Where is Turkey going? (2)

Date posted: April 8, 2014

Denion Meidani*
For many analysts, the roots of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political orientation can be found in the transnational movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928.

His undemocratic and autocratic actions are attached to this ideology. In contrast, the thinker Fethullah Gülen has preached tolerance and compromise in the spirit of mutual interactions and respect for other civilizations and religions. Unlike Gülen, Erdoğan — a devotee and follower of the ideological line of Necmettin Erbakan — believes that Turkey should move away from the West and try to build up a political, economic and military alliance with countries with a similar population and language. It is a narrow concept of nationhood, based on ideas of “neo-Ottoman” orientation. This ideology believes that Turkish fanaticism and nationalism should be nourished in opposition to Western ideology and democracy.

This runs directly counter to Gülen’s preaching and the pragmatist orientations of his movement. His movement supports a critical approach as a fundamental aspect of knowledge and faith. Furthermore, it considers science and mathematics to be especially necessary to a devout Muslim fulfilling his religious and civil duties and to improve the economic situation of his family and community. In Gülen’s movement, religion plays an integral role in social dialogue.

Some of Erdoğan’s critical mistakes

Under the present governance of Erdoğan, Turkey has transformed into a country where the independent centers of power, wealth and democracy are seriously endangered. Today, they face serious threats of usurpation and oppression from the current government. These threats come in the form of intimidation, unlawful surveillance, blackmail, illegal fines and arrests and fabricated evidence.

By now, the massive and ongoing scandals, and the many complaints, are widely known. By reacting hastily to these events, Erdoğan continues to make mistake after mistake, deepening his country’s troubles and his own complicity in them. Many of his people view him as an isolated leader, too authoritarian and removed from the concerns of ordinary people. The man from Kasımpaşa has lost touch with those who brought him to power.

For the first time, there are signs of electoral vulnerability. Apart from a megalomaniac political attitude that damages democracy and the separation of powers, Erdoğan has made another crucial mistake as prime minister. He decided to suppress the mass protests under the pretext of there being some vast international conspiracy against his government and Turkey as a whole; in Erdoğan’s mind, his government is equivalent to Turkey. The prime minister claimed a wide array of forces were behind the conspiracy — the US, Germany, Israel and Gülen and his followers. The prime minister and his supporters in the government, media and elsewhere started a virulent assault against US and EU politics and some of the most well-known companies and powerful international media outlets, such as the Financial Times, Reuters, CNN and The Economist. To Erdoğan, anyone who doesn’t support his reactionary worldview is considered a soldier of evil and can even be imprisoned or punished.

Perhaps blinded by his own power, or misled by his closest advisors, the prime minister doesn’t seem to grasp the deep discontent in his country — and that his policies are behind that unhappiness. He believes that his aggressive and authoritarian maneuvers will solidify the electoral foundation of his party in future elections — and unfortunately, ensuring the survival of his, and his party’s, political fortunes has become more important than governing the country. He seems unaware of the damage he has done to Turkey’s role on the world stage, especially in its relationship with one of its major strategic allies, the US. Washington and the European capitals couldn’t stomach Erdoğan’s delusions about their role in the supposed plot to bring him down. Is Gülen Turkey’s savior?

In order to distract from the recent scandals, Erdoğan has made repeated, vitriolic accusations toward his ex-ally, Gülen. Once his ardent supporter — some would even call him a companion on the road toward power — Gülen has come to rigidly oppose Erdoğan’s uncontrolled eagerness for power and his lack of morals. The Erdoğan-Gülen alliance was seriously damaged, especially when, after the Turkish army was removed from the political sphere, Erdoğan filled the vacuum with cronies who could help him consolidate power. This transformed Gülen into a staunch opponent of the autocratic and authoritarian power of the prime minister. Some observers felt that the clash between Erdoğan’s more muscular, materialist politics and Gülen’s gentler, more modest approach had been a long time coming.

Due to this conflict, Islamic liberalism has been severely damaged. The Turkish Islamic model, which represented the supposed marriage between Islam and liberalism, is collapsing from within. The two main components of this pattern, the Gülen movement — also known as Hizmet, which means “service” in Turkish — and Erdoğan’s supporters are breaking not just each other but the very idea of Turkish liberalism and Islam working together to spread democracy.

In fact, what makes Turkish Islam special isn’t merely its more liberal essence, especially considering the other surrounding countries, but its ability to merge Islamic traditions with the pragmatist challenges of a global economy. In some ways, in Turkey, liberalism found its voice in the Gülen community, which transformed it into a popular movement. The hope was that this merger could help transform, and democratize, the whole Islamic world. Despite not being political, at its best, the movement was able to influence institutions and managed to mobilize the popular will, joining the traditional Islamic values of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) with the liberal, democratic yearning of the Turkish populace. The failure of that relationship raises questions about the pragmatism and integration of the larger Muslim community into the global economy.

Though Erdoğan has repeatedly employed empty religious rhetoric to bolster his political fortunes, Gülen is the one who has tried to contribute, as an intellectual, to the development of modern Islamic thought, working to unify devout faith with liberal and democratic values, the rational sciences and an open economy.

Erdoğan and his supporters aim to portray the religiously inspired Gülen movement as a conspiratorial political movement, as a “parallel structure” within the state. Moreover, they claim the movement is responsible for all the corruption scandals and the subsequent investigations. Today, Erdoğan considers every judge, prosecutor and policeman as an infiltrated Gülenist.

These accusations are hard to prove, not to mention the fact that the Hizmet movement consists of volunteers with no formal membership and has no headquarters or inner hierarchy. This makes the prime minister’s claims of some nefarious “state within a state” even more absurd. It’s difficult to imagine such a diffuse movement organizing an elaborate, highly coordinated operation to take down the government — not to mention that it runs counter to Hizmet’s values. Hizmet’s followers can be considered a civil persona made up of individuals and foundations that choose to follow Gülen’s teachings. They are not members of some shadowy cult, as Erdoğan and his followers like to claim.

It’s not surprising that many businessmen who have seen their fortunes rise during the capitalist revolution that started decades ago have embraced Gülen’s teachings. Like the market economy, his teachings stress interaction and dialogue between different cultures and faiths, and espouse the virtues of free, democratic processes that afford everyone the same opportunities.

Despite being religiously motivated, Hizmet is a diverse movement that stresses equality. Since he began teaching in a mosque in the 1960s, Gülen has preached against the use of religion as a means to accumulate political power. He fully supports education in the modern sciences in Islamic schools, which was the opposite of the Muslim Brotherhood’s preaching in the Middle East — they advocated control of the state by Islam and for education to be solely religiously based. After his arrest by the Turkish army in 1970, with some friends’ help, Gülen started offering some private courses to prepare students for college; later on, this movement grew to include high schools, universities and publishing houses for school books, among other institutions. Furthermore, after emigrating to the US in 1999, Gülen gradually built up a financial network which supports a vast web of schools and universities. Today, there are more than 1,500 such schools in over 150 different countries, including Albania, Austria, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico and the US.

A temporary alliance: two different conceptions

Since the very start, Gülen has promoted democracy and cultural and religious tolerance; he has addressed the concerns of every devoted Muslim within the law, and has also helped to shape bright ideas serving the future. His own investment in educational institutions, such as private schools, is based on a desire to promote an independent civil society, the development of rational thinking and a focus on scientific and mathematical knowledge.

It doesn’t seem strange that Gülen and the movement he inspires saw Erdoğan and the AKP as an ally. At that time, those involved were looking for more economic and religious freedom, and at that point, the military and the secular elites had spent decades infringing upon religious freedom, economic development and democratic reform. Both Gülen and Erdoğan saw an opportunity to make Turkey a more just and democratic society. Unfortunately, after initial progress, once the AKP had been in power for a few years, its priorities began to shift away from democratization and liberalization and toward self-preservation. It engaged in witch-hunts which imprisoned members of the military, the media and the business community under questionable pretenses. Incredibly, many believe that the Gülenists themselves were actually the force that subdued the military for the government.

The conflict has been unfortunate for many reasons, not least of which is that the alliance was the first time in history that political Islam had been joined with a pragmatic, capitalist movement. This liberal Islam not only managed to challenge the old, secular guard, but by putting the country on the track of sustainable growth, managed to marginalize any unwanted extreme interpretations of Islam. It also increased the influence of Turkey in diplomatic and military spheres. This model seemed promising, and both the US and EU were planning to implement and export it to other Muslim countries, considering it a pillar against “the revolutionary Islamism” of Iran and the violent Islam of al-Qaeda. Prominent newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Economist and Le Monde hailed the Turkish miracle.

Yet looking back, it seems clear this model couldn’t last. Disputes over the distribution of power occasionally flared up, and then the Kurdish issue further divided the two partners. Meanwhile, in Erdoğan’s circles, the old Islamist themes began to revive, especially the idea of creating an Islamic state.

What was the reason for this revival? After the Arab Spring, the AKP was far too unstable and its grip on power was tenuous, especially after the economic problems of 2009, not to mention that inner clashes and power struggles had fractured the once unified party. The party’s base, which supported economic growth, began to hesitate when a part of the party headed by Erdoğan asked for the revival of Islamism and nationalism, themes that weren’t espoused for personal empowerment but to justify Turkey’s intervention in the Arab Spring countries. Furthermore, Erdoğan — a devotee of Erbakan, who advocated an anti-Western stance against democracy and market economy — had begun to believe that Turkey should distance itself from the West and should ally politically, economically and militarily with Muslim countries, meaning that it should rebuild or revive the neo-Ottoman dream. According to this line of belief, Turkish fanaticism and nationalism should be nurtured to oppose Western ideology and its democracy, which was a major departure from Gülen’s preaching.

The Gülenists had a wholly different perception to the AKP regarding Turkish identity and its connection to Islam as a pillar of a modern democratic state. These differing views — one in favor of a secular, democratic but religiously free state and the other advocating a religiously motivated, autocratic government — led to the inevitable split between the old allies. The Erdoğan government’s backtracking on the EU issue was especially concerning to the Hizmet movement and began to bring these differences to the public’s attention. Erdoğan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the fundamentalist groups in Syria and Lebanon, was another issue that pushed him and the Gülenists — and the West — further apart.

Since these faults have been laid bare to the public, more and more divisions have become clear. Hizmet has adamantly opposed any limitations to free speech, media freedom and the persecution of journalists. Erdoğan’s government doesn’t even hesitate to exert intentional pressures, to conduct oriented inspections, to impose arbitrary fines and to make threats against followers’ businesses, especially in the media, the publishing sector, NGOs and similar institutions. It has gone so far that the non-profit organization Alliance for Shared Values claimed that in all Turkish history, there has never been a person or a party before that has exercised such pressure in an aggressive attempt to subdue the media and civil society.

Meanwhile, the brutal suppression of the massive protests in Gezi Park was the culmination of the split between the Erdoğan government and the Gülenists. Those opposed to the abusive politics of Erdoğan and his circle loudly voiced their displeasure. Instead of seeking reconciliation and moving toward more freedom and democracy, Erdoğan declared war on Gülen, his followers and anyone who dared to criticize his policies. He approved anti-democratic and arbitrary laws to close the network of private schools in Turkey, one of the institutions at the very heart of the movement that played a key role in spreading Gülen’s ideas. Meanwhile, last November, the media published a secret document, signed by Erdoğan himself, detailing a 2004 meeting of the National Security Council (MGK). In the meeting, a series of measures were recommended in order to keep the Gülen movement under control. This directive reflects the paranoia and deception of Erdoğan since the beginning of the alliance.

Unfortunately, the conflict appears far from over. It gets worse and worse, especially considering that the country is facing a series of upcoming elections — local elections last month, a presidential election this summer and parliamentary elections next year, although it’s possible the government will call for early parliamentary elections. Erdoğan seems ready to abuse the state arsenal at his disposal to achieve victory at all costs.

The results from the local elections have not been finalized and reports of fraud are widespread. If the AKP loses İstanbul or Ankara, or if it loses parliamentary seats, this would be the people’s verdict on Erdoğan’s dream of becoming Turkey’s “new sultan.” On the other hand, it seems that Gülen will eventually withdraw from this war; we will have to wait and see whether Erdoğan’s smear campaign will strengthen or weaken Hizmet as it continues to pursue democracy and the rule of law within Turkey.

It seems likely that things will not be decided by the ballot box alone. Provocations are on the rise, and it seems possible that there will be more protests and demonstrations — and that they could be bigger than last year’s. With the AKP divided over how to move forward, an aggravated political class and a police force that has been shaken by mass reassignments, it’s anyone’s guess how the country would respond to another round of protests. But no matter the result of this war, the biggest loser is Turkey and the Turkish people. Nurtured by the ideas of the Turkish Republic’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, this proud nation shouldn’t let the government’s autocratic, undemocratic and illegal actions dampen their desire for freedom and democracy.

*Denion Meidani is a journalist based in Tirana. This article was published in the newspaper MAPO on March 15, 2014 in Albania and translated and published on fgulen.com on April 4.


Source: Todays Zaman , April 8, 2014

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