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Eye on the News

Claire Berlinski
Prisoner of Conspiracy
Ahmet Şık and Turkey’s increasingly paranoid politics
15 April 2011

Zaytung is the Turkish equivalent of The Onion, and like The Onion, it tends to parody reality so well that for a moment you aren’t sure whether you’re reading fact or fiction. A recent item:

YOUNG COUPLE, STRANDED ON MOUNTAIN, RESCUED THANKS TO CEMAAT BOOK

The couple was stranded on Amanos Mountain yesterday evening owing to a vehicle failure. Although the police and gendarmerie searched for them for hours in heavy snowfall, they were unable to locate them.

Finally, the desperate couple decided to announce that they were in possession of a book about the Cemaat. As the battery on their cell phone threatened to flicker out, Gülcan Görenel called a former colleague, Sevilay Görkem, to say that she had been working for some time on a book called Dancing with the Imam. The book, she said, would bring some very important facts to light. Görenel hung up before her friend could reply and started waiting with her husband.

Within half an hour, the counterterrorism crews conducted a helicopter operation in the area. Seized and removed before they froze to death, they were transferred to Hatay State Hospital, where after initial treatment the detainees were referred for trial.

To understand the parody, you have to know that the Turkish police recently arrested journalist Ahmet Şık and began hunting down drafts of his unpublished book, The Imam’s Army. And to understand why they did that, you have to learn about two conspiracy theories that have gripped the Turkish psyche and may tear the country apart.

In June 2008, police discovered a crate of grenades in an Istanbul slum. Investigators claimed that they belonged to a hydra-headed clique of conspirators named Ergenekon. The organization is supposedly an outgrowth of the so-called Deep State—a secret coalition of high-level figures in the military, the intelligence services, the judiciary, and organized crime widely believed to be the real power in the Republic of Turkey. Allegedly, Ergenekon planned to stage a series of terrorist attacks throughout Turkey and use the ensuing chaos as the pretext for a military coup.

If Turks are unusually partial to conspiracy theories, that’s partly because Turkey is unusually prone to real conspiracies. There have been four military coups here in the last five decades. Each, obviously, was prefaced by a genuine conspiracy, and in each case, the military justified its actions by appealing to the need to preserve the nation from civil unrest. So at first, the Ergenekon hypothesis wasn’t as ludicrous as it sounds. But the idea has since morphed. Ergenekon is now alleged to be the most powerful, wide-ranging, and inventively wicked conspiracy in the history of misery. The police have conducted wave upon wave of predawn arrests. Hundreds of alleged Ergenekon conspirators are languishing in prison. Some have died. Not one has been convicted.

The claims about these supposed conspirators defy logic. Arch-secular nationalists, the prosecutors say, have been in bed with the Maoist PKK, the extreme-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party, the Islamist Hizbullah and Milli Görüş, the ultranationalist Turkish Revenge Brigades, the Turkish Workers’ and Peasants’ Liberation Army, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party, and the Islamic Great East Raiders Front. This is a bit like imagining that the Weathermen hooked up with the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panthers, Act Up, the Zeta drug cartel, and a dissident faction of the Republican National Committee, and that all concerned managed to refrain from killing each other long enough to design a serious plan to overthrow the American government—with a bit of willing propaganda assistance from Bob Woodward and the Huffington Post.

There are two ways of looking at the Ergenekon prosecutions. Supporters see them as a step forward: at last, they say, the government has taken on the occult forces threatening Turkish democracy. No, say detractors: Ergenekon is fictitious, a transparent excuse for the government to rid itself of unwelcome opposition. An important case to this effect has been assembled by Pinar Doğan, the daughter of arrested general Çetin Doğan, and her husband, Dani Rodrik, both professors at Harvard University. They point out that the Sledgehammer case—part of the Ergenekon investigation—relies largely upon a document that was supposedly written in 2003 yet makes reference to a company that came into existence in 2008. And that’s hardly the only inconsistency in the document, which is full of what Rodrik calls “back to the future” anomalies.

So much for Conspiracy Theory Number One. Enter Conspiracy Theory Number Two, this one about the “Cemaat,” which the dictionary translates as something like “religious organization.” In Turkey today, the implied reference is to the organization of Fethullah Gülen, who is, depending on whom you ask, either an elderly, gentle, oft-slandered preacher or Turkey’s aspiring Ayatollah Khomenei. Gülen lives in Pennsylvania. His detractors say that his Cemaat is what’s really behind the Ergenekon investigations—and behind Turkey’s ruling AKP government—and that he’s waiting to return to Turkey, summon his sleeping slave army, and impose religious rule. They often add that he’s protected by the CIA, which would find a pliant theocracy useful in its plans to control the greater Middle East. Again depending on whom you ask, George Soros, the Jews, and the Freemasons are also involved. A few things are certainly true: Gülen has many powerful supporters in Turkey; they have acquired a large media network; and there does seem to be a connection between criticizing him and being arrested as an Ergenekon conspirator.

This brings us to Ahmet Şık, whose book purports to be an account of how the Cemaat has infiltrated key organs of the Turkish state, the police in particular. Şık is just one of many journalists arrested in connection with Ergenekon. The prosecutors and their supporters—who overlap to a degree nobody can quite make out with the AKP—emphasize that these journalists have been arrested not for speaking their minds but for aiding and abetting the criminal Ergenekon conspiracy. Unfortunately, the evidence has been kept secret, even from the journalists’ lawyers, except when it has been leaked to newspapers associated with Gülen and splashed all over the front pages, which happens all the time.

Şık’s arrest has at last raised eyebrows even among Turks who had thought the prosecutors knew what they were doing. It was particularly embarrassing when the police began hunting down every copy of the draft of Şık’s unpublished book. The 12th Court for Serious Crimes characterized the draft as an “illegal organizational document” and ruled that anyone who refused to hand in his copy would be accused of “aiding a criminal organization.” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that “the written words seized by police posed a serious threat.” Police barged into the offices of the daily Radikal to erase copies from Şık’s colleagues’ computers. When someone predictably released the book on the Internet, Wikileaks-style, the prosecutors threatened to arrest everyone who downloaded it. That won’t be easy: more than 200,000 people have downloaded it so far, including the leader of the main opposition party.

This is where reason should prevail, because the book’s wide availability means that we can finally examine some of this supposedly damning Ergenekon evidence. And it turns out that the book is much like any other that has been published here about Gülen. It is written in the past tense, which is not the tense that anyone composing an “illegal organizational document” to plan a coup would use—though it is certainly the tense that a journalist would use. The frantic prosecutors say that you can clearly discern, from the marginal comments in the book, that Şık has been told what to write by his terrorist puppet-masters. But the prose style of a terrorist puppet-master is, forensically speaking, remarkably similar to that of an editor.

Interestingly, chief prosecutor Zekeriya Öz—whose last name comes directly from the Department of Unintentional International Irony—was immediately reassigned after this debacle and given a face-saving promotion. But the prosecution continues, and Şık is still in jail. Indeed, he wasn’t present at his own hearing yesterday; the prison authorities, we are told, didn’t have a van to transport him there.

Reading Şık’s book—and by now, everyone here has at least skimmed it, after which they’ve generally given up, having failed to find any sign of a coup plot—has not slapped the nation into sanity. Quite the contrary: it has raised the level of paranoia exponentially. I saw a recent Tweet, for example, seriously arguing that Ergenekon itself had hijacked the Ergenekon prosecutions in order to discredit them. And how to respond to this, from a column in the English-language newspaper Today’s Zaman—a paper that is part of Gülen’s media network?

The confiscation of the book titled “İmamın Ordusu” (The Imam’s Army) was portrayed as a violation of freedom of the press. It was brought up at the European Parliament and it attracted the attention of foreign diplomats in Ankara. All this interest about the recent developments put pressure on the court. The investigation into the organization suddenly turned into a violation of freedom of the press. It appears foreign observers have been influenced by the strength of Ergenekon’s propaganda. . . .

There are no original arguments or information in the book. Similar books have been published in the past. The exposure of the text clarifies why the prosecutor’s office seized the book.

That column (italics mine) isn’t a parody, though admittedly it is getting harder and harder to tell.

Meanwhile, as the police busy themselves hunting books, trust in the judiciary is being destroyed. (Or to be more precise, there was never much public trust in the judiciary. The legal system has always been viewed here as something opaque, arbitrary, and capricious—another weapon to be used by the powerful against their enemies, not a source of justice for ordinary people.) Those opposed to the prosecutions see them as a transparent attempt by the government to lock up its critics. Those who support the prosecutions fall back, when pressed—and I’ve pressed them—on an argument that takes this form: “You have no idea how bad these Ergenekon conspirators are. The prosecution is imperfect, but without it, they’ll never face justice and Turkey will always be ruled from the shadows. The prosecutors must know something. I trust them.”

This argument is dangerous, however: it rests upon a childlike posture toward the government, the idea that the state is wiser than the individual, the assumption that politics are beyond an ordinary person’s ken. What should be clear to even the dullest observer is that the Ergenekon investigation cannot be healthy because nobody understands it. Even its supporters are reduced to saying, “The prosecutors understand it; that’s good enough.” No, it’s not—not when Ahmet Şık’s book has turned out to be nothing but a book critical, among other things, of the prosecutors. The prosecution is now indelibly stained by the impression that it is being used as a political weapon. Its findings will never be accepted as justice by a substantial, politically significant part of Turkey.

So the investigation cannot possibly lead to what its supporters say it will: the triumph of the rule of law in Turkey, a sustainable national consensus, and a verdict widely accepted as legitimate. It can only lead to more division, suspicion, and paranoia. But just as disturbingly, an even deeper and more dangerous schism will emerge if the prosecution is halted. Its supporters will not be satisfied that justice has been done; too many Turks are convinced there is something to its claims. Almost every Turkish citizen now deeply believes either that Ergenekon is real or that Gülen is running their country—and is truly terrified of one or the other. The investigation is now being played as a zero-sum game, with all concerned of the opinion that it’s win or die and that therefore it’s a luxury to worry about what’s true, or about such legal niceties as presumption of innocence, tainted evidence, endless pretrial detentions, and freedom of expression.

The only solution I can imagine would lie in a South African–style Truth and Reconciliation Committee—an entirely public and transparent reckoning aiming not at punishment or vengeance but at reconciliation. The pursuit of the truth is the only hope. Without that, Turkey will eat itself alive.

Claire Berlinski, a City Journal contributing editor, is an American journalist who lives in Istanbul.

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