For many Turkish citizens, the evolution of their democracy is best discussed in whispers. Turkey has come far in recent years, but these days they prefer not to speak too loudly about where it is headed.
In the past two years, thousands of citizens who have voiced criticism of the government have been detained, usually led away by police in predawn raids on their homes. On Jan. 5, one of the country's most high-profile detainees, investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, testified in court for the first time to defend himself against charges of propagandizing for a shadowy pro-military conspiracy called Ergenekon, which allegedly plotted to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In his testimony, Sik mocked the evidence presented against him, which included transcripts of telephone conversations, published news articles, and the draft of his unfinished book, The Imam's Army, which aimed to expose the Islamist Fethullah Gulen movement's pervasive influence within the Turkish state.
"I am here today because of a politically-motivated trial, which is devoid of justice and law and which is conducted with falsified and fabricated documents," he said.
The charges against Sik appeared absurd from the start. He had dedicated much of his professional life to investigating the very structures Ergenekon represented, along with their various human rights abuses. According to those that support the government line, Ergenekon represents the military "deep state," which has served as the self-appointed guardian of Turkey's secular identity since the republic's founding. Democratically-elected governments that met with the military's disapproval were ousted from power in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997.
But it's not the military that has moved against Sik -- it's another, different deep state. The Imam's Army chronicles the rise of Fethullah Gulen, an aging cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania who has built up a powerful network that claims to operate thousands of schools in 140 countries. He calls for inter-faith dialogue and promotes the study of both science and religion in his classrooms. Supporters say the group is solely involved in fostering education and an ethic of public service throughout Turkey and the rest of the world. While the true reach of Gulen's network remains hard to quantify, his supporters flocked to Foreign Policy in 2008 to vote him as the top public intellectual of the year -- an open ballot in which over half a million votes were cast.
But Gulen hasn't just used his support network, known as the Cemaat (or "community") to tilt online polls -- his followers provide a key voter base for Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) and have established themselves in top positions within Turkey's bureaucracy, police force, and judiciary. And as the Sik case shows, their influence appears to be one of the forces pushing Turkey in a less free direction.
In a nine-page, hand-written response to questions sent to him in jail, Sik said the Gulenists were a key driver behind the current crackdown. "What Nedim [Sener, another journalist on trial] and I experienced was meant to intimidate other people from the media who were opposed to the Cemaat," he wrote.
While Sik supported previous investigations into the Turkish military's covert influence over the country's civilian leadership, he said the Ergenekon trial -- which has seen the government push back against the armed services -- has become an "illusion" and an excuse for mass arrests.
"The Ergenekon investigations are the most important part of allowing the Cemaat to take power in the country," he wrote. "I must say that the deep state is still intact. Just the owner has changed. What I mean by this ownership ... is composed of the coalition of AKP and the Cemaat."