As an American who had a wonderful two-year adventure exploring Turkey and teaching English in a "conservative Muslim city" from 2009-2011, I am saddened by news of an attempted military coup and crackdown on dissent by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
My wife, teenage son and I fell in love with the people of Turkey, in part because we experienced their open-hearted generosity and hospitality, and in part because we saw Turkey as a bridge between East and West that was becoming a model for Islamic democracy.
My wife and I were teaching in Kayseri, in central Anatolia near the fairy chimneys and moon-pocked landscapes of Cappadocia, when Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed in 2011. That incident was the talk of the town, but we did not hear a single expression of support or sympathy for Bin Laden or Al Qaeda. Indeed, whenever students asked me about 9/11/01, it was with a tone of empathy and sympathy. The class would grow quiet and solemn. "We are so sad about it," I remember one student saying.
It's hard to imagine that the overwhelming majority of Turks, even in relatively conservative places like Kayseri, have any sympathy at all for the Islamic State or for terrorists of any kind. My guess is that the open-hearted generosity and hospitality of the Turkish people remains -- it is their identity, spirit and character. As one Turk explained to me, part of the Muslim tradition is to welcome visitors or strangers as "angels unaware." You could arrive in Turkish villages and be offered an inexpensive place to stay, drinks, snacks, a meal, or even a car for 24 hours. In our travels around the country, this was not an infrequent occurrence.
Whereas Italians (in Rome or Naples) would demand 20 euro for a few minutes of directions, Turks would take us by the arm, escort us to our locations, spend half an hour with us, and refuse to take any money whatsoever.
But some things in Turkey have clearly changed since my family left in 2011. A flood of more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees surely over-burdens or drains the hospitality of even the most well-intentioned Turks, and taxes the economic system. An atmosphere of political suspicion and religious infighting has spread. In 2015, several businessmen and leaders of an educational institution my wife and I worked for were jailed because of their ties to the moderate Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen, who Erdogan charges with inspiring the coup attempt. They were later released, but the government's message of intimidation was clear.
The Gulen-movement-owned newspaper, Zaman, and its English language counterpart, which I freelanced for, were shut down in March, 2016, because Erdogan did not like its critical stance nor their ties to Gulen. The editor fled to Brussels. Journalists have been routinely jailed for coverage critical of Erdogan. Freedom of the press and democratic opposition seems endangered.
Gulen, based in rural Pennsylvania, says he opposed the coup, though he told the New York Times he could not guarantee that some of his supporters did not participate in it.
I taught English to a number of Gulen followers, and some of my colleagues were fans of his work as well. I found them to be very rational, reasonable, educated people who were hungry for a moderate interpretation of Islam for the modern world. They were middle class or wealthy, members of the local establishment, not radical at all. I read a couple of his books, and found them to be articulate statements of a peaceful Islam, universal religious tolerance and opposition to violence.
Gulen did inspire a devoted following who created an international network of private schools and non-profit institutions. I worked at one of these schools in Kayseri, teaching English, and noted the deep dedication of the teachers and the strong sense of community they developed with students and parents. Gulen's followers were strong supporters of Erdogan when he was first elected, but Erdogan came to see the Gulen movement as a threat to his power, real or imagined.
In American society, social movements, causes, interest groups, and opposition political parties are part of a strong civil society, working both in partnership and in loyal opposition to government, and serving as a watchdog for the people. But in Turkey, the military served the role of secular watchdog. Four successful military coups since 1960 and the fifth unsuccessful coup in 2016 have stunted the development of interest groups, opposition parties, and a watchdog tradition. In Turkey, opposition to policies are too often equated with disloyalty to the state. Indeed Erdogan does not seem inclined to share power, and is now purging the government of anyone even remotely tied to Gulen or remotely suspected of disloyalty.
I still have American, Turkish and Turkish-American friends in Kayseri who say they remain happy there, even after the coup attempt. They are enjoying the establishment of a non-denominational Christian church, and volunteering to assist Syrian refugees. Their kids are happy in local schools.
Even so, I think back to what I wrote between 2009 and 2011 and wonder, skeptically, if life is still the same or if something important has been lost with the latest coup attempt and Erdogan's insecure quest for seemingly absolute power. At the least, Turks are turning from safe and trusting communities, to at least temporarily, glaring suspiciously at each other and undergoing a painful loss of innocence. Perhaps it is not unlike what America went through during the Red Scares ("Communists under every bed and behind every tree") and McCarthyism of the 1950s. Or conceivably, the seeds of something much worse are being planted.
If, as Erdogan hopes, the nearly three million Syrian refugees become permanent residents or citizens of Turkey, and not coincidentally, loyalists of Erdogan and the AKP, Turkey could change forever, with far less of a Turkish character and far more Arab influences. So that if I ever return to Kayseri, I might not recognize it.