North Africa, West Asia

Erdogan and Gülen: two sides of the same coin

A response to an article in the Huffington Post appealing to Fethullah Gülen.

Janine Rich Mehmet Can Öney
8 August 2016
Chris Post/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Chris Post/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The recent failed coup attempt in Turkey by members of Fethullah Gülen’s Hizmet movement has spawned a great deal of writing, both analytical and opinion-based, on the future of Turkey at this critical moment and, more specifically, on the viability of the Hizmet movement.

One such piece, published recently in the Huffington Post, focuses largely on Fethullah Gülen himself. Written by Graham E. Fuller, a former CIA official and current member of the RAND Corporation, the article argues that Gülen is largely misunderstood in the west, that he was likely to have been uninvolved in the coup undertaken by the movement he created, and, most critically, that he is an important face of global, honest, socially progressive Islam. 

The article draws numerous conclusions about Gülen, his movement’s role in Turkey, Islam as a religion, and politics in the Middle East that are problematic and at times incorrect, and which we intend to challenge in this article.

Further, we find that the piece represents an excellent example of a critical mistake made in American foreign policy – that the solution for spreading “stability” and “democracy” in the region lies in finding strong leaders whose agendas align with US policy goals while ignoring said leaders’ involvement in corruption. 

Fuller opens his analysis by stating that:

“when we talk about Islamic leaders in Turkey, we’re talking about a very different scene than in most of the rest of the Muslim world.” 

Here he does not draw any distinction between political Islamists and Muslim religious leaders, a differentiation that has become a crucial area of dispute within the Muslim world.

Further, while he does say “Islamic leaders”, he does not leave any space for the reader (or, perhaps, the analyst) to understand that there is anyone in a position of power within the Middle East who is not an “Islamic leader”. Whether this is an intentional oversight or not is unclear. 

However, Beji Caid Essebsi of Tunisia, King Mohammed VI of Morocco, Fuad Masum of Iraq, Abdel Fattah El Sisi of Egypt, Michel Suleiman of Lebanon, and numerous other state leaders and political party heads would be rather surprised to learn of their supposed “call for any kind of Islamic State, Sharia law or Caliphate.” 

To casually toss the Middle East aside as a region filled with so-labeled “Muslim extremists” at perpetual war with each other and motivated by nothing more than religious fervor is not only an inaccurate portrayal of the complexity of politics and societies in the Middle East, it is a cheap political tactic used to scare American voters into supporting whichever strongman the US has deemed to be the safest bet.

Fuller does hit a correct note in mentioning that the political conversation between Islamist parties (again, ignoring all mention of the vast number of non-Islamist parties active in Turkey) is largely about power, rather than theology.

This is an astute observation, although not one that he deems valid to apply to Islamist parties in the rest of the Middle East. Leaving aside the question of ISIL, the vast majority of Islamist parties throughout the region are interested in power and political influence first, and arguably more than they are with recreating the Caliphate. To suggest that Turkey is a special case in this way does not hold up to scrutiny.

Fuller goes on to explain that a primary difference between the current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fetullah Gülen is their religious background; Erdogan is (at least for the sake of brevity) a Sunni Islamist, and Gülen is presumed to have founded his movement on “an apolitical, more Sufi, mystical and social tradition.” 

He goes on to say that while Erdogan is first and foremost in charge of a political group, Gülen’s Hizmet movement is a social/civil movement. While he is correct that the Hizmet movement is not a recognized political party in Turkey, this analysis is a misrepresentation of both the organization itself and of the role it has played in Turkish politics.

To begin, while Fethullah Gülen’s ideology may very well be one rooted in his understanding of Sufism, to equate Sufism with an apolitical identity is historically inaccurate. Sufi mystics and leaders throughout the history of the Ottoman Empire had a complex relationship with both Orthodox religious powers and the power of the Sultan and the state.

They were wary of each other, with both of the latter powers recognizing the threat of Sufi power over the religious and social order of the day, yet also generally recognizing the necessity of a mutually beneficial “live and let live” agreement. Sufism did indeed act as a foil by which state and Orthodox powers measured and balanced themselves, yet the role of Sufis in the empire and their goals were far from apolitical.

Similarly, Gülen’s Hizmet movement can hardly be classified as apolitical based on its lack of recognition as an official political party. Political and civil movements cannot be so neatly cleaved into two categories. The Hizmet movement and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) were in fact close political allies until 2013, when a perceived betrayal in the form of leaked tapes allegedly proving AKP corruption surfaced as a result of a Hizmet operation. 

Prior to 2013, the Hizmet movement was very much aligned with AKP’s political agenda. The 1980s military coup, which Fuller regards in his analysis as a tough yet necessary action heroically supported by the Hizmet movement in their selfless defense of Turkish stability, was in fact a bloody act of military violence against civilians, primarily leftists, and an event that marks the Hizmet movement’s entrance into the Turkish political sphere.

Fuller notes that, after AKP was elected in 2002, “Many members of Hizmet then became free to seek positions in government (if qualified)”. This is indeed the case, although the status of their qualification is far less clear. There have been alleged corruption cases brought to public attention for the past decade, including charges of cheating on Turkish military exams (ALS), university exams (YGS/LYS) and public service exams (KPSS).

Interestingly enough, these cases were summarily dismissed by judges working within the judiciary system which, according to the widely accepted common knowledge of the time, was controlled by the Hizmet movement between 2007-2012.

During these years the judiciary system also functioned to try, imprison, and blacklist numerous members of the military, government officials, and civilian journalists in cases which are now called the Balyoz (sledgehammer) Case and the Ergenekon Trials.

These people, quite possibly innocent of the crimes they were tried for, were nonetheless opposed to AKP’s rule in some form or another and had their lives ruined by AKP’s then-ally, the Hizmet movement.

Many of these Hizmet judges, in a timeless twist of fate, have now been imprisoned by their previous allies and were recently shown on CNN Turk being greeted by several of the recently freed military officials who they themselves had imprisoned.

Fuller is entirely correct in his assertion that it is “absurd” to call the Hizmet movement a terrorist organization, at least by the standards of 2016. He also is correct in his overall characterization of President Erdogan as a short-sighted, violent populist who will probably hold onto his power in the manner of a drowning man, taking the state of Turkey down with him.

Yet his characterization of Gülen as the alternative face of peace and dialogue is gravely mistaken.

Further, he is likely to be correct when he says that Gülen himself did not directly, plot, plan, or order the recent failed coup attempt. Yet his characterization of Gülen as the alternative face of peace and dialogue is gravely mistaken.

Erdogan and Gülen represent two sides of the same coin – while they may differ greatly in their ideological convictions, their political tactics and their methods of intimidating, destabilizing, and illegally undermining all who they perceive to stand in their way are identical.

And finally, we return to the title of Fuller’s article: “The Gülenist Movement Is Not a Cult – It’s One Of The Most Encouraging Faces Of Islam Today.” Fethullah Gülen cannot, and should not, be referred to as a “encouraging face of Islam”, and his characterization as such is revealing of the biases of the writer. 

Throughout his article, Fuller makes no attempt to distinguish between 'Islam' as a religion and a politically Islamist agenda. Within that misrepresentation, it is obvious why a former vice-chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council would view him as a moderate alternative.

Yet at the core, portraying him as an “encouraging face of Islam” is a tacit assumption that Islam (presumed by the author to be indistinguishable from political Islamism) is an inherently extreme, inherently intolerant religion and as such the US must align itself with the few “moderate” savages or risk losing the region altogether.

This view is not only brazenly simplistic, it is also representative of what is possibly the greatest US foreign policy miscalculation in the nation’s history – and one that is becoming habitual to us. 

Looking amidst an array of powerful and corrupt political leaders for the one who might be willing to do our bidding and then supporting (in all senses of the word) said leader has yet to prove even once to be an effective long-term policy plan. 

If we wish to see an encouraging face of Islam, perhaps the answer is not to search amongst corrupt political groups whose primary interest is misusing religion to oppress and dominate.

If we wish to see an encouraging face of Islam, perhaps we should stop putting our faith (and our funding) in leaders who then use it to hurt their people, both Muslim and non-Muslim.

Perhaps we should look to the hundreds of thousands of Muslims worldwide who have been telling us that our policies are hurting them every bit as much as the leaders whose faces we find so encouraging.

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