Until recently, I lived in Turkey. It seemed to me then unfathomable that most Americans did not recognize the name Fethullah Gülen. Even those vaguely aware of him did not find it perplexing that a Turkish preacher, billionaire, and head of a multinational media and business empire—a man of immense power in Turkey and sinister repute—had set up shop in Pennsylvania and become a big player in the American charter school scene. Now that I’ve been out of Turkey a while, I’ve realized how normal it is that Americans are indifferent to Gülen. America is full of rich, powerful, and sinister weirdoes. What’s one more?
It’s normal, too, that Americans view news from Turkey as less important than other stories in the headlines. After all, Turks aren’t doing anything quite so attention-grabbing as hacking Sony, destabilizing the postwar European order, or rampaging through the Middle East as they behead, rape, crucify, and enslave everything in their path. Thus, the reader who has noticed the news from Turkey might believe the story goes something like this: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the authoritarian thug running Turkey, has been rounding up journalists who bravely exposed his corruption.
That American readers now understand that Erdoğan is a corrupt authoritarian is an improvement. (They may vaguely recall that not long ago, he was viewed by the large parts of the Western intelligentsia—and by the very same news organs reporting the latest developments—as a liberal-minded reformer.) But this is actually a story about two thugs. The details may be hard to follow, but the devil is in the details. The journalists recently arrested by Erdoğan are loyal to Gülen, who has made himself quite cozy in the United States. The phrase commonly used to describe this state of affairs—“self-imposed exile”—should not leave the reader nodding pleasantly. It should leave him wondering, “What does that mean? Why have we offered him exile?”
In failing to stress the double-thugged nature of this situation, American officials have unwisely conveyed to the world that we prefer Gülen to Erdoğan. So does the commentary oozing from think tanks, journalists, soi-disant experts, and European luminaries. We’d be better-advised at least to pretend to be against all corrupt authoritarians. We might even be wise to suggest, if only by means of a hint, that yes, we do understand that this has been a long decade of Turkish crackdowns, many inspired and executed by Gülen’s thugs. We might even indicate—in some subtle way—that while authoritarian crackdowns are not to our taste, there is at least some dark and cosmic justice in the world when the authors of crackdowns get a smackdown of their own.
It is certainly possible that we give the impression that we prefer Gülen to Erdoğan because we do indeed prefer him. But readers should be reminded (or informed, if they were not aware) that Gülen is the one in the United States, where he is accruing power daily, and Erdoğan is at least separated from us by an ocean. It would seem Gülen now has enough power that when his boys get locked up, the West squeaks, whereas we didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow when anyone else’s boys were rounded up, and haven’t much bothered to do so at any similar moment in the past decade. We may prefer Gülen because he is smarter and vastly more subtle than Erdoğan. But if only for this reason, he may well be the more dangerous of the two. It seems all-too-plausible that many Americans don’t even realize he’s here, much less that he is a thug.
I hope that our policy makers, at least, are fully aware that Gülen is no noble figure. Perhaps they are of the belief that he’s a thug, but at least he’s our thug. Gülen seems to think that we may be the thugs, but that we are his thugs. He is behaving accordingly, directing campaign contributions to politicians in the districts where his schools operate. We consistently fail to acknowledge his outsize role in the transformation of Turkey from modest authoritarian state to megalomaniacal authoritarian madhouse. That we also tolerate his presence on our soil prompts many Turks to draw what seems a reasonable conclusion: The U.S. doesn’t give a damn about Turkish democracy. Or Turkish journalists. We just prefer Gülen to Erdoğan.
I hope this isn’t the case, but it’s consistent with the evidence. Also consistent is another disturbing hypothesis: We still have no idea who Gülen is, and truly believe Erdoğan—head of our NATO ally—is locking up modest martyrs whose only crime was to expose his corruption. The corruption is real, the lockup is real, and, yes, Turkey is our NATO ally. But Erdoğan hasn’t been rounding up journalists of no special distinction (or none, at least, beyond their principled stance against corruption). He has been rounding up Gülen-allied journalists, who are not so much epic heroes in the battle against Turkish corruption and for Turkish press freedom as they are operatives for the Turkish president’s existential rival.
Turkey does have epic heroes. One of them is named Ahmet Şık. The people now being locked up only very recently had him locked up, because he wrote a book suggesting that Gülen’s thugs were precisely the kinds of people who might practice corruption and lock up journalists. Şık is a better man than I, so to speak, for he found it in his heart to respond to the latest news with these words: “The former owners of the period of fascism we experienced a few years ago today are experiencing fascism. To oppose fascism is a virtue.” My first reaction was different: “Lock them up and throw away the key.” It took me several minutes to remember that I am an American and thus opposed to fascism, too. As all right-thinking people should be.
There are many victims of human rights outrages in Turkey. And yes, it is proper for us to insist that the Our Boy’s Thugs receive due process. They will not get it, but it is right to insist. But if vainly insist we must, the fate of these 35 football fans is a less ambiguous cause. And the fate of these Syrian kids a greater priority.
Turkey has requested that we extradite Gülen. What should we do about that? Americans must be baffled, given what they’ve been told. Common sense might say, “Of course we would extradite a corrupt authoritarian to our trusted NATO ally.” If that fails to happen, it might suggest that one—or many—of our inbuilt assumptions is wrong. We may believe that we control Gülen. But what if it’s the reverse? It would come as a nasty surprise to some, but not to anyone who has watched him at work in Turkey. If asked for my advice, I would say: “Be on the safe side. Extradite him promptly.” After all, if Turkey is indeed our close friend and trusted NATO ally, sending him back would be a gesture of trust and friendship. It would be proof as well that while we may not be reputed for subtlety, we are more than capable of it when called for. It would be classier, too, than some of the cruder practices we have recently used in our efforts to defuse ticking time bombs.
Then again, we could keep him. But be aware that the people who told you Erdoğan was a liberal democrat would seem to have exhibited rather bad judgment. And the people who warned you otherwise are telling you now that Gülen is a thug. So keep that in mind. Handle with care.
Photo by Allie_Caulfield