Gülen Movement Eclipsing Erdoğan in Turkey

The power of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, one of Turkey’s most successfully elected prime minister, is dramatically diminishing.

Posted on 03/21/14
By Vedran Obućina | Via The Atlantic Post
A billboard featuring Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Bosphorus bridge. (Photo by Patrick Muller, Creative Commons License)
A billboard featuring Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Bosphorus bridge. (Photo by Patrick Muller, Creative Commons License)

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is Turkey’s most successfully elected prime minister, but his power is dramatically diminishing. Erdoğan is ruining a solid reputation. In 10 years, Turkey has tripled its growth rate, becoming one of the most productive emerging economies.

 

Widespread Twitter Outages

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Twitter users in Turkey reported widespread outages on Friday (March 21), hours after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to “root out” the social media network where wiretapped recordings have been leaked, damaging the government’s reputation ahead key local elections this month, the Turkish media reported.

 

Some users trying to open the Twitter.com website were taken to a statement apparently from Turkey’s telecommunications regulator (TIB). The statement cited four court orders as the basis for blocking the site, where some users in recent weeks have posted voice recordings and documents purportedly showing evidence of corruption among Erdoğan’s inner circle, reported Today’s Zaman, a leading Turkish daily.

 

“Twitter, mwitter!,” Erdoğan told thousands of supporters at a rally ahead of March 30 local elections late on Thursday, in a phrase translating roughly as “Twitter, schmitter!”.

 

“We will wipe out all of these,” said Erdoğan, who has said the corruption scandal is part of a smear campaign by his political enemies. “The international community can say this, can say that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is,” Today’s Zaman quoted him as saying.

[/box]The government has put a stop to the army’s continual interference in political affairs. It  is trying to ease the conflict with the Kurdish minority. And Turkey has moved closer to the European Union. But the specter of scandal is rearing its head.

 

The end of 2013 could not have been more dramatic. In an operation organized by  public prosecutors and the police, dozens of people were arrested on allegations of corruption, including politicians in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

 

The background was apparently a power struggle between conservative Islamic elites, and especially between Erdoğan and the leader of Hizmet movement, Fethullah Gülen.

 

Corruption is an old disease in Turkey. At first, the AKP had seemed to know this. It reformed the country, opened it up to investors and fought against cronyism. But the good intentions haven’t lasted.

 

Now the erstwhile reformer Erdoğan is dragging his party ever deeper into the ruins. In reaction to the corruption scandal, Erdoğan replaced 10 members of his 26-member cabinet.

 

At the same time, Istanbul prosecutor Muammer Akkaş was taken off the corruption case. In pushing the prosecutor — who has revealed unpleasant facts — to the sidelines, the prime minister has blatantly violated an important tenet of the rule of law: the political independence of the judiciary.

 

The case shows that despite his promises Erdoğan has no intention of making Turkey a state based on democratic principles where there is a separation of powers between the legislature, judiciary and government.

 

Erdoğan’s 10-year reign is at a crossroads. It seems that not all the members of the political elite — nor even his closest confidantes — will continue to accept the prime minister’s decisions.

 

His moves were questioned in January in Brussels, when EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso stressed the importance of the separation of powers and an independent judiciary.

 

Erdoğan’s ruling AKP party suspects the movement led by Fethullah Gülen, a preacher living in self-imposed exile in the U.S., of being behind the corruption investigation.

Fethullah Gülen.
Fethullah Gülen.

 

Gülen is said to wield great influence within the police and judiciary. But by intervening in the investigation,  the AKP is trying to distract  public attention from the corruption probe. By intervening in the judiciary, it is trying to change the rules of the game.

 

This is neither good for the future of Turkish democracy nor for the record of Erdoğan’s government.

 

The fight against Gülen has been taken to the diplomatic level. Turkey’s ambassadors have been told to explain abroad the government’s position regarding the movement led by Gülen.

 

This is great turn in relationships. Only a few years ago, the Foreign Ministry told embassies to help the NGOs and schools that are part of the Gülen movement. In many countries, these schools are attended by children of the political elites. The battle between Erdoğan and the Gülen movement has reached a point where reconciliation seems difficult.

 

Westerners perceive the charismatic Gülen as the leader of an Islamic Calvinist movement.  As young imam in the 19960s, Gülen embraced the values of the West, including making money. If you didn’t seek wealth, it was a sin in eyes of God, Gülen taught..

 

His followers became  successful businessmen and build a multibillion Gülen empire, which includes a TV station, a major bank, and Turkey’s biggest newspaper. It seems Gülen followers like capitalism.

 

Gülen tells followers, if they want to be good Muslims, they shouldn’t build mosques; they should build schools, and not to teach religion, but science. In his own words, “studying physics, mathematics and chemistry is worshiping God.”

 

In Turkey, Gülen movement schools are everywhere, and considered the best. Rapidly expending charter schools, largely funded by Turkish emigrants, now spread all over the world. They serve mostly underprivileged students. In the United States,  20,000 students attend chartered schools.

 

Tolerance is key a part of the message. Gülen instructs followers to reach out to other religions, without using  force.

 

His ideal  Turkey would be a  moderate Islamic democracy. Interestingly, Gülen does not live in Turkey, and few people have seen him. He preaches via internet from the isolated house in the Poconos, Penn.

 

He almost never gives a live interview, and most requests, including from The Atlantic Post, are turned down.

 

Gülen lives alone. He never married. He suffers from diabetes that causes him heart and kidney problems.

 

In 1999, Gülen came to the U.S. for medical treatment. But then he issued a video message to followers, urging them to seize  government positions — in effect, encouraging an Islamic coup.

 

Accused for treason by the government, Gülen decided to stay in Pennsylvania. He was cleared in 2008 in abstentia, but doesn’t want to return.

 

Apparently, he is afraid to be viewed as too powerful. Conspiracy theories suggest Gülen runs Turkey from the shadows, and wants the world to be overtaken by his religious-corporate empire. This is hard to believe, but his movement does lacks transparency. Its funding, hierarchy and ambitions remain hidden.

 

The organization’s power has changed the face of Islam in Turkey. In 1996, when Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the Refah Islamist Party, was named prime minister, the heirs of Kemal Pasha Atatürk saw it as heresy against Kemalist dogma. Although the government lasted only a year, it showed the power of the rising Islamist politicians.

 

The image of Atatürk remains a symbol of the fear of Islamic fanaticism. State imposed ideology of Kemalist secularism was gradually transformed into a civil ideology.

 

The tension is evident everyday in Turkey between “Bad Muslims“ and “Good Muslims.”  Kemalists tried to tame Islam through nationalizing it and using it as a tool of legitimacy and social control.

 

At the same time, the opposition was also national. There was a national religion. But religious activities were outside the state’s control, and were perceived as reactionary movements and relics of the old order, where reactionary Islam or Islamism flourished.

 

The Refah Islamist Party changed it all, and paved a way for AKP to become powerful Islamic populist party, with Erdoğan as popular now as Atatürk.

 

However, this Islamic movement was questioned by Gülen’s followers,who embraced a more inclusive and comprehensive notion of being a Muslim.

 

For many observers, it is the dawn of post-Islamism. The term itself is not clear. For some, like Gilles Kepel, post-Islamism describes the departure of Islamists from the jihadi and Salafi doctrines. , while the others, such as Olivier Roy, it is perceived in terms of the privatization of Islamization, as opposed to Islamization of the state, where emphasis is placed on changes in how and where Islamization is carried out, rater than its content. For Asef Bayat, however, it goes beyond particularities. For him, post-Islamism represents both a condition and a project which may be embodied in a master or multi-dimensional movement. Islamists become aware of their system’s anomalies and inadequacies as they attempt to normalize and institutionalize their rule.

 

For many observers, it is the dawn of post-Islamism. The term itself is not clear. For some, like Gilles Kepel, post-Islamism describes the departure of Islamists from the jihadi and Salafi doctrines. For others, like Olivier Roy, it is the privatization of Islamization — as opposed to Islamization of the state, where emphasis is on changes in how and where Islamization is carried out, rather than its content.

 

For Asef Bayat, a professor at the University of Illinois, it goes beyond particularities. For him, post-Islamism represents both a condition and a project which may be embodied in a master or multidimensional movement. Islamists become aware of their system’s anomalies and inadequacies as they attempt to normalize and institutionalize their rule.

 

Post-Islamism fuses religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and liberty. The paradigm shift has swept not only Turkey, but also most of the Muslim world, including Egypt and Iran.

 

The trend is as much social and academic as it is political. Turkey is struggling in this sense, as seen by the attitudes of the prime minister.

 

Erdoğan has said in recent days that he intends to run as a candidate for president in the summer if his party, the AKP, has a good showing in the local elections on March 30.

 

Successful or not, Erdoğan won’t give up power any time soon. Some think a model like the Putin and Medvedev system in Russia will be introduced.

 

But since the Gezi Park protests, the presidential system is off the cards. And since the corruption scandal  it is unlikely that Erdoğan will become president.

 

The post-Islamic message expressed by youth, students, minorities, women, religious intellectuals call for more democracy, individual rights, tolerance and gender equality.

 

Given the extent of the Gülen movement,  it seems Erdoğan’s visions are in dire decline.

 

Vedran Obućina is The Atlantic Post’s Foreign Affairs Analyst, based in Rijeka, Croatia. This article first appeared in The Atlantic Post. Click here to go to the original.

 

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