As Turkey regains its bearings after a bloody coup attempt, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to eradicate what he calls a virus. More than 7,000 people already have been detained in a crackdown that has included top generals and a presidential adviser to judges and prosecutors.
The failed military takeover has blown open long-standing divisions in Turkey between those who support Erdogan’s leadership and those who worry he’s using the episode to purge his rivals and amass even more power.
At a funeral on the eastern, or Asian, side of Istanbul, three coffins covered in Turkish flags are carried above the crowd at the entrance of a mosque. People weep and say “God is great.”
A woman sobs. Her cousin is among the dead.
“They were unarmed civilians,” she says. “This is a massacre, not a coup.”
The three being mourned were from the same upper-class Istanbul neighborhood. They all died of gunshot wounds. Relatives compared the fighting Friday night and into Saturday morning to a war, with soldiers shooting at civilians and police then firing on the soldiers. By the time the military takeover failed, more than 200 people across Turkey were dead.
Muhsin Efendilir says his nephew is one of the three dead at this funeral. Murat Martel was 39 and had three children. He left his home when he heard a friend had been shot. That friend is also being buried on this day.
Efendilir says when his nephew passed the state-owned telecom company where soldiers were trying to take control, he was shot in the back.
He says his nephew died for nothing. “Our taxes pay for the soldiers’ guns,” he says. “Shame on them.”
Talk of harsh punishment
Efendilir says he was always against the death penalty, which Turkey abolished in 2004. But now he wants to see it brought back.
“What can I say,” he says, “it hurts so badly. With the death penalty, these people will come to their senses.”
It’s a sentiment among many who are grieving. And Erdogan has said he will consider reinstating capital punishment.
But even at this funeral, there are those who are worried that Erdogan will use this moment to increase his already expansive powers.
The crowd is a mix of the religious and secular. One woman, Jale Yanilmaz, from a leftist political party, worries that Erdogan, a political Islamist, could use this moment to try to change the nature of Turkey from the constitutionally secular state it is today.
She says she is in pain over the senseless violence, angry about the attempted military overthrow by a small part of the army. And she’s also angry that the president called on civilians to confront the army.
Involving civilians in something the security forces should handle creates more chaos, she says.
Many Turks are heeding the call of the president to return to the streets. Erdogan has asked citizens to go out every night for another week to celebrate and protect democracy. They chant religious slogans, play traditional, Ottoman-era music and wear Turkish flags.
Erdogan was democratically elected, but he’s been cracking down on journalists and political opponents. There are many Turks who feel he’s grown too powerful.
The coup attempt has generated a rampant conspiracy theory that the military takeover was “staged” so that Erdogan could respond by purging Turkish institutions.
One man, who believes in the conspiracy and declines to give his name, offers this cynical take on the country’s leadership: “They’re celebrating democracy? They know democracy? They know anything about the democracy? We are ruling with democracy now? They are talking about democracy? Ha. Just I’m smiling,” he says.
“I don’t want to be arrested,” he adds, showing me pictures of people beating and whipping soldiers who had surrendered. “This is shameful. They were only following orders.”