 Heroes of Democracy Lounge at the airport, and buy July 15 commemorative jewellery.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, speaks at an event on Thursday marking last year’s failed coup © AFP

Meanwhile, Mr Erdogan has drowned out opposition demands for an independent commission to investigate how the coup managed to come so close to succeeding, and how it evaded the attentions of the country’s intelligence agencies. “In effect, 80m people experienced this [failed] coup,” said a senior member of Mr Erdogan’s AK party now estranged from the president. “And still fewer than a dozen people in this country fully understand what really happened that night.”

Mr Erdemir, the ex-MP, said that the Turkish president has instead managed to avoid the larger question of whether Ankara should shoulder any of the blame: “What the government is really trying to hide is not complicity in the coup but negligence: how could Turkish governments and institutions fail to such a great extent in the run-up to the coup, and where is the political and legal accountability in this?”

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