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Myths and facts about Turkey's Gülen movement

March 29, 2014 at 2:16 pm

The recent crisis in Turkish democracy, caused by the attempted bureaucratic coup by followers of the Gülen Movement against the civilian government, has led to a plethora of Western media articles about Turkish politics. What is extraordinary about the content of such coverage is the persistence of a set of recycled stereotypes about freedom of speech, separation of powers and the democratisation process.

Two former US Ambassadors to Ankara, Morton Abramowitz and Eric Edelman, claimed in an Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is exploiting the crisis around graft allegations “to further stifle dissent and strengthen his grip on Turkey”. In a tone of self-righteous arrogance and ignorance, they continued: “[Erdoğan’s] tactics are not new. When challenged, Erdoğan has sought to destroy his opponents rather than compromise. After effectively sidelining the military’s political influence, Erdoğan went after other centres of power: media, business leaders and civil society; now, the Gülen ists, a strong, politically effective community. The prime minister has exploited crises – whether real or manufactured – to undermine the rule of law.”

One wonders if Abramowitz and Edelman have been to Turkey in the past ten years, where the legal and political systems have, increasingly, became more democratic, with a historical solution process on the Kurdish question that ended the problem of terrorism in the country. Predictably, this article was picked up by the Gülenist media in Turkey and promoted as a fair-minded, objective analysis from the US, confirming their campaign to ask for Erdoğan’s withdrawal from Turkish politics. Perhaps Abramowitz and Edelman benefited from their friends in the Gülen Movement in drafting this article. Repeating several old and obsolete clichés about oriental despotism in writing about the democratically-elected government in Turkey, without any fact-checking whatsoever, actually makes such media outlets irrelevant; they have nothing meaningful to say about crucial debates over the soul of Turkish democracy and secularism.

The most common and yet the most misleading media myth about Turkish democracy is that the current so-called Islamist government tramples on press freedom, controls the media, jails journalists, oppresses businessmen and eliminates civil society organisations. Anyone can pick up daily newspapers in Turkey and recognise the absurdity of this assertion. The range of opinions in the Turkish media on any political, cultural and economic question is one of the widest in any world democracy. If Barack Obama has Fox TV as a permanent critic, the government in Ankara has multiple similar outlets in the daily newspapers, TV channels and online media. In fact, a significant portion of the Turkish media express a daily dose of hateful comments on Prime Minister Erdoğan in a tone that make Fox TV pundits’ comments about Obama look civilised. No journalist has been punished for criticising government policies or politicians. One can only open civil law cases against hate speech, lies and insults against politicians, liable to fines; the prime minister has used his right to do so only for a fraction of the insults he is subject to on a daily basis. Turkish media and intellectual life may have a civility problem, but beyond that, the ratio of the media supportive of the government’s policies or opposition parties is roughly proportionate to the percentage of the electoral support they receive. As for Mr Erdoğan’s strong leadership and influence, built upon an unprecedented eight consecutive election victories since 2002, many Turkish citizens see it as blessing rather than a curse, as this leadership helped solve many of the country’s chronic problems and furthered democratisation. Being an effective prime minister in the Republic of Turkey requires stronger leadership skills than does a government official in, say, Switzerland or Sweden.

Depicting the Turkish government’s policy response to the Gülen Movement as a restriction of its freedom of speech reveals blatant ignorance about the nature of this group. Ironically, most of the major cases where journalists have been arrested were related to the actions of Gülen followers within the judiciary. Two journalists, Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener, were arrested for writing a book on the movement’s involvement in state bureaucracy. A former high-ranking police official, Hanefi Avcı, was also accused by police officers and judges loyal to Gülen of helping a terrorist organisation only after he wrote a book exposing the Gülen-linked clique within the judiciary and police forces. The AK Party government is now reviled by its critics for not intervening over Gülenist judges three years ago, when these journalists’ arrests were made; there are many AK Party officials who have deep regrets about this. However, until overwhelming evidence emerged of a well-entrenched Gülenist organisation within the judiciary, government officials were unable to interfere due to the principle of separation of powers. The Turkish government was late in making legal and administrative changes to expose and reassign Gülenists within the judiciary and police force, but that does not mean that it should not do this now. Not being able to detect a criminal act in the past does not make the perpetrators of these acts innocent and does not mean that they should not be held accountable now. Going beyond the restructuring of the Turkish judicial appointment system to make sure that no organised religious group can ever abuse the system, the government is also preparing legal changes to allow retrials of cases in which Gülenist judges and security forces were implicated in fabricating evidence and thus wrongful prosecutions.

The government’s caution about the actions and intentions of the followers of a religious group within the state bureaucracy should not be presented as a witch-hunt. The Gülen Movement is not just a religious association; it is a giant organisation with arms in business communities, media, educational institutions and bureaucracy. The principle of the separation of powers places strong trust on an independent judiciary, whose members have to serve the principle of justice and the rule of law. This principle assumes a sense of meritocracy of the well-educated public servants in the judiciary with loyalty to the public good, even though each judge may have different interpretation of the law. It is assumed that diversity of opinion within judicial ranks will reflect the natural diversity of opinion in society itself. However, an independent judiciary should be protected from infiltration by organised political, religious or civil society organisations. It is not acceptable that a religious organisation is not only extremely over-represented in judicial appointments and the police force, but also able to coordinate secretly in the interests of the group in a manner that is invisible to the executive and judicial branches of the government. What the Gülen Movement has done in the Turkish bureaucracy would be similar to a situation in the US or Germany, for example, where members of the Church of Scientology or the Roman Catholic Opus Dei sect not only became over-represented in the judiciary, but also act clearly to serve the interest of their church rather than the rule of law. There are now clear indications that followers of the Gülen Movement in the judiciary shared information and gave legal support to their business organisations. It is perfectly legal for a religious group to have business associations, but it is not legal to use its representatives in the judiciary to favour the economic benefits of their companies.

By creating their parallel state within the government, Gülenists violated public trust in the judiciary and have tainted all of the cases in which their judges were involved. In December, the indictment of several politicians is not in contention, but Gülenist judges combined three unrelated investigations into a package and conducted the investigations in an unlawful manner in violation of their professional code of conduct, clearly to blackmail the government in order to bargain for political advantages for their movement. Their networked behaviour also reveals a violation of public trust (which involves the corruption of leaking bureaucrat recruitment exam questions to other Gülenists) and made the investigation of real corruption cases more difficult. It is a common principle in legal practice that once a judge or prosecutor is found to have made a biased judgement, all of their earlier cases are called into question.

Currently, the Turkish government is trying to restore public trust in an independent judiciary. This process may take some time, but it offers unique opportunities for the future strength of Turkish democracy. Turkey may emerge with a much stronger democratic system as a result. The government’s solution to the crisis was to democratise the system further, opening judicial appointments to legislative debate and making sure that opposition parties and civil society organisations are also involved in this process. The public now have a much stronger appreciation of the true meaning of secularism, in the sense of making sure that no religious group or unaccountable, secretive, messianic visionaries dominate the police forces or judiciary. They all realise that a democracy can allow full religious freedom but cannot let a religious sect impose its will on the government or bureaucracy.

This crisis also allows various civil society and religious organisations, including the Gülen Movement itself, to reflect on the principle of their role in a representative democracy. The AK Party government has liberated Turkey’s political system from the abusive practices of the French laicité model, where government officials control religious practices. A procedurally-fair democracy that guarantees the civil liberties of its citizens was the ultimate goal of the AK Party’s supporters. However, for the Gülen Movement, democratisation with increased religious freedom is a means for its ultimate goal, which is the expansion of the organisation with increasing control over Turkish politics and the economy. Freedom of religion for many previously-oppressed religious groups would never mean a reverse relationship when they now impose their will on elected officials against the will of democratic representation.

The Gülen Movement, as a religious organisation active not only in Turkey, could have used the recent democratisation as an opportunity to reflect on its mission and goal. However, this movement has never clarified its long-term goals explicitly to the public, despite the fact that it is arguably one of the biggest religious movements in Turkish history, with a strong sense that it represents the truth and its members are the chosen people on earth. Thus, they give the impression that the movement itself is sacred and this sacred body should control everything in Turkey as part of a divine messianic mission. The obsession with control raises many questions: Why does the movement want to control state bureaucracy, the army, the economy, politics and education by putting its own members in charge? What’s their purpose? Why don’t its members form a transparent political party or make an alliance with an opposition party if they are against the Turkish government? If we can debate and answer these questions at the end of this crisis, not only Turkish democracy will emerge stronger, but those Turkish citizens who dedicate their lives to the Gülen Movement could also reflect on the impact they have on Turkish politics.

While the Turkish public is engaged in highly complex questions about the future of democracy in the country, Turkey’s friends in the Western media could do better than reduce everything to slogans about corrupt oriental despots who will never understand the true meaning of democracy and are trying to evade corruption charges. After all, Turkey will go through three consecutive elections in the next 18 months, where public debate will cover every contentious issue of democracy.

I recommend that commentators on Turkish politics should at least visit a coffee house in Istanbul, buy some newspapers from a bookstore, and check the divergent opinions in Turkey’s online media. This way, their editorials and news about Turkey will not only say something meaningful about the state of politics in the country, but will also tell their readers of the perennial questions being asked about the rule of law, religion and politics, and the separation of powers in other democracies around the world.

The writer is a Senior Adviser to the Turkish Prime Minister, responsible for domestic politics and public opinion polls.

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