Middle East’s Struggle for Democracy: Going Beyond Headlines

Dr. Alp Aslandogan
Dr. Alp Aslandogan


Date posted: December 13, 2013

ALP ASLANDOGAN*

The ongoing struggle in the Middle East is not between the so-called Islamists and secularists. It’s not pro-Morsi vs. pro-military in Egypt, or even Assad vs. opposition in Syria. The real struggle is between those committed to the core values of democracy and human rights and those who want to maintain a status quo of authoritarianism and domination.

Western observers often place Middle East actors and their motives into well-intentioned but partially inaccurate or sometimes misleading categories. For example, the three major groups in Iraq are labeled as Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. The first two are religious categories, while the third is ethnic. The majority of Kurds are Sunni, and the majority of Iraqi Shiites are ethnically Arabs. So the right, albeit inconvenient, categories would be Sunni-Kurds, Sunni-Arabs and Shiite-Arabs.

These categories would be trivial details if it weren’t for the fact that Middle Eastern realities of these labels do not always overlap with established western understanding. For instance, those in the Middle East who call themselves “secularists” would be perceived in the west as the “good guys” who believe in democracy and separation of church and state.

But Turkey’s historic self-proclaimed “secularists” in practice were anything but secular or democratic. As Edhem Eldem, Professor of History at Istanbul’s prestigious Bogazici University observed, Turkish “secularism” often “marginalized and oppressed those who openly displayed their beliefs; head-scarf-wearing women were banned from universities, and few protections were given to religious minorities.” The government ran every single mosque and prescribed the preachers’ sermons. Turkey’s self-proclaimed secularists were also aggressive nationalists, who denied millions of Kurdish citizens their cultural rights, including the right to speak their mother tongue. Those who did not embrace the official government ideology were sometimes beaten and jailed.

Counter-intuitive to a western audience, on the other side were participants of the Hizmet social movement, originated by Turkey’s most influential preacher and social advocate, Fethullah Gulen, who advocated for democracy, equal opportunity and social justice, and defended religious rights of all faiths in Turkey, including Orthodox Christians and Jews. Gulen’s sympathizers started free tutoring centers in Turkey’s Southeast, serving tens of thousands of children from low-income families, often of Kurdish descent, helping protect them from recruitment by terrorist organizations operating around Turkey’s borders.

In 2008, when the Turkish judiciary prosecuted military officials charged with planning or perpetrating military coups, western media called it a struggle between Islamists and Seculars. In reality, as correctly observed by Dr. John Esposito of Georgetown University, it was a struggle between pro-democracy groups and those military officers who were found guilty of some of the worst crimes against their fellow citizens. Kurdish citizens, many of who saw their loved ones disappear under military-dominated periods, celebrated this development alongside journalists who were intimidated or fired from their jobs during the same periods.

Last month, when Hizmet representatives criticized the government-proposed legislation that calls for banning exam prep schools, Turkish and Western journalists labeled this opposition as a feud between Prime Minister Erdogan and Mr. Gulen because roughly 15-25 percent of these prep schools were founded by Hizmet participants according to various estimates.

But that is an oversimplification because this underlying struggle is between democracy and free enterprise on the one hand against government overreach and authoritarianism on the other. If enacted, this legislation would make Turkey the only country in the world to ban a whole category of legitimate private enterprise — and that too, one that provides math, science and language arts training to children of low-income families who cannot afford private tutoring.

It is ironic that the Turkish ruling party (AKP) that fought against government overreach during their first term 2003-2007 has, since then, taken steps that completely contradict its earlier record. From recent discourse on regulating student homes and government’s heavy-handed reaction to Gezi Park protests, to restrictions on freedom of the press, Turkey is rekindling its historic struggle between those committed to democracy and those who benefit from authoritarianism and dominance.

Turkey is often cited as an example for struggling Middle East countries such as Egypt and Tunisia; after all, Turkey experienced a similar transition 60 years ago. But as the Turkish experience shows, democracy is a messy process with a steep learning curve. It sometimes can seem like too much to ask of both governments and the governed to have patience to learn the difference between legitimate democratic opposition and rebellion; enforcement and oppression. Nevertheless, abandoning the path to democracy is not an option.

What was termed an Arab spring is actually a beginning of the fall of authoritarian regimes that will hopefully lead to a spring of democracy. But let’s be prepared that spring will come only after a harsh winter of authoritarian establishments resisting democratizing reforms. What is clear is that people in the Middle East yearn for their freedoms, and we hope that their struggle leads them toward democracy and away from the yoke of domination. For outside observers, understanding this struggle requires going beyond the convenient labels of the news headlines.

* Dr. Aslandogan is the President of the Alliance for Shared Values, a non-profit that represents interfaith dialogue organizations affiliated with Hizmet in the U.S.

Source: Huffington Post , December 13, 2013


Related News

Is the Hizmet movement statist or populist?

In the last three years the AK Party established their new “center” with the new statism away from the periphery. The Hizmet movement viewed this change as a new centralization and thus a new statism and tutelage with new political and capitalist actors. Due to this change in attitude, the Hizmet movement broke faith with Erdoğan and the AK Party.

The hype about the Gülen Movement

Mustafa AKYOL Recently, there was a long New York Times story about the matter, which quoted a Turkish journalist who believed that Gülen followers “have proliferated within the police and the judiciary, working behind the scenes to become one of Turkey’s most powerful political forces.” So, as another Turkish journalist, let me also tell you […]

Where does Gülen stand on: democracy, human rights, and minorities?

Gülen recognizes democracy as the only viable political system of governance. He denounces turning religion into a political ideology, while encouraging all citizens to take an informed and responsible part in political life of their country. He stresses the flexibilities in the Islamic principles relating to governance and their compatibility with a true democracy.

“Peace and Sustainable Development: A Two-Way Relationship” Panel

Mr. Huseyin Hurmali, Vice-President of the JWF emphasized and explained how civil initiatives inspired by scholar Fethullah Gulen have been contributing to both durable peace and sustainable development in about 160 countries around the world. Schools, universities and other educational institutions have been providing high quality science and mathematics education and also contributing to peace through becoming entities of “social mediation” in the regions of conflict.

Why Fethullah Gulen will never support a coup?

I consider that it is very illogical and unsubstantiated to blame a personality and implicitly the followers of his teachings for an action that is a potential source of a lot of human deaths, destruction and chaos. A similar philosophy of respect and love for everything due to their real Source, the Creator, could be one of our vital prescriptions that is essential against all types and sources of ferocity which we unfortunately witness in the world today.

The tragic end of the witch hunt

Several claims and accusations have been voiced, and the Hizmet movement has been described as a gang and a “parallel structure,” Are these accusations based on concrete evidence? No. Fabricated news published by pro-government media outlets, unfounded accusations and slanderous claims that are legally null and void have been refuted one by one. However, the pro-government media does not care about this, since they do not care in the least about rights or the rule of law.

Latest News

Fethullah Gülen’s Condolence Message for South African Human Rights Defender Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Hizmet Movement Declares Core Values with Unified Voice

Ankara systematically tortures supporters of Gülen movement, Kurds, Turkey Tribunal rapporteurs say

Erdogan possessed by Pharaoh, Herod, Hitler spirits?

Devious Use of International Organizations to Persecute Dissidents Abroad: The Erdogan Case

A “Controlled Coup”: Erdogan’s Contribution to the Autocrats’ Playbook

Why is Turkey’s Erdogan persecuting the Gulen movement?

Purge-victim man sent back to prison over Gulen links despite stage 4 cancer diagnosis

University refuses admission to woman jailed over Gülen links

In Case You Missed It

Gülen says paying price for not supporting Erdoğan’s desire for presidential system

‘Fethullah Gülen and Today’s World’ to be a reference book in Eurasia

Turkish Olympiads built on legacy of linguistic, cultural interaction

29-Year-Old Judge, A Victim Of Post-Coup Witch Hunt, Dies In Prison

“The Blessed” Day of the Pakistani Orphans

Before Oprah: Scholar’s Philanthropic Work Has Huge Impact on Africa

Love is A Verb – forthcoming documentary on the Gülen Movement

Copyright 2022 Hizmet News