In a speech before the Turkish parliament on November 21, Erdogan referred to the raid on Aslan’s home as “one of the greatest traps in history.” He has suggested Gulen and his followers are influencing U.S. prosecutors in a plot against Turkish sovereignty—a message that plays well to supporters of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), who have become increasingly dissatisfied with U.S. policy towards Turkey and the Middle East.
But these accusations don’t quite square with recent history. The case against Zarrab has been building since March 2016, when he was arrested shortly after arriving in Miami—reportedly to visit Disney World with his family—though some analysts have suggested he may have negotiated his move out of Turkey with U.S. prosecutors. The coup, and Erdogan’s subsequent purge of government officials suspected of Gulenist ties, occurred in July of that year. “The United States did cooperate with Turkish prosecutors, presumably some linked to the Gulen movement, in its efforts to prosecute Zarrab,” Danforth told me. “But at the time the United States did this, those prosecutors were employees of good standing of the Turkish legal system who had been appointed by the AKP government.” Erdogan, in other words, seems content to ignore chronology in order to suit his reading of history. For those living outside the world of Turkish politics, this might be the most important, most difficult aspect of the case to understand.
Every day, Turkey’s politicians and pro-state media push conspiracy theories—stories of foreign actors trying to weaken the Turkish Republic. The intensity of the rhetoric far exceeds what westerners have come to know as “fake news,” instead creating an alternate reality propped by half-truths that depict Erdogan and his government as the saviors of the oppressed people of the world, and everyone else as the enemy. When Erdogan fails, he and his coterie blame that failure on foreign actors.
Since the 2016 coup attempt, this “politics of the victimized” seems to be Erdogan’s only mode. While the coup posed a very real threat to Turkey’s democracy, and many people lost their lives in its chaos, the purges of thousands of people on accusations of dubious links to terrorist organizations—such as downloading a specific phone messaging application known to be used by Gulenists—is testimony to just how far the falsehoods can go.
Furthermore, Turkey’s ongoing purges have put his country at odds with NATO allies, some of which have seen their citizens arrested or detained over the last year and a half. Currently, about a dozen American citizens are being held in Turkish prisons on thin allegations of collaborating with the coup plotters. More recently, two staff members of U.S. consular missions in Turkey were arrested on similar charges, prompting some analysts to claim Erdogan’s administration has taken a “hostage diplomacy” approach to bilateral negotiations.