Why are Turkish journalists, again, detained?
On Sunday, yet another weird episode was added to Turkey’s endless hall of shame: About three dozen people were detained, including many journalists. These included Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of Turkey’s top selling newspaper, Zaman, and Hidayet Karaca, the general manager of Samanyolu, a news station and TV network. The detention of Dumanlı was particularly scenic, with policemen taking him from the Zaman building amid thousands of protestors cheering for press freedom.
But why? One does not have to be rocket scientist to see the political nature of the event. Zaman and Samanyolu, which are both voices of the movement of U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, were once very pro-Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current president, but turned bitterly against him over the past year. So, the arrest of their top executives only comes across as yet another step in the Erdogan administration’s now globally notorious efforts to crush critical media in Turkey.
However, there is also a more complicated side to this story. All of the people who were detained last Sunday (who are apparently all related to the Gülen movement) are accused of having roles in a specific event in 2010: The arrest of 120 alleged “al-Qaeda members” throughout Turkey, which was hailed at the time as a crackdown on terrorism but which is now requisitioned. The prosecutor seems convinced that the grenades found in an apartment of one of the accused in that case were actually planted there by the police, in order to create evidence to depict the group as terrorists.
Moreover, those who were arrested in 2010 as “al-Qaeda in Turkey” were apparently not members of al-Qaeda; rather, they were a tiny group of Turkish Islamists with radical views but a totally non-violent record. They belonged to a community called “Tahşiyeciler,” who claim to follow the teachings of Islamic scholar Said Nursi (1878-1960) but refuse the moderate, pro-democratic views of the mainstream Nursi tradition, of which Gülen movement is an offshoot.
With some research, I learned that Tahşiyeciler had always been non-violent, but also had troubling views. They condemned democracy as “a system of disbelief” and their leader even praised Osama bin Laden as “a commander” of the army of the Mahdi - the Islamic version of the awaited messiah. So, in my view, it was only natural for the police to question these people. But did they really have weapons in their homes? Or did the police put the weapons there - as the accused claim and as the police fingerprints on the grenades seem to suggest - in order to depict them as terrorists? That needs to be resolved at a court.
What ties this story to the Gülen movement is a series of interesting hints. In 2009, shortly before the hunt of the Tahşiyeciler, Gülen mentioned the group as a threat in one of his sermons. Soon, a conspiracy-obsessed TV drama on Samanyolu depicted the Tahşiyeciler as the pawns of a larger conspiracy against Turkey. Then, certain writers in Zaman also wrote about the “Tahşiyeciler” menace, after which came the police operation, executed by police officers who are believed to be members of the Gülen movement.
In other words, the journalists who were detained last Sunday are accused to be the “media wing” of a cabal. Alas, this is the very same accusation that was used against other jailed journalists in 2008-2012, when Erdogan and the Gülen movement were hand-in-hand in their hunt for a secularist cabal. Now, the same logic still reigns; the only thing that has changed is the place of the actors.