Creating new perspectives since 2009

Conflict between the Erdogan government and the Gülen group

January 28, 2014 at 2:28 am

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been allied with liberalist groups and the influential Fethullah Gülen movement since its rise to power in 2002. Over the last ten years, the coalition has fought hard against extreme secular factions such as the Ergenekom network, an alleged clandestine organisation with ties to the Turkish military and security forces. The coalition has worked hard to establish democracy and democratic values but took a knock with the decline of the military’s influence when senior officers were put on trial. Without a common enemy to unite its members, the coalition lost its strength.

Many liberals withdrew from the coalition to join the ranks of the opposition, accusing the government of “dragging its feet” on the reforms necessary for entry into the European Union. The government defended itself by saying that these liberals wanted to gain power; their views and political opinions contradicted the beliefs of the conservative ruling party.

In 2012, the Turkish prosecutor revealed that an intelligence officer had been involved in secret meetings with the PKK, the Kurdish liberation movement. This led to a conflict between the Justice and Development Party and the Gülen movement as Erdogan viewed the prosecutor’s move as a decision that targeted him directly. As a result, parliament passed a law that required the prime minister’s approval for any intelligence officer’s actions. The relationship between the Erdogan’s party and the Gülen group changed, with journalists affiliated to the latter writing about the prime minister as “authoritarian” and a “dictator”.

The Fethullah Gülen movement follows the philosophy of prominent Islamic scholar Said Nursi; its eponymous leader lives in self-imposed exile in the US state of Pennsylvania. The Gülen group is influential in Turkey and abroad and is best known for its educational and cultural activities, running schools around the world. It likes to refer to itself as the “Gülen Party” or the “Service Party”. At first glance, it may appear that the conflict between Gülen and the Turkish government is due to the government’s decision to close down several private educational centres. In reality, the reasons are more numerous and deeper; the true nature of these conflicts is related to political issues and intellectual backgrounds as well as inter-communal relationships.

In recent years, the Erdogan government’s attempt to establish democracy in Turkey has failed to implement a new constitution. It has suspended its efforts to join the European Union and has reoriented itself politically towards the Middle East.

Turkey has had a number of disagreements with Israel and this has caused it to distance itself from Western allies. The government in Ankara is now moving towards affiliations with Russia and Iran. It is important for Turkey not to stir up conflict with Tel Aviv at the moment because this will cause many unnecessary problems, which will not work in its favour.

Erdogan belongs to former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan’s school of thought and has denounced the use of “empty slogans”. He has said that he will take off that particular political hat and try a new one, as if he has pushed himself away from realistic political strategies abroad. The prime minister has adopted unprecedented policies towards Egypt and Syria, causing much confusion in Turkey and leading to the loss of many of its foreign allies.

While the Gülen Party supports the idea of opening up to the PKK, it still has many reservations regarding Erdogan’s policy towards the movement. Although Gülen favours the idea of political reconciliation it believes that Erdogan is making unnecessary concessions to the PKK, which will encourage the group to continue its propaganda and refuse to withdraw from the Turkish coast.

The Turkish government looks to Iran with exaggerated sympathy and believes that Tehran has the best of intentions. While it is not required to take an anti-Iranian stance, the government should still be wary of Iran’s goals for regional expansion. There are many pro-Khomeini supporters in the Justice and Development Party and this is behind the government’s position on Iran.

In closing down some private educational centres, Erdogan is seen as targeting Gülen. Such centres are the most prominent cultural product of the party and education constitutes its core philosophy. Members of Gülen are being accused of seeking power, but this is a false accusation, which has no basis in reality. It should be expected that members of such a prominent group are appointed to government positions and given the opportunity to serve their country. The Gülen Party stands against separatist tendencies and Iranian penetration in Turkey, especially in Kurdish majority areas, so who will benefit from Gülen being targeted?

The Turkish government and circles close to it reject the Gülen Party’s accusations against Erdogan; they note that the Gülen group wants to participate in the ruling government without assuming any political responsibilities. The government views itself as the guardian of the popular will and has declared that it will not be able to hand over to third parties the power that was given to it by the Turkish people through the ballot box, especially since the Gülen movement did not participate in the elections. This, it claims, is what would happen if it gave the Gülen party the majority of the positions it is seeking, which include the presidency and intelligence positions. In a democratic system, it is unacceptable to have a state within a state. The government argues that should the Gülen Party seek authority, it should establish a political party through which it would be able to participate in democratic elections, asking the Turkish people for a popular mandate.

During the rule of the Justice and Development Party over the past ten years, the Gülen Party has experienced some of its best days. Prior to Erdogan’s rise, many secular factions attempted to label Gülen as a terrorist group; the prime minister blocked this by changing the anti-terrorism law.

The government’s decision to close down those educational centres was not meant to target the group. It was part of a number of comprehensive reforms to change the education system at large, which would enable it to address the country’s educational shortcomings and the burdens they place on many families. During the 1997 military coup, it was Fethullah Gülen himself who suggested handing over the responsibility for universities and schools to the government, so why is the group defending schools so fiercely now as if it is a matter of life or death?

Part of the Gülen philosophy is that no one should work outside the framework of the local ruling power. For example, when the Turkish-flagged Freedom Flotilla sailed to Gaza in an attempt to break the siege in 2010, Fethullah Gülen said that the organisers, and by implication the Turkish government which backed them, should have coordinated with the local governing power, a clear reference to Israel. Why does he now advocate working outside the ruling government’s political framework?

It is imperative that the government finds a solution to the Kurdish question for the sake of Turkey’s future. While Erdogan may prefer military intervention over a political solution (the Gülen Party’s preference), it is by no means nationalistic to target a potential solution and the steps it requires, despite Gülen’s accusations.

Political parties tend to be more transparent than religious groups that sanctify their leaders and obey them blindly. It is not reasonable to accuse a democratically-elected president of dictatorial or authoritarian tendencies. The Gülen Party has also accused the government of cracking down on the media. However, even in television stations affiliated with the government there are individuals who will openly criticise its policies, unlike the Gülen-owned television, which would never broadcast a news story that is critical of the movement or its leader.

There is no basis for accusing the government of favouring Iran. In fact, this is evident in the completely opposing approaches to the Syrian issue by Ankara and Tehran. On the other hand, what is questionable is the relationship between the Gülen Party and the United States. Why does Fethullah Gülen choose to live in Pennsylvania rather than return to his homeland?

Amid the mutual criticisms and accusations, one must not forget that the core of this conflict is due to the imbalance in the relationship between communities and governments and the need for political parties to support civil groups. One must also understand the limited nature of such groups and their roles in political life and that conflicts often result and revolve around this issue.

The Fethullah Gülen movement has made sure to move away from the label of “political Islam” and, for this reason, it was allied with Turgut Ozal and Bulent Ecveit before Erdogan became prime minister. The group’s biggest problem now is that there is no major opposition party with which it can ally itself, although it tends to back various republican parties in different constituencies rather than one party nationally. If these disagreements are not addressed and each party does not agree to work within its boundaries, the conflict between groups and political parties will never end.

It is expected that the current media war between Erdogan’s government and the Gülen group will affect the local elections that are set to take place at the end of March 2014. The Gülen group currently influences between 2 to 5 per cent of the electorate and it is unclear whether all of the group’s members will refrain from voting for the Justice and Development Party.

Gülen owns many media channels, newspapers and magazines, in addition to a news agency. These outlets may damage Erdogan’s public image through intense media campaigns but the group will not be able to spare itself the negative consequences of the escalation in the current conflict because for the first time in its history the movement which has long prided itself on its tolerance finds itself immersed in a battle with an elected government that garnered fifty per cent of the vote at the last election.

The author is a Turkish journalist. This is a translation of the Arabic text published by Al on 21 December 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.