Witnessing the Death of a Turkish Secular State, Part 1

Ales Nemec


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It was a few hours past midnight when we were awakened by the insane blaring of countless cars’ horns directly outside of our apartment building. It was Friday night of July 15, 2016; the location was one of newest districts of Istanbul.

We jumped out of bed and stared out of the window. What we saw looked like a river of headlights, myriad of cars, buses, taxis and heavy trucks — in fact, every sort of vehicle imaginable, loaded with men, yelling excitedly, waving huge national flags, jumping up and down, and all this mass of extremely agitated humanity was moving slowly in the direction of the city center. We had continued to watch traffic for some moments, mesmerized by the spectacle when we heard a call for Jihad emanating from the minaret of the nearest mosque. Immediately, all other mosques in vicinity picked up the call for ‘the holy war,’ and it went on and on seemingly for hours. Around that time my wife received a phone message from one of her students which ran as follows: “Hodja! (The teacher) Are you all right? Are you safe? There is a military coup in progress! Stay at home, and please be careful.”

In the morning we learned some details about the coup that apparently went on for the whole night. According to the media, 240 or so people were killed. The President’s palace was bombed, but the President wasn’t there. In the morning the rebels surrendered. The coup failed. The President of the Republic Recep Erdogan was still in power. All the Turkish media talked excitedly about main culprits — followers of Fethullah Gulen, whose political and religious movement had infiltrated the whole of Turkish society, including military and police. Now the day of reckoning finally arrived.

The filmed spectacle of surrendering soldiers on Bosphorus Bridge looked dramatic; the official media praised ‘the people’s patriotic enthusiasm.’ For instance, it was briefly reported on some news channel that following the good old traditions of the Ottoman Empire, one of the captured soldiers was beheaded by angry citizenry right on the spot. The large US military base at Incirlik located on Turkish territory was cut off from electricity supply and surrounded by Turkish military, for unknown reasons. From that day on, the ordinary life in Turkey began to change dramatically. Sadly enough, it continues to change to this very day.

The flow of cars laden with screeching patriots continued on the next night and the night after that. In fact, it turned into a regular nightly show of ‘national solidarity’ that went on for the entire week.

On Sunday we dared to step out of the house for we needed to buy food. Despite my worries about ‘spontaneous enthusiasm of the people’ the street seemed safe enough albeit remarkably deserted. Those few passersby whom we encountered on our way to a supermarket looked glum and depressed. The atmosphere of depression prevailed even in the store, which appeared abnormally empty and very much depleted of food. Shelves that had previously contained salt, matches, water and similar items stood bare. Apparently, during the previous day, people rushed to the store to buy everything they could think of.

Well, it was prudent behavior indeed, for Turkey had already gone through four previously successful military coups since 1923 — the year of establishment of the secular regime. Therefore, people knew what has to be done during such times. For us, however, it was a shock.  Even cashiers who worked that day seemed distracted to a point that they even forgot to frown on our purchases, among which there were two bottles of local red wine. This little detail — namely that the alcohol section was not closed — surprised me, for during the last national elections in 2015 (which Erdogan lost but then regained power by demanding a referendum) — the purchase of all alcoholic beverages was banned.

Our feelings that day were rather mixed for the coup itself appeared as a somewhat unreal event. Of course, we weren’t physically present in the city center, but judging by what we had seen on various news channels, the military failed to topple the government or was deliberately unwilling to take any decisive actions — unlike what they had done in the previous coups. The Bosporus Bridge was barred by three or four tanks; the number of the military didn’t exceed three hundred. In fact, it didn’t look like a serious attempt at all.  On the other hand, the number of civilians who rushed to save democracy and the way they were coordinated and organized on a Friday night during holidays, when a lot of people were away on vacation and wouldn’t even normally be in the city, was simply astonishing.

On Sunday in our part of the city everything felt completely calm. Life was returning to normal, despite a state of emergency and those nightly rides. We tried not to worry too much as we were about to leave the country, as we had anticipated troubles for some time. All we had to do at that point was to finalize our entry visas for another country and purchase plane tickets. The real blow came the next week. The process of completing documentation took us to the Kadikoy district. Upon boarding a bus, we learned that rides on all city transportation were now free of charge so the fighters for democracy wouldn’t be encumbered by travel expenses and could easily move back and forth across the city to attend all demonstrations of national solidarity. The ride took its customary hour and a half (Istanbul is insanely huge) during which we noticed countless new billboards with the portrait of Erdogan mounted in all possible spaces and the entire city turned bright red with hundreds and thousands of red national flags. As soon as we arrived at our destination, we discovered that all of the ATMs of our local bank Asya had mysteriously ceased to function. There were no notices of this, but apparently our bank card had become obsolete. The next day we learned that the Bank Asya where we kept all our money had been seized by the government and was closed pending an investigation until a further notification. That was the beginning of our short but extremely colorful Turkish post-coup experience.

Speaking of the bank, we also learned a bit later that many of its customers had anticipated foreclosure or collapse of the bank for a long time, so during that fateful week, right before the coup, hundreds of people rushed to the main branch in an attempt to save their bank from collapsing. They deposited money like crazy in a vain hope that the bank would not be closed. Unfortunately, it did not help.

I do not know how many people lost their entire life savings. The bank remains closed and deposits are not returned. Everyone assumes it will not be reopened. There is no indication whether depositors will ever get their money back. According to the President’s version of what had happened, the Bank Asya played an important financial part in the Gulenists’ terrorist activities.  The investigation continues. It is my personal feeling that it will continue indefinitely just like the state of emergency itself.

But perhaps it was too early to panic yet. The university where my wife then worked seemed to be still operating and so she went to work the next day. The school shuttle arrived at its normal time and so she reached her work as usual.  Later on, when she returned home, she told me that something is definitely was going to happen to that school, but what and when it was impossible to say yet.

For one thing, it looked like the entire top administration of the school simply disappeared; at least no deans or chairs of departments were present. The rest of faculty and staff came to work, but they seemed completely at a loss of about what they should do. Also, it was still vacation time, and the absence of students only added to the hollow and sinister feeling that surrounded the place. During that day one of the members of the administration for the very first time, after three semesters of teaching, admitted to my wife an extremely important fact regarding the school. “We probably will be closed,” she said. ”After all, we are a Gulenist School.”

My wife brought me the news, although it wasn’t so surprising for we had suspected this all along. Still, it was the very first semi-official admission. During the whole evening, she tried to get in touch with the vice-dean of the faculty, but he had mysteriously disappeared and did not answer his phone. She managed to get hold of a few people, however. They all sounded scared and unsure of what to do and she suggested that they had better get out of the country. Several international students also called to her that evening and she told them to stay home.  They were spending their vacations in their home countries and now they all asked the same question — Will the University continue to function? Will there be classes the next semester? Shall we return at all? They followed her advice, as it turned out later but none of the faculty did. These people refused to believe that the school might be closed for good. They expected to be paid their next month’s salary, which was due in a day or two. They believed that they would be able to return to their jobs or at least that they would be transferred to another school.

*   *   *   *

Now, I recall that my wife said to me recently, “Guess, what I learned today while reading an article about Turkey? They jailed our Dean! Do you remember him?” I did. His only crime was that ten years ago he had served on the Board of Director of the Bank Asya.

We spent the rest of the evening debating our plans. One of the questions was — should she go the school the next day or stay home. I advocated staying home, but she argued that she needed to liberate some teaching materials she kept in her office. So we decided to take the risk. After all, that day the school functioned as usual, and there were not any official announcements of any kind. The following morning, the school shuttle once again arrived as usual. She went to work. Around noon she called me on the phone and said, “They are closing the school! No time to talk! I will be home in a half an hour!”

She sounded extremely agitated, which put me into a state of near panic. A half an hour went for what seemed to be an eternity. Finally, she returned home, carrying a satchel of books and papers. The story of her latest adventures that she recited to me as soon as she entered the apartment was unbelievable.

Well, I arrived to work, and it all seemed pretty normal, but for the fact that all my colleagues looked even gloomier than before. I went to my office and opened the computer. Everything proceeded as usual when around a half past eleven one of the secretaries knocked on my door. Upon entering, she asked me shyly: “Oh, excuse me, Hodja, for the interruption, but till what time are you planning to stay here?” And I said, “I guess until the usual time — five o’clock.” To which she replied:  “Oh, but maybe you should leave earlier. There are police outside, and one of our colleagues is waiting for us in her car. We’d better hurry.”  I jumped up, hastily collected what I could, and we rushed downstairs. In a few moments, we emerged from the building and then I saw the police. The campus was surrounded by police cars with their sirens blaring. Meanwhile, a huge excavator was steadily breaking the asphalt of the parking lot in front of the school building, and digging a trench across it. We crossed the remains of the parking lot in a run. Ayse, one of my colleagues, was sitting in her car parked on the other said of the road. She was literally shaking with fright. When she spotted us approaching, she cried, “What took you so long? The police have already written down my license number!” We jumped into the car and took off.

That day the University ceased to exist.

Go to Part 2.

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