'They looked at me as if I was a demon': Fear and uncertainty among Istanbul's citizens in wake of attempted coup

As thousands are removed from their jobs people are worried about the consequences of the failed rebellion including clashes between the secular and the religious, says Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn
Thursday 21 July 2016 17:19 BST
Supporters of President Erdogan in Istanbul's Taksim Square, where thousands of people have gathered in recent days
Supporters of President Erdogan in Istanbul's Taksim Square, where thousands of people have gathered in recent days (Reuters)

“I went to Taksim Square where there was a rally against the coup,” says Gokse, a 30-year-old woman journalist and photographer. “I was so scared because all the women there looked at me as if I was a demon. The men said that ‘if you go on dressing like that you deserve to die’. Most people there were carrying red Turkish flags, but there were some black flags with Arabic writing on them like you see in Daesh (Isis) videos.”

In Istanbul there is a mood of apprehension in the wake of the failed coup, the demonstrations demanding that the coup plotters be hanged and the detention or sacking of 60,000 soldiers, judges, teachers and civil servants. People feel they are turning the corner towards an uncertain future about which they know nothing except that they suspect it will be worse than anything they have experienced in the past.

“I have known three military interventions in my lifetime, but this one is different,” says Ayse Bugra, professor of political economy at Bogazici University. The difference is that this time the attempted putsch was contested and not just announced through a statement from the army high command readout on the radio on the morning after it had taken place. “Not having a stable solid army is not reassuring,”she says.

Sometimes the pervasive gloom and expectations of calamity seem to go far beyond what is rationally predictable, particularly among the intelligentsia and educated middle class. “Things may be bad, but this is not Baghdad or Damascus,” I said. “But that makes it worse,” replied Prof Bugra. “Previously the majority felt that Turkey was an island of stability.” Turks are simply not used to the degree of violence, uncertainty and fear to which Iraqis and Syrians have become accustomed over the last 50 years.

The post-coup purge – so extensive and radical that some Turks call it a "counter-coup" – has so far led to the detention of some 10,000 people according to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking as he introduced a three-month state of emergency late on Wednesday night. But the number affected by the crackdown is far greater than this, with all 3.3 million public servants banned from taking holidays, presumably so they will not be absent if they are investigated for links to the movement led by the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is alleged by the state to have been behind the attempted coup. Nobody knows who will be implicated.

The Turkish parliament voted to approve the national state of emergency on Thursday, giving Mr Erdogan the authority to extend detention times for suspects and issue decrees that have the force of law without parliamentary approval, among other powers.

Turkey has temporarily withdrawn from the European Convention on Human Rights, citing the precedent of France doing the same in response to terrorist outrages. The purpose of these actions appears to legalise what the state is already doing, while reassuring the outside world that Turkey is not turning into one more Middle East autocracy with no law or accountability, and in which any dissent is punished as terrorism. The Council of Europe has said it had been informed of Turkey's decision, and that the convention will still apply, but that individual exceptions will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, who previously worked on Wall Street, wrote reassuringly on Twitter on Thursday that “the state of emergency in Turkey won't include restrictions on movement, gatherings and free press, etc. It isn't martial law of 1990s. I'm confident Turkey will come out of this with much stronger democracy, better functioning market economy and enhanced investment climate.”

Turkey failed coup: Security under the spotlight

Not everybody is so confident because they do not know how long the purge will go on or how wide-ranging it will be. Some compare it to the Bolshevik purges after 1917, though not to Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. Prof Bugra says that nobody some of her colleagues were joking that “they should learn how to make jam and pickles” because they cannot concentrate on their work in the present atmosphere.

The Gulenists were certainly at the heart of the coup plot though they may not have acted alone, but they only finally broke with the ruing Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2014. The AKP may now denounce the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO), but for years they were close allies and the Gulen movement was the AKP’s chosen instrument in purging the security services of secularists by arrests and trials alleging participation in non-existent conspiracies. Mr Gulen and his supporters have denied any involvement in the attempted coup

The Gulenists had every opportunity to insert their own cadres and adherents into the armed forces, police, civil service and educational institutes. Some Turkish observers compare the role of the group in securing positions of influence for its members to that of the Roman Catholic organisation Opus Dei, which was alleged to have had similar links with right wing governments such as that of General Franco in Spain. In addition to committed adherents, the Gulenists were deemed to dominate a variety of business associations though these were often loose networks whose members may not have known have had much connection to the movement.

The coup has also brought to the surface a long standing cultural clash between the secular and the religious. Mr Erdogan continues to call for demonstrations in the streets to capitalise on his success in defeating the coup – perhaps also a sign that his administration is not confident that there will not be more armed action against it. These boisterous crowds shouting nationalist and religious slogans frighten AKP opponents. An example is Sayeste, a highly educated 40-year-old woman who arranges clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies and is thinking of leaving the country because of the creeping Islamisation of education and culture.

She says that if she had to think only of herself she would stay, but she is worried about her seven year daughter Mira being affected by the more religious and intolerant atmosphere. She explains that Mira goes to a primary school “where she is the only one to do music and swimming while the other girls all go to the mosque to listen to readings from the Quran. She says she would like to go with her friends.” Sayeste fears Mira will become isolated from the other children. She dreads her being affected by the degree of hatred for each other expressed by different sides in a deeply divided Turkish society. As an example, she recalls that three years ago she joined the protests to keep open Gezi Park in central Istanbul when the government “denounced us all as terrorists.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in