November 23, 2015

Turkish Islamists won’t battle ISIL

Abdullah Bozkurt

The duplicitous discourse from Turkey's political Islamist rulers, who lead a hate campaign by example while merely paying lip service to the fight against extremism through symbolic condemnation and critical comments, is nothing but complete hypocrisy imposed upon this long tolerant and diverse nation of some 80 million, put at risk by the ideological zealotry of its current leadership.

There has seen a clear pattern of behavior and discourse in the last decade or so, whereby Turkey's Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his associates in government have pursued intentions and held beliefs contrary to what they have preached to the choir so as to curry favor with allies and partners. The end result of this sinister politicking is the promotion of xenophobia, extremism, anti-Western, anti-Arab and anti-Asian sentiments in this country at a level hardly seen in the recent history of the republic. The machinations of the Erdoğan-controlled ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been driving a religious and political narrative filled with heavy doses of conspiracy, radical views and hateful vengeance.

Secondly, the ruling Islamist elites, having established effective control over the bulk of the media in Turkey, keep fanning this xenophobic narrative with impunity by allowing radicals to drum up public agitation over sensitive issues. Shocking commentaries that justified the actions of the murderous group that killed innocent Parisians were uttered by pro-government journalists who have been traveling with President Erdoğan during his state-visits abroad. In other words, these government propagandists, who read the pulse of Islamist rulers very well, reflect the real thinking in the minds of Turkey's leadership and follow it up accordingly with hateful articles.

Third, it is an open secret that key governmental figures and influential advisers in Erdoğan's circle are known for their sympathetic attitude toward hard-line Islamist ideology. These people played a disruptive role in thwarting police and judicial investigations into radical groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The apparent lack of political commitment to implementing measures for the purpose of undercutting radical groups continues to hamper efforts to fight extremism in Turkey. The ambivalent police response and the judiciary's hands-off approach when it comes to cracking down on Islamic extremist groups are the immediate results of this undeclared government policy.

Fourth, political Islamists have ratcheted up attacks on mainstream Islamic moderates that are perhaps represented best by, among others, Hizmet (also known as the Gülen movement that is inspired by teachings of Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen). Instead of empowering community activists and civic groups that help shape the debate against extremism in Turkey on sound philosophical, ethical, moral and religious grounds, Erdoğan and his brethren have been waging a vindictive and vilifying campaign against members of the Gülen movement and other moderate Muslim groups in order to prop up political Islamist factions and to sustain their grip on power.

Thousands of hucksters, zealots and thugs were employed en masse by the AKP government at home and abroad with the aim of discrediting and defaming Gülen and other moderate voices on social media as well as through traditional media outlets. The outreach activities, such as interfaith and intercultural dialogue programs, pursued by the Gülen movement have been ridiculed for decades, smeared and associated with infidelity while Mr. Gülen's staunch opposition to the violence and terrorism is portrayed as pacifism in pro-government media.

Fifth, the current AKP government in Turkey, in power for the last 13 years, has been seeding what appeared to be small initiatives at the outset but later blossomed into major policy actions that cater to a political Islamist constituency. The government's craftily engineered education and social policies have broadened its support base and helped to nurture young political Islamists with extremist ideas, at the expense of moderate and mainstream religious discourse. This will continue taking its toll on the traditional values of this great nation.

Sixth, Turkey's government agency the Religious Affairs Directorate, which controls some 80,000 mosques with about 150,000 imams and supporting personnel, has been transformed into a mouthpiece for political Islamist elites. Friday sermons have been prepared centrally to cater to radical audiences, benefit political authority and to propagate xenophobic messages. The credentials of imams and their qualifications are mainly assessed according to their proximity to the ruling AKP government and whether they subscribe to political Islamist ideologies. Imams dispatched overseas by the Religious Affairs Directorate to lead prayers and teach youngsters, especially in European countries where Turkish minorities live, are carefully screened by the political authority to ensure the propagation of its ideas.

Seventh, contrary to public remarks merely aimed at allaying concerns in foreign capitals and among the domestic opposition, Turkey's Islamist rulers have not displayed a keen interest in disrupting the extremist networks in Turkey. There is no comprehensive strategy set out to combat radicalization and recruitment, only a piecemeal one. The government was pushed into action only after major attacks at home and abroad led to pressure from public opinion or from Turkey's allies and partners. In three key provinces near the Syrian border, Gaziantep, Adıyaman and Şanlıurfa, ISIL and other extremist groups run hundreds of safe houses where they preach radical views with impunity and without containment by law enforcement agencies.

Eighth, there is no single case, administrative or judicial, that currently exists that indicates that the government has actually cracked down on funding the sources of extremist groups, including ISIL, which is officially labeled a terrorist organization. The smuggling of oil and supplies to ISIL is done mainly through Turkey, where the group runs logistical hubs and procurement centers for anything from medicine to food. After years of pressure on the Turkish government from the United States, Parliament finally adopted a law in 2013 that empowered the executive branch with the ability to freeze the assets of terrorists or terror groups to combat money laundering and the finance of terrorism. As of today, those powers have never been invoked by the government against these groups.

On the judicial front, the opposite happened when the Turkish government unlawfully applied Article 133 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), which allowed the judiciary to order the seizure of the İpek Media Group, the third largest media outlet, and Kaynak Holding, the owner of the largest publisher in Turkey. Both companies are owned by businesspeople who are considered to be close to Gülen, one of the architects of interfaith and intercultural dialogue. In other words, the Islamist government has gone after groups that have nothing to do with extremism and terrorism but in fact serve as the ultimate panacea for radical ideology. The tools available in the criminal justice system were used to cut off funding for political and civic opposition, while nothing has been done against radical groups.

As if that is not enough already, radical groups and media outlets continue receiving generous government funding through proxy channels. Government-owned or controlled enterprises, including banks and telecom giants, pay significant sums of money to advertise in radical dailies like Yeni Akit. Nielsen, a leading global information and measurement company, published advertising expenditure (AdEx) data on the advert distribution of companies last year, indicating advertising in Yeni Akit nearly doubled year-on-year.

Ninth, the criminal justice system has been timid when it comes to the prosecution of extremist groups and religiously oriented terrorist organizations because of the risk of inviting the wrath of political authorities who harbor favorable views of these groups. So many veteran judges and prosecutors have not only lost their jobs in the last several years, but some have also been put behind bars for investigating extremist groups, including al-Qaeda and ISIL. When investigations led to a political connection with higher-ups in government, they were hastily hushed up and derailed. Dozens of such cases have been thwarted by the government in the last several years alone. The remaining cases will not produce any substantial results and the real masterminds of the suicide attacks that killed over a hundred people in three separate incidents in recent months will remain at large.

As a result, the current government in Turkey and President Erdoğan merely talk the talk when it comes to fighting radicalism and extremism. They never put into action any sincere plan to fight ISIL and other fanatical groups. As part of coalition-led efforts, the Turkish military may bomb ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq, and seal the porous border, but the country is widely exposed with home-grown ISIL cells roaming freely under the patronage of Islamist rulers. It is simply deplorable that Turkey finds itself in this situation with fundamentalism posing a real threat to national security.

Published on Today's Zaman, 23 November 2015, Monday