By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
December 23, 2013
For nearly a decade, Muslims have hoisted Turkey as an illustration of Islam’s compatibility with modern liberalism. Never mind anachronistic Saudi Arabia, we said. Forget volatile if syncretic Indonesia too. It was Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey that exemplified Islam’s liberal credentials: peaceful and democratic even as it veered away from a century of coercive secularism. That Turkey is under threat, and not just because of Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian stance. A widening feud between him and his erstwhile ally, the recalcitrant Islamist Gülen movement, can put paid to claims that Islam can coexist with liberal democracy.
Until quite recently, Erdogan was an extremely popular leader in Turkey. His AK (Justice and Development) Party won three successive general elections after forging a remarkable alliance of the business class, the working class, and the religious class. Riding on this wave, Erdogan began to wean Turkish politics from its dependence on the will of the armed forces and Turkish society from coercive secularism. New laws weakened the military’s political clout and made adherence to secular or religious values a matter of personal choice. Turkey’s many Islamic orders, which had long suffered under the military, were particularly pleased, and they all pulled their weight behind Erdogan.
But something else changed along the way, as it often does.
Sultan Erdogan the First
After a decade in power, Erdogan began to look less of a prime minister and more of an Ottoman emperor. He had all but decimated Turkey’s democratic opposition. Now he started going after the country’s civil society as well, including writers and journalists who questioned his style of governance. His economic policies became blatantly pro-business at the cost of the working class. His social reforms, meanwhile, appeared to be pushing Turkey from liberal secularism toward Islamic rule.
Many Turks, especially those among the youth who highly value the secular tenets on which the country was built, saw the hand of the Gülen movement behind the government’s actions. The movement, locally known as Hizmet (Service), is the largest and most powerful of Turkey’s many Islamic orders. It is led by the enigmatic Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States and is counted among the world’s most influential thinkers. The order has millions of followers, many of whom come from Turkey’s business and professional classes. It runs schools, colleges, newspapers, broadcast stations, charities, and an immense network of professional, business, and service organizations. Ideologically, it is opposed to Salafi Islam and any form of terrorism.It actively promotes modern education among Muslims and interfaith dialogue with Christians and Jews. For many, therefore, it is the face of “moderate Islam.”
Erdogan and Gülen have been close allies all these years. The support of Hizmet, its business organizations and media outlets—including ‘Zaman,’ Turkey’s largest newspaper—played a vital role in Erdogan’s rise to power. The same network has helped him remain in command of Turkish politics for so long and has come to his aid at critical moments. The latest of these was just this summer. Erdogan decision to replace Istanbul’s historic Gezi Park with a shopping mall was challenged by mass protests, led by the urban youth. Many saw these protests as the precipitation of years of anger at Erdogan’s pro-business and anti-secular policies and deep mistrust of his intentions. Some even termed the protests “Turkish Spring.” But the Gülen media blacked out the protests and prevented them from spreading too far. Meanwhile, Hizmet organized counter demonstrations in Erdogan’s support while the police clamped down on anti-Erdogan protesters. Soon enough, the Turkish Spring fizzled out and Hizmet was credit—or blamed—for it.
Since then, though, there has been a drastic turnaround in relations between Erdogan and the Gülen movement.
Hizmet has a substantial following in the police and the judiciary. For many years, these branches of the government have run what has come to be known as the “Ergenekon investigation.”Scores of military officers and their sympathizers have been jailed under this investigation, which purportedly targets a “deep state” within Turkey, a supposed nexus of pro-military and anti-democratic forces. Many, however, believe the investigation has been a pretext for going after anyone opposed to the AKP and Hizmet. Three years ago, when a journalist writing a book on Hizmet’s infiltration of Turkish security forces was arrested along with six of his colleagues, he reportedly shouted: “Whoever touches it gets burned.”
The same police and judiciary have turned against Erdogan loyalists in recent months. Last Tuesday, more than 50 people, including the sons of three cabinet ministers, their aides, a mayor and some top civil servants were arrested on corruption charges. Erdogan was not informed about this operation; he later sacked about three dozen police and judicial officers who made the arrests and called it “a very very dirty operation.”
This was only the latest salvo in what is turning into a very very ugly struggle for power between Erdogan and the Islamist Gülen movement. Erdogan has accused Hizmet of running a parallel government. He has been removing or demoting its members from positions of influence. He has also been planning to close down private “prep” schools that help Turkish students prepare for university exams, many of which are owned by Hizmet members. The prime minister says these schools serve only rich students and therefore make the education system unfair for the poor, but Hizmet claims the government is attempting to dry up one of the movement’s financial lifelines. Gülen has himself accused Erdogan of trying to destroy his Islamic order.
Why are these close allies suddenly at daggers drawn? One view is that Erdogan’s quest for absolute personal power has made him turn against friends after conquering his enemies. Once the military and other democratic parties had been marginalized, Erdogan trained his guns on Hizmet. Another view is that Hizmet itself over-reached. It had already infiltrated the police and the judiciary; now it started trying to break into the intelligence service, which Erdogan keeps very close to himself. Hizmet members also started intruding into matters of the State that Erdogan clearly did not want them to. For instance, Istanbul’s prosecutor questioned Erdogan’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan over peace talks with Kurdish rebels in eastern Turkey in 2012, prompting the prime minister to provide legal immunity to Fidan.
Fethullah Gülenwent into exile in the United States in 1999, after a video showed him urging Hizmet members to infiltrate all departments and institutions of the then military-supported government. He has created a network of schools and charities in his host country too, and the United States appears to be on his side in the feud with Erdogan. The US ambassador to Ankara, Francis Ricciardone, has recently revived direct contact with Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). He reportedly also told other diplomats that they would soon watch the “fall of the empire,” while Erdogan has accused him of being part of a conspiracy against him.
Winners and Losers
This open war couldn’t have come at a worse time for Erdogan. Turkey is due to hold a presidential election in 2014 and the prime minister was widely expected to contest and arrogate more powers to himself. But without Hizmet’s backing, and with his own popularity waning after the Gezi Park protests, he is unlikely to win. Indeed, AK Party’s general hold on Turkish politics may have been severely compromised, and will be dented further if Hizmet now pulls its weight behind the CHP or some other opposition party.
But the Gülen movement too won’t emerge unscathed. It has always pitched itself as a social movement that has little to do with politics. Indeed, the Gülen ideology deprecates materialist ethos in favor of spiritual and social values. Concerns about hidden agendas have been aplenty, but Hizmet followers and Fethullah Gülen himself have denounced them repeatedly. The events of recent months, however, tarnish the image that the Gülen movement attempts to paint of itself. They suggest that money and power are the ulterior motives behind Hizmet’s substantial social work.
The long-term impact of this feud on Turkish politics and society is hard to foretell. On the one hand, the Erdogan-Gülen alliance had become too powerful and authoritarian; its demise will open up the political space to other parties and movements and bolster Turkish democracy. On the other hand, it was the strength and self-confidence of this alliance that had allowed it to take on the mighty Turkish military and send the generals back to barracks where they belong. The opening of political space could easily afford the military another opportunity to take over and turn democracy into a sham—as it has done so often over the past century.
But while there may be no clear winners in this war, there is a clear loser: liberal Islam. Both AKP and the Gülen movement represent an Islam that is at peace with the modern world. Both belie the contention that Islam is somehow at odds with liberal values and democracy. Under their alliance, Turkey has shown that it is possible to be both Muslim and modern as it has turned away from pretended democracy and coercive secularism. But their feud indicates that this turn was itself a pretense, that their avowed values were a ruse to grab power. They needed each other to conjure up a charade—now each wants to enjoy it on its own.
Of course, their ugly struggle for power has nothing to do with Islam per se. But after claiming for so long that they represent the “true face” of Islam, it is not so easy to turn around and say that, after all, they don’t.
Saif Shahin, a regular columnist for New Age Islam, is a doctoral research scholar in political communication at the University of Texas at Austin, United States