Misrepresentation of Fethullah Gülen in English-language media

Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen
Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen

Date posted: May 16, 2011


For an average American and European reader, the name Fethullah Gülen may not necessarily be a familiar one. That Gülen is a scholar who has inspired millions of volunteers across the world to engage in educational and intercultural initiatives, that he publically denounced Osama bin Laden for the shame that the latter brought upon Islam, and that he advocated Turkey’s full membership in the European Union at time when his counterparts opposed it by simply viewing the EU as a Christian club with Zionist touches, are not something that the average reader would know, either.

Recently, it seems, the English-language media, and particularly American and European media, are increasingly covering Gülen and the worldwide civil society initiatives he has inspired.

However, the language in general and the way certain politically significant words are used in some of this media coverage are somewhat problematic in the sense that they fail to present the full picture about Gülen, if not deliberately create doubts and prejudices about him. A recent Financial Times report titled “Turkey: Inspiring or insidious” by Delphine Strauss as well as reports by two Turkey-based correspondents, Amberin Zaman of The Economist and Claire Berlinski of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, are quite indicative of such a tendency. In so doing, they appear to appeal to a basic human instinct of fearing what one cannot comprehend, contain or control, and as a result developing a hostile attitude toward it. These reports also consistently belittle Turkey’s efforts to reckon with its antidemocratic past through the Ergenekon investigation on the alleged involvements of active duty and retired army and police officers, journalists, bureaucrats and others in coup plots, thereby raising doubts about their journalistic objectivity and neutrality on either subject.

Financial Times’ insidious coverage
“But in Turkey, opinion is sharply divided between those who see Mr. Gülen as a force for social mobility and tolerance, and those who suspect he is insidiously undermining the country’s secular foundations,” writes Strauss. First of all, it is hard to say that opinion in Turkey is sharply divided with regard to Gülen. As of today, there has been no poll carried out by Turkish researchers or authorities to determine public opinion about him. However, according to a poll conducted by Professor Akbar Ahmed of American University, for his book, “Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization,” 84 percent of Turks have a favorable opinion of Gülen and the initiatives he has inspired. In addition, a poll carried out by the magazines Foreign Policy of the United States and Prospect of the United Kingdom demonstrated that Gülen is the world’s top public intellectual. In the aftermath of this poll, some apparently unpleased with the result claimed that the “followers” of Gülen had rigged the poll. One wonders what the difference is between simply voting for someone and rigging a poll. Would one of the candidates not eventually come first in the poll? If it another candidate was voted the world’s top public intellectual, then would his or her supporters not have “rigged” but “voted” for that candidate? At the end of the day, any poll can be misleading depending on how one designs it. Perhaps, it is about time to carry out multiple polls in Turkey by various pollsters in order to assess whether opinion about Gülen is “sharply divided” or if it is just a small marginal group that opposes him and the initiatives he has inspired.

Strauss further suggests, “His followers have been described as ‘Islamic Jesuits’ — and as Turkey’s equivalent of Opus Dei.” Again, this is another simplistic method increasingly utilized in order to reduce Gülen to just another charismatic religious leader, and his admirers as blind followers of that leader. It is also a somewhat derogatory description of them, which aims to inject into the reader’s mind doubt about their true intentions. The word “follower” has quite a loaded meaning and can be easily exploited. What does it mean to follow? Follow to achieve what, or get to where? Who is more of a “follower” — the young college graduate who foregoes job offers with lucrative salaries and volunteers to go to a country which he or she cannot even point out on the map, in order to help that country’s children receive a modern education; the woman who donates everything, including her wedding ring, to support the start-up of a school, which she is most unlikely to visit in her lifetime; the Assyrian Christian priest who is thankful for and supports Gülen’s interfaith dialogue efforts; the Jewish businessman who vouches for the apolitical nature of a Gülen-inspired Turkish school in a foreign country; an atheist writer who participates in the activities of the Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV), which is associated with Gülen; the Turkish diplomat who is proud to see a Gülen-inspired school in a country where even the Turkish state does not have official representation; or, one who follows Gülen’s twitter account? So, who is a “follower” of Gülen? What does it take to become a so-called “Gülen follower”?

How many unsubstantiated allegations make one credible premise?
Moreover, what does it mean “… have been described as Islamic Jesuits?” Who is it that makes such a description? It may well be one of those currently detained because of alleged involvement in alleged coup plots, or someone who is unhappy with the ongoing Ergenekon investigation on the alleged outlawed network nested in the army, police, bureaucracy and other parts of the state apparatus. Why would the Financial Times use such an unsubstantiated allegation? Does such a statement have any credibility without a reference to its source? As it stands, it is hardly different from mere defamation of Gülen and his admirers under the disguise of “neutral” reporting. This defamation is further deepened by likening what is called the Gülen movement to Opus Dei, which is known to Westerners as a secretive, powerful and controversial formation within the Catholic Church.

After all, how credible would it be if a newspaper report read, “It is widely believed that the Financial Times and the other media outlets owned by Jewish media moguls like Rupert Murdock are intentionally misrepresenting Fethullah Gülen and his admirers, whom they think are the driving force behind Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party [AK Party] government, which they adamantly want to get rid of due to Israel’s growing uneasiness with Turkey under that government.” Just like the Financial Times’ quote of unsubstantiated allegations about Gülen by unreferenced sources, this quotation would not have any credibility, either.

Perhaps the answer as to why the Financial Times is using such language is in the report itself: “Yet there is little doubt that the movement [Gülen] inspires is now an important force shaping Turkish society, part of a broader evolution in which leaders emerging from a religious, business-minded middle class are gradually eclipsing older, fiercely secular, elites.” Objective observers of Turkey would rather say, “Older, fiercely secular, elites, who have traditionally dominated the economic and political spaces as well as the state apparatus, who did not refrain from resorting to anti-democratic and criminal practices from targeted killings and massacres of civilians to military coups ousting democratically elected governments, and some of whom as a result of recent democratic reforms and transformations in state institutions are being investigated for their alleged involvement in these criminal acts.”

Moreover, Strauss argues, with regard to the Gülen-inspired schools, “Though officials from the traditionally secularist foreign ministry have tended to keep their distance from Gülen-inspired projects, ministers appear to view them as a useful extension of Turkey’s soft power.” Here too, the report seems like it is aiming to instill two misleading perceptions about these schools: One is that the Turkish diplomatic corps is generally not sympathetic to the contributions these schools are making to the emergence of a positive image of Turkey abroad; and the other is that they are instruments of a new Turkish foreign policy orientation that is associated with the AK Party government. First of all, it is increasingly evident that in most of the countries where these schools operate, Turkish diplomats, regardless of them being conservative (if there are any) or secular, seem to publicly appreciate these schools or other Gülen-inspired initiatives. Unless Strauss knows of something more than meets the eye, then the Financial Times reporter’s allegation is wrong at best, if not intentionally misleading. Secondly, when the first Gülen-inspired school was established outside Turkey, those with whom the new Turkish foreign policy orientation is associated today were still either students at college or junior professionals in bureaucracy and academia. So, unless they miraculously initiated these schools some 20 years ago in order to lay the groundwork for the foreign policy orientation that Turkey pursues today, the view that these schools are “extensions” of Turkey’s soft power, which the Financial Times report attributes to AK Party government ministers, is as well misleading, if not purposefully trying to give these apolitical civil society initiatives a political meaning. Last but not least, how can something that precedes something serve as an extension anyway?

Observing Turkey through blinkers
An attitude similar to that of the Financial Times’ Strauss in terms of taking unsubstantiated allegations of unreferenced sources as a credible, as well as a “necessary and sufficient” premise for a conclusion about the contemporary situation in Turkey, is visible in the reporting of Zaman of the Economist and Berlinski, who writes for City Journal magazine.

In an analysis on Turkey for The German Marshall Fund of the United States, Zaman argues that there are three sources of pressure on media freedom in Turkey: first, Turkey’s anti-terror laws; second, its prime minister, Erdoğan; and third, “Turkey’s largest and most powerful Islamic fraternity led by Fethullah Gülen.” What is her premise for such a dogma-like conclusion? She writes: “The so-called Gülenists are said to have infiltrated the bureaucracy, especially the police force. They are widely believed to be behind the arrest of Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener.” As such, she either makes the same mistake that Strauss does or pursues the same insidious method to obscure the facts and lead readers to make erroneous conclusions.

Who is it that says and believes so? And, why is it that an ordinary Turkish citizen with a favorable opinion of Gülen is said to have infiltrated the bureaucracy when he or she enters the civil service through legal and legitimate procedures available to any other Turkish citizen? While she does not provide any answer to this, neither does she mention that the same judiciary prosecuting Şık and Şener for their alleged involvement in alleged coup plots also opened some 400 lawsuits against journalists and reporters working for the Zaman newspaper for issues related to their reporting.

Finally, in her article “Prisoner of Conspiracy,” Berlinski argues: “So the [Ergenekon] investigation cannot possibly lead to what its supporters say it will: the triumph of the rule of law in Turkey, a sustainable national consensus, and a verdict widely accepted as legitimate. It can only lead to more division, suspicion, and paranoia.” She further argues, “Almost every Turkish citizen now deeply believes either that Ergenekon is real or that Gülen is running their country—and is truly terrified of one or the other.” Does she not sound more like someone with a stake in the Ergenekon investigation than a correspondent? Or, why could she possibly be following this particular pattern in her reporting? The answer seems to be in her proposal, “The only solution I can imagine would lie in a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Committee — an entirely public and transparent reckoning aiming not at punishment or vengeance but at reconciliation.” Just like Strauss and Zaman, Berlinski too tries to spread the false perception that Gülen is running the show in Turkey and the Ergenekon investigation is leading to an uncertainty. Perhaps, they or those who sign their paychecks think that if they can portray Gülen as poorly and as frighteningly as possible, then the Ergenekon investigation may be brought to a halt.

* Mehmet Kalyoncu is an independent political analyst and author of “A Civilian Response to Ethno-Religious Conflict: The Gülen Movement in Southeast Turkey.”

Source: Today's Zaman , 15 May 2011

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