Turkey’s Fierce Battle on the Religious Right

(By Ayşe Soysal)

… What is happening in Turkey now doesn’t feel like just a simple political disagreement, or even a war-game. It’s an all-out war, whose opening gambits have been politically damaging to both sides — the [Justice and Development Party or] AKP-led government and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and the secretive Islamic Gülen Movement (what some have called a pan-Turkish cultural movement) led by Fethullah Gülen.

Events over December and into January have demonstrated an escalation in the level of hostility between the government and the Movement. As a power struggle has ensued between these allies-turned-adversaries, Erdoğan has publicly declared that he will root out the ‘parallel state’ of Gülen adherents that he says have taken over the police force and the judiciary. So far it appears that the damage done by the Gülen Movement to Turkey’s government in this fight is far greater than the damage done to the Movement. That said, judging from recent opinion polls and pro-Erdogan rallies this past weekend, perhaps it is too soon to judge, and the equation may revert…

Earlier Warning Signs

Several years ago Erdoğan issued a public invitation to Fethullah Gülen asking him to terminate his exile and return to Turkey, as the political situation in the country had ‘normalized;’ promising Gülen that he was in no danger of being prosecuted. He didn’t take Erdogan up on his offer. I wonder now at Gülen’s motives for not returning.

What were some other warning signs of this coming power struggle? Outsiders like me probably missed some of the earlier signs. These are the ones that registered with me:

(1) Disagreement on the Kurdish issue: The Gülen Movement is totally insensitive to the Kurdish desire to preserve their ethnic identity. With ‘the process’ – as Erdoğan’s efforts to grant legal rights to Kurds are commonly called – most of the media stopped using the word ‘terrorists’, preferring to refer to the Kurdish fighters as ‘the PKK’ , using the initials of the armed wing of the Kurds. The Gülen media was an exception. They continue to refer to the Kurdish rebels as ‘terrorists.’ It is clear that the Movement does not believe in the peace process; it believes in armed struggle against the Kurds as the solution to the insurgency problem.

(2) Criminal proceedings against the head of the secret service: Related to the above, the Gülen Movement tried to open criminal proceedings against Hakan Fidan, the head of the Turkish secret service (the National Information Agency), through public prosecutors who are believed to be Gülen-affiliated. Fidan is an appointee of Erdoğan — someone the Prime Minister trusted enough to have him conduct secret peace negotiations with the Kurds in Oslo. The prosecutors’ case was based on the premise that the Oslo talks constitute treason, since the Kurds are in armed rebellion against Turkey. The approval of the minister of justice was needed for the case to proceed, and approval was not granted.

(3) Erdoğan’s belief in the great international conspiracy: The prime minister believes that there is an international conspiracy to discredit him and remove him from politics. In his public speeches he often talks about this conspiracy and refers to the ‘interest lobby’ in terms that hint at anti-semitism. One may assume that he uses these arguments because the typical Turk is prone to believe in conspiracies, and the mention of an alliance of the United States and Israel against Turkey strikes a chord in people’s minds. But I know that these are not just words for Erdoğan: He very strongly believes that such a conspiracy exists. I have the word of one of his trusted advisors, someone whom he meets with on a regular basis, for this.

Erdoğan feels that the ‘global powers’ want to remove him from office, that the USA (with the instigation of Israel) pulled the rug out from under him, and that more events like this summer’s Gezi park protests will unfold as part of this conspiracy.

Since the Gülen Movement is based in the USA and seems to have close relations with Washington, Erdoğan believes that the USA is using the Movement as its ‘subcontractor’ in pushing forward its agenda. Recently the head of CHP (the main opposition party) visited the United States – for the first time in his life! – where it is rumored that he met with Gülenists, whom the CHP used to consider enemies of the state.

In addition, Turkey consistently gets a bad rap in international media concerning its economic performance. Economists in Turkey that I have talked to say that the agencies that rate countries’ economies give poorer grades to Turkey than what it actually deserves. Erdoğan, who prides himself and his party on running the economy successfully through global crises, uses this as proof that the ‘interest lobby’ is conspiring to keep Turkey as an insecure place for attracting foreign investments.

The Gülen Movement has revealed itself to be a secret, Masonic society, one that avoids the public arena and instead prefers to conduct its politics from the shadows. As such, I don’t believe it’s an organization that inspires trust, nor one that has a place in an open, democratic society.

That a rift between the government and the Gülen Movement was in the making has been the assumption of secularists for quite some time — an assumption partly motivated by wishful thinking. The secularists, fully aware that they do not have a competent, credible and charismatic leader to challenge Erdoğan, have adopted the strategy of simultaneously discrediting Erdogan and hoping for a rift in the ranks of the voters supporting the AKP-led government.

PART 2: Q & A with Ayşe Soysal on ‘The Big Picture’

(Questions from Julie Poucher Harbin, Editor, ISLAMiCommentary)

Question: Is Turkey still a model for a kind of Islamic democracy?

Soysal: To answer this question one must first ask what an ‘Islamic democracy’ is. I am not sure that this term has a meaning and existence distinct from a democracy in, for example, a predominantly Catholic and conservative country, such as Portugal. Erdoğan and his friends would argue otherwise, but I have not yet read a theoretician’s explanation of what this term really means. I would agree that it is a successful marketing slogan, one which grants more definition of and more legitimacy to the strong conservative bent of the government, and one which earns friends abroad among third world countries. It is perhaps something in the making.

If I deconstruct this phrase further, specifically for Turkey, it gives rise to two questions: Is Turkey a democracy? How Islamic is Turkey? For the first question, every one of us has his or her own answer. For the second one, the answer to be given depends on whether the word ‘Islamic’ is used in a cultural context or in terms of the laws and structures, in the sociological sense. In the cultural context, Turkey is surely Islamic; the countryside more conservatively so than the big cities and the western coastal regions. With respect to the second question, I would say that in Turkey the ‘state’ looms larger than religion; the Turkish republic was created with exactly this in mind. It helps to remember that we are a country that willingly abolished the caliphate and replaced it with a Directorate General of Religious Affairs, headed by a bureaucrat.

My parents’ generation was brought up in the ideology that Islam is a ‘backward’ religion and the West (written with a capital and pronounced reverently) represents progress, enlightenment and ‘advanced culture.’ The term Islamic democracy entails a reaction to this ideology, in the sense that it contests the previous indoctrination that Islam and progress are not compatible; that Islam has no place in the modern world. In this context I would say that an Islamic democracy is possible, meaning a democracy in a conservative, Muslim-majority country; one which is able to function as part of the global economy, and one whose identity and culture are not Western imports.

If there is (or there will be) such a thing as an Islamic democracy, Turkey seems to be the best candidate for making it happen, not because it is more ‘Islamic’ than other Muslim countries, but because its experience in democracy has been longer and deeper than most.

Question: Is there such a thing as Islamosecularism?

Soysal: I would say, perhaps in the future there will (or may) be such a thing as Islamosecularism, but it does not yet exist. Islam has never gone through a Reformation like Christian Europe went through. There was a lot of blood shed in Europe during the Reformation, but (I don’t mean to justify the bloodshed) what resulted from this was a more tolerant form of religious practices. I don’t see how secularism in Europe could have existed without the Reformation. Orthodox Christianity is similar to Islam in the sense that their religion is still practiced much the same as it was as when it was invented, which might be why democracy in Russia is not quite a democracy.

It would be naive to expect Islam to go through a process of reformation now or in the future. No Islamic country is religious enough to give this any time and effort; it is not going to be on anybody’s agenda. But what may happen instead is that market forces, globalism, and the unifying force of social media will diminish the sharp delineation between the social behaviors of secular and religious people.

Question: Is Erdoğan’s party secular?

Soysal: I would say yes, even though Erdogan and many around him would, in their inner selves, wish for other people to embrace the same Islamic moral codes that they choose to live with.

For example:

They would wish to ban alcoholic beverages.
They believe that for a man and a woman, living together is a sin, and that for members of the same sex, living together is unthinkable.
They probably do not really believe in the emancipation of women (they are so overprotective of their women!).

I would say that with respect to secularism, their heart and mind are in different places.

Question: Does Erdoğan’s party harbor fundamentalist ideals? Do they want to rule the country by the rule of Sharia?

Soysal: No. They want secular laws, but they also want conservative values and conservative lifestyles preserved. This is their existential problem. Further secularization is intricately involved in women’s rights, in the gender issue. There is much need for progress in this regard.

Question: Is Turkey being pulled apart by secular and religious forces or is it more complicated than that?

Soysal: The fate of Turkey is more complicated than secularism versus religiosity. It is also about the countryside versus the metropolitan cities, the western coastal regions versus the central highlands. There are many other subtexts.

We are going through a difficult time, one in which very strong polarization exists. Turks are a race of survivors, and I believe the situation will transform itself into a calmer state. The majority of the country is made up of rock-solid, conservative, patient people with good sense, and I am hoping that their good sense will prevail. However, there will be a price to be paid: My generation of city-born, non-religious, well-educated, Western-oriented Turks will not accept the transformation that Turkey must necessarily go through, and they will end up being marginalized. These are the people who are presently in a very emotional state, their moods swinging like a pendulum from panic to anger. It’s not nice for a country to have its intellligentsia become marginalized, but I don’t see a way out of that. Demonizing a people’s religion and cultural identity is not a recipe for peace; the Soviet Union and Mao’s China were experiments that showed that this does not work.

In the barn dance that is Turkish politics, a sudden double change of partners occurred: A secret alliance established between the CHP (the main opposition party, representing the secularist ideology) and the Gülenist movement is not so secret any more.

But another surprising partnership has also emerged: the AKP is now dancing with the generals. This sounds unbelievable, but in the power struggle that occurred between AKP and the Gülen Movement, somehow the AKP has gotten realigned with the generals. So it’s all become more complicated.

Question: Which direction is Turkey headed? And what kind of impact will this government/Gülen rift ultimately have on Turkey’s future? Is it driving Turkey away from the US as you have hinted?

Soysal: Turkey has always considered itself to be a European power. The Ottomans called themselves the sultans of Rum, ‘Rum’ meaning the Roman lands, the Roman empire, and hence, the West. During the empire’s declining days, Europeans used to refer to the Ottomans as ‘the sick man of Europe,’ never ‘the sick man of the Middle East.’ It is unthinkable for Turkey to give up its continental drift (slow and torturous, with disastrous earthquakes occasionally) towards the West. However, our mini-cultural revolution that tried to convert us into a people dressed in the French style who whistle Beethoven symphonies has come to a dead end, and is now being shed like a used-up snake skin. If we do things right, something new and healthy will emerge from this.

What will be the impact of the government/Gülen rift inside Turkey? Hopefully the AKP will think twice before forming alliances with shady communities. I believe they have learned their lesson, and this will be good for Turkish politics. I would also like to hope that bribery and racketeering will be eliminated from our politics, but most probably not. The desire for money and power is too strong, and often overrides good Quranic training.

The Gülen affair has done damage to the relationship between the US and Turkey, which was not too good recently anyway. I think the US prefers a Turkey that is like a slow, dumb and obedient giant, one whose main purpose was as an eastern bulwark — to fend off the evil Soviet Union, in the recent past – though now the geopolitical game has changed.

Turkey is still a safe haven in an increasingly volatile Middle East, and the US needs to keep Turkey as a partner. But the US must also come to terms with the fact that Turkey is a stronger country than it was in the past, and therefore wants to exert its will in the international arena.

The relationship can be mended if the US recognizes Turkish efforts in the region, such as the asylum we have granted to so many Syrian refugees. But above all, it is mutual trust between Turkey and the United States that is the crucial ingredient needed to establish a good, solid partnership.

Ayşe Soysal is former President of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, one of Turkey’s elite universities. She received her master’s (1973) and doctoral (1976) degrees in Mathematics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Prior to becoming the first woman President of Boğaziçii University in 2004, Prof. Soysal also held office as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and chair of the Department of Mathematics. She has been highly visible as a promoter of academic freedom who welcomed controversial conferences to her campus. She is also a tireless promoter of raising educational investments in Turkey at all levels and through both public and private sources. She served on the board of TUBITAK (the Turkish Science and Technological Council) and the Turkish Council of Higher Education. Presently she works as a faculty member in the department of mathematics at Boğaziçi University. She is also a member of the Duke Islamic Studies Center Advisory Board.

Mirrored from IslamiCommentary

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8 Responses

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you very much, Ayse Soysal and Informed Comment.

    That was tremendously more informative, and more aware of and sensitive to human feelings, than anything we’ve seen in the larger more conventional media in America, regarding Turkey, for many years now. (Of course Turkey can only be covered in the American media when it’s violent or stricken.)

  2. Thanks you for your insights and benevolence.

    “Since the Gülen Movement is based in the USA and seems to have close relations with Washington, Erdoğan believes that the USA is using the Movement as its ‘subcontractor’ in pushing forward its agenda…” Such fears seem fairly reasonable in that context, and concern with the Israel connection sounds anti-rightwing rather than anti-Jewish.

    One wonders how this political situation affects Turkey’s potential as a peacemaker in the Mideast. And whether the conflict is promoted by the US-Israeli rightwing strategies to destabilize Mideast powers with ethnic cinflict.

  3. Might the intellligentsia decide that secular rule by the generals was not so bad and welcome them back?

  4. It is tiring to see journalists to ask questions as if they are idiots… Will Turkey be run by Sharia? No. Anybody should know that. Of course the problem is Sharia means “the law”. So it doesn’t matter what you call it.

    Here is my problem with these hopeful academics…
    “one whose identity and culture are not Western imports”

    Please explain to me from a cultural point of view what do we mean by a “Islamic democracy”?

    Here is my logic…
    Democracy is a method of ruling a population. Religion in the modern sense if a collection of beliefs and rituals that organize societies.

    But of course we know Islam is more than that… Historically there is no clear separation between state and religion in the sense it existed between Vatican and European rulers.

    Islam is a religion. If Islamic democracy means a place where women inherit half as their brothers do, a place where adultery is a punishable crime etc… Well then that does not fit the definition of modern democracy.

    If these do not happen and individual rights are fully respected… Than where is the “Islamic” part of this democracy? It simply will be a modern democracy!

    In that sense Islamic or Christian or Jewish democracy are idiotic definitions. We try too hard to categorize countries and make models out of them.

    In Turkey almost every threat to individual rights comes from the Islamist discourse. Separation of girls and boys schools and dorms… Highest alcohol taxes in the Europe (except Sweden) and punishing the middle class in any way the government can.

    - Can I openly protest the prime minister? No.
    - Can I say religion is a travesty? No.
    - Can I challenge government’s plans for urban areas? No.
    - Can I ask where my taxes go in a transparent manner? No.

    And when I do what do I hear? We are foreign agents in the hands of Israel… OK sure… Turkey looks like a great candidate for an “Islamic democracy,” whatever that means…

    Turkish middle class is under attack by a populist tyrant who will feed the poor with bread, circuses and propaganda while at the same time enriching himself and his ministers.

  5. Journalists often ask these kind of “tiring” questions, not because the journalists are ignorant, but because these are the questions that members of the general public often asks so, on behalf of the general public, this is why they are asked… and answered.

  6. Thank you, Cagri Bey, for your insights and observations. Can I play off two of them? First, this: “We try too hard to categorize countries and make models out of them.” So true, in so many ways. From the apparently necessary reduction, for analysis and debate, of places with millions of citizens, or at least inhabitants, with their infinite institutions and interests and liaisons and histories, to single personified unitary points, as in “Turkey does this” or “Israel does that” or “the US believes…” So nicely hides the complexities, and helps activate and manipulate atavistic and tribal responses.

    You also so rightly observe:

    “Turkish middle class is under attack by a populist tyrant who will feed the poor with bread, circuses and propaganda while at the same time enriching himself and his ministers.”

    That does an excellent and appropriate job of modeling not only the current Turkish ruling elite and their behavior and “interests,” but that of most nations. Especially the ones that bang drums and blow trumpets and thump their chests shouting that they are “democracies,” of ANY kind.

    Kleptocracy is the operative model in most of the world, conducted behind and maintained by various overlays. There’s a tolerable, maybe even inescapably necessary, amount of baksheesh and “slack” in human cultures, but for some reason those who concentrate on gathering power and ruling have no notion of when to stop filching and stealing and bleeding the rest of us. There is apparently no “enough.” Cancer cells have the same properties…

  7. JTMcPhee,

    You’re absolutely right. We all live under problematic regimes to varying degrees. Unfortunately it is the responsibility of the people to wake up.

    I think the US government has become largely dysfunctional when it comes to dealing with big problems. (healthcare, education, infrastructure) However, there is at least some push back from the people.

    Today Obama sort of/kind of back away from giving NSA his total support (my guess is not much will change).

    In Turkey, most people don’t protest unless they are getting really really poor.

    No liberties? Fine.
    Are armed foreign men walking around in Antioch? Fine.
    Is violence against women getting worryingly high? Fine.
    Are prosecutors asking for Al Qaeda related arrests fired? Fine.

    How can we trust the electorate who currently seem to care about nothing but economic stability??? The country that attacks its own middle class becomes a joke and there is nothing to do about it.

    The masses will keep voting for this autocrat unless he becomes completely cuckoo. Why? Because he monopolized the media and most people don’t go as far as educated people do to search for information…

    But I become the elitist, anti-democrat when I point out these very obvious facts…

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