Like many Americans, I live comfortably and assume that my life will continue to be comfortable for as long as I live. However, as a civil rights attorney and a keen observer of government and politics, I have grave concerns about what might happen in our nation if the current occupant of the White House is re-elected.
Last week, my wife Sheryl and I traveled to San Antonio for the first time to visit our dear friends Gültekin and Merve Gollu. We first met Gültekin through his work with the Niagara Foundation, over 10 years ago, when he was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. The Niagara Foundation strives to promote social cohesion by fostering civic conversations and sustained relationships between people of different cultures and faiths. It was founded in 2004 by a group of Turkish-American businessmen and educators in order to realize the vision of their spiritual leader, Fethullah Gülen, himself a Turkish Muslim scholar and poet, as well as an educational and humanitarian activist.
The Madison chapter hosted friendship dinners to which my wife and I were invited. These dinners intentionally placed attendees who were Christian, Jewish and Muslim together at each table to get to know each other and find out what they have in common, and share their differences in a friendly manner. They also took small groups to Turkey to inform them about what a wonderful place it was. We were fortunate enough to be invited to go on one of those trips 9 years ago where we met Merve, who joined the trip right after she married Gültekin. In addition to seeing the many beautiful and interesting sites which Turkey has to offer, we had dinners in local Turks’ homes and met journalists and visited the largest media outlet at the time, Zaman. The trip accomplished its goal, as we had a wonderful time and found it very educational. We also grew to appreciate the friendliness of Turkey and its people.
After we returned to Madison, we stayed in touch with Gültekin and Merve and we had each other to our homes for various dinners, including a lovely Passover seder at our house that included people from all three Abrahamic religions. Eventually, Gültekin received his Ph.D. and left Madison eventually landing in San Antonio.
Through the years we have known them, Gültekin has kept us apprised about the changing political situation in Turkey. In 2016, there was an attempted military coup, which was immediately followed by hundreds of arrests. Of greater concern, was the fact that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, falsely blamed the coup on Fethullah Gülen, a 78 year-old cleric, who had been living in exile for two decades in the Poconos, between Allentown and Scranton, Pennsylvania.
As reported in The New Yorker,
Gülen, a dour, balding proselytizer with a scratchy voice, had fled Turkey in 1999, fearing arrest by the country’s military rulers. From afar, though, he had served as a spiritual guide for millions and overseen a worldwide network of charter schools, known for offering scholarships to the poor. Gülen’s sermons and writings emphasized reconciling Islam with contemporary science, and promoted charity; his movement is called Hizmet, or “service.” For many in the West, it represented a hopeful trend in Islam. Gülen met with Pope John Paul II and the leaders of major Jewish organizations, and was fêted by President Bill Clinton, who saluted his “ideas of tolerance and interfaith dialogue.”
After the coup, Erdoğan ordered a state of emergency which continues to this day. He expanded his powers, and shut down media outlets, including Zaman, which we had visited when we were there. Gültekin informed us that many of their friends and family had been arrested without cause as enemies of the state. Some have been tortured. Even those who are released, these so-called enemies lose their jobs and cannot find work. Gültekin and Merve believe they would be arrested if they return to Turkey and so they have settled in the United States. Merve’s parents have also fled and live with them in their home in San Antonio. Thankfully, due to the threat against them in Turkey, they have been granted asylum in the U.S. Gültekin’s brother and parents have fled and live in Germany, opting for that nation after his brother was denied entry into the United States without cause.
On our recent visit with them, Gültekin said that before the 2016 coup, he never could have imagined that his country would change so much and become a place where neither he, nor his family or friends could safely live. In Turkey, he and fellow peaceful followers of Gülen, are falsely labeled terrorists. Gultekin and his wife are among the most peaceful people that I know.
In listening to Gültekin tell of his family’s flight, I recalled the words of Jews who did not leave Germany or other countries in Europe in time because they could not imagine that such a thing as the Holocaust would take place. But then my thoughts returned to the present and the threat that the current occupant of the White House and his enablers pose to our nation. After the Senate failed to remove him from office, he has unleashed even more havoc on our nation, lashing out at judges and jurors who carry out their civic duty.
My wife and I have discussed whether we will need to leave the country if he is re-elected, as we fear that he will know no limits if that happens. In the mean time, I continue to work to make sure that our nation elects a President who respects the rule of law, and does not demonize anyone whom he perceives to be his enemy. I do not want to leave the country I have called home for my entire life and I take very seriously my role in fighting for the rights of those whom the government threatens. However, I also recognize that those who believe in cannot happen here, may live to regret it. It happened in Turkey to my friends. It happened in Europe during the Holocaust. It can happen here too. No nation is immune from fascism. We must be vigilant to prevent it. At a minimum, as disability rights activist Justin Dart once said, “vote as if your life depended on it, because it does.”
For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.