Stranger Than Fiction in Turkey

Why Conspiracy Theories Persist

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

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