ISTANBUL — It was a notice received by tens of thousands of professionals in the aftermath of Turkey’s failed coup, and one that profoundly shocked Uygar Ozdemir.
The 36-year-old high school sports teacher had been suspended from his job in an Istanbul school, accused of providing financial support for a terrorist organization and promoting the organization on social media.
Ozdemir returned to Istanbul from vacation and began trying to unravel how he got caught up in one of the biggest dragnets in modern Turkish history — one designed to root out followers of a reclusive Islamic cleric who the government says was behind the July 15 coup attempt that left more than 270 people dead.
“In the beginning I was very surprised. I thought, ‘How can it be possible?’ I couldn’t believe that I was associated with an organization, religious or terrorist, which I never had a link to in my life,” said a shaken Ozdemir, noting he had never even been to a mosque as an adult, much less followed a secretive religious cleric.
“It is a very tragic incident for me,” he said.
He wasn’t alone.
Hundreds of kilometers (miles) to the south in Turkey’s coastal town of Izmir, 37-year-old high school counselor Seyda Kara was among those receiving a similar notice. The official suspension letter fell from her hands when she opened it, such was her shock.
More than 20,000 teachers have been suspended from public schools, while thousands of private school teachers have lost their jobs.
Both Kara and Ozdemir insist they have nothing to do with cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States and whose movement runs charities, schools and businesses worldwide. Turkey has designated Gulen’s movement a terrorist organization.
Turkey’s failed coup by rebel military officers was swift and forceful. In the space of a few hours, fighter jets overflew Ankara and Istanbul, rattling windows with sonic booms while helicopters strafed buildings and tanks rolled down city streets. It was ultimately defeated by people heeding a call from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to take to the streets in defiance.
The government’s ensuing crackdown was no less swift. A state of emergency was declared. More than 40,000 people have been detained and nearly 85,000 suspended or dismissed from a broad range of public sector jobs, from schoolteachers and doctors to airline staff, diplomats, judges, journalists and artists. More than 4,200 institutions have been closed or seized, including schools.
Erdogan says the purges are essential to rid the Turkish state of Gulen’s followers. Gulen himself has condemned the coup and denies any involvement.
The government has vowed to continue the crackdown. On Wednesday, it decided provisionally to release 38,000 prisoners in an apparent attempt to make room for thousands arrested in the coup investigation.
Some say that the government’s response is understandable to a degree.
There is a “broad consensus” in Turkey that Gulen followers played an important role in the coup attempt, said Fadi Hakura, associate fellow in the London-based Chatham House think tank. The movement’s primary activity in Turkey was in education, so the government was “right to conclude that at least a sizeable segment of the Turkish education system was infiltrated,” he said.
“The Turkish government has some legitimacy to pursue Gulenist supporters within the state administration in general and the education field in particular,” Hakura said. “However, the government needs to be very, very careful that this cleansing operation, as it calls it, does not encompass … many innocent individuals who are completely unconnected to the Gulen movement and whose reputations and professional careers have been severely damaged by the government’s post-coup crackdown.”
Ozdemir and Kara insist that is exactly what happened to them.
Kara said she knew that the state of emergency would have a wide impact on society, “but I never thought I would be affected personally.”
Turkey’s wide-ranging crackdown has spurred several European allies and rights organizations to urge restraint. Erdogan has been defiant, criticizing Europe for not showing enough support, blasting the United States for not quickly extraditing Gulen, and vowing to continue the purges.
Ozkan Yucel, Kara’s lawyer, fears that the law is being sidelined in the name of rooting out coup plotters, bundling the innocent in with the guilty.
“The rule of law has been put on the shelf to a great extent,” he said. “For a second one can think: The country is going through an extraordinary situation, therefore some measures are needed. But whether those measures are proportionate or realistic is questionable.”
Hakura said many were concerned that “the Turkish state’s ability to provide adequate education services will be diminished for generations to come.”
For Kara and Ozdemir, the consequences have been devastating. Although they haven’t been fired, they face investigations to determine whether they will be reinstated or sacked. Under the state of emergency, those dismissed can’t appeal, and can never work in the public sector again.
Kara knows of no reason for being on the purge list, beyond possibly as a case of mistaken identity. The only explanation Ozdemir can contemplate was his use of a bank connected to the Gulen movement — an account he opened for convenience, he said, because a branch near his home offered interest-free banking.
Other suspended teachers use the same bank — one which, he noted, officially sponsored Turkey’s soccer federation until recently. The bank has been shut down since the coup attempt.
“My colleagues, including me, have not (opened an account) to support a group, a congregation or a terrorist organization. We opened an account in a bank for reasons related to daily life,” he said.
Being appointed to a state school was a long-term dream and it took Ozdemir a decade to get there. He had worked in construction, a patisserie, a computer company and selling books before his 2012 teaching appointment.
His colleagues have started a petition for his reinstatement and former and current students are conducting a social media campaign. But the process is lengthy. His teachers’ union has appealed to the education ministry on behalf of more than 130 members but was told no deadline for a decision could be given because so many cases were pending.
For Ozdemir, the uncertainty is devastating.
“It created the feeling in me that I will lose everything in my life,” he said.
Simsek reported from Istanbul and Izmir. Associated Press reporter Vicki Ferrar in London contributed to this report.