Turkey’s Torrid Love Affair With Michael Flynn
ISTANBUL—Were Michael Flynn a Turkish citizen, it’s very likely he would be sitting in prison right now, awaiting trial for terror crimes.
In July of 2016, before he briefly became Donald Trump’s national security adviser, the former general was giving a speech in Cleveland just as soldiers were taking over the bridges and airports of Istanbul. “There’s an ongoing coup going on in Turkey right now—right now!” Flynn told his audience. The Turkish military, he continued, was a secular institution, whereas the country was heading “toward Islamism” under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His audience broke into applause; the event was hosted by a local branch of ACT for America, a national security group with strong Islamophobic tendencies. “Yeah,” Flynn said, “that is worth applauding.”
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By morning, however, the coup had failed, and the Turkish government was busy detaining anyone it believed had supported the plotters. Any Turkish citizen heard making such remarks, and on video, would undoubtedly have been arrested and jailed, as Erdogan’s government considers supporting the coup attempt an act of terrorism. Of the tens of thousands of people detained over the past year, many had said not a word about the coup; just having a certain app, a certain one-dollar bill, even a daughter born in a certain hospital counts as incriminating evidence in Turkey’s highly politicized courts.
Any foreign official would, at the very least, have been roundly condemned and vilified in the Turkish pro-government press. But for Flynn, Turkey appeared happy to make an exception. For, by the time the video surfaced last November, Flynn had performed a heel turn, lobbying in favor of Erdogan’s government and denouncing the man Ankara holds responsible for the failed putsch: Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Flynn also met in September and December last year with senior Turkish officials—including energy minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law—to discuss kidnapping Gülen and delivering him to Turkey, an allegation now being investigated as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. On Thursday, it emerged that Flynn’s lawyer had stopped sharing information with Trump’s legal team, a sign he may be cooperating with the investigation—with potentially portentous results for the president.
Kidnapping allegations aside, Flynn was, at least, one of very few senior Western officials who publicly agreed with Ankara’s view that Gülen was a threat —even though his worldview is firmly at odds with that of the Turkish government. Erdogan has his roots in political Islamism, an ideology Flynn considers a dire threat. During his brief tenure as national security adviser, he pushed for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — whose exiled leadership has found a safe haven in Turkey — to be designated a terrorist group. He has described Islam as a “cancer,” and at one point last year tweeted: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”
Turkey is well aware of Flynn’s anti-Muslim sentiments: “He’s an Islamophobe,” says Hilal Kaplan, a prominent columnist for Sabah, a newspaper with close ties to the Turkish government. But to Ankara, getting at Gülen trumps all else. In Turkey, no day goes by without mention of the cleric: Erdogan, who has pledged to bring him home to face justice, denounces him in daily speeches. The country is deeply divided on many issues, but Gülen is despised by both supporters and opponents of the government; many Turks believe he and his followers present an ongoing threat to their security, fearful that they might plan another coup.
Flynn’s Islamophobic rhetoric may not have won him any friends in Ankara, but he seemed a useful ally in pushing the new administration to extradite Turkey’s public enemy No. 1. “I don’t appreciate his thoughts on the Middle East and Islam,” Kaplan said of Flynn. “I don’t think he’s on the same page with Turkey on everything. But on the Gülen issue, he made a positive contribution.”
Flynn’s worldview would not have prevented the Turkish government from trying to work with him, believes Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, the Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund think tank: “From what I understand, the Turkish government is said to have made a business deal,” he said, referring to the alleged kidnapping plot. For that, he added, “they didn’t need to like him.”
Now, as he contemplates the smoking ruins of a once-promising career, the retired lieutenant general faces a potential indictment for failing to come clean on his dealings with Turkey—a predicament that is all the more tragic because Turks couldn’t care less about Michael Flynn.
From her office in Sabah’s Istanbul newsroom, Kaplan has an unobstructed view of the first of three bridges spanning the Bosphorus, the strait dividing Europe and Asia. Once called simply Bosphorus Bridge, it was renamed as 15 July Martyrs’ Bridge last year, in honor of those who died resisting the putschists.
The coup attempt caught Turks by surprise. The military had unseated several governments in the second half of the 20th century, but Erdogan had long curbed the generals’ ability to interfere. And Turks no longer tolerated military rule: As the news broke on the night of July 15 last year, thousands of citizens took to the street, facing down guns and tanks to demonstrate against the takeover. The Bosphorus Bridge saw some of the worst violence.
“I was on the bridge on the night of the coup,” Kaplan said. “Bullets were flying all around us. At some point, I thought my husband was dead. I left home, saying goodbye to my child. That’s just an example of what we went through that night.”
By the time the soldiers on the bridge surrendered at sunrise, more than 250 people had died across the country. Parliament and other government buildings in Ankara had been bombed by rebel jets. Turks often complain that foreigners do not understand the magnitude of the trauma caused by the event; many, including Kaplan, liken the coup’s emotional impact to the 9/11 attacks, a comparison also made by the U.S. consul in Istanbul.
Many Turks feel their Western allies showed no solidarity with them in the aftermath of the coup. Messages of condolence and support often came tinged with criticism as Erdogan embarked on a sweeping purge in the days after the attempted takeover, arresting thousands of judges, civil servants and ordinary citizens accused of belonging to Gülen’s secretive movement, an opaque network running schools and businesses across the globe, including in the United States. The purge soon widened to include opponents of all stripes, including Kurdish parliamentarians and critical journalists. One year on, 55,000 people sit behind bars.
Ankara was enraged at Western emphasis on rule of law in the failed coup’s immediate aftermath. “Turkey expected support,” said Talha Köse, a professor at Istanbul’s Ibn Haldun University and researcher at SETA, a think tank with close ties to the Turkish government. “After the coup, Russia was the first country to express support. Unfortunately American involvement was very late and very weak.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdoğan noted in a speech last year, did not ask him about the number of people detained when he called.
The feeling of a lack of solidarity was compounded by Western skepticism over Turkey’s claim that Gülen, an elderly cleric who had been living in self-imposed exile since the 1990s, had orchestrated the coup. Commenting on Ankara’s extradition request, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Turkey to provide “legitimate evidence.” European intelligence services have expressed doubt that the cleric’s followers, known as Gülenists, were solely responsible for the coup attempt, instead believing that a mix of Gülenists and disenchanted officers were to blame.
There are plenty of signs that Gülenists did indeed play a role in the coup attempt—several Gülenist civilians were detained at an airbase taken over by mutinous officers, for instance—but Turkey has so far not provided solid evidence implicating the cleric himself. Gülen, meanwhile, has denied any involvement in the coup. The cleric and his movement present themselves as advocates for moderate Islam and interfaith dialogue.
But to most Turks, both supporters and opponents of the government, Gülen was the obvious culprit. Many here compare his movement to a sect or a mafia, given the degree of secrecy surrounding it. Gülenists used to wield considerable influence in Turkey, with followers in all branches of the state; they stand accused of infiltrating government institutions over decades. Gülenist jurists are widely considered—both by Turks across the political spectrum and by independent analysts—to have staged sham trials against government opponents and critics of the exiled cleric and his movement.
Gülen was once a key ally of the president; after Erdogan came to power, the cleric’s followers in state institutions proved helpful in dismantling the influence of the old secular elite. Years prior to the coup attempt, however, his movement became an enemy of the government. The breaking point came in 2013, when Gülenists are thought to have leaked the tapes that sparked a graft scandal embroiling Erdogan’s inner circle.