SPEAKING FREELY Politics behind Turkey graft probe
By Omer Aslan
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows
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[As Asia Times Online was going to press, Turkey's ruling party ordered purges of police chiefs and moved to tighten control of the judiciary, as a top official said there's no chance of a truce in the struggle with prosecutors leading a corruption probe, Bloomberg reported.
The government will keep firing those leading the investigation and then seek to prosecute them for attempting a coup, Osman Can, a member of the central committee of Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, or Ak Party, said in a January 6 interview in Istanbul.
The government has reassigned prosecutors leading the investigations and dismissed almost 2,000 police officers since news of the 15-month secret investigations broke on December 17, Bloomberg cited Hurriyet newspaper as reporting.]
Six months after the Gezi Parki protests in Istanbul, Turkey is going through tumultuous times once again. To those observing Turkey from outside, it may seem a non-stable and highly polarized country. If lack of understanding on fine details of democracy and abuse of loopholes that exist in a democratic system is part of the answer for such turbulence and unpredictability, I argue that the main reason is the vibrancy of Turkish politics. That is to say, politics is alive in Turkey; social groups have causes to mobilize around for.
There are alternative visions of Turkish society represented by different groups as well as political parties. The dominant discourse around "old Turkey versus new Turkey" is a testimony to this feature of Turkish politics.
For this reason, it may be particularly hard to grasp Turkish politics from North America and Europe where "in the era of neoliberalism, the ruling elite has hollowed out democracy and ensured that whoever you vote for you get the same." The absence of alternative visions of American or European societies runs as "stability".
These reasons behind passionate political activity in Turkey are in fact interrelated. Groups that have different visions of Turkish society and public interest sometimes exploit the loopholes in the system either deliberately or because of a failure to grasp democracy fully. The most recent political battle between the Gulen movement and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), close allies for the past decade, exemplifies this well.
The Gulen movement
What exactly is the Gulen movement? Are they an international civil society group involved in education activities and promoting global peace and interfaith dialogue? Amid this heated controversy, members of the movement argued that they are a civil society organization. They point out that "democracy allows civil society groups to pursue their interests through democratic means. Besides, theory and practice of civil society also allow such groups to use all means of communication and interaction including media outlets for [the] public interest." Is this what the Gulen movement really does?
We may take our clues from the criticisms against the Israeli Lobby in the United States to make sense of what the Gulen movement does and why it is criticized in Turkey nowadays. The concerns John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the authors of the Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, raised with the Israeli lobby was that it shaped American policy towards the Middle East in such a way that US policy served Israeli, not American, interests. The political clout that the lobby has had over primarily the US Congress forced US administrations to appoint pro-Israeli figures to critical positions, block anything in the United Nations that may be against Israel, and continue to support Israel in diverse ways that in the end ensured automatic American support for Israel.
The Gulen movement seeks to be Turkey's Israel Lobby. It would like Turkey's domestic and foreign policies to serve the movement's narrow interests. The movement has been so enmeshed in the international arena for the past decade that it now has its own interests independent of Turkey or the Muslim ummah, or community.
Some pillars of the movement's policies are maintaining good relations with Israel, avoiding any serious fall-out with the United States, where the movement's founder, Muhammed Fethullah Gulen, has resided since 1999 anyway, and never opting for an aggressive response when it comes to any type of assault on Muslims.
For example, it was for this reason that the movement and the AK Party were at loggerheads after the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos boarded the vessel as it tried to breach Israel's blockade of Gaza. Gulen's followers were angry with the government because the break-up in ties between Turkey and Israel that followed gave the Gulen movement a headache in its dealings in the United States.
The recent political battle between the Gulen movement and the AKP is therefore more about "political deviance" of the government than the government's decision to close prep schools, a significant number of which are owned by the movement, or financial corruption charges against some prominent members inside the AKP.
For Gulen, the AKP government has lately been too critical of the West, too supportive of popular revolts in Egypt and Syria, and continues its economic dealings with Iran. In a relatively recent interview with the Atlantic, Gulen said that he did not think Turkey is having good diplomatic relations in the region and that it protects its reputation based on love, respect, and good will and collaborate around mutually agreeable goals.
A columnist at Zaman newspaper, Huseyin Gulerce, expressed the real reason behind the split: "It was the Mavi Marmara crisis that created the first cracks ... Mr Gulen's attitude was very clear, as he always suggested that Turkey should not be adventurous in its foreign policy and stay oriented to the West, and that it should resolve its foreign policy issues through dialogue."
In domestic policy too, the Gulen movement wants the government not to violate certain parameters. They do not want the government to take the PKK - the Kurdistan Workers' Party - as its negotiating partner even to resolve the Kurdish issue.
With a different vision of Turkish society and what Turkey should do in domestic arena and international politics, the Gulen movement exploited the legal cover provided by the system to start political operations on the government.
"The rule of law" and separation of three branches of government are indivisible parts of a democratic system. Prosecutors in Turkey are given an almost untouchable status so that they may prosecute without fear any holder of political power. However, while these rights and privileges are given to prosecutors, the law gives them certain responsibilities and puts certain limits on them. It is assumed and expected that prosecutors will not abuse their power and act as a supporting cast in political operations conducted on the executive branch.
However, the judiciary is treated as if they only need to be independent in Turkey; the fact that they also are expected to remain impartial is forgotten. Betraying these expectations, prosecutors suspected of links to the Gulen movement started the recent corruption probe in Turkey. The fact that three independent probes are combined for no understandable reason and that the suspects, including well-known figures, have been taken into custody to create noise and then released one by one led to the suspicion that the probes were politically motivated.
The content of the ongoing graft probe was somehow leaked to opposition newspapers, mainly to the Gulenist media outlets in Turkey.
Besides, the subjects of the probes somehow came to be published in Today's Zaman, a Gulenist mouthpiece, some days before the operation started. Some columnists at Today's Zaman later put great effort in relating the AKP to both Al-Qaeda and Iran (at the same time!) on social media.
Here is the dilemma in a democracy: how can a democratic government protect itself when unaccountable prosecutors conduct politically motivated operations to bring down a government and to arrest the prime minister under the legal cover of principles of rule of law and independent judiciary? Can a government subject to a politically motivated judiciary operating under the cover of independence and unaccountability save itself by remaining within the remit of law?
Anything but an NGO
Any civil society organization may criticize any government for its foreign and domestic policies on various scores. Civil society organizations, nevertheless, do not raise their own agents and penetrate state organs (the police, judiciary and so forth) through them so that, regardless of the identity of the government, they will set the parameters or red lines within which government policies will have to remain.
Here we have another fine line; any public employee has the constitutional right to belong to any sect/voluntary association as long as they do not confuse their duties to the state and their membership in such an association outside their job. This means that even when a public employee thinks his sect/tariqah may benefit from the classified information he has access to, he cannot leak any documents to his "brothers".
Nor may he legally eliminate his colleagues in his department or bureau so that he may replace them with his "brothers" to control the institution. There are credible doubts as to whether Gulenists respect such distinctions.
What is more, civil society organizations are transparent entities; they are accountable; those outside such organizations more or less know who belongs and who does not. They also declare their sources of income and the amount of money that they collect.
The Gulen movement does neither; no one knows the amount of money they control, the number of private schools, prep schools, other charities, print and visual media outlets, and number of members they have. Nobody exactly knows the hierarchy within the movement, or even whether there is one, and the chain of authority in it.
In that respect, the Gulen movement is the exact opposite of a civil society organization. It is rather a ghostly presence; everyone knows it exists, you feel its influence, people talk about it, certain figures are known to have ties to it, but you do not really see the whole or can put your finger on it.
But why is this movement so different from others? After all, the tradition of tariqahs in Turkey and other Muslim countries is centuries old. Yet, the Gulen movement differs from the rest as a messianic organization. They believe that "the destiny gave them a mission".
In practice, this means that they are the God's chosen flock, and have a particular program and method on Earth that they think will make only them reach their desired end. Those who stand in their way, who oppose the sacred program/roadmap, are shirkers, and thus deserve to be crushed.
In their mind, the AKP government that defends ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi at the expense of antagonizing the junta administration in Egypt, or that protects Palestinians at the cost of eliciting Israeli fury, acts shortsightedly. Yet, the movement makes long-term projections; even if they may consciously refuse to speak against cruelties done to their fellow Muslims today, they are so sure that the movement will be so powerful in the year, say, 2150 that they will be able to appoint a governor to, say, Yakutia Republic in today's Russia.
They will not act or speak against the massacred members of the Ikhwan, or Muslim Brotherhood, because the Ikhwan chose the method of defiance and opposed the junta administration instead of reconciling with it and searching for ways of dialogue.
Such a messianic zeal combined with the idea of sacred chosen-ness justifies any means and acting against anyone as long as the means serve the ultimate purpose of Earthly glory promised to this movement. It is such heterodoxy that separates the Gulen movement from the corpus of tariqahs in and outside Turkey.
The Gulen movement has been interested and involved in politics for a long time. However, they did not out come out in the open until recently. It appears that open political engagement in front of cameras and the public eye proved to be tough for the movement. It is therefore no surprise that Gulen's explosive curses, perceived by the wider public as against the AKP government, in a video recently released by the movement backfired.
The public outrage ran so high that perhaps for the first time since 2002 Gulen had to immediately release another video to retract and reframe what he said. The video went viral and became subject of pranks.
The recent row also widened the distance between the Gulen movement and the rest of the tariqahs in Turkey. Other tariqahs threw their open support behind the government after the battle broke out. To make things worse for the Gulen movement, the rest of the Nurcu (or Nursu)? community, with which the Gulen movement is related, took a stance against them as well.
A cursory skim of discussions on social media demonstrates the widening rift within the Nurcus now, so much so that many Nurcu groups including Said Nursi's students accuse Gulen betraying the true, non-political ideals of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi.
Perhaps the most important outcome of the recent controversy will be that Gulen movement was stripped of its immunity from criticism. The conservatives and Islamists have now joined the Kemalists, leftists, liberals, nationalists of all hues who had already been criticizing Gulen and doubting his real intentions for a long time.
Today therefore the Gulen movement is on the table and Turkey's conservatives, Islamists of all stripes sit around the table discussing what it is that they have on the table, what is its nature, why it wants to conquer the state, which actors it cooperates with outside Turkey, how consistent Gulen's words are and how Islamic what he preaches, his methods and goals are.
Moreover, Turkey's dominant conservative public may not buy the support that the CHP - or Republican People's Party - in any case a strange bedfellow for the movement, is giving the Gulen movement.
Such an odd alliance between the CHP and the Gulen movement may be deceptive for two reasons. First, the movement will find it very hard to convince its grassroots to vote for the Kemalist CHP, which for decades had been for them the chief evil. Secondly, since all political actors will know the role of the movement in case the AKP government falls, no political party will ever trust the Gulen movement from now on.
It is unlikely that any government will forget for a moment what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says so often these days: "The parallel state". For all these reasons, the question that begs an answer is not, as some assume, whether the Gulen movement or the AKP will win this war; the question is, why has such a powerful movement as Gulen's attempted something that is akin to political suicide?
And unfortunately also just that for the concept of civil society in this part of the world; in our region, either states control civil society organizations for exerting social control or those who claim to be civil society organizations, such as the Gulen movement, try to capture the state.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Omer Aslan is a PhD candidate in political science at Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey, and may be contacted at [email protected]