Between a rock and a hard place | Tolga Temuge

The failed military coup in Turkey this month exposed the vulnerability of the largest democracy bordering the already chaotic Middle East. Political activist Tolga Temuge outlines the major complexities underpinning the coup

Political activist Tolga Temuge Photo: Ray Attard
Political activist Tolga Temuge Photo: Ray Attard

As news and footage of the recent coup attempt in Turkey unfolded in the media, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like if the country in question were my own. Naturally, this sentiment is not limited to Turkey: the same thought flits through my mind whenever I see images of conflict and upheaval, anywhere in the world.

With Turkey, however, it immediately feels closer to home, as it were. Far closer than a similar coup in Latin America, for instance. 

One can just imagine, therefore, what it felt like to someone like Tolga Temuge: a Turkish national who has been resident in Malta for the past 13 years, and who is also a vociferous political activist in his own right. Locally, he is better known for his association with environmental NGOs… being a former CEO of BirdLife Malta, and Campaign Director for Greenpeace Mediterranean.

But Temuge is also keenly involved in Turkish politics, and has been for many years. He makes no secret of his opposition to the ruling Erdogan government. But in contributions to the local press, he seems to be equally wary of the suspected mastermind behind the failed coup: Fethullah Gulen, the founder and leader of a rather obscure Islamic movement. 

It seems natural to ask him how he felt on a personal level, as he watched all this unfold from afar.

“I was walking back home from a very pleasant evening at the Sliema Arts Festival… and my mum called, asking me whether I knew if there was a military coup in Turkey. I had no idea at the time. So when I got home I sat down and tried to follow the news: not only from the news portals in Turkey, but also from my own contacts. Honestly, my first reaction was that this looked like… I don’t want to call it a ‘false flag operation’, but it looked like a trap set by Erdogan…

In fact, a lot of people shared that reaction. Does Temuge still consider that a possibility?

“My feelings have not changed 100% yet. There was something that felt staged or somehow wrong with what I was seeing. However as the days passed, and more footage became available… more credible eyewitness testimonials emerged… you realise that it was actually quite a big operation. It wasn’t just a rogue group acting within the military. As of yesterday [Wednesday], around 40% of the top military personnel – generals, admirals, etc. – are either in custody, or arrested. So basically almost half the military command is suspected of involvement…”

That is true, but the operative word there is ‘suspected’. Part of the concerns expressed internationally (for instance, by the EU) is that Erdogan may exploit the emergency to consolidate his own power-base and increase his government’s grip on power… possibly through a purge of the opposition…

“Turkey has been moving in that direction for the past 13 years, since Erdogan came to power. So it is no surprise. However, we must also bear in mind the consequences if the coup attempt was successful… though from the outset I don’t think that was possible.”

This, too, is part of the reason some people suspect the coup may have been staged by Erdogan himself.  

“One of the scenarios I described in an article this week is that Erdogan knew this was coming. He didn’t have to stage it himself; he could simply let it happen. Let me be clear on one thing: I am no friend of Erdogan. To be even clearer: I despise Erdogan, and what he represents.

“However, over the last 10 years I have been looking closely at the Fethullah Gulen movement. It is not a conspiracy theory that these people have infiltrated the Turkish military, the judiciary, the police force, the education system, and so forth. And they have done this over the last three or four decades. They became extremely powerful under Erdogan: understandably, because both seem to be on the same side. To oversimplify: they are both Islamist. That is how it looks from the outside. But if you understand Turkish politics, especially its right-wing politics… these are two completely different groups. They represent distinct factions within political Islam. They did not trust or like each other from the very beginning…”

Here Temuge breaks off to provide a little background. “To understand what is happening, you have to go back to a little before Erdogan came to power in 2002. There was a religious party, the Welfare Party, whose leader Necmettin Erbakan became Prime Minister. In 1998, the military carried out what is known as a ‘soft coup’. No tanks in the streets, but the military forced the Prime Minister to resign. After that, there was a purge carried out by the secularist military command. They tried to cleanse the military, the police force, etc., from the Islamist ‘militants’, as they were referred to…”

Democracy was restored by 2002, and Erdogan came to power. “The military was still very strong in Turkish politics at the time. And Erdogan did not have a very well educated or trained base to assist the democratically elected government in state institutions. It was mostly occupied by different factions, predominantly the Kemalists or the Nationalists. There is even a saying in Turkey: you can be democratically elected, but you can never rule the country.

“This situation provided the Gulenists the perfect opportunity to form some sort of coalition with Erdogan, even if they never liked or trusted each other. The Gulenists were extremely well educated. Most of them studied in the USA or in Europe: they knew the bureaucracy, they spoke foreign languages very well, they had Masters degrees in this and that… They also had people in the police force, the judiciary and state departments. So Erdogan relied on the intelligence coming from these people. And he was constantly fed false information: that the Turkish military was about to assassinate one of the top government officials… or Erdogan himself, or his family… or that they were planning an imminent coup. Erdogan was already under constant political pressure from the military; now, there was this religious group telling him he was constantly under threat. So Erdogan gave them carte blanche. And, especially after 2008, the Gulenists started a number of operations within the country. The main targets were the secularists, the nationalists and other potential ‘coup plotters’: what we refer to as members of the ‘deep state’, who were suspected of involvement in a number of assassinations and mass killings, especially in Turkish Kurdistan…”

The range of targets, however, quickly grew. “Almost immediately the Gulenists started targeting the Opposition: anyone, in fact, they perceived to be a potential threat. At the same time, they also carried out covert operations in the police force, the judiciary and the military: falsely accusing some top officers and having them arrested… I can say ‘falsely’ now, because the trials have come to an end, and we now know that all the evidence had been fabricated.

“When this purge was taking place, the Gulenists were in coalition with Erdogan. Erdogan had put them in those positions; and he gave them whatever they needed. Basically, he supported them… until this group directly targeted Erdogan himself, with the 2013 corruption scandal. So in a nutshell, this group has been empowered and protected by Erdogan, until it grew stronger than Erdogan himself. And this is not the first time it tried to bring down Erdogan’s government. There were a couple of previous attempts, but these did not attract the same attention of Western media…”

This brings us to the question of what difference actually exists between the two groups vying for power. Both seem to occupy the same niche in the complex spectrum of Turkish politics, and have in the past been political ‘allies’ (even if out of convenience). How are the two groups different, and how would the coup have affected Turkey if successful? 

“Erdogan comes from an old political Islamist movement. If you had to make a comparison, it is a bit like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The main difference is that Turkish political Islamist movements never resorted to so-called ‘terrorist’ tactics… maybe because the Turkish Republic was built on stronger foundations by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk than Egypt or Syria. 

Fethullah Gulen, on the other hand, comes from a completely different establishment. “In fact, after he left the established movement – known as the Nurcu Order – he went on to found his own, very different religious order. It is more like a cult. It might not be the best word to describe it, but I can only compare this organisation to a cult. Or perhaps to Opus Dei.

“The main difference is that Fethullah Gulen himself is the only leader of this cult; and his followers truly believe in him. If you listen to his speeches, or read his books… he uses this very difficult language: very poetic; almost archaic, in fact. It’s as though you need to understand their language in order to decode what he is saying. So there are experts, journalists, who have been following this sect for a while; and from what we understand, he presents himself as a sort of new Messiah or Prophet. And his followers tend to believe that…” 

This does not go down too well with the rest of Turkey’s religious/political establishment, Temuge adds. 

“The other religious organisations hate this kind of sect. That is why they were completely isolated, and therefore more secretive. Although you can put them all in the same category – they are all Muslims – the world view represented by the Gulenists is quite different. Fethullah Gulen is actually an extreme Nationalist. His political background is anti-communism in the Cold War era. He has always been very close to the American establishment. In his speeches, he urges his followers not to fight against the USA, because America is the ‘captain’ of the ‘ship’ that we call Earth. And in order to achieve their political ends, they need to make an alliance with the captain. That’s his line…”

Another aspect that makes the Gulen movement quite unique is its international presence. One of its primary functions is to establish schools around the world; and it now has an educational presence in over 140 countries.

“I think Malta is one the few countries in the world that doesn’t have a Gulenist establishment. You dodged the bullet there…” he adds with a laugh.

The Gulenist school expansion began shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the first countries to host these establishments were former Soviet Union breakaway republics. “Wherever the Soviet Union withdrew, the Gulenists moved in and opened schools. Education was in English, and to very high standards. You will appreciate the political implications: a movement close to the US establishes itself as a charity and education pioneer, and builds strong ties with the State officials in those countries. This follows international trade and a friendly base to Gulen and the USA…” 

Indeed it is the international implications I was just coming to. If I’m interpreting things right, Russia is no friend to Fethullah Gulen, and – regardless of Putin’s known mistrust of Erdogan – would certainly not have liked to see the coup succeed. The United States has to date been sympathetic to the Gulenists, to the extent that there is speculation about CIA involvement in the coup itself. From this perspective, Turkey could almost be seen as the chessboard on which major geopolitical superpowers are playing a high-stakes game. Meanwhile, the people of Turkey seem to be facing a choice between a political strongman with authoritarian aspirations, and an equally suspect organisation that throws dissent in jail by fabricating “evidence”, and goes as far as opening fire on its own parliament and citizens…

“Turkey is between a rock and a hard place. We were trying to get rid of Erdogan, and the only alternative being forced down our throat is Gulen. If you ask me, Gulen is worse. Erdogan is, at the end of the day, the leader of a political movement. He does not seem to believe in democracy; nevertheless, he was popularly elected. So one way or another, there is a chance of getting rid of Erdogan through legitimate, democratic means. Gulen, on the other hand, is not a political movement; it is a secretive, covert organisation. I think they pose a greater danger to Turkey, and to the region as well…”

Fethullah Gulen himself is in self-imposed exile in the United States, and Erdogan has declared that failure to extradite him would ‘hurt US relations’. Has this development lent weight to the conspiracy theory (if such it is) that the coup may have been a US-prompted attempt at ‘regime change’?

“I wouldn’t exclude that possibility. To suggest that the CIA is involved in a military coup in the Middle East, or anywhere in the world, is not a ‘conspiracy theory’. It’s a fact. In this case, I obviously don’t have evidence, so I’m not saying there was CIA involvement or not. But whoever was behind this operation – whether it was Gulenists acting alone, or with outside help – if they thought the people of Turkey would welcome this military coup… that is a real misunderstanding of the people’s sentiments.

“Because almost everyone in Turkey hates Gulen… including myself. We all know what he represents. Gulen is not an alternative to Erdogan’s regime. The secularists, the leftists, the Kurds… even the other political Islamists, for the reasons I explained… would never support a military coup. Not just by Gulen. If the coup came from, let’s say, the secularist Kemalists, I think the majority would stand up against it today. Turkish democracy has grown up. Actually, July 15th was a historic day for Turkey, because we didn’t only see Erdogan supporters or Islamists in the streets… we also saw representatives of virtually all the factions taking to the streets to resist the coup. Now, there is political consensus throughout the Turkish political spectrum: from the pro-Kurdish HDP, to the ultra-nationalist MHP; from the Kemalist and social democrats, to the ruling AKP. Everybody now seems to be united. Everyone can now read between the lines, though they may not openly say it. They can see there is Western support for this movement…”

The Western media – and especially American newspapers such as the New Yorker or the Washington Post – seem to have taken a sympathetic view of the coup. Tolga Temuge admits he finds this strange.

“If this happened in Berlin, or London, or Washington… if US military planes bombed the Pentagon or CIA headquarters, and the US military fought with the American police in the streets… we would be talking about it for 10 years or more. It would affect world politics in the same way as September 11. But after this horrific coup attempt… I am really baffled by the Western reaction, and find it hard to explain to my Turkish friends. Yes, we understand. We don’t like Erdogan; and thank you very much for not liking him, either. But let us remember that it was the Western powers that supported Erdogan when he came to power. The European Union was behind him; the United States was behind him. And we were in opposition to Erdogan at the time. So it’s fantastic that the West has finally come round to understanding why we had been complaining about Erdogan all these years. But all of a sudden, they are promoting a clandestine, international sect as an alternative. No, thank you very much.”