September 27, 2016

Is the Purge Against Gülen Movement Creating Further Radical Islamization?

Ebubekir Isik*

Turkey has been cut up over the last three years by the restless controversy between the globally active Gülen movement and the pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) that is in power for over a decade. Both foreign and local audiences have been overwhelmed by the intensity of the dispute, which peaked during the last couple of weeks particularly in the aftermath of the recent coup attempt.

Beyond any doubt, the recent coup against the elected government in mid-July changed the entire social and political context in the country not only for Gülen movement but also for the Turkish government. Many pundits claim that the failed coup, described by president Erdogan as a gift from God, has allowed him to consolidate his power in the military that used to be the guardian of the secular regime, and crush any criticism of his rule through the ongoing state of emergency. The recent purge leaves no room for doubt that the Turkish government is ready to pay any price until Gülen movement is fully depleted.

Having said that, expelling Gülen movement from society has also its own cost and starts to produce a very negative social consequence apart from its political repercussions in Turkey.

The Homegrown Radical Islamization

Impact of the post-coup era has started to be felt already on many subjects of Turkey’s social and political patterns.

To begin with, apart from the fact that Turkey has become a harbor for thousands of foreign fighters over the last three years, the rise of homegrown radical Islamization is also one of the noxious signs that Turkey’s social fabric suffers a tremendous change. The key subjects of this shift has been the endamage on mainstream understanding of Islam in Turkey that traditionally has always been standing aloof from any form of extremism. However, this moderate notion of Islam is recently evolving into a new form of political identity that can turn into violence against any other segment of the society that does not fit into the established concept of Turkish nationalism and Islamism.

This new trend is circulated within the society mostly through two major channels. First, political elites are increasingly spreading a narrative supporting anti-Western animosity inspired by a die-hard blend of Turkish nationalism and a radical interpretation of Islam. In that respect, many political observers were lost for words when president Erdogan publically chanted the following sentences during a rally this year: “Don’t even think that the struggle that began 1,400 years ago between the truth [Islam] and fallacy [other beliefs] is over. Don’t even think that those who set an eye on these lands 1,000 years ago have given up their ambitions. This long-standing struggle is going on and will go on.’’

More concerningly, this path has been also followed by various officials including Turkey’s minister of economy Nihat Zeybekçi who targeted the sympathizers of Gülen movement with the following: ‘’those traitors who do not serve to be the children of this land, have sold their minds and souls somewhere else…These traitors are going to be punished as the public wants. Not only the death sentence, we are going to punish them so that they will beg us to kill them.’’

Conventional wisdom claims that such hate speeches are always followed by certain types of actions. As it is the case with Gülen movement, a number of moderate religious communities applying to a peaceful understanding of Islam has been undergone a growing pressure and sidelined with the recent purge from the domain of public sphere. These are the communities that are known to deter the society from any form of religious extremism. Expelling these communities from the public with draconian measures does create a vacuum that is rapidly filled by a number of radical groups with very extremist narratives. This, in fact, paves the way for further radical Islamization in the country.

To revisit one of the most distinct examples of this trend, many were shocked when an ISIS-ish imam took the stage a while ago before President Erdogan’s house and preached to thousands of people with the following words: "you heard commander in-chief (president Erdogan) about how noble this umma (Islamic nation) is. What we exploited from the traitors (properties that were confiscated from Gülen sympathizers) became the property of this nation. The 15 universities (private universities that are nationalized recently) are all yours. Hospitals are all yours. A thousand schools are all now yours. Use them and enjoy them. It is all yours now."

Indeed, such a staunch narrative cannot have impact on mainstream understanding of Islam in Turkey without institutional and public support. There are many reliable reports exposing the institutional capacity of a number of radical groups including ISIS that have sufficient amount of propaganda centers in various Turkish cities. According to a recently released data by a prominent polling center, public support to the means hired by ISIS reached now at 19.7 percent and 23.2 percent of Turkish society has sympathy for this terrorist organization.

That being said, this growing trend of further Islamization can also be observed closely under the ongoing state of emergency rule. The recent decree that shut down and seized thousands of private science schools is in itself a crucial indicator of how the social fabric of the country is altering the course. As a highly worrisome development, many private science schools, which were confiscated after the coup attempt of 15 July, have been recently converted to religious education facilities (imam hatips).

To conclude, one can argue about the extent to which the radical Islamization is deepening in Turkey. However, the recent trend demonstrates that Turkey as the only Muslim majority country in NATO is being dispersed to further faith-based radicalization and that poses a serious threat also to the secular characteristics of the country.

*PhD Researcher at the Free University of Brussels.

Published on BlogActiv, 27 September 2016, Tuesday