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Turkey’s Great Purge

By Mustafa Akyol

August 23, 2016

More than a month has passed since the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey. Most people here are glad we averted a major attack on our democracy, which could have initiated not only a brutal military regime but maybe even a civil war. Many people outside Turkey, on the other hand, seem more worried about the failed coup’s aftermath than the bloody putsch itself, which left more than 250 people dead.

What really seems to worry people, especially in the West, is the purge that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government began after the mutiny. The numbers are staggering: 80,000 civil servants have been suspended from their jobs, more than 2,000 of them judges or prosecutors. Meanwhile, more than 20,000 people have been arrested. The justice minister announced earlier this month that some 38,000 inmates would be released to free up space in Turkey’s prisons.

To some, these numbers conjure memories of dark episodes of the past century: Stalin’s infamous Great Purge of dissidents in the 1930s or Hitler’s use of the Reichstag Fire to crack down on Communists.

But Turkey’s situation is too complicated for such historical comparisons. For example, Mr. Erdogan’s main political rival, the secularist Republican People’s Party, or C.H.P., agrees with the president that the state should be cleansed of people who backed the coup attempt. In the days after July 15, the C.H.P. leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, visited Mr. Erdogan at his presidential place for the first time. The two rivals even spoke together at an anti-coup rally attended by millions.

In other words, the coup plot that tried to rip our democracy apart has strengthened our resolve. Turkey’s main political groups — Islamists, secularists, nationalists and Kurds — are now largely united for the first time in decades, albeit around just one issue. They agree that the plot was not the work of individual officers, but rather an Islamic cult that had infiltrated key state institutions: the movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam who has been living in Pennsylvania since 1999.

To outsiders, this may sound like yet another of Turkey’s many bizarre conspiracy theories. But those who know the country agree that this one is true. James F. Jeffrey, who was the American ambassador here from 2008 to 2010, told a Turkish newspaper that Gulenists, as Mr. Gulen’s supporters are known, had “extreme infiltration” in Turkey’s police force and judiciary. Mr. Jeffrey also said that the group’s members had “their allegiance to the movement, not state,” and that he believed it was “highly likely” that Gulenists in the military had led the coup attempt.

Turkish authorities say they know that it was more than likely. They say that some of the coup plotters confessed to being members of the Gulenist cult and acting on its orders, and that decoded messages show their ties. Turkey’s top general, who was detained by mutineers on the night of July 15, testified that the plotters wanted to make him talk to “our leader, Gulen.”

Turkey’s great purge is not about punishing every dissident but dismantling this dangerous presence within the state. Mr. Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin likened the situation to the removal of hundreds of thousands of Communist civil servants from the German government after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Any state faced with insurrection from within would do the same,” Carl Bildt, Sweden’s former prime minister, wrote.

But even if the purge is necessary, it’s possible that it could go too far. The Gulen movement is compartmentalized. Aside from its extralegal political aspirations, the group also operates scores of legal schools, charities and media organizations. Merely donating money to or working at one of these should not be grounds for arrest, which worryingly seems to be the case with some of the detained.

For example, the government has issued arrest warrants for more than 40 journalists, some of them famous pundits, simply for working at or writing in a pro-Gulen newspaper. But the journalists rightly claim to be mere government critics who were unaware of the group’s illegal activities. (As was Mr. Erdogan himself at one point. His party formerly allied itself with the Gulen movement until they had a falling out in 2013. He has since apologized for not recognizing the group’s illegal activities.)

Some of Mr. Erdogan’s most zealous supporters not only ignore such nuances, but are also eager to discover a “crypto Gulenist” behind every critic. To move forward, Mr. Erdogan, who has given some positive signals for national reconciliation since the coup, must curb his supporters, who seem prone to escalate this purge into a paranoid dictatorship’s mindless witch hunt. He should also keep working with the main opposition, which understands the severity of the problem posed by the Gulenists but rightly warns about the excesses of the crackdown.

Meanwhile, the West must understand that this is not just about Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies. This is about a real threat to Turkey, one that lethally made itself manifest on July 15. Moreover, Turkey is further traumatized these days by repeated terrorist attacks from the Islamic State and Kurdish militants. To be able to deal with these crises within the boundaries of democracy, Turkey needs not hostile critics, but critical friends. The West should extend that friendship, by first understanding what Turkey is really going through, and then offering advice on how to uphold human rights and rule of law.

Mustafa Akyol is the author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty” and a contributing opinion writer.