The attempted coup d'etat in Turkey last week resulted in more than 6,000 arrests, almost 300 deaths, and the destruction of the country's parliament building. And while it failed to depose an increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the unsuccessful putsch succeeded spectacularly at generating untold numbers of theories — some more plausible than others — as to who was behind it.
The Turkish government, for one, has placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Fethullah Gülen, a moderate Sunni cleric living in self-imposed exile in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, about 90 miles outside Philadelphia. According to Erdogan and his Islamist party, the cleric has run for years a large group of followers in the armed forces and other institutions that has created a "parallel state" opposed to the government.
But a violent power grab is not characteristic of Gülen and his followers, who tend to pull levers in the shadows, as opposed to triggers in the streets. Gülen publicly denies any involvement at all, instead accusing Erdogan of having himself orchestrated the coup in a craven bid to justify the continued snuffing out of any and all threats, real or perceived, to his authority. Gülen did not respond to requests for comment. The Turkish consulate in New York referred VICE News to a statement posted to its website on Sunday, labeling Gülen a terrorist.
Gülen vs Erdogan: the coup as showdown
What we are in fact seeing unfold is a "dispute over who can claim to lead the Turkic Muslims of Turkey and the world," according to Jonathan Laurence, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution and a professor of political science at Boston College. (Turkey is the largest economy and leading power among the nations that speak Turkic languages and have Muslim majorities, including major oil exporters Azerbaijian and Kazakhstan.)
"If this was a coup supported by Gülenists, I do not believe it would have been ordered by Gülen," Laurence said. "Though it could be that they saw the writing on the wall, and this was a last resort. Erdogan fired some judges, imprisoned some editors, and he's getting closer and closer to extinguishing Gülen's strongholds."
Many secular Turks have long viewed the military as a failsafe against encroaching Islamism. Meanwhile, Erdogan has made enemies out of Turkey's intellectuals, free press, Kurds, environmentalists, the LGBTQ community, the judiciary, and following a bitter row, Fethullah Gülen.
Being able to point to one another as threats has served the interests of both Erdogan and Gülen over the years, Laurence said. This has led to "various acts of preemption and retaliation," including Erdogan's order to close of Turkey's socially liberal Gülenist schools. Not to be outdone, Gülen's followers leaked details of rampant corruption within Erdogan's innermost circle, after which Erdogan accused the judges and police officers investigating the charges of being Gülenists themselves, and either fired or demoted the bulk of them.
After the coup attempt, the president has ordered a massive roundup of suspected disloyal officers and bureaucrats, in what could be the beginning of his final assault against what he perceives as the Gülenist threat.
One of those rounded up was General Akin Oztürk, former commander of the Turkish Air Force, who on Monday was reported by some media outlets to have confessed to plotting the ill-fated coup, a claim that was swiftly contradicted and retracted. Whatever the case, Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official focused on the Middle East and Turkey, believes Oztürk's involvement points away from Gülen rather than towards him.
"A four-star general is no follower of Fethullah Gülen," Rubin said. "To rise to that rank would have meant considerable vetting, and would have required having no connection whatsoever to Gülen."
Oztürk, in fact, "has been fighting against the infiltrators from the Gülen organization" in the armed forces, according to Ahmet Sik, a Turkish investigative journalist who has written a book on Gülen, The Imam's Army. The confusion on the general's involvement in the coup attempt "was due to the fact that the Anadolu (news) agency, whose legitimacy is seriously questionable, claimed that he admitted the crime — but as soon as we saw the original document, it was clear that he did not admit to any crime, he denied the charges," Sik said.
The coup plotters were incompetent, and/or it was a fake
Rubin, who is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Washington, finds it hard to believe that Erdogan might have staged a fake coup to further his own political agenda — a theory which has gained traction in recent days.
The "sheer incompetence" of the coup attempt may raise doubts in some people's minds that it was ever meant to succeed in the first place, he admitted. Video footage showed soldiers and army officers getting arrested by police on Friday night, just hours after the coup started. Coup supporters shut Istanbul's two airports, but both were reopened the following morning, and a key bridge reopened less than an hour after it was taken by overmatched rebels. However, Rubin argues that the amateurishness of the operation in itself proves little: "We need to recognize that people sometimes fuck up."
Erdogan is said to have long been worried that he would be overthrown in much the same way as Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, another democratically elected Islamist who was toppled by the army in 2013. Yet Erdogan said last Saturday that the uprising was "a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army." Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at Canada's University of Waterloo and the author of Arab Dawn: Arab Youth and the Demographic Dividend They Will Bring, points out that the so-called cleansing has not been limited to the armed forces. In addition to the roughly 6,000 soldiers and officers arrested for Friday's insurrection, Erdogan further ordered the suspension of almost 3,000 civilian judges.
"They aren't part of any military coup, why would a bunch of lawyers be scheming to take over the state?" Momani asked. "Erdogan wants to put in some constitutional reforms that will give him even more power, and the judges have been standing in his way, so this is a great opportunity to get rid of them."
Perhaps not surprisingly, a view has emerged among a swath of Erdogan supporters that US fingerprints are surely somewhere to be found somewhere among all of this.
The American connection
"People ask, 'What is Gülen doing in America?'" said Michael Reynolds, an associate professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. "You know, a former CIA officer sponsored his visa." (This is apparently true.)
"Did America play any role in this? Did the US have any knowledge that a coup was about to take place?" is what some Turks are asking, he said.
But depending on where one chooses to focus, one can find evidence to support whatever side they're on, Laurence said.
"If you want to paint Erdogan as an authoritarian despot, there is scattered evidence of that. If you want to paint him as one of Turkey's most democratic leaders, there is also scattered evidence of that," he said. "The complicating factor in all of this is that Erdogan sees Fethullah Gülen living in a comfortable compound in the Poconos, under the protection of the United States."
Speaking in Istanbul on Saturday, Erdogan called on President Obama to extradite Gülen from the US to Turkey.
"I say if we are strategic partners then you should bring about our request," he said.
Whether that might happen remains doubtful. "We fully anticipate that there will be questions raised about Mr. Gülen," Secretary of State John Kerry said.
Earlier Tuesday, Turkey officially demanded Gülen's return.
"Do not protect that traitor any longer," said Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.
Asli Pelit contributed reporting for this story.