Nagihan Haliloglu is an assistant professor at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and a resident of Istanbul. Here, she records her observations and thoughts on the recent coup attempt in Turkey.
I first heard that something was not quite right in Istanbul as I was sitting by the Aegean shore in Çeşme, supposedly looking over to Chios and admiring the lights and reflections, but in reality wasting my time on twitter. I saw a tweet that said that the bridges over the Bosphorus had been blocked by tanks. Most of my time line thought that this was due to a Daesh threat – the airport had been bombed only a couple of weeks ago – others joked that there had been a coup. One tweet said that the call for prayer in Acıbadem in Istanbul district had already been called out in Turkish, referencing a practice that the military likes to engage in when they take power in Turkey. When I left the sea and the stars and went back to the room to check the news on TV, it had already become official. My dad and I watched incredulously as a newsreader on state TV read out the declaration that said the army had seized executive power. We read news flashes that said that the Parliament had been bombed and fighter jets were flying low over Istanbul. ‘Even if they should take over now, they will have to reinstate democracy at some point, and AKP will come back stronger’ he said. Here was a man who had already experienced two coups in his life time.
We watched till 5 o’clock in the morning when most of the crucial locations had been taken back by the people, police and sections of the army that were loyal to the elected government. I was on twitter and a couple of whatsapp groups with friends from Istanbul and Ankara. ‘They’re bombing us’ were words I had never expected to see on these groups set up mostly for gossip purposes. What friends in Istanbul were experiencing was the sonic boom of the low flying planes, Ankara was actually being bombed. We couldn’t get in touch with a friend who was an MP and who we knew was there as bombs hit the assembly. The TV and my iphone continued to flicker and it was very strange to be hundreds of kilometers away from the city of my birth as it was, for all I knew, being bombed from the sky. I did a quick mental check and realized that although the British had occupied the city for five years, Istanbul had never been bombed from the air. I tried to imagine the sounds. We were in a very quiet beach resort and all I heard were the crazy crickets creaking as if they would burst the next minute. I felt by being away that night, I had somehow forfeited my right to call myself an Istanbulite.
The beach resort we were in was somehow part of the story of the changing political powers in Turkey in the last few decades. It was one of those conservative resorts with separate beaches for men and women. Now in any other country this shouldn’t be anything special, but in Turkey, segregation of the sexes reflects religious leanings and therefore is, rightly or wrongly, perceived as political. As a practicing Muslim family, we had been coming to this resort for more than a decade. There are a handful of these resorts, and in the 90s some of them encountered problems, the gendarmerie intervened and destroyed any partitions on the beaches that the hotels may have built. My dad, who is an imam, was told the story of how this one we were in had survived. The owner, a heavy drinker, had been warned by the gendarmerie to take down the partition. He had then invited the gendarmerie commander to a lavish ‘rakı sofrası’ during which he convinced the commander that he and his clients meant no harm, and the commander could trust, one rakı drinking man to another, that nothing against secularism was taking place on the premises.
So that was the 90s, when the political rift seemed to be along lines of the secular army and popular political parties with religious voter base. But now, the images I was seeing on television came from some other cleavage, one both the secularists and the religious people were finding it hard to fathom. There was a religious government in place, and the members of a religious sect were trying to stage a coup, with the help of sections of the army who were against Erdoğan for reasons that probably included fear for secularism but possibly equally class hatred. I am sure, like me, all Turks watching TV that night were trying to grasp how it got to this. The clamp down on Gülen supporters had been going on for some time now already, based on intelligence that they were trying to get to crucial positions in Ankara to create a state within the state that would benefit members, and that those already in high positions had leaked vital information about the state’s foreign policy. Maybe in a way we expected the group to ‘try something’ as it continued to lose power and key players, but I doubt if any one of us expected them to get back at the Turkish nation with such bloody rage. We watched for hours as the people resisted, and then came the sela– a special call to prayer with more words praising the prophet added and that is usually reserved for special times like jumah, funerals and states of emergency. We learnt that the sela had been called the whole evening in Istanbul and Ankara, joining the sound of bombs and sonic booms. Then came the usual call for prayer for fajr, we prayed, and went to sleep for a few hours.
In the morning there was more confidence that the coup was defeated and we learned more about where the tanks had moved in and the planes had taken off from. There had been two jets in Istanbul that took off from an air base near Eskişehir, and they had re-fuelled in the air by fuel planes that took off from the American base in Incirlik, Adana, base of operations against Daesh, among other American interests in the region. There was talk about first, second, third armies – I asked dad how many we had, he said he thought four, and then we heard a news speaker talk about the seventh army. I felt I needed a crash course on the Turkish military, so many generals, air bases, tanks, officers and where they were based. I thought of all the times I’d heard people boast about how big the Turkish army was. And then there was the police force. The received wisdom was that the Gülenists had actually been more active in the police force because it was much more difficult to get into the army. The news, however, was that the people had beaten the soldiers with the help of the police.
We felt like the walking wounded even though we hadn’t experienced any of it. We got together with other holiday makers to read the Surah Fath, The Opening, that talks about sekine, calm, in times of crisis – a surah we later found out that the Gülenists had been reading for the success of the coup plotters. It was our last day at the resort before we headed to my grandmother’s town Tire, some half hour away from Ephesus. I was a bit apprehensive about getting out of the holiday bubble, I guess I half expected to see tanks when we hit the main road. What we saw when we got there was the Saturday traffic, as people had poured in to the coast for a weekend on the beach. We didn’t see any military vehicles, there was nothing out of the ordinary. When we made it to Tire, the one sign that something had happened was a lone white Fırat (an old Turkish car still to be seen in the provinces) the boot draped in the Turkish flag circling one of the roundabouts, playing a mehter song.
The mehter, along with the sela, has been part of the soundscape of the protests against the coup. It is the repertoire of battle songs that the Ottomans played as they marched towards Western Europe. AKP base, along with the natural owners of the genre, the nationalist party MHP, has been using mehter in their marches for some time now. Because this is Turkey, people protesting against the army will use the songs of a previous army for morale. And the irony doesn’t end there. The mehter is very much associated with the janissaries, who are the single historical parallel I can draw with the Gülenists. A group of people that are educated from a very early age to hold important positions in the country and who then decide they actually don’t want to answer to state authority but want to run the show themselves.
We spent the second day after the coup glued to the television, trying to explain the images we were watching to my grandmother who has Alzheimers and my sister’s children of 10 and 7. It may have been 20 years ago that I had heard of the Nurcu for the first time in Tire. My grandmother would point to certain young women on the street whose hijab was markedly different and bigger than the local population and say ‘Look, the Nurcus’. For a long while I’d imagined them to be followers of a local sheikh, because I had not met a single Nurcu in Istanbul. We lived in a very secular part of town, my father was an imam and the Islam practiced in our house was state religion – no mention of charismatic religious leaders whatsoever. Nurcu means a follower of Said Nursi, a Kurdish religious scholar who played an important role in the Turkish War of Independence and who was imprisoned several times during the purges of the observant in the early years of the Republic. Fethullah Gülen started to move in Nurcu circles in the 70s and started building his own group of faithful within the movement. By the 90s, his followers had started to use the word ‘Hizmet’ (service) for their own clique and became interfaith dialogists, journalists, film makers and school establishers who seemed to help the cause of Turkish observant Muslims both at home and abroad. But by the noughties, their treatment of people within the Nurcu movement who didn’t subscribe to some of the more esoteric aspects of Gülen’s teachings (he claimed to have dreams in which he conversed with the Prophet) raised questions and soon the real adherents of Said Nursi stopped acknowledging the Gülenists as Nurcu.
I met my first Nurcus as an undergraduate. They used to invite me to their Said Nursi reading circles and I never went because I found the texts very difficult to understand and you had to rely on a sister to interpret them for you. But then other books by Fethullah Gülen appeared with even stranger, more esoteric terminology, and then the headscarf ban came and girls who were members of ‘Hizmet’ abandoned the resistance and took their scarves off because ‘their elders had told them to’. This was the first instance of takiyya that I saw the Gülenists engage in, followed by many others that enabled to them to get into staunchly secular institutions such as the army.
On the evening of the second day after the coup I got on a bus from Izmir to get to Istanbul for work on Monday morning. Again I imagined army patrols, citizens’ barricades, several police checks. But there was nothing. We made it to Istanbul in good time – that is in 8 hours – and in Gebze, where one of the important purges in the country’s encoding institution was happening- we entered the ‘post-failed-coup attempt’ zone. The overpasses had signs on them saying ‘Sovereignty is with the Nation’ and as we approached the city proper, even these ugly cement high rise bits of Istanbul that sprung up in the last 10-20 years looked beautiful to me, by the sheer fact that they had survived. It took us sometime to reach the Bosphorus and looking at Istanbul from the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge I broke into tears. It was still all there and I thought of the famous line ‘I looked upon you from a hill dear Istanbul/ and did not see a single neighbourhood that I did not love’
After a usual work day – answering student emails, looking at course evaluations- I went to Üsküdar for the rallies. I was still feeling like an Istanbulite manqué for not having been there on the night. I had watched friends’ videos marching to the airport, protesting in Fatih; one historian colleague has been there when the soldiers opened fire on civilians on the bridge. The mood in the rally was very festive- people were tweeting that they were ‘rally crawling’ through Istanbul, from Üsküdar to Taksim to Fatih to Vatan. Two days’ later, I joined a rally of academics against the coup, the very day on which academics’ foreign travel had been limited- a limitation that was lifted in a few days’ time.
And now the aftermath. The endless videos and photographs of how the people resisted keep pouring in. Several of them show fearless women challenging the soldiers with their bare hands, while international tweeps – either because they are not physically able to see Muslim women or because of the images they were being fed – moaned that there were no women among the protestors, that this was a patriarchal mob against an enlightened army that aimed to bring down civilization as we know it. I have been spending my time trying to explain to people how this was not a coup of secular soldiers against a religious government. If anything, the Gülenist rhetoric is more Islamic than that of AKP. There is a horrifying sound recording of a coup officer holding two women hostage, telling them they’re terrible Muslims, that they brought this upon themselves by voting AKP heathens in. Daesh couldn’t have been more demagogic.
Now Istanbul joins the list of cities in a state of emergency in Europe, and life goes on. Concerts, conferences, weddings… the one visible change is big municipal vehicles parked in front of army buildings and accommodation in Istanbul: the coup attempt has made me realize how much of urban space is taken up by the military. Thousands of civil servants have been suspended, dozens of schools have closed down due to links with Gülen. The purge in the army and the police force continue. It is almost like an anarchist’s dream – people question all authority. It’s summer, days are long, evenings are warm, and the festival atmosphere continues. How the government acts now to fill those positions of authority and service in the coming months will decide whether those in power can live up to the sacrifice of the people on 15th July.