'Stop Erdoğan' ad in U.S. highlights tug-of-war between Ankara, critics

An advertisement that read “Stop Erdogan” on New York City’s Times Square was removed following outrage from Turkey’s ruling party. 

On Thursday, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported that the ad was removed after the Washington D.C-based Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC) protested to the company responsible for running the broadcast, Outfront Media Company. 

Ömer Çelik, the spokesman for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), accused U.S-based followers of exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen of being responsible for the Times Square ad, calling them an enemy of Turkey. 

"FETÖ is an enemy of Turkey and hence our president. This treacherous network added to their betrayals by targeting our president with ads filled with lies. Their attacks on our president stem from their enmity against our people," Çelik tweeted on Thursday. 

Fethullah Gülen was once an ally to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his network played a major role in his take-over of government institutions. Their cooperation was pivotal in defanging the Turkish military to prevent it from interfering in Turkish politics in the name of protecting the constitution.  

The two men had a falling out in 2013 amidst a corruption investigation into the Erdogan government which blamed Gülen and his network for the initial allegations. After the 2016 failed coup attempt against Erdoğan, Turkish authorities arrested thousands who they accused of being Gülenists. They also unsuccessfully have sought Gülen’s extradition from the United States, accusing him of masterminding the plot. Some of the leading figures of the Movement were caught red-handed in the proximity of the headquarters of the coup, Akinci Base in Ankara, in the morning of the coup and were arrested. But so far no evidence has been provided that directly point to Gülen himself ordering the coup.

The group responsible for the ad is a Wayne, New Jersey based non-profit called Advocates of Silenced Turkey (AST) whose mission is “to champion the rights of Silenced Turkey until universal human rights and democratic governance are established and sustained as the utmost priorities of the Republic of Turkey.” It is registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

AST began posting images of it on March 2 on their Twitter feed, a day before the ad was removed. It was joined by others highlighting rates of femicide, the number of women and children, and they encouraged viewers to “Contact your representative” to raise awareness.

One ad read “Stop tripled femicide in Erdoğan’s Turkey” and joined another that said “5,000 women, 780 Babies are political prisoners in Turkey” in a side-by-side in the heart of Manhattan. These ads were produced ahead of planned marches across the United States for Turkish women’s rights, including one at Times Square itself.  

The number of women murdered in Turkey has risen in recent years with 300 women killed in 2020 alone, but possibly higher because of misclassifying some deaths as suicides. 

According to AST’ own report, up to 17,000 women are imprisoned in Turkey and it has been separately reported that female inmates are frequently imprisoned with their children. Turkey is considered one of the largest jailers of political prisoners worldwide, but no exact figures exist on how many women are specifically among them.

The cost of the ads was not immediately clear, but a GoFundMe page by AST that was opened on March 2, the day the group first posted images of the ad on Twitter, to raise $39,000 and said $33,000 would be spent on the Times Square billboards and the remainder would go to social media advertising. Pro-Erdoğan media suggested the ads would cost millions of dollars.

AST’ executive director and spokesperson Hafza Girdap told Ahval News that the purpose of the ads was not “to run a defamation campaign.” She said the group wanted to spread “awareness in the international arena regarding grave human rights violations and unlawful persecution citizens of Turkey face under the Erdogan regime”. 

To that end, she said AST was “shocked” that an American media company “complied with such an oppression coming from outside the borders of the U.S. where freedom of speech and expression is and should be respected.”

In an email to Ahval News, Girdap said "We believe that Outfront was subjected to pressure coming from not only TASC and Turkish community members but also most importantly, directly from President Erdogan”. She said that in the case of TASC's pressure campaign on Outfront, it was likely done at the president’s behest through Halil Mutlu, the group’s co-chairman and Erdogan’s cousin. 

TASC is one of the most vocally pro-Erdogan Turkish-American organisations and has frequently repeated government talking points on various policies. The group is a prolific defender of President Erdogan and has hosted him in the U.S more than once, usually in New York on the sidelines of his arrival for the United Nations General Assembly.

Mutlu told Anadolu that the ad “outraged” Turkish-Americans who he said “flooded the advertising company with emails and phone calls.” He also said that TASC reached out to Outfront’s management to “inform” them about “the terror group's activities and its coup attempt in Turkey.”

"They told us they were not aware of these [things]. They only broadcast the ad as a commercial enterprise," he said.

On March 3, TASC posted an image to its Instagram that thanked Outfront for “acting responsibly” in removing what it called “anti-Turkish posters.” 

Outfront Media Company did not respond to Ahval News’ request for comment on the ad’s removal or the reason given for it by TASC. 

Not long after the ad came down, TASC drove their own vans sporting LED screens that displayed photos of the failed coup attempt through Times Square, while repeating a recorded speech by Erdogan on those lost during that night. 

Other videos appeared on social media of more vans with messages aimed at Turkey’s enemies. One video shared by Atilla Ödünç, an AKP deputy from Bursa, showed a line of vans with shifting LED signs that read “Stop FETO Gülen criminals” and “Stop Terror: PKK = PYD = YPG”. 

The latter is in reference to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has waged an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984, and its Syrian off-shoots. The United States works together with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in its campaign to eradicate the Islamic State from Syria, a source of deep resentment in Turkey. 

TASC has periodically staged commemorations of the coup's failure in U.S cities, particularly in New York. 

Last summer on the fourth anniversary of the failed coup, vans with similar messages as the ones seen in Times Square drove through Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. They were joined by planes that flew banners that read "Stop Terrorist FETO" over the city. 

Competition between pro-government and Gülen-affiliated organisations is nothing new in the U.S, where Turkey’s political infighting has found a home in the coup’s aftermath. A number of Turks with connections to the Gülen movement migrated to the U.S where they continue to maintain a network of schools, businesses and nonprofits. The Movement has as many schools as they used to have before the coup, but its rapid increase in the number of schools stalled since the coup attempt. The Turkish government has used its array of lobbyists and other groups to profile their operations, but also to indoctrinate Turkish-Americans with the government’s preferred narratives. 

A source familiar with the work of Gülenist organisations in the U.S explained that most do not openly identify themselves as such and that Gülenist outlets have always preferred denying any links to the Gülen Movement since its inception. Even during the most powerful years in a coalition with Erdoğan government, Gülenists refused to identify themselves belonging to the group and this prompted accusations that they lacked transparency. Since the 2016 coup attempt, the persecution faced by supporters in Turkey has made them fearful of it coming back to haunt them in their new home. Erdogan and his government frequently assail them as terrorists, a message carried to the U.S by TASC and its leaders. 

Hafza from AST said that “people who affiliate themselves with Fethullah Gülen never use these terms since they imply categorization” and that it would be unfair to apply a label that Erdogan has made synonymous with terrorist in Turkey. She added that AST was not linked to Gülen and that its volunteers come from a variety of ethnic, religious and national backgrounds beyond those from Turkey. 

On its website, AST identifies itself as a “a group of lawyers, judges, academics, journalists, and hundreds of activists who cherish democratic ideals and universal human rights.” However, a copy of AST’ 2018 tax return filed with the IRS does show that there are connections with a known Gülen supporter within their leadership team. 

The group’s secretary is Muhammad Nurettin Karaca, who was a defendant in a case against Turkish security officials who were accused of wiretapping prominent politicians, journalists and even celebrities in Turkey.

After migrating to the U.S., Karaca became an assistant to Mehmet Yasa. According to a reporting by former Zaman journalist Ahmet Donmez, Yasa was considered the leader of the Gülenist movement in the U.S before being ejected by Gülen himself for his involvement in a ponzi scheme in Atlanta, Georgia two years ago. 

Hafza told Ahval News that she does not know who Mehmet Yasa is and that she could not speak on behalf of Karaca regarding any of his affiliations. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.