October 3, 2014

Delegitimizing ISIL

Abdullah Bozkurt

The long-term challenge in the battle against terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which exploit Islam for misdirected political purposes, is how best to counter the ideological diatribe that was used to recruit militants or raise funding in the name of religion. Turkey, a predominantly Sunni nation that boasts a long Sufi tradition and moderation, is certainly well placed to play a key role in promoting a strong narrative that will counteract, neutralize and eventually defeat the radical ideology that the militants employ to expand their constituency.

Yet, the current government in Turkey, effectively seized by a small but powerful cadre of political Islamists under the influence of pan-Islamist ideologues as well as pro-Iranian revolutionary lackeys, will not let this great nation play that role. Instead, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the chief political Islamist, seems to have been doing a lot in terms of promoting a new generation of hostile and confrontational youth with his relentless and pervasive changes in education, social and foreign policies. The president enlists the help of his allies in the government in trying to caress, nurture and strengthen the political Islamist base, which has not been welcomed by most Turks.

Therefore, it is highly questionable that Erdoğan will fulfill his assumed role of “delegitimizing ISIL's extremist ideology” as part of a regional strategy to tackle the violent group that was agreed on during a meeting between him and US Vice President Joe Biden in New York on Sept. 25. In fact, Erdoğan's belligerent discourse, actions and policies may even worsen the situation by granting further legitimacy to the propaganda employed by militant groups. Erdoğan's track record tells the tale of a man who bears a fundamental hostility toward the West in general and the US in particular.

Perhaps not surprisingly, just like many in Turkey, Americans harbor their own suspicions about whether Erdoğan will follow through on promises he made in this fight against ISIL. He had shied away from explicitly calling ISIL a terrorist group before 46 Turks who were taken captive in the Iraqi city of Mosul were released, during the hostage crisis, which lasted over three months, but even after their release, until he made the visit to the US to participate in the UN General Assembly meetings. He changed his public discourse recently, yet doubts linger over whether Erdoğan simply pays lip service or is sincere in his commitment. The yardstick was recently raised by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who said the US will judge Turkey on its actions rather than its words.

The Erdoğan regime does not offer much hope in thwarting extremist ideologies from taking root in Turkey for a variety of reasons. For one, Erdoğan has helped nurture radical groups in Syria since 2011, when the Syrian conflict started. The fine line between the moderate opposition groups and radical ones was blurred by Erdoğan despite warnings from Washington. Former US Ambassador to Turkey Frank Ricciardone was the first senior US official (albeit a retired one) who blew the lid on the then-Erdoğan government's support to radical groups in Syria. He revealed how growing differences on helping some opposition factions had driven a wedge between Turkey and the US.

On the home front, Erdoğan's governance, mired by corruption, crony capitalism and nepotism, fails to engage with young people, who often face strong discrimination in public employment, civic participation and business entrepreneurships when they are not aligned with political Islamism, which is the valid currency of the current regime. Unfortunately, Erdoğan's religious relativism and symbolism have had a cascading impact on the whole bureaucracy, leading to widespread discriminatory practices and massive human rights violations. The justification of repression with religious references has been a hallmark of Erdoğan's style of governance.

That pattern drew the attention of main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) İstanbul deputy and retired mufti İhsan Özkes, who accuses Erdoğan of creating what he called a “parallel new religion” in the name of Islam that justifies bribery and corruption. He said a ruling party lawmaker referred to Erdoğan as a second prophet, while another lawmaker said touching him is a sacred prayer. Özkes underlined that with these practices and this discourse, Erdoğan and his associates give the impression that these are normal in Islam when in fact they are not. “They are harming the religion of Islam,” he lamented.

More often than not, the genuine debate on Erdoğan's dismal record on democratic credentials has been pushed to the back-burner when he deliberately propagated victim stories he borrowed from Palestine, Syria, Thailand, Cairo, Kosovo, Myanmar, Bangladesh, China and other places. He has exaggerated and even distorted facts on the ground while narrating stories. When troubled with domestic matters, Erdoğan was quick in amplifying a conspiratorial message that the world is trying to topple his government because it was defending the rights of oppressed Muslims all over the world.

On a downbeat note, the law enforcement and application of criminal justice system as part of a delegitimizing strategy are also lacking in Turkey. The government effectively disbanded the whole team of experienced and veteran police chiefs who tracked al-Qaeda type violent terrorist groups for years. The judges and prosecutors who go after these groups were reassigned and demoted. The absence of determination to directly confront and curtail ISIL activity among the Turkish leadership, be it in recruitment efforts or fundraising drives, has left many in law enforcement agencies and the judiciary with an ambivalence if not unwillingness to sign on to the battle against the network of this terrorist group. The stark report prepared by opposition lawmaker Atilla Kart unveiled how the police in Konya, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's hometown, failed to clamp down on the ISIL network when it knew the operatives by name.

Moreover, Erdoğan's hateful and disparaging remarks against 76-year-old Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has firmly and unequivocally rejected violence and denounced terrorism all his life through his teachings while promoting tolerance and understanding among religions, deals a huge blow to Erdoğan's credibility in his purported political commitment to fight against extremism. In political rallies this year, Erdoğan publicly bashed Gülen for meeting with Pope John Paul II in 1988 as part of a smear campaign to discredit this progressive Muslim leader after Erdoğan found himself on the wrong side of the law with massive corruption allegations that incriminated him, his family members and close associates. To make a scapegoat out of his troubles, Erdoğan's allies in the media have been running fabricated stories against Gülen practically every single day in order to damage Gülen's credibility and weaken his influence on the public.

Perhaps Gülen, who has inspired millions of young people in Turkey with contemporary educational programs that are focused on science and technology while emphasizing the spirit of moderation and balance in religious and moral values has provided the best practices in how to cope with radicalization. He made a remarkable contribution to the mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence of different groups in Turkey while promoting similar values abroad. The high-achieving schools set up by Turkish volunteers who have tapped into Gülen's ideas in some 160 countries around the world are testament to that success story. That endeavor has also helped contribute to eliminating the root causes of extremism such as poverty, illiteracy, discrimination and social exclusion.

In the end, Erdoğan's hostile attitude against moderates and his support to political Islamists in Turkey and abroad do not give much confidence that he is the right person when it comes to delegitimizing ISIL's ideology.

Published on Today's Zaman, 03 October 2014, Friday

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