Gülen’s contribution to a pluralist democracy

Abdullah Bozkurt
Abdullah Bozkurt

Date posted: March 17, 2014


The Hizmet movement, inspired by Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, is a formidable actor in catalyzing change for a better Turkey and will remain so for the foreseeable future as a non-political force to be reckoned with.

It does not need to transform itself into a political party to express its views or to influence the political decision-making process, just like a variety of other actors that are not part of the traditional state apparatus or political organizations, such as unions, the media, business advocacy groups, interest and pressure groups, lobbies and other networks of influence that are commonly seen in modern democracies.

In fact, Hizmet promotes a pluralist democracy in an age of declining public interest in politics and a sharp reduction in citizens’ confidence in state institutions, particularly given the beleaguered Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government’s suspension of the rule of law. Gülen has taken a strong stand against weakening state institutions and the lack of full transparency and accountability and has fully supported the investigation of the allegations of massive government corruption. It was important for Gülen, representing perhaps the strongest faith-based civic movement in Turkey, to speak up at a difficult time, emboldening others to be vocal as well. He has paid for that stance, however, as Erdoğan, who once praised Hizmet but suddenly turned against it in order to hush up the corruption investigation, has attacked him mercilessly with unwarranted smears and slander.

In an effort to cast a shadow over Hizmet, Erdoğan called on Gülen to establish a political party, as if only political parties have a right to voice criticism of the government. Gülen was not an exception, of course, as Erdoğan also called on critical members of the media, business groups, bar associations and others to start a political party when they expressed their frustration with the policies and rhetoric of Erdoğan. The prime minister does not seem to understand that various non-political and extra-institutional actors may exist in a democracy and may exert influence on the decision-making process in the legislature and government. It is actually desirable in advanced democracies to have diverse pressure and interest groups. They are hailed by the UN, the EU, the Council of Europe (CoE) and other international organizations as an indication of a healthy pluralistic democracy.

For three months, Gülen has not responded to the verbal assaults and threats made by Erdoğan, who made him a focus of the election campaign and is giving more airtime to Hizmet than any political opponent. Erdoğan has worn himself out with flurries of fast punches that connect with nothing but air. He got his facts completely wrong in the talking points he has raised in campaign speeches and he has made a fool of himself. He is cornered, on the ropes and is lashing out in an attempt to regain his footing. Leaders of the opposition parties quickly tapped into the real facts and have used the visible fear, anger and frustration Erdoğan feels against him, hammering Erdoğan harder than ever before. When Gülen finally decided to speak to the Turkish media recently in order to respond to Erdoğan’s continuous verbal abuse, he was calm, soft and gentle in his criticism. He kept the moral high ground as he explained what lies at the core of the issues that separate him from Erdoğan.

Addressing the old argument that Hizmet is not transparent, Gülen said that every institution established and run by members of Hizmet is open to public scrutiny and operates in full compliance with the law. “In other words, there is a completely transparent structure in place,” he said, lamenting the fact that the volunteers of the Hizmet movement are depicted as members of a clandestine organization. Gülen is right, because Hizmet-affiliated institutions operate within the law, abide by the relevant rules and regulations and are subject to rigorous inspections by the appropriate government agencies, including the Finance Ministry, which is vigilant about accounting methods and taxes. Even Prime Minister Erdoğan, who has claimed he will launch a lawsuit against the movement for months, has not been able to produce a single piece of evidence indicating wrongdoing by members of Hizmet. The Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV), of which Gülen is the honorary chairman, has been calling on the government to start legal procedures if it has reasonable proof, or to otherwise stop demonizing and threatening Hizmet volunteers with hate-filled speeches. The GYV, acting as an official spokesperson for the Hizmet view on issues of interest, is fully accessible to media inquiries, regularly issues press statements and holds press briefing to inform the public. It is worth mentioning here, too, that the GYV is the first institution from Turkey to earn consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and regularly attends the relevant UN meetings.

It is only natural for some members of Hizmet to hide their affiliation out of fear of discrimination in public employment because the Turkish government has been notorious for its profiling of unsuspecting citizens, including Alevis, leftists, social democrats, nationalists, Kurds and others. Leaked confidential documents have recently revealed that the Erdoğan government has, in fact, expanded illegal and unconstitutional profiling activity and denied public sector positions to citizens based on ethnicity, religion or ideology. When Turkey finally becomes a full-fledged democracy where merits matter rather than personal views, color, creed or ethnicity, then Hizmet members and other vulnerable groups will naturally become more transparent.

The contribution of Hizmet to the development of Turkish democracy by encouraging wider participation in civic and public life, especially in the realms of education, charity and dialogue efforts, has been highly appreciated. The movement generated an important framework for individuals to come together, to better represent specific interests and to jointly express and defend their views. For example, the Abant Platform, a signature workshop featuring free debate and organized by Hizmet, has become an important venue for others to speak up, gather support and advocate for their positions. Over the years, the platform has organized workshops to tackle tough issues ranging from the status of Alevis to the grievances of non-Muslims and from women’s empowerment to resolving the Kurdish problem in order to encourage wider debate in society and to prod the government into adopting reforms to improve their rights.

Hizmet, a volunteer-driven movement, understands that it does not represent the whole society nor does it seek such a mandate or to make such a claim. It simply wants to lead by example. It knows the representation of the movement is limited; that is why it partners with others to address lingering problems in Turkish society with a view that this can be a good experience for others — including the government — to emulate for the advancement of society. For instance, the start of construction of a mosque and a cemevi (an Alevi place of worship) sharing a complex in Ankara’s Mamak district in September 2103, a project that was jointly undertaken by Hizmet and Alevi groups, represents such endeavor.

Hizmet also partnered with local businessmen in the southeast of Turkey to open hundreds of courses that provide free supplementary tutoring for Kurdish children in low-income neighborhoods in order to give them a better chance on college entrance exams. Gülen has openly suggested that the government should honor the right of Kurds to be educated in their mother tongue without making ethnic identity a condition for any kind of grand bargain in the course of the settlement process. Hizmet has also been a leading force in pressuring governments to grant rights and recognition denied to non-Muslim minority groups in Turkey, including the opening of the Halki Seminary. Gülen was the first Muslim scholar in the 1990s to reach out to Christian and Jewish minority group leaders and had a series of dialogue meetings with them, despite huge criticism from conservative groups and the government at the time.

Hizmet, just like other advocacy and pressure groups, also enjoys freedom of association and freedom of expression as guaranteed by Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In the case law of the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that interprets Article 11 on freedom of association, the court has said that while political parties play an essential role in pluralism and democracy, associations “formed for other purposes” are also important. The court explains that “Where a civil society functions in a healthy manner, the participation of citizens in the democratic process is to a large extent achieved through belonging to associations in which they may integrate with each other and pursue common objectives collectively.”

Similarly, Article 10, which guarantees the right to receive and impart information and ideas without interference from public authorities, also awards groups like Hizmet protection, to ensure their ability to exist with autonomy from undue interference from the state. It is perfectly legitimate for members of Hizmet to organize and lobby for their interests. At the same time, Hizmet welcomes regulatory legislation and restrictive measures as long as they do not target a specific group unfairly and are proportionate to secure legitimate aims such as public order, security and preserving an effective democracy. This is the general guideline provided by the ECtHR, as well. That said, Hizmet is well aware of speculation about the internal functioning of the movement and its members’ relations with public institutions and officials. That is why it welcomes scrutiny and urges inquiries into its operations. As for relations with the government, Gülen has said time and again that members of Hizmet need to comply with laws, rules and regulations or face investigations, judicial scrutiny and disciplinary proceedings.

All in all, Gülen has made a significant contribution to the democratic advancement of Turkey and stepped up to the plate to resolve difficult issues when so many others allowed themselves to be cowed by authoritarian regimes backed by military or civilian governments.

Source: Todays Zaman , March 17, 2014

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