Members of the Gulen religious movement insist they are innocent of plotting against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, but he has chased them into the shadows, and they fear for their lives and livelihoods. At the same time, Mr. Erdogan has increasingly made himself the face of Turkey’s state, and now he is seeking more authority to rule. This is the fifth and final part of the State of Emergency series, in which our correspondent takes us behind the scenes of a nation in crisis.
It was hard to meet M.E. and E.K., two men living near Turkey’s Aegean coast. First they told me to wait for them on a quiet street corner. Then they sent a friend — a tall man in dark glasses — to screen me. The go-between passed me once, then twice. Only on his third pass did he approach.
There’s good reason for the caution: M.E. and E.K. are members of the Gulen movement, the vast and shadowy Islamic organization once allied with Mr. Erdogan, but now his hated enemy.
The government has hunted and jailed tens of thousands of the group’s members, accusing them of leading the failed effort to oust the president last summer. And even the mere suspicion of association with the movement is cause enough for arrest or harassment.
Many in Turkey feel little pity for the Gulenists. For years, the group’s members kept a firm grip on the country’s justice system and education sector. And when they were still allied with the government, their cadres in the judiciary were accused of persecuting secular soldiers and politicians in a purge that draws comparisons to Mr. Erdogan’s crackdown today.
The government describes the Gulen movement as a carefully structured conspiracy with a secret leadership that aims to infiltrate and take over the Turkish bureaucracy, and even those of the dozens of foreign nations, like the United States, where it owns schools.
For its part, the Gulen organization has maintained that it is simply a charitable group with no formal hierarchy, one that works to foster peace and interfaith dialogue and provide education.
When I asked M.E. and E.K. about their personal roles in the group, both insisted that they were minor players. M.E., 34, said he was a warden at a Gulen-run dormitory for undergraduates. E.K., 30, was a science teacher at a Gulenist school.
But as Mr. Erdogan attempts to remove Gulenists from public life — some 130,000 people have been purged since last summer — these men also expect to be arrested at any moment.
“In my own city, I’m a refugee,” M.E. said. “Even Syrians are more comfortable than me.”
E.K. has a bag packed for when the knock on the door finally comes.
M.E. has already been arrested, which adds to his fear. He said he was seized at a police roadblock last October, and suffered a night of beatings, asphyxiation and sexual assault. Then his torturers made him choose: Give up his colleagues and confess to plotting, or face further abuse.
M.E. said he played no major role in a sprawling group that, until the crackdown, had footholds in most government institutions, including the army. His torturers, however, believed he was a key apparatchik. They asked him to inform on his colleagues by explaining the hierarchy of the movement’s local chapter.
Barely conscious, M.E. gave in, he told me. “Your aim is just to get out of there,” he said. “They say: ‘Did you do this? Did this happen?’ And you just say yes to get yourself out of prison.”
After our conversation, I felt none the wiser about the Gulen movement’s ultimate goals or its structure. But it seemed plausible that the coup’s aftermath had taken an outsize toll on the party’s rank and file, many members of which are unlikely to have been warned about the coup attempt.
E.K. had even scheduled his wedding ceremony for July 17, just two days after the coup attempt. (Isn’t that alibi enough? he asked.) A week later, his school was shut down and he was fired. “If I’d known about it,” he said of the attempted coup, “I wouldn’t have arranged my marriage.”
E.K. said his marriage day was a miserable affair, as the attendees feared they might be arrested. Since then, he has been blacklisted from teaching or even working in a factory. And his former friends won’t talk to him.
“They pretend they don’t know me,” he said. “They turn their back on me.”
A few hours after Mr. Erdogan warned that Europeans would not walk safely in the street if their politicians continued to provoke him, I visited a small and sunny provincial city in northern Turkey to watch the man make another speech. In Europe, Mr. Erdogan’s earlier comments had sparked fear and outrage. But at the rally in Kastamonu, he was evoking love and affection.
“We would sacrifice our lives for Tayyip Erdogan,” said one woman there, Zeynep Dalkilic, 65, as a vendor strolled by with a cloud of cotton candy. Another woman started to cry when asked what she thought of the president.
There was an upbeat, carnival atmosphere as local residents prepared to welcome a man most of them identified with. “He is one of us,” said Hasan Birgun, a 59-year-old retired salesman.
In this State of Emergency series, I’ve talked to people who are all struggling in some way to keep a sense of normalcy in the midst of a national crisis. Their stories are individual ones, but one force connects them: the president. More than ever, Mr. Erdogan plays a central role in every power dynamic, and in every challenge the country faces.
And he wants more: The national referendum coming on April 16 would give him greater authority than ever.
So what is the nature of Mr. Erdogan’s appeal and his power, and who would vote to expand it?
He has certainly wielded fear as an effective tool. His government has jailed more journalists than any other country, and even some of those who have criticized him on social media have found themselves prosecuted. He has purged around 130,000 from their jobs and arrested over 40,000 since the failed coup last summer.
But it is the enthusiasm I found at the Kastamonu rally that is initially hard to grasp. Mr. Erdogan’s power is derived as much from what he promises and provides to his supporters as from how he frightens his critics.
To his admirers, Mr. Erdogan is still someone who provides more stability than division. They see his proposals to expand the powers of the presidency as a path to greater security rather than a slippery slope toward one-man rule.
To Ms. Dalkilic, a former farm laborer, Mr. Erdogan is the man who expanded welfare programs, keeping her from poverty after her husband died.
Hulya Cataloglu, a former teacher attending the rally with her two children, says Mr. Erdogan improved the city hospital, built better roads and raised the standard of local schools. She believes that increasing the president’s powers would improve the quality of state infrastructure. “He is the best person for this country,” she said.
Mr. Erdogan’s threats to Europe, which are viewed with alarm in Berlin and Brussels, sound more comforting to his supporters at home. In Kastamonu, several approved of how the president is standing up for Turkey. “If everyone’s attacking him,” said Zeynep Acar, an 18-year-old undergraduate, “he must be doing something right.”
While thousands at Kastamonu waited for Mr. Erdogan’s arrival, one of his ministers, Mehmet Ozhaseki, introduced him as the “only one who resisted the old regime.”
It’s a reminder that, though some consider him an oppressor, others frame him — simplistically, perhaps — as a protector from the old establishment they blame for sidelining Turkey’s pious majority for decades. In the years since, many from that part of Turkish society have improved their quality of life and social standing.
“With Erdogan,” said Yusuf Parlayan, a retired factory worker in Kastamonu, “we buried the idea that the vote of a shepherd on the mountain was worth less than the vote of someone in the city.”
Mr. Erdogan’s appeal also derives from how he has increased space — both physically and metaphorically — for Islam in public life. He says he intends to cultivate a more pious generation of Turks. He has opened scores of new religious schools, and removed restrictions on Islamic head scarves for women in universities, the army and the civil service.
Through it all, he has persuaded enough voters that his measures are about increasing religious freedom, rather than eliminating the gap between religion and the state. Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey has not harmed secularism, but rather has become “more inclusive,” argued an approving Ms. Cataloglu.
“When I went to university, my friends couldn’t come to class because they wore head scarves,” said Ms. Cataloglu, who doesn’t wear one, but whose mother and mother-in-law do. “Now a head-scarfed woman can work anywhere she wants.”
Many worry all that will be reversed if Mr. Erdogan somehow leaves office. That may initially seem hard to imagine. The president lacks any obvious rivals within his own party. The most charismatic opposition leader, Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of a pro-Kurdish political party, is in jail.
Past Turkish administrations had to live in check by a once-powerful military elite that saw itself as the guardian of secularism and had a long history of successful coups. But years of purges and reform under Mr. Erdogan have dented the military’s power, and the failure of last year’s coup attempt damaged the army’s cohesion and prestige while burnishing Mr. Erdogan’s own reputation. Further, the president’s subsequent crackdown on many alleged dissidents has eliminated thousands of potential opponents within the state apparatus.
But each of these points also hints at how Mr. Erdogan’s grip on power may be weaker than it seems.
The coup effort ultimately failed — but it nearly succeeded, and a reprise can’t be ruled out. A lack of internal rivals suggests a man wary of even his own natural allies. His purge of the civil service and the army has left a huge vacuum that cannot be filled by his own faction alone. One of the parties with whom he has been forced to seek an unlikely alliance has almost split in two, leaving Mr. Erdogan struggling to secure a definitive majority in the coming referendum.
As he stands on the brink of acquiring even more personal power, Mr. Erdogan is therefore still vulnerable. And for the crowds at Kastamonu, perhaps that is the final explanation for his appeal: For them, the president’s power is partly derived from the fear that he might lose it at any moment.
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Published on The New York Times, 5 April 2017, Wednesday