September 16, 2015

Turkey’s Witch-Hunt Against the Gülen Movement Should Stop

Eldar Mamadov*

We’re told they are “vampires” and “traitors”, “pawns of foreign powers” and “cancerous cells” and a “blood-sucking virus” to be “annihilated,” “cleansed,” “vaporized,” and “separated into its molecules.”

Is this the violent invective spewed at dissidents from the pages of Pravda at the height of the 1930s Soviet purges or from some official mouthpiece of the North Korean regime promising to crush the enemies of the people? No. These are phrases taken in 2014 and 2015 straight from the front pages of Turkish newspapers, like Sabah, Aksam, Takvim, and Star, that are known to be unconditional supporters of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The “virus to be annihilated” is Hizmet, an Islamically-inspired, Turkish transnational civic movement. Hizmet, also known as the Gülen movement (after its founder Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Muslim cleric), was until recently an ally of Erdogan in his fight against the Kemalist establishment that had ruled Turkey since 1923.

The relationship between AKP and Hizmet fell apart in late 2013 after allegations of corruption were made against the Erdogan government by an allegedly “parallel structure” within the state and supposed shadow fifth column controlled by the Gülen Movement. The prosecutors and police officers in charge of these corruption investigations were subsequently removed from their posts and all charges against the suspects, including some members of Erdogan’s inner circle, were dismissed. This was only the beginning of the government’s wholesale campaign to discredit and purge Hizmet.

Hizmet itself is a network of businesses, media entities, charities, and educational establishments based on the religious teachings of Fethullah Gülen and emphasizing the compatibility between Islam, science, reason and progress. Erdogan’s government has already targeted some of the most visible of Hizmet’s institutions.

In December 2014, Hidayet Karaca, general manager of Samanyolu Broadcasting, a Hizmet-affiliated media group, was arrested. As of this writing, he remains in pre-trial detention. The government has also disrupted the work of Kimse Yok Mu? (Is Anyone There?), Turkey’s largest relief organization, known for undertaking extensive humanitarian work in Africa, seized the management control of the Bank Asiya, and raided businesses belonging to the Koza İpek Holding company, all of which are closely affiliated with the Gülen movement.

Recently, Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) ruled that the Samanyolu Haber TV station, which is also associated with the movement, violated a broadcast principle during one of its news program, paving the way for the channel’s closure.

Just last month, agents of Turkey’s Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime Bureau (KOM) raided at least eight Gülen-linked private schools. Perhaps most ludicrous of all, pro-government media have claimed (without a shred of evidence) that investigations have exposed the movement’s “armed leg,” which is known as Otuken, and that movement members committed massacres of Christian missionaries in 2006 and 2007.

These are but a few examples of the state’s relentless campaign of defamation and discrimination targeting Hizmet.

Western Silence

Yet Turkey’s Western friends, the United States and European Union, have never explicitly condemned the vitriolic anti-Gülen campaign. By contrast, the international community, particularly the EU, has been very detailed and direct in its (well-deserved) criticism of Turkey on a number of issues relating to human rights and basic freedoms, especially with respect to the Kurds, Alevis, non-Muslim minorities, the LGBT community, and women. In their 2014 progress reports on Turkish accession to the EU, both the European Commission and the European Parliament criticized the politicized nature of the Turkish judiciary and dwindling freedom of the press. The European Parliament even adopted a resolution calling out the lack of freedom of expression in Turkey, following the arrest of journalists who had exposed the corruption allegations against the Erdogan government.

So far, the EU has, however, been reluctant to denounce the persecution of Hizmet in its own right, rather than as an extension of broader problems with the Turkish justice system and protection of basic rights in Turkey.

Such reluctance may be partly explained by perceptions that the AKP-Gülen conflict is a power struggle between “dueling” Islamist movements in which the EU has no business intervening. This perception is reinforced by Hizmet’s controversial role in spearheading the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations in 2007 and 2010, respectively, which focused on alleged plans for a military coup against the AKP government. Most of the accused were members of the Turkish military, but some were civilian Kemalists. During trials related to these investigations, allegedly fabricated evidence was used against the defendants.

Last December, one member of the European Parliament, in condemning both Erdogan’s slide toward authoritarianism and the Hizmet witch-hunt, declared that the “members of the Fethullah Gülen movement and the AKP have created monsters together in a coalition that long turned against everything in their combined path.” Illustrating the view that the two groups are often seen as equally-matched competitors in an ongoing Turkish power struggle, she added, “Now they turn against each other, leading to even more violations of the rule of law.”

There is some merit to these claims. Indeed, through its media outlets, Hizmet was quite cavalier toward the fundamental presumption of innocence, and summarily condemned the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer suspects even before their cases went to trial. The movement’s failure to condemn the arrest of journalists, such as Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, on bogus charges also remains an utter disgrace.

Still, injustice committed by the Gülen movement does not justify government repression toward the group. There are signs some soul-searching may be happening about past mistakes within the movement’s ranks. More importantly, what is happening between the government and the movement looks more like a regime crackdown on an independent civic group, than a struggle between two centers of power in Turkey. This is especially true when viewed within the context of Erdogan’s ever intensifying authoritarianism.

Another explanation for the international community’s silence may be Western discomfort with Islamically-based or -inspired movements in general. But while Hizmet is certainly an Islamic movement, it is not an explicitly Islamist one. In fact, even when AKP and Gulen were allies, the difference in it outlook occasionally broke through, most prominently in 2011, when Hizmet condemned the AKP-supported Gaza flotilla that tragically ended in the murder of activists on the Mavi Marmara cargo ship by Israeli security forces. At the time, some dismissed Hizmet’s deferential stance toward Israel as a tactical ploy to please the United States (where Gülen himself lives). In reality, however, the episode illustrates the long-standing and deep philosophical differences between the movement and the AKP.

Hizmet’s growing anti-Islamist bent has also led it to take a hostile view toward Iran. This hostility has, at times, expressed itself in aggressively anti-Shia sectarian language, which is strongly at odds with the movement’s professed interest in interfaith dialogue and tolerance.

The differences between Hizmet and the AKP did not, however, prevent the movement from working with the AKP when their interests in confronting the Kemalist state overlapped. It also did not stop the movement from moving closer to the opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), after its fall out with the AKP. While the CHP’s Kemalist ideology could not, in principle, be further from Hizmet’s core Islamic values and beliefs, the alliance reflects the Gülen movement’s overall strategy – namely, to work with any political force willing to advance its interests and exploit opportunities to wield political power behind the scenes.

In emphasizing its rejection of political Islam, the movement may indeed risk criticism for opening itself up to exploitation and appropriation by Western neoconservatives who are opposed to Erdogan and the AKP. Yet the conflict between the movement and Erdogan has less do to with Islamism than with Erdogan’s expanding authoritarianism. In fact, after cleansing Gülenists (followers of the Gülen movement) from the state apparatus, the AKP brought in many members of the old, Kemalist regime. In fact, many of Erdogan’s closest lieutenants are not Islamists at all. One of them, Egemen Bagis, a former EU affairs minister and a suspect in the anti-corruption probe, was even caught mocking the Qur’an.

A Strategic Call to Conscience?

Whatever Hizmet’s faults, there are at least four good reasons why the West should reconsider its position of non-interference and urge Erdogan to stop persecuting the group.

First, as Erdogan pursues his obsessive anti-Gülen “jihad,” real terrorists are reaping the benefits. While intelligence and security officers are tasked with dealing with Hizmet as the “most serious threat” to the country’s national security, both ISIS and Al-Qaeda have mostly been operating freely in Turkey.

Second, government targeting of Hizmet-affiliated and other critical media seems to be part of Erdogan’s strategy to ensure his ultimate goal: introducing a fully presidential system to Turkey, with Erdogan as the executive in chief. Erodgan hopes that early parliamentary elections set for this autumn will deliver the AKP with the necessary majority to pass the relevant constitutional amendment and accomplish the switch. Opposition media and a more critical electorate may be an obstacle to these plans. But, the chances of success are high. If Erdogan’s presidential ambitions are realized, this would inflict a fatal blow to Turkey’s symbolic position as a democratic and pluralistic model for the Muslim world.

Third, Hizmet’s approach to “de-radicalization by default” is a valuable asset in fighting and defeating violent extremist ideologies, reflected in the practices of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. This approach emphasizes theological refutations of violent extremism and provides a counter-narrative rooted in Islamic teachings. For his part, Erdogan is doing the fight against extremism no favors by simultaneously cracking down on Hizmet, warming up to Saudi Arabia, and supporting Salafist militant groups in Syria, in what one prominent journalist Cengiz Aktar calls the “Salafization of Turkey.” Ironically, to effectively tackle the extremist threat, Turkey may be compelled to take a cue from Pakistan, which, after supporting and breeding the Taliban in Afghanistan (much like Turkey now does with Salafist groups in Syria), has turned to Hizmet to counter the noxious effects of its own policies.

Fourth, Hizmet’s global reach endows its approach toward rooting out violent extremism with an international dimension. It is a useful antidote to the Saudi-funded expansion of an intolerant Salafist-Wahhabi ideology, which has and continues to cause great damage to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But, in order to be an effective player in this endeavor, the movement must convince skeptics that it does not seek to achieve political and religious hegemony and genuinely values pluralism.

For these reasons, and before it destroys the fabric of Turkish society, the witch-hunt against the Gülen movement in Turkey should stop, and attention should be focused, instead, on the country’s real problems, from the resumption of the Kurdish peace process to the fight against the violent extremism of ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

*Eldar Mamedov has a degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington DC and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the delegation for inter-parliamentary relations between the EP and Iran.

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