How Turkish conspiracy theories upended life of U.S. scholar Barkey

Henri J. Barkey, an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said his entire life has been upended by the Turkish government’s unfounded accusations that he was involved in a failed military coup in 2016.

Barkey, who is also the Cohen Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University, said the Turkish authorities have formally charged and prosecuted him in absentia with no evidence. He spoke in an interview with journalist Nervana Mahmoud for Ahval’s Turkish Trends podcast series.

In July 2016, Barkey travelled to Istanbul, the place of his birth, for a workshop he had organised as the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. The workshop was to be held on an island off Istanbul since the city was a convenient gathering place for scholars from the region. The participants planned to explore Middle Eastern reactions to President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.

The attempted military coup occurred the day after the first session of the workshop. Barkey and other scholars remained a further two days at the hotel where the conference was held. Then Turkish news outlets began circulating false accusations against him.

Barkey said he believes that the reason he came under constant fire by the Turkish government and a compliant media was because of Ankara’s anger at the U.S. government, which did not condemn the coup attempt immediately.

The Turkish government were aware of his plans for Istanbul because he had told the embassy in Washington D.C. before his departure, Barkey said. Reports that emerged in the Turkish press about him in the days following the coup contained information that could only have been obtained from the authorities, such as the times he passed Turkish customs in Istanbul, he said.

“It is always convenient in Turkey to blame the U.S. for almost everything. I was a perfect tool,” he said. "I think they decided to use me as a link to the United States, because they wanted to blame the U.S. government for the coup."

Turkey saw the bloodiest coup attempt in its political history on July 15, 2016, when parts of the Turkish military launched a coordinated operation in several major cities to topple the government.

Turkey says the Gülen movement, a clandestine religious group led by U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, launched the failed putsch. The claim is denied by Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

The Turkish authorities have carried out a sustained crackdown on alleged followers of Gülen and have designated the group as a terrorist organisation.

Barkey said he has been accused of the crime partly due to a chance meeting with the now imprisoned philanthropist and businessman Osman Kavala. Barkey said he bumped into Kavala at an Istanbul restaurant a day or two after the coup attempt and had a quick conversation standing up. The Turkish authorities then accused him and Kavala of cooperating in the plot against the government.

Kavala has spent more than four years in jail without a conviction for crimes he says he did not commit. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), along with the United States and many European countries, have called for his immediate release, saying his rights to liberty have been abused.

At the time when Barkey was first accused of the crimes, Kavala was being tried for masterminding nationwide anti-government demonstrations called the Gezi Park protests, which erupted in Istanbul in 2013. When his initial trial collapsed because of lack of evidence, the authorities then asserted that Kavala had conspired with Barkey to plot the coup.

Barkey said that the chance encounter with Kavala prompted the Turkish authorities to connect Kavala to Barkey. But the government would have found another reason to hold Kavala in prison due to Erdogan’s deep hatred of him, he said.

Barkey said he was disappointed when he was refused support from various politicians and institutions including the Woodrow Wilson Center, where he worked for several years as a director of the Middle East Program.

“It could have been mitigated,” he said. Furthermore, Barkey said he lost many friends and professional contacts in Turkey. He underlined that people in Turkey were afraid because they could be arrested even because of their social media posts.

(The story was updated with comments from Barkey in the sixth and seventh paragraphs.)

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