ISTANBUL — Amid a sea of Turkish flags and the blare of loudspeakers, Nazmi Kaya beamed with pride. The 51-year-old truck driver had brought his whole family back to the “motherland,” as he put it, from their home in Frankfurt, Germany, to experience the chaotic, emotional aftermath of the July 15 coup attempt.
They stood in the city’s central Taksim Square, the site of nightly vigils marking the successful defeat of a mutinous army faction. Kaya said the courageous protesters who confronted the coup plotters’ tanks were unlike anything seen “anywhere else in the world.”
And he says he also knows who is to blame.
“We believe the United States had a full idea of what was happening,” he said. “The CIA was going to benefit.”
Kaya’s certainty on the subject of alleged American perfidy in the coup plot seems widespread in Turkey. Right-wing and pro-government media outlets have repeatedly accused the United States of being somehow involved in the putsch, which saw rebel soldiers turn on the state, kill civilians and bomb the country’s legislature in an unsuccessful bid to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish officials pin the blame on Fethullah Gulen, a septuagenarian imam who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania and whose followers, say officials in Ankara, infiltrated the military and other institutions of state and were biding their time for years before moving against the elected government.
Erdogan has grumbled angrily about Gulen’s continued sanctuary in the United States and seeks his extradition. U.S. officials say they are waiting for clear evidence linking Gulen directly to the coup attempt. The impasse marks a moment of crisis between Washington and a key NATO ally.
“I’m calling on the United States: What kind of strategic partners are we that you can still host someone whose extradition I have asked for?” Erdogan said in a speech Wednesday that was broadcast live on national television.
“This coup attempt has actors inside Turkey, but its script was written outside,” he said. “Unfortunately, the West is supporting terrorism and stands by coup plotters.”
On Sunday, Erdogan’s government staged a huge rally in Istanbul, punctuating about three weeks of daily demonstrations — dubbed “democracy watches” — held across the country. It was meant to highlight the newfound national unity that has emerged since July 15, no matter the unprecedented government purge of state institutions and Turkish society that is still in motion. Leaders of two opposition parties joined Erdogan at the rally.
“If the West wants to get rid of Erdogan and shake hands with the cemaat,” said Turkish commentator Levent Gultekin, using the term commonly used for Gulen’s movement, “then they will get a Turkey that is against their interests.”
In a briefing in Washington to journalists last month, Serdar Kilic, Turkey’s envoy to the United States, urged Americans to give Turkey the “benefit of the doubt” as it arrested, detained and suspended tens of thousands of suspected Gulenists from their jobs.
International advocacy groups have loudly criticized the crackdown, which Human Rights Watch recently described as “an affront to democracy.”
Still, many in Turkey say they believe it’s the Americans who owe Turks an explanation — not the other way around.
They point to the testimony of Gen. Hulusi Akar, the country’s top military officer, who has said he was given a chance to speak to Gulen by phone while detained by rebel officers on the night of the attempted takeover.
They speculate over the presence of putschist officers at Incirlik Air Base, which the U.S. military also uses.
And they wonder about the multiple hours it took the United States and other Western countries to condemn the coup attempt.
“The American government wants to have somebody more compliant to their agenda,” said Ayse Eren Yusuf, 33, who attended a weeknight vigil at Taksim with her husband.
On the face of it, Erdogan, a conservative populist, appears to have strengthened his hand in the weeks since surviving the coup attempt. With new powers granted to him after a three-month state of emergency was declared, he has moved to bring the military further under his heel and also won unlikely cooperation from leading opposition parties.
Observers say that Erdogan’s heated public rhetoric is a political tool that can be put away.
“Erdogan is like a magician with his followers,” said Burak Kadercan, a Turkey scholar at the U.S. Naval War College. “If he says ‘keep it down,’ they’ll keep it down.”
The outrage is also a reflection of genuine grievances with foreign officials and journalists, who many Turks say they believe do not adequately recognize the trauma of the events of July 15 in a country that has a troubled history of military coups.
“The current sentiment in Turkey is a mirror-image of the perceived anti-Turkism in the Western media,” said Akin Unver, professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.
Senior U.S. leaders are attempting to mend fences with Ankara. Turkish officials announced that Secretary of State John F. Kerry will visit later this month. Earlier this week, the Joint Chiefs chairman, Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., held what were said to be cordial meetings with his Turkish counterpart and civilian leaders in Turkey’s capital.
Around that time, Erdogan’s chief spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, issued a statement insisting that the government did not believe that the United States was behind the coup attempt.
“This sort of communication and dialogue needs to continue,” Unver said.
But as the crackdown rolls on, there are also real signs of stress. On Friday, a leaked internal memorandum emerged, suggesting a new purge of suspected Gulenists within Erdogan’s ruling party.
“Even now, they’re trying to figure out who is a Gulenist or not,” said Selim Sazak, a Turkey-based fellow with the Century Foundation, a New York think tank. “It’s an almost pathological pursuit in Ankara.”
In Taksim Square, a similar level of grim resolve was on show. Murat Dost, 36, had spent the past week selling small flags on the sidelines of the rally. “It’s our everything, it’s our blood,” he said, holding a red banner aloft.
Dost said a friend of his was gunned down on the Bosphorus Bridge by putschist soldiers on the night of the coup attempt and he wants to see justice.
“The U.S. needs to extradite Gulen as soon as possible,” he said, “so he returns here and we can hang him.”
Zeynep Karatas contributed to this report.