Ibrahim Kalin was to be a keynote speaker at the MAS-ICNA convention. This bothered a lot of people, especially opponents of the Turkish government living in the United States. Their agitation is well understandable.
“MAS-ICNA” stands for “Muslim American Society” and “Islamic Circle of North America.” Jointly, these organizations hold an annual convention, taking place in Chicago at the end of the year. Ibrahim Kalin is a famous figure, or an infamous one, depending on whom you talk to: A former academic in the United States, he is the chief adviser to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey.
Kalin earned his Ph.D. at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. He taught at Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass. He has moved in the circles of Middle East studies in the United States, and everyone in that field has a story, or three, about Kalin.
Incidentally, he has over a million Twitter followers.
Last September, he made remarks that raised eyebrows, to put it mildly. Speaking in Ankara, he said, “Relevant units and institutions will continue their operations in countries where FETO operates, whether in the U.S. or another country. The Turkish Republic will not let them rest. They will feel Turkey breathing down their neck.”
“FETO”? More on that in a moment. As it happened, Kalin could not appear at the MAS-ICNA convention in Chicago, as he traveled to Moscow with a Turkish delegation to discuss cooperation between Turkey and Russia in the Syrian war. This was in the wake of President Trump’s announcement of a U.S. withdrawal from that country. To the convention, Turkey’s consul general in Chicago read out a message from Erdogan himself.
The Turkish leader has a keen interest in American Muslim organizations. He sees himself as a leader of the Islamic world at large. In 2016, one of his daughters, Sumeyye, was a star at the MAS-ICNA convention.
Back to “operations” and the breath of the Turkish government on necks. That government has established an agency with an extraordinarily blunt name: “Office for Human Abductions and Executions.” It is an arm of the Turkish intelligence organization, an organization known by the initials “MIT.” The country’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, has given out some numbers: Turkey has retrieved 104 people from 21 different countries (by whatever means). And the government has its sights on many, many more.
Have they plucked any from the United States? Not so far, though “they have been trying, and they will continue to try.” So says Alon Ben-Meir, an expert at New York University.
Dictatorships are not shy about harassing, capturing, or killing their critics in exile. They are rarely fussy about what they do on foreign soil. Putin’s Russia, as we have seen, is very unshy and unfussy. So are China, Cuba, and, increasingly, Turkey. Ibrahim Kalin said that the U.S. is not exempt from Turkey’s operations. This should alert any U.S. official who, for some reason, is not already alert.
Above all other men, the Erdogan regime hates Fethullah Gulen. He is the Turkish Muslim leader, now 77 years old, who has lived in the United States since 1999. Specifically, he lives in the Poconos, in Pennsylvania, in a compound outside Saylorsburg.
Gulen’s followers call their movement “Hizmet,” meaning “Service.” They have many schools all over the world. They say that their movement is devoted to education, equality, and democracy. Their sympathizers and well-wishers agree. Others do not, of course. The Gulen movement has been debated for decades now.
“A complicated beast, very large, very diffuse.” That is an observation of Nate Schenkkan, a Turkey-watcher at Freedom House.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan took power 16 years ago, in 2003. For a time, the Gulenists were in alliance with him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). This was, at least, a tactical alliance. It was always uneasy. A decisive break came in 2013, when Erdogan accused the Gulenists of plotting against him. Gulenists say they were simply trying to curb the corruption of the AKP-ers. In any case, Erdogan cracked down on the Gulen movement, eventually declaring it a terrorist organization. He and the AKP named it “FETO” — an acronym for “Fethullah Terrorist Organization.” Hence, Ibrahim Kalin’s use of that term.
To the AKP, every opponent or critic of the government is a “Gulenist.” You could be a secular leftist journalist, with no use for the Gulen movement. Still, you are a “Gulenist.” You are also a “terrorist.” Any opponent or critic is a “terrorist.” The government has imprisoned human-rights activists as “terrorists.” Among them is the director of the Turkish branch of Amnesty International, Idil Eser. Enes Kanter, too, has been labeled a “terrorist.” He is a center on the New York Knicks, of the National Basketball Association. (More on him in due course.)
July 2016 saw a coup attempt in Turkey. By whom? This is a murky subject. Erdogan immediately said, “Gulen.” Others pointed to a combination of forces, in the broad anti-Erdogan sphere. Still others said that Erdogan himself had a hand in the events.
Of interest is a piece by Michael Rubin, of the American Enterprise Institute: “Turkey’s Reichstag Fire.”
Again, the issue is murky. But when the smoke cleared, Erdogan declared the coup attempt “a gift from God,” making possible “a new Turkey.”
It did, in a way. Erdogan executed a sweeping, horrific crackdown, arresting hundreds of thousands of people — judges, professors, journalists, everybody — and cementing a personal dictatorship, so common in the world. Today, Turkey is the world’s leading jailer of journalists. The prisons bulge with all sorts of people who may have an independent thought — a thought different from Erdogan’s or the AKP’s.
Last year, a joke made the rounds. A prisoner visits the prison library, requesting a certain book. The librarian says, “We don’t have the book. But we do have the author.”
Erdogan made Fethullah Gulen — who flatly denied any involvement in the coup attempt — a demon figure. He is Turkey’s Emmanuel Goldstein (the bogeyman in 1984). He is to Erdogan’s Turkey what George Soros is to Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Propaganda against Gulen and the Gulen movement is nonstop. Nate Schenkkan says that Gulen is “the most demonized figure in Turkey right now, even more than Ocalan.” (Abdullah Ocalan is the leader of the militant Kurdish movement, who has been imprisoned by the Turkish government since 1999.)
A supporter of Gulen who has been in exile for many years was in Turkey for a brief period not long ago. He watched television. He took in the persistent, wallpaper propaganda against Gulen. “I swear, I was almost convinced myself,” he says, so pervasive and insistent is the propaganda.
The government has cast its net worldwide, looking to bring in any and all critics, under the rubric “Gulenist.” “We will return to the country one by one those Gulenists who have fled and now think they’re safe,” Erdogan said. “We will continue the fight against the Gulenists until we have completely eradicated them.”
He has several tools in his bag, several methods at his disposal. Some countries, he can induce to extradite his critics. His government might say, “An Airbus or two for this Gulenist or two.” Turkey has some money to throw around, and it exerts leverage over many countries. Americans may not think of Turkey as much of a power, as Schenkkan points out. But to other countries — Moldova, Gabon, Azerbaijan, Sudan — it is.
And where extradition is impossible or difficult, abduction will do.
It happened in Kosovo, dramatically. Six people — almost all of them teachers — were nabbed and immediately flown to Turkey. A CCTV camera caught one of the kidnappings. Two agents posed as cops, yanking Yusuf Karabina from his car. His wife, Yasemin, knowing what was happening, screamed for help. To no avail. Before long, her husband and the rest were on the plane to Turkey. They were tortured along the way, of course.
Said Erdogan, “Wherever they may go, we will wrap them up and bring them here, God willing. And here they will be held to account.” Reports of torture, from those who live to tell the tale, almost never vary, from dictatorship to dictatorship, year after year: beatings, sleep deprivation, isolation, electrodes on genitals, forced confessions, etc.
Turkish intelligence has operated fairly easily in countries such as Kosovo. It’s harder in countries with a sturdier rule of law. Two Turkish agents — “diplomats” — conspired to kidnap a Turkish-Swiss businessman. They were unable to bring their plan to fruition. Last summer, the Swiss government issued warrants for their arrest.
Enes Kanter, the basketball player, was targeted in Indonesia, while on a tour for his charitable foundation. Tipped off at 2:30 in the morning, he caught the next plane out, which was to Singapore. From there, he went to Romania — where he discovered that the Turkish government had canceled his passport. Helped by the U.S. State Department, the NBA, and other institutions, he made it back to America. Otherwise, he says, it might have ended very badly for him.
Kanter is a Gulenist — a genuine one — and an outspoken critic of the Erdogan regime. His fame as an athlete has protected him, to a degree. He can talk to journalists openly (as he has to me) and is happy to be quoted. (For a podcast I did with Kanter last September, go here.) Other Turks abroad, however, are scared to death to be identified. They have reason to be. They know it could be death — murder — to their families back home.
Turkish journalists abroad are under keen pressure. If they report or comment, what will happen to their loved ones in Turkey? Last year, I wrote about China’s persecution of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang Province, or East Turkestan. Radio Free Asia, an American organization, has a Uyghur service. At the time of my piece, relatives of six staffers had been rounded up in China. A full 24 of one — Gulchehra Hoja — had been rounded up.
Enes Kanter is famous, but, as events have proven, he is not untouchable, and neither is his family. His father, a university professor, lost his job. He has also been put on trial. (What will happen is not yet clear.) Enes’s dentist has been imprisoned, and so has the dentist’s wife. The list goes on.
Did you ever ask Enes to take a picture with your child? If so, you could be arrested. (This has happened.)
The New York Knicks will play the Washington Wizards on January 17 — not in New York or Washington but in London. Enes Kanter will not be joining the team. Why? Too dangerous, he says. “They’ve got a lot of spies there,” he told the press, referring to the Turkish government. “I could get killed very easily.”
This is serious business, as Kanter knows, and every Turk knows.
It is the Erdogan government’s highest hope, of course, to get the United States to extradite Fethullah Gulen himself back to Turkey. Last November, NBC News began a report,
The White House is looking for ways to remove an enemy of Turkish President Recep Erdogan from the U.S. in order to placate Turkey over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to two senior U.S. officials and two other people briefed on the requests.
The report further said,
Career officials at the agencies pushed back on the White House requests, the U.S. officials and people briefed on the requests said.
“At first there were eye rolls, but once they realized it was a serious request, the career guys were furious,” said a senior U.S. official involved in the process.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Michael Flynn was advising Donald Trump, and he was also working with the Turkish government. On Election Day, an op-ed was published under his name, unloading on Gulen, in the manner of the AKP. When Trump was sworn in, Flynn was the president’s national security adviser. Later, belatedly, he registered as a foreign agent.
On September 19, 2016, Flynn and others met with Turkish officials, including Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law. The topic was Gulen: How to discredit him and get him extradited? According to one participant, something beyond extradition was also discussed: namely, “a covert step in the dead of night to whisk this guy away.” The participant was R. James Woolsey, a former CIA director, and those were his words to the Wall Street Journal. (Woolsey himself wanted no part of such activity.)
Last month, two of Flynn’s associates, including his business partner, were indicted in the Turkish matter.
Gulen has not been whisked away — but Erdogan is still pressing hard for his extradition. On the second-to-last day of 2018, his justice minister, Abdulhamit Gul, said, “God willing, the U.S. will comply with our demand in 2019.”
Putin’s Russia is well-known for its abuse of Interpol (among other abuses). But Erdogan’s Turkey is in on the game too. Here is Maxim Eristavi, a Ukrainian journalist affiliated with the Atlantic Council in Prague:
Since the failed coup of 2016, Turkey has tried to lodge some 60,000 so-called Interpol Red Notices. It is still unclear how many of these have been accepted, but dozens of Turkish dissidents in my region of Eastern Europe alone have been hunted down on the back of those notices, some shipped back to torturers in Turkey.
What’s most disturbing is that the West keeps ignoring these voices. If those running for their lives from revengeful autocrats can’t count on the West to guarantee their safety, we have to face the unsettling fact that there are major loopholes in our global policing system.
To see this article in full, go here.
When speaking of the Erdogan regime, Eric Edelman cites a “clear pattern of exporting authoritarian lawlessness.” Edelman was a U.S. ambassador to Turkey in the 2000s. Americans got a glimpse of this lawlessness — just a glimpse — in May 2017, when Erdogan paid a visit to Washington (“a great honor,” tweeted President Trump). In front of the Turkish ambassador’s residence, there were protesters, and Erdogan’s presidential guard duly beat the hell out of them. D.C. police, astonished, intervened as best they could.
Senator John McCain tweeted, “This is the United States of America. We do not do this here. There is no excuse for this kind of thuggish behavior.” Senator Ben Sasse tweeted, “President Erdogan, you would do well to remember that this country is built on free speech, free religion, free press, & freedom to protest.”
Again, Americans got just a glimpse. If Turkish authorities behave this way in the American capital in broad daylight — imagine what they do back home, and in relative backwaters such as Kosovo.
Last fall, Professor Ben-Meir at New York University organized a panel discussion of Turkey. The discussion was menaced by pro-Erdogan thugs. Ben-Meir subsequently wrote about the experience. He said, “How can we tolerate a foreign autocrat who dispatches his thugs to our country and challenges our right to free speech and assembly?”
Eric Edelman has an expression: “Authoritarian International,” which echoes the old “Comintern,” or “Communist International.” Recep Tayyip Erdogan is prominent in this league. Not many world leaders attended his most recent inauguration, in July 2018, but the attendees included Russia’s Medvedev (the prime minister), Hungary’s Orbán (the only EU leader present), and Venezuela’s Maduro. Maduro hailed Erdogan as a “leader of the new multi-polar world.”
He is. Will others stand up to him, and that league? That is a major question of our time.