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Fethullah Gülen has become enemy No. 1 of President Erdoğan of Turkey, leaving the US-based Muslim cleric’s supporters, including those in Australia, fearful for their livelihoods and freedom. By Hamish McDonald.

Turkish cleric Gülen’s Australian supporters fear reprisals

A huge portrait of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the streets of Istanbul.
Credit: BULENT KILIC / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Within a couple of weeks, Gizem and her husband knew it was time to leave Turkey. The institutions that employed them and taught their children had been shut down. Both teachers, they were told that no public or private school would be allowed to give them a job.

A relative in Sydney offered them a place to stay, so they got tourist visas and tickets out. At Istanbul’s airport, immigration officials pulled Gizem’s husband aside, seized his passport and took him to a room for questioning.

Gizem – not her real name – decided to travel on with the three children, waiting in Abu Dhabi for a while in the hope he could catch up. Seven months later, she is still waiting. “He was released after two days, and has applied for a new passport, but he’s been told his name is on a list of people not allowed to leave the country,” Gizem said.

There are long lists in Turkey. They were readied just over eight months ago when Turkish army elements seized key points in Istanbul and Ankara, and jets bombed the parliament and presidential palace, before the coup attempt faltered as enraged civilians swarmed the soldiers and tanks.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan returned to Ankara from a coastal resort in a plane that the coup-makers had tracked with F-16 fighters but omitted to shoot down. In the July 15 coup attempt 241 people were killed and more than 2000 injured in the space of the few hours before it ended, but Erdoğan declared it a “gift from God”. He knew who to blame. He had his lists ready.

The coup-makers had called their movement “Peace at Home”, using a slogan of Kemal Atatürk, the army general who founded the modern secular Turkish state out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. The Turkish army remains dominated by secularists, vigilant against Islamic extremists or even the strongly religious appearing in the ranks.

Yet Erdoğan singled out an elderly Islamic cleric living in Pennsylvania as the mastermind. Fethullah Gülen had long been a rival for influence, with millions of followers of his Hizmet (Service) movement working in government service, a network of schools, a prominent media group, and businesses. His following included many police officials and judges, but notably not many military officers.

Erdoğan has ruled Turkey as prime minister then president since 2003, after his new Justice and Development Party or AKP first swept elections. For many years he had regarded Gülen as an ally, not a threat. The pragmatic AKP concentrated on opening up Turkey’s stagnant and inflation-ridden economy, while softening the edges of Atatürk secularism by symbolic moves such as allowing female students and officials to wear headscarves. Hizmet is explicitly Islamic, but intent on development of a modern and tolerant believer through long-term education and activism.

They started parting company in 2010 when Gülen criticised Erdoğan’s support of the relief convoy that tried to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Then in 2013, police uncovered a $US13 billion gold-for-oil trade with Iran, designed to avoid US-led sanctions. The Hizmet-linked Zaman newspaper and television group broke news of police wire taps that placed two of Erdoğan’s sons in another scandal. Hizmet had become much too influential for the president.

From early 2014, Hizmet and its followers have been targets of a purge, with key police officials sacked and several dying in alleged suicides. Gizem said her school was subject to audits every three months. “They would come in, check the books, and fine the school for petty little things,” she said.

In December 2014 security agencies arrested more than 23 staff of Zaman, saying they were members of “an armed terrorist organisation”. A year ago the government seized control of the title, Turkey’s biggest newspaper, with a daily circulation of 650,000, and turned it into a pro-AKP mouthpiece.

But that was a warm-up to the purge that has followed since the July coup attempt, in tandem with Erdoğan’s drive to concentrate sweeping executive powers in a referendum on April 16 that has seen violence among the five million Turks in Europe.

Monitor groups say about 129,000 people have been dismissed, among them 7316 academics and 4272 judges and prosecutors, as well as police and army officers. About 95,000 have been detained, not just Gülenists but other Erdoğan opponents, including Kurdish activists and leftists.

PEN and other media defence groups say the government has put 162 journalists in jail and shut down 149 media outlets, throwing about 5000 of their staff out of work and effectively banning them from alternative employment. “Anyone found employing them, even doing menial labouring work, then those people are punished,” says Greg Barton, Deakin University’s specialist on Islam and terrorism. Likewise, those visiting arrested people, or helping their families, find themselves under arrest for supporting terrorism.

Businesses linked to Hizmet are being boycotted or seized. Bank Asya was closed, and its account-holders visited with warnings, along with the once-influential business federation TUSKON.

Memet ran a thriving wholesale business in Istanbul and his wife, Asli, was also a teacher at a Hizmet school. As with Gizem, these are not their real names. From early 2014, customers pulled back under pressure from authorities and the AKP. “My domestic customers dwindled to zero,” Memet said. Officials refused to pay him a GST rebate for exported goods. Bank transfers and his credit card were blocked. After the coup came people shouting insults from the street, and throwing stones. Memet tried to sell a shop, but the sale was prevented.

“We had one man come, one of our best customers, and tell my husband: If you don’t leave, you will be detained, you’ll go to jail,” Asli said. “And he said, ‘We will make your wife our “wife” and your daughter will become a servant and a slave, too.’ ”

Now they are refugees in Sydney, where Memet already had a small business.

Their family and Gizem’s are among 80 Turkish citizens who have applied for protection in Australia since the coup, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said. For the previous four fiscal years, about 85 Turks applied for asylum each year, so this marks an uptick in the rate. Not counted are those with dual citizenship or Australian residency who have returned because of the purge. Some were arrested before they could get out, such as the former Australian Catholic University professor Ismail Albayrak, a dual citizen held without charge since August.

They come to a Turkish–Australian community greatly divided by the Erdoğan–Gülen rift. Hizmet groups such as Affinity in Sydney and the Australian Intercultural Society in Melbourne run 16 schools attended by about 5000 students. They pursue interfaith activities such as fast-breaking dinners during Ramadan, where federal and state politicians, police commissioners, priests and rabbis are regaled with dreamy Sufi music and whirling dervishes.

The two refugee families avoid Sydney’s main Turkish community at Auburn, where the large Gallipoli Mosque is located, instead staying close to the Hizmet school, Amity College, at Prestons. “Any time we meet someone new, a Turkish member of the public, there’s a question mark,” Asli said. “We never say we arrived from Turkey recently, or were a teacher at a Hizmet institution.”

An Amity College founder said Turkish diplomats had been urging parents to withdraw their children, warning that its qualifications would not be recognised in Turkey, and “several dozen” pupils had been withdrawn. A Turkish diplomat effectively confirmed this, describing Gülenist education as brainwashing. “Such advice is unnecessary because everybody knows,” the diplomat said, asking not to be named for fear of assassination. “But of course those who don’t know what happened in Turkey, of course it’s our duty to enlighten them.”

Barton says: “In the diaspora community it comes down to either you go along with the consular-embassy line, and the Diyanet [the state agency that appoints Turkish imams including in Australia], or you’re seen to be suspect. It’s a nasty sentiment.”

Meanwhile, Western security analysts are puzzled by Erdoğan’s charge that Hizmet is a “terrorist” organisation. They’d seen it as an ideal counter to Islamist extremism.

So far, Washington has resisted Ankara’s request to extradite Gülen, with the clumsy $US500,000 covert hire of then Trump adviser Mike Flynn last year to lobby against Hizmet not helping the Turkish case. “The Turks say they have boxes of damning evidence, but it turns out to be old and generic, with no connection to the coup,” Barton said. “The [US] response is that if you have evidence, we’ll take action. That’s diplomatic-speak for basically saying put up or shut up.”

For Gizem, the past seven months has been the longest she and the children have been separated from her husband in some 16 years of marriage. “I have return tickets to Istanbul, and we’d love to go back to our country,” she said. “But when we hear about the torture and arrests, we are thankful to be in Australia. It’s a real pity to see our homeland going down this path.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 25, 2017 as "Long division". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.