Erdogan supporters shout slogans over a burning effigy of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, July 20, 2016.
Ammar Awad / Reuters

There is no shortage of conspiracy theories surrounding the Turkish coup on July 15. According to many Turkish observers, including Ibrahim Karagul, an editor at Yeni Safak, a prominent newspaper that favors the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), it was engineered by Fethullah Gülen, a secretive Islamic cleric who is currently exiled in the United States.

It is true that Gülen heads a vast array of schools, civic organizations, and businesses based around the world. According to his defenders, his network is a progressive Islamist movement committed to bettering relations with the West. Yet Karagul posits that the Gülenists actually comprises a “Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization,” or FETO in official parlance, which aims to take over the Turkish government. FETO’s members, he argues, are a shadowy mixture of military officers, bureaucrats, teachers, journalists, and business leaders who rarely reveal their truly loyalties, making their activities difficult to detect or preempt. 

FETO’s failed attempt to overthrow the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to Karagul, was only one stage of a grand offensive against the Turkish government waged by the United States, members of the European Union, and Israel working together to destroy Erdogan and to occupy, or perhaps partition, the Republic of Turkey. To this end, Karagul has called upon his readers—he has about 220,000 Twitter followers and appears regularly on television—to rally around their president, transform the country into a “fortress of relentless resistance,” and prepare for a “new national struggle” against subversive forces.

Last month’s coup attempt has breathed new life into dark, conspiratorial views of Turkish politics. But such views are not new. For decades now, a host of journalists, scholars, and political figures of various stripes have argued that there were secretive factions within the government seeking to overthrow it. There is also clearly a partisan debate over who leads these factions and the nature of their goals. Still, strong conspiratorial undercurrents have driven the country’s political evolution since before the birth of the Turkish Republic in 1922. While some of these intrigues are the product of speculation or popular imagination, others are actually grounded in reality, which Erdogan has taken advantage of.

Since taking power in 2003, Erdogan’s government has whole-heartedly embraced the notion that throughout its history, the country has been beset by cover-ups and conspiracies. For many, the coup attempt of July 15 validates the president’s contention that dark covert forces have always sought to control or dismantle the Turkish Republic. That is why many of the accusations levied against Fethullah Gülen’s followers resonate with the public—they seem to make sense given the Turkish Republic’s historical origins. At the turn of the century, members of the Committee of Union and Progress, a secretive political party that sought to institute constitutional rule over the Ottoman Empire’s monarchical government, infiltrated multiple layers of the Ottoman government (particularly the military) before assuming power in 1908. These Young Turks, as they were popularly known, organized as an official political party that was ostensibly committed to democratic governance. Nevertheless, it was well known in elite political circles that the Young Turks met regularly in secret and answered directly to a central committee led by a small cabal of influential officers and bureaucrats. Decisions taken by the committee were communicated furtively to followers inside and outside the government. Within a short period of time, opponents of the Young Turks had accused the group of functioning as a state within a state.

After 1908, the Young Turks wielded power autocratically and intimidated opponents inside and outside of the government through violence, including murder. Within a decade of taking power, the Young Turks had either killed, exiled, or forcibly retired thousands of accused opponents. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, remnants of the Committee of Union and Progress coalesced around Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, an early advocate of the Young Turk cause. After he became president of Turkey, aspects of the movement retained much of its power.

U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, July 29, 2016.
Charles Mostoller / Reuters

Although Ataturk is still revered as the Turkish Republic’s founding father, many have questioned the true nature of his character and rule. Both then and now, some of his bitterest critics, such as prominent journalist Soner Yalçın, have openly raised suspicions that Ataturk was a Free Mason, an atheist, or a crypto-Jew. The origins of these suspicions date back to the time of Ataturk’s rise to power. There were general suspicions about the early Turkish republic’s secular elites, as well as the supposed large Jewish following garnered by the Young Turks. Both peasant rebels and elite dissidents alike saw Ataturk as a pawn in an international plot to dominate Turkey. Although contemporary scholars dismiss these claims, historians generally agree that Ataturk did falsely accuse numerous political competitors and dissidents of engaging in grand conspiracies against him. In consolidating his power, Turkey’s president purged or discredited large numbers of previously prominent political figures on charges of attempting to resurrect the Committee of Union and Progress. To this day, many contemporary Turks accept Ataturk’s purges as a historically necessary stage in the development of the young republic, even though the victims of this campaign may have been completely innocent.

The Cold War helped to intensify and broaden popular and elite fears of a government conspiracy. In light of the role played by the United States in the overthrow of the governments of Guatemala and Iran during the 1950s, the belief persists even today among many in Turkey that Washington similarly had a hand in the coups witnessed in Ankara in 1960, 1971, and 1980. Hard evidence of American involvement is largely lacking (although one Turkish journalist, Mehmet Birand, has claimed that a CIA station chief in 1980 admitted to supporting the coup of September 1980).

In the aftermath of the Cold War, Turkish journalists alleged that a band of notable civic leaders, business tycoons, and mafia bosses aligned with Turkey’s security establishment during the course of the state’s “dirty wars” against leftists and Kurdish rebels in the 1980s and 1990s. Such suspicions were confirmed by events such as the 1996 “Susurluk Scandal,” when the bodies of a member of parliament, a police captain, and a mafia assassin were found together in the wreckage of a car. Erdogan’s early popularity was due, in part, to his promise to fight this supposed “deep state” alliances of rogue officers, officials, and mobsters and bring transparency to Turkish politics.

Over the course of the last 15 years, popular and elite obsession with conspiracies among and against the Turkish government has grown considerably. Although accusations of foreign plots against the government were not unheard of before the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), particularly during the worst of Ankara’s war against the Kurdistan’s Worker Party in the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. invasion of Iraq propelled fears within the country that Washington’s advance in the Middle East might someday encompass Turkey. In addition to the legacy of U.S. covert activities during the Cold War, Turkish critics cited neo-conservative literature and activism (such as by groups like the Project for the New American Century) as evidence of Washington’s plans to remake Turkey and the Middle East as a whole.

Several popular Turkish books and films, such the Valley of the Wolves series, mixed fact and fiction, portending that a great host of international actors were scheming to carve up the country just as the Allies did to the Ottoman Empire after World War I. In recent years, Erdogan has tended to encourage and promote such worldviews as a way of explaining and legitimizing AKP rule. When prosecutors began charging hundreds of military officers and civilians of belonging to the so-called Ergenekon plot to overthrow the AKP government in 2007, Erdogan declared that such cabals “had always been there” since the time of the Ottomans. Rather than acknowledge the popular anger that prompted the Gezi demonstrations in the summer of 2013, he accused protestors of being in the pay of Western governments and business interests.

Erdogan’s very public repudiation of the Gülenist movement began in the aftermath of the Gezi Park demonstrations. When public prosecutors brought corruption charges against the sons of several AKP ministers in December 2013, Erdogan declared that the cases were tantamount to a coup. After claiming that Gülenists had deliberately subverted the country’s security services and judicial system, he began a massive purge of the policemen, lawyers, and judges. When critics suggested that the government was behaving indiscriminately and unlawfully, Erdogan was dismissive. “If it is a witch hunt to fire those who engage in treason,” he famously responded, “then it is a witch hunt.”

Since then, many of the individuals charged as a part of the investigation into the Ergenekon affair in 2013 have been released and absolved of any wrongdoing, with many officials now blaming Gülenist sympathizers for being behind it all. In December 2015, Turkey’s attorney general officially designated Fethullah Gülen’s various networks a terrorist organization, giving it the label of FETO, and accused the group of collaborating with Kurdish militants in Turkey and Syria.

Today, Turkey’s elected officials overwhelmingly believe that Gülenist agents in the military and other branches of the government orchestrated the attempted coup on July 15. As the AKP government has accused tens of thousands of people of participating in the plot, either arresting them or turning them out of their jobs, Turkish society has shown little opposition. Erdogan has, in part, supported claims made by Turkish newspapers, such as Karagul’s Yeni Şafak, that the coup was a foreign plot. FETO, according to Erdogan, were merely “a set of tongs” for snatching up “greater minds” abroad. Turkey’s former army chief, İlker Başbuğ, has been more blunt, claiming that the CIA directly backed the attempted coup.

The notion that a “parallel structure” of coup plotters and provocateurs operates within the state and society appears to resonate with large numbers of voters despite the absence of hard evidence. (One poll suggests that as many as 70 percent of Turks believe that the CIA was behind the coup.) While some experts outside of Turkey have raised doubts about Gülen’s hand in the coup, their voices have been drowned out by the government and popular media. It also seems that the very real history of conspiracies and covert plots within Turkey do make the notion of a Gülenist-led plot plausible. Secretive cabals have had a direct role in shaping the country’s past, at times in highly adverse ways.

But it is also clear that politicians use this history to allow conspiracy theories to fester, unchallenged. Erdogan, in particular, often invokes past plots and schemes to make his current case against the Gülenists. Even if it is difficult to parse fact and fiction at this time, given Turkey’s heated political atmosphere, it is clear that the population’s fears and paranoias contribute greatly to the enduring strength of Erdogan and the AKP. How long the Turkish government can sustain such an atmosphere of suspicion and tension is difficult to predict. But it is certain that these insecurities will continue to justify the imprisonment of thousands and worsen Turkey’s relationship with the United States and Europe.

  • RYAN GINGERAS is an associate professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He is the author of Fall of the Sultanate: The Great War and the End of the Ottoman Empire.
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