An Interesting Summer in Istanbul with Professor Sylvia Önder


CERES Professor Sylvia W. Önder has been in Istanbul, Turkey throughout this tumultuous summer as Project Director for the U.S. Department of Education’s Fulbright-Hays GPA with the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT) for Advanced Turkish Language at Boğaziçi University.  This year, the program selected 18 ARIT-BU Fellows from around the U.S. for the full packet of funding — including undergraduate and graduate students and one faculty member.  With two terrorist attacks against tourists in Sultanahmet on January 12, and in the Taksim area on March 19th, the lead-up to our orientation in Turkey was stressful.  Various other summer programs were cancelled or moved out of Turkey.  As our program takes place in the bucolic campus setting of the former Robert College (founded in 1878 by American Protestant Missionaries), far north of the center of Istanbul and behind the castle built by Mehmet the Conqueror, we were happy when classes could begin as usual.  Our 18 ARIT-BU Fellows were a significant and highly-qualified addition to the total of 37 summer language students.

Our first security meeting took place the day after the Atatürk airport bombing on June 29th, which killed more than 40 people.   Since we all had been through that airport recently, and since many had guests planning to come during the summer, the airport attack was a hard blow to morale.  The horrific attack that killed 84 in Nice, France on the 14th of July made it clear that terror is not confined to a single place, but was not reassuring to the families of our participants.  Life took on a tinge of paranoia as social media outlets created and bounced about theories about which national security advisories meant the next attack was imminent.

And then came the night of July 15th, a Friday at the end of a long week.  A friend called from Ankara – “Are you OK?” “Sure, why?” “We have jets flying over and I can hear explosions” “No, nothing like that here…” Until the jets started flying over and the TV announcer began to read in a strained voice a statement from coup plotters that the government had been taken over.  Social media, which remained available to any who had a Virtual Private Network (VPN), was alive with photos of clashes on the Bosphorus Bridge, reports of explosions at the Parliament Building in Ankara, and speculation about what was unfolding.  One of our undergraduate ARIT-BU Fellows living close to Taksim Square called at about 3:30 a.m. to ask me what I thought they should do – stay put even though the glass on neighboring buildings was shattering from noise and a chanting crowd had formed in Taksim?  Leave everything and run down to the edge of the Bosphorus?  As I was getting more information from him about what he could see in the streets below, a military jet blasted over my head in the direction of Taksim.  I heard a massive boom on his end of the telephone… my worst fears seemed possible… were military jets being used on civilian targets?

The boom, it turned out, was a sonic one, not caused by explosives.  We hunkered down for the rest of the night, all glued to our tv sets and Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp accounts.  We fielded concerned messages from friends and family.  The airport was clearly the worst place to go, since it had changed hands more than once and was where President Erdoğan was arriving from his interrupted vacation in Marmaris, calling supporters into the streets from his telephone as he flew.  The U.S. State Department recommended we shelter in place.  Because of our various forms of communication, I was in touch with all program participants — except one — by dawn.  The last participant had slept through everything and e-mailed me when she woke up later in the morning. Things were quiet during the day on Saturday, except in the media, where eye-witness reports and breaking news swirled in a tornado of speculation.  As the sun went down, though, flag-waving crowds chanting “Allah-u Ekber” (among other slogans) marched through neighborhoods on the way to the main squares, as requested by President Erdoğan.  There were reports of the beheadings of soldiers on the bridge, countered by opposing reports of civilians and police taking pity on the conscripts who seemed to have thought they were in a routine exercise rather than a coup attempt.  It seemed best to stay out of any crowds…Turkey 1

After consulting with the Boğaziçi University staff, we decided to call our second security meeting of the summer for Monday morning.  We wanted to get everyone together, go over the events, make sure everyone had the proper advisories, see if anyone wanted to move to the dormitories, and resume classes to calm nerves.  The government seemed to be firmly in control of the public sphere at this point, with a few areas of unusual activity such as in the area around Erdoğan’s vacation hotel where a small team of would-be assassins was pursued, and alarming comings and goings from Incirlik Airbase in the South East.  But in Istanbul, businesses and museums were open, public transportation was made free-of-charge to encourage citizens to get back to normal life, and the Turkish flag appeared with pro-democracy slogans on all billboards and many homes and businesses.  The slogan that appeared right away everywhere was “Hakimiyet Milletindir” a slogan used by the government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923 to mean that governance (or hegemony) belongs to the people.  In the commentary of many pro-government voices, the participation of the public in the prevention of the coup on the night of July 15th serves as proof that the people are finally able to protect their own democratic control of government from attacks by factions in the military and from evil-doers like Fetullah Gülen.

The Gülen network, until 2013, was operating in concert with Erdoğan’s A.K. Party in the realms of education, foreign policy, law enforcement, the judiciary, and others.   The opening of 37 Turkish embassies in the continent of Africa, for example, was coordinated with the educational and charitable work of the network.  Diplomatic relations with and media coverage in the United States have been heavily influenced by the network, which runs at least one charter school in at least half of the states of the U.S.A.  When the “break-up” came, both powerful men, each accustomed to total loyalty and unquestioned obedience, embarked on a quest to eliminate the other.  For American students studying abroad in Turkey, it became essential to understand that an overwhelming majority of Turkish citizens believe that the US government itself, or at least the CIA, was involved in, or at least supportive of the coup attempt.  And that the word “Pensilvanya” has come to stand for the Gülen network, since Fetullah Gülen lives in a small town in the state of Pennsylvania.  The official Turkish government term for the network is now the “Fetullahçı Terör Örgütü (FETÖ) which comes from an ending on the first name of Gülen, creating a meaning like “Gülenist Terror Organization”.

Fethullah Gulen and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Source:
Fethullah Gulen and Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The continuing suppression of media and academic freedoms, begun long before the coup attempt, gained steam in its aftermath.  One result is that the Turkish citizenry has an ever-narrowing range of analysis of events in the Turkish media at the same time as a growing awareness that foreign press is almost exclusively negative about recent events in Turkey.  This split awareness is made possible by the near universal use of the internet and a wide range of social media.  Although they are usually on holiday by this point in the summer, Turkish academics are following with a sense of dread the wholesale sacking of university deans and the call back of academics from outside the country to their public universities where they must sign statements that they have no connections to FETÖ.

On Sunday, August 7th, there was a massive rally at Yenikapı (the name means “New Gate” and the organizers used this to suggest the start of a new period characterized by unity between the political parties although the pro-Kurdish and liberal HDP was conspicuously not invited), and a Turkey with “one heart”.  At the end of the rally, President Erdoğan asked the crowd to affirm his wish that the nightly “protection of democracy” rallies in main squares around Turkey be discontinued as of Wednesday.  This means that our ARIT-BU program will end together with the nightly rallies.  It has certainly been an interesting summer…



Further Reading:

Being Different in Turkey: Religion, Conservatism and Otherization by Binnaz Toprak, İrfan Bozan, Tan Morgül, and Nedim Şener (PDF)

Interview with Dr. Jenny B. White as coup was unfolding: “How Turkey Came to This”

An insightful piece on the shake-up before the attempted coup by Reuban Silverman: “Some of the President’s Men”

A political view from the soccer pitch: “Erdogan vs. Gulen: Power struggle comes full circle in Turkish soccer”

Dani Rodrik’s blog: “Is the US Behind Fethullah Gulen?”

Al-Monitor “Is Erdogan really stronger after failed coup?”

“Turkey Chooses Erdogan” by Christopher de Bellaigue