By Suzy Hansen
February 5, 2014
It is still a marvel to behold Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s self-confidence, even after 11 years of his rule. In recent weeks, a new poster featuring Turkey’s prime minister has appeared throughout Istanbul, on highway billboards and mass transit. Wearing his usual dark suit, Erdogan looks to be in purposeful motion, like an action hero. Two large words in block letters, SAGLAM IRADE, Turkish for “Iron Will,” accompany him. Surely some of his supporters appreciate this evocation of 1930s-era masculinity, but for others, it must feel like an invasion of personal space. The enormous billboards intensify the claustrophobia that many Turks have felt for years: that Erdogan is everywhere, in every tree or open space sacrificed for a building, in every traffic jam, in every newspaper column and pro-government tweet and call to prayer. The poster, which a group of his supporters claims to have put up, begs to be defaced, and Turks have torn at it or covered it with new slogans: “Iron Fascist,” “Iron Corruption,” “Iron Enemy of the People.”
Protesters in Istanbul last June. Joachim Ladefoged/Vll, for The New York Times
The public turn against Erdogan began last May, when protests in Istanbul escalated and pictures of police officers violently attacking the demonstrators circulated around the world. For the first time in a decade, Turkey didn’t look like one of the few Middle Eastern destinations where Westerners would take a vacation. The government was caught off guard. A couple of weeks later, Erdogan convened two meetings in the capital, Ankara, with assorted activists, artists and observers. Many immediately dismissed this public exercise as a sham gesture — plausible, given that the invitees included film stars — but some activists relished the opportunity to speak to their prime minister. The episode recalled the time when Robert F. Kennedy met with James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte and Lorraine Hansberry in 1963 because he wanted to understand why blacks were angry. Erdogan wanted to understand why so many Turks were angry.
In one meeting, Erdogan sat at the head of the table, constantly writing with a fountain pen in a leather-bound notebook. He wrote for five hours as activists gave testimony about their experiences in the previous weeks. Erdogan’s cabinet ministers often cut them off or spoke with weary condescension about whether, say, tear gas could be dispensed from a low-hovering helicopter. Erdogan sometimes told his officials to be quiet. “Let them speak,” he said.
The protests began when activists gathered in Gezi Park to demonstrate against its demolition. Ipek Akpinar, a professor of architecture, asked Erdogan if he gave orders during the brutal first days, when the police burned the tents of peaceful environmentalists and assaulted them with pepper spray and tear gas. “Somehow, in the last 10 years, he gave an image of being democratic, of trying to talk with everyone, to understand other groups,” Akpinar told me later. “We couldn’t believe — we didn’t want to believe, probably — that he would do this.” The activists kept returning to this question. “Prime Minister Erdogan,” Akpinar asked, “did you know what was happening in the first three days?”
He said he did not. “My team didn’t take it very seriously,” Erdogan said, according to several people who attended the meeting. “We thought it was just environmentalists, and so we didn’t react. But yes, the police acted severely. I wasn’t aware of the burning of the tents the first two nights. I was told about it on the third day, and then it was too late.”
“And then what happened?” the professor asked. Several other activists joined in. “What did you do?” cried Nil Eyuboglu, a 20-year-old college student. “Tell us! They violently attacked us! How could you not know?”
“Don’t worry,” Erdogan said. “I brought the people responsible into my office and yelled at them. I made them cry.”
The prime minister seemed more like a clan leader than the head of a government. “It was like . . . there’s just one man,” Akpinar said later. She wasn’t the only one disappointed. Some of the young people in the meeting had attended religious schools, as Erdogan had, and their families had championed Erdogan’s conservative Muslim party. Like the millions of countrymen who regarded him as a hero, they had lived through decades of repression of religious Turks by secularist regimes. Now they were criticizing Erdogan harshly. Some even cried at the betrayal they felt.
Finally, listening to those who once supported him, he showed emotion: “How can even you misunderstand us,” he said,“ like everyone else?”
Over the last decade, Erdogan has made himself the most powerful prime minister in Turkey’s history, the most successful elected leader in the Middle East and the West’s great hope for the Muslim world. In the last year, however, a thoroughly different Erdogan has emerged: a symbol of authoritarianism, corruption and police brutality whose once-populist rhetoric has turned into thundering rage. The Gezi Park protests last spring challenged the enduring dysfunctions of the Turkish state — mainly disregard for the rule of law — as well as the dubious economic policies of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P. What followed was worse for Erdogan. In December, extensive accusations of corruption were leveled at him by followers of an Islamic movement that propelled him and the A.K.P. to power. The threat to Erdogan posed by the Gezi Park protests has been largely photogenic, but the challenge raised by the corruption charges is existential.
Erdogan’s response to both threats has been to punish those he considers disloyal. Critics of Erdogan are called traitors or terrorists — or, more colorfully, assassins. Thousands of activists have been detained, their schools or workplaces investigated, their homes raided. Informal emergency medical care, common during street protests, has been criminalized. Some 5,000 police officers and prosecutors, who Erdogan claims are conspiring against him, have been dismissed from their jobs or reassigned. Internet sites have suddenly become inaccessible. The judiciary is in danger of falling under Erdogan’s control. The exchange rates for Turkey’s currency, the lira, have plunged significantly, and predictions for the economy are dire. The feeling in Turkey is that, all of a sudden, the country that was a model for the modern Muslim world is on the verge of disintegration.
An Erdogan government was once synonymous with stability. One reason even skeptical secular Turks tolerated the A.K.P. was its hard-working officials. Even if people disliked their Islamist pasts or their head-scarf-wearing wives, they liked their industriousness, and above all the rapid economic development they facilitated in the 2000s. Before then, Turkish politicians were mostly bland bureaucrats, and Turkey was very poor. The military staged coups every decade or so in the name of secularism or anticommunism, each time shattering the country’s diverse political longings and enfeebling its government. The pattern changed somewhat in the mid-1980s, when Prime Minister Turgut Ozal liberalized the economy, which allowed a capitalist class of small-town entrepreneurs and fledgling corporate bigwigs to take root.
Erdogan, who attended a religious high school and played semiprofessional soccer, grew up in a conservative, blue-collar neighborhood in Istanbul called Kasimpasa. The men there are quick to say they are Erdogan’s “best friend,” and their loyalty to him can be fierce. At Erdogan’s old soccer club, I once asked some of them what makes a Kasimpasa man. A silver-haired guy in a black leather jacket said: “Watch Tayyip, watch how he walks. That’s Kasimpasa.”
A member of the youth groups of Islamist parties that later evolved into the A.K.P., Erdogan was elected Istanbul’s mayor in 1994 at age 40. He cleaned up the city; his administration distributed largess to peripheral neighborhoods and improved the water supply. To various elites, the A.K.P. men might have seemed like provincial rubes, but as an organization, the A.K.P. was like a sleek corporation.
“One usually assumes that Islamists are not educated, that Islamists are provincial — no, no, no,” says Seyla Benhabib, a Turkish political philosopher at Yale University. “There is a new political class in Turkey. The C.H.P. cadre” — the Republican People’s Party, the main secularist opposition party — “comes from the usual civil servants, teachers, judges, bureaucrats. A.K.P. is a very young and ambitious professional cadre of people.”
The A.K.P. emerged from an Islamist movement called Milli Gorus, whose outlook was anti-Western and combative — the Turkish, watered-down version of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Theirs was a challenge to the preceding Kemalist regimes, which embraced the ideals of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and enforced strict adherence to a secularist, nationalist identity. In the late 1990s, after he was jailed briefly for reciting a supposedly Islamist poem in public, Erdogan shifted course. He began preaching a pro-European Union, pro-American and pro-business worldview, and rather than espousing Islamist politics, he framed religious rights in terms of personal freedom. As a Turkish scholar named M. Hakan Yavuz put it in his 2009 book, “Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey,” the A.K.P. didn’t operate outwardly as an Islamist group at all; it was a pragmatic party of “services.” Erdogan’s transformation won him the admiration of liberals at home and abroad. It also caught the attention of another Islamic movement eager for power, one that followed the teachings of an imam named Fethullah Gulen.
Gulen is a Muslim preacher who in the 1960s began promoting a Sufi-inspired vision of Islam and a strategy for leading a modern and religious life that offered his followers a path to success in Turkey. The stated goal was spreading an emphatically peaceful expression of Islam, but a central ambition was also the expansion of the movement, which required amassing followers and capital. The Gulenists, who prefer to be called sympathizers, describe themselves as nonpolitical, anti-violence, pro-business and deeply patriotic. Indeed, the movement advocates a specifically Turkish Islam. Unlike Milli Gorus, it rejects party politics; theirs is “cultural Islam,” its adherents say, a religion-based civic movement they call Hizmet, or Service. Instead of Quranic schools, the Gulenists have built secular ones emphasizing science, as well as colleges, media companies, publishing houses, industrial groups, tutoring centers for the college entrance exam and international nongovernmental organizations. The Gulenists run 2,000 schools in 160 countries; outside Turkey, the countries with the greatest number of these schools are Germany and the United States.
When I embarked on a tour of Gulen’s world a few years ago, I visited some of the schools in Houston and Washington, as well as a boarding school in Kabul, Afghanistan. In many of them, students learn Black Sea folk dances and Turkish poetry. Gulen himself, who is 72, lives in a wooded area in the Poconos behind a security checkpoint; he is supposed to have moved to the United States for medical treatment, and his residence in a country that many Turks deem meddlesome, if not nefarious, has made him the human flame that sustains a thousand conspiracy theories. In 2010, when I visited Gulen’s compound, a couple had come from Japan to see him. “Hocaefendi,” or master teacher, as he is called, was too ill to meet me. He typically gives interviews to journalists only when he has something specific to announce.
The Gulenists I met at the compound were relentlessly charming, friendly and intelligent. They also engaged in self-protective obfuscation, something the sociologist Joshua Hendrick, an assistant professor at Loyola University in Maryland, calls “strategic ambiguity,” which shrouds some of their activities. This lack of transparency, they say, is justified by their past persecution at the hands of the Turkish military.
An alliance in the early 2000s with the ascendant A.K.P., whose center-right, pro-business perspective they shared, offered the Gulenists a way to extend their influence, even as they refrained from putting up their own candidates for Parliament. In Turkey, Hendrick says, “parties come and go, and any party isn’t going to have a long shelf life.” But, he says, succeeding in business or receiving ministerial appointments or joining the police confers lasting power: “Affiliates of the Gulen community have been accruing influence in the Istanbul police force and other police forces, and in the judiciary and prosecuting offices around the country.” This aspiration to secure important government jobs makes many Turks suspicious of their motives.
Mustafa Yesil, the president of the Journalist and Writers Foundation, an Istanbul-based public-relations arm for Gulen’s followers, argues that every citizen has the right to work in any sector of the society. “Mr. Gulen sees three problems in society: ignorance, conflict and poverty,” he said of the Gulenists’ ideals. “Hizmet supported A.K.P. based on the promise that A.K.P. would fight against the military tutelage, further the E.U. process and democratization and create a new civilian constitution.”
Erdogan welcomed the movement’s international influence and media support. With its endorsements, he achieved real gains. He sidelined the military. He moved Turkey’s laws significantly toward European Union norms. The economy flourished, as he pushed privatization and investors from abroad poured money into the country. The A.K.P. built hospitals, roads, bridges and luxury shopping malls. Turkey had been so dysfunctional, and so undemocratic, that many of these initiatives were necessary.
Eventually, however, they seemed like a power grab. Around 2007, the A.K.P. and Gulenists in the judiciary and the police force put hundreds of journalists and former military generals on trial, charged with being members of a Kemalist “deep state.” Much of the evidence appeared to have been manufactured by Gulenists. At the same time, many Turks were beginning to believe that the intelligence wing of the police force was wiretapping the phones of journalists and businessmen. Erdogan himself bullied the corporate owners of media outlets, and hundreds of journalists were muzzled or fired. And in 2010, a referendum on the Constitution revamped the judicial system to favor the judges affiliated with Erdogan and Gulen. Instead of reforming the state, the A.K.P. appeared to be capturing it.
Yet the Erdogan-Gulen media machine, suffusing the landscape with the rhetoric of freedom and progress, managed to portray Erdogan as the very incarnation of democracy. In 2011, Erdogan won his third national election with nearly 50 percent of the vote, which he took as a mandate for the Erdoganization of everything.
One of Erdogan’s third-term promises was a package of vast construction projects, and he quickly got to work. Turkey is run like a city, where the prime minister can control local projects as if he’s playing in his own private Legoland. An earlier venture he endorsed, for example, was Miniaturk, a park in Istanbul. It is a scaled-down version of the country’s major historical sites (the Hagia Sophia, for one, is nose height), and it seemingly embodies Erdogan’s aesthetic vision for Istanbul: a theme-park parody of itself. He started construction of a third bridge over the Bosporus, which meant removing a million trees. He flirted with a plan, known as the Crazy Project, to build a second Bosporus, as well as a second Istanbul, the promos for which looked liked something out of the 1927 Fritz Lang film “Metropolis.” Then he announced a new project for Taksim Square.
Taksim, in the center of the city’s European side, is considered the heart of Istanbul. The square itself surrounds tiny Gezi Park and is covered with concrete and filled with traffic, but the absence of buildings offers at least a sense of free space. Erdogan wanted to close the square to cars, build tunnels for them beneath it and replace Gezi Park and its rows of sycamore trees with a giant shopping center designed to look like Ottoman-era military barracks. Putting anything Ottoman-like in Taksim, a symbol of the secular republic, felt like an assertion of Erdogan’s neo-Islamic identity. In terms of scale and presumption, it would be as if Michael Bloomberg, New York’s former mayor, tried to erect a five-story shopping mall in Bryant Park with facades like blinking Bloomberg terminals.
Except Erdogan wasn’t the mayor of Istanbul. And he wasn’t consulting his constituents there. Far from it: When a local committee composed of academics, historians and municipal appointees unanimously voted against the plan, he simply had another committee made up of his own bureaucratic appointments override the vote. This, to Turks, was what his rule had come to mean.
Osman Can, a constitutional scholar who is on the A.K.P.’s executive committee, says Erdogan’s ability to act unilaterally is a byproduct of Turkey’s highly centralized political structure, in which all decisions are made in Ankara. “The governors are appointed by the central government, so they are not elected,” Can says. “The mayors are elected, but Ankara also controls the mayors. Normally the mayor would decide things in a city. But if the prime minister happened to be interested in a park, the mayor can’t resist him.”
The A.K.P. is the rare party that has made important changes to democratize Turkey, Can says, but the system established a century ago by Ataturk and his followers limits those advances. “It was a conscious choice of Ataturk,” he says. “They wanted to control everything, they want to change the people, change the minds, reformat people. How could they do this? A decentralized system? No. An independent judiciary? No.” The only limitation, Can says, “is the reaction of the people.”
And the people reacted in a surprising and organic way. Many of the protesters in Istanbul last year were not activists. They were apolitical verging on apathetic members of the middle class, whose parents, traumatized by coups, taught them to stay out of politics. Radicalization happened quickly. Guzin, a 35-year-old lawyer who didn’t want me to use her last name, was a typical case. A week after the police cleared Gezi Park of its occupants, I met her in the Taksim neighborhood of Cihangir.
“My father is a supporter of Erdogan — he is in love,” she said. “My parents also had not been happy about what happened to religious people in the 1990s, when women couldn’t wear the head scarf — my mother covers — and Erdogan had fought for their rights. But it’s more that my father likes all the things that capitalism brings; every time I go to my village, he says, ‘Look at the roads, look at the factories, look at the health care.’ He doesn’t see the negative. And he was really angry when I told him I was protesting.”
Guzin had heard that some 50 environmentalists, in a city of 15 million people, in a country of 80 million, had pitched tents in Gezi. “When I read about Gezi Park, for the first time I said, ‘We should do something,’ ” she told me. “I got like five people, and we just went and sat on the grass. There were some tents, but it wasn’t that crowded. I had wanted to see so many more, like 5,000 people. So I was a little disappointed, and we went home.”
Around 4 the next morning, the police lit tents on fire. Guzin said that when she read about it in the newspaper the next day, she thought: They have no right to do that. They don’t even have the right to take the tents.
“I got really angry,” she said, “and I called all my friends and said, ‘Come on, let’s go again.’ We knew they had used tear gas before, so we went to the pharmacy to get masks, and they said: ‘O.K., get ready, bring water, put on your gas mask. And come back safe.’ We thought, What is happening? Then we saw a huge crowd walking toward Gezi Park. And suddenly I couldn’t see anything, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t even put my mask on.”
Guzin continued: “I started to breathe again, thankfully, but I saw the water cannon, and I was scared, and people got panicked. I kept checking behind me to see if it was going to hit me, and it did. But then I thought, O.K., we passed this, we can survive it. And I became braver. We went back maybe 10 times that night. When everyone in the neighborhoods began banging pots and pans from their windows for us, I was going to cry. I thought, Wow, we are doing something good.”
Within a week, the activists’ tiny sit-in spread to 70 cities. The occupation of Gezi Park lasted 19 days. In Istanbul, on the evenings the riot police stayed away, thousands of people — Kurds and nationalists, gays and soccer fans, secularists and leftists — streamed into the square to celebrate what was a historic act of state defiance. It was utterly leaderless. One Kurdish demonstrator told me, “Perhaps the only thing that could have brought all of these warring groups together was something as innocuous as a park.”
Many participants described their time in Gezi Park as a first brush with political consciousness. In the early 2000s, the Turkish people experienced what they were told was a democratic opening. Now they wondered whether something was being taken away from them, or whether that democracy was a mirage. The protesters showed a global audience that Turkey’s new wealth was a distraction from the realities of injustice and one-man rule. And the cacophonous utopia that bloomed in the park served as a rebuke to the blandly baroque language of neoliberal democracy and family-values conservatism that the A.K.P. and Gulenist media had so skillfully deployed. As one activist named Zeynel Gul explained to me, Gezi wasn’t Occupy, Syntagma or Tahrir — referring to the protests in New York, Athens and Cairo — it was “all but none.” Erdogan, meanwhile, called the protesters “terrorists” and “looters” and declared that a conspiracy was opposing him.
From Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gulen chastised both the prime minister and the protesters. “We need to handle them in a smart way,” he said in a video on his website. “If you are facing an invasion of ants, you can’t disregard it, thinking that they are ‘ants.’ ” The Gulenists do not support street protests, and they, like Erdogan, believed that armed groups had joined the demonstrations in Gezi Park — but Erdogan was making Turkey look bad.
The quarrel between the two allies had been slowly brewing for years. It was financial, ideological and moral, but it was mostly about power. The Gulenists didn’t like Erdogan’s sudden transformation into a hero of the Arab street. In 2010, when the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara tried to break an Israeli blockade of Gaza, the Gulen sympathizers were against, as they put it, “confrontation.” “What I saw was not pretty,” Gulen said in a rare interview with The Wall Street Journal. “It was ugly.” More important, Gulenists seemed to oppose Erdogan’s ways of resolving the 30-year-old conflict between Turkey and its disenfranchised Kurds. In 2012, prosecutors who were assumed to be Gulenists subpoenaed a Turkish official who had been negotiating with Kurdish leaders and who also happens to be the head of Turkey’s national intelligence organization. Erdogan was enraged by the Gulenists’ meddling.
Fundamentally, Gulenists disagreed with Erdogan’s political tactics. “Gulen doesn’t cultivate influence through top-down reforms,” says Hendrick, who lived among the Gulenists for more than a year while researching his book about Gulen. “They encourage social change by winning hearts and minds through media, through education and through competitive market performance.”
Erdogan attacked the Gulenists at that level. In November, his plans to close the college-exam-preparation schools, many of which are run by the Gulen movement, became public. Closing a multimillion-dollar industry has more than financial ramifications; those schools are where the Gulen movement recruits members. Erdogan, Hendrick says, is “going after the existential nature of the movement by destroying its human resources.”
Three weeks later, the Gulenists struck back. (On Twitter, someone posted a doctored picture of Gulen holding a lightsaber.) In mid-December, the authorities, presumably Gulenist sympathizers, brought corruption charges against the businessman sons of three A.K.P. ministers and several businessmen tied to Erdogan, including his son, Bilal. Millions of dollars were said to have been suddenly discovered in shoe boxes in a closet belonging to the chief executive of a bank. Shady gold-for-oil schemes with Iran were exposed. Bribery for construction projects unexpectedly came to light. Corruption is an open secret in Turkey, but the A.K.P. had been untouchable. When Erdogan asked the ministers to take the fall and resign, one of them said publicly that most of the construction projects had been approved by Erdogan. “I want to express my belief that the esteemed prime minister should also resign,” he said.
Since then, Erdogan has declared that the Gulenists’ corruption charges constitute a conspiracy against him by a “parallel state.” To obstruct the investigation, he has purged thousands of supposed Gulenists from the police forces and reassigned the prosecutors on the corruption cases. Last month, the Gulenist Journalists and Writers Foundation held a news conference in Taksim Square and denied that Gulen sympathizers made up a parallel state with intelligence capabilities. One speaker there nevertheless made it clear that the movement wanted Erdogan to go: “In England, Margaret Thatcher lost touch with the people at the end. In the United States, even a popular politician like Bill Clinton cannot serve three terms.”
Are the Gulenists a parallel state, or a hierarchical minority faction with some self-serving ambitions, like interest groups in any society? Hendrick says that “groups coming from the same educational or religious networks and gaining positions of authority in the state — for the United States, this is normal. In Turkey, where the state has not been open to all, it is conspiratorial.” Osman Can says their presence in the judiciary is a “violation of state sovereignty.” The Gulenists’ opacity makes it difficult to tell whether they seek to control Turkey. Nonetheless, that they are able to exercise any power at all resulted from the same forces that allowed Erdogan to come to power, as well as made it possible for thousands of Turks to occupy a park — because Turkey had opened up to them.
But Erdogan no longer has use for his country’s nascent inclusiveness. With his electoral mandate, he seems to believe he embodies Turkey himself. It is very likely that his core constituents, those who still love the man they call the Conqueror, will cast their votes for the A.K.P. in this spring’s municipal elections. Erdogan’s public vengefulness, however, may well wreck the economy, wounding the vulnerable people he once claimed to speak for. When he lashes out during public appearances — most recently describing his critics as members of a “losers’ lobby” — many Turks feel as if they are seeing the fractured future of their country.
In a way, Erdogan’s bad year is a result of a liberalizing society clashing with an inherently illiberal Turkish system. The Turkish Model — the idea that the A.K.P.’s softer vision of Islam was compatible with democracy — suggested a way forward for Middle Eastern countries. But Turkey’s biggest problem, its authoritarian structure, has little to do with Islam. The state remains a tool for accumulating disproportionate power, and when threatened, it sacrifices its citizens to save itself. If a prime minister can co-opt the laws and the media, and if a self-interested group can prosecute trials of dubious legality, and if the citizens have nowhere to express themselves but in the streets, then the state institutions are broken. Someday Erdogan will be gone, but Turkey’s system will still be a work in progress. Democratization takes a long time, and as Gezi Park and other global movements have proved, part of the process is figuring out what kind of country its citizens want.
The activist Zeynel Gul touched on this feeling when he said to me about Gezi Park: “It was important for us to experience that kind of life. If you were hungry, the food was free. If you were wounded, someone would carry you to the emergency tent. If you needed a lawyer, he is always there. Gezi gave us a powerful sense of a world based on solidarity and equality, which we could not imagine before. No one can take away what we experienced in the park.”
Suzy Hansen is a contributing writer for the magazine. She lives in Istanbul.