The clash of allies: The AK Party vs Gulen Movement

The clash of allies: The AK Party vs Gulen Movement

Is there a crack in the ruling elite alliance in Turkey? In other words, did the cooperation and solidarity between the most important social force and political force that struggled to defeat the military tutelage in Turkey come to an end?

The recent clash between the Erdogan government and the Gulen movement regarding the closure of the university prep schools / tutoring centers caused a big debate both inside and outside of Turkey. Although the draft law that brings an end to the prep schools was the starting point of the recent tense debate between the sides, this was hardly the real cause of the suspended tension between both sides. There have also been other factors contributing to the rift between the AK Party and Gulen Movement that has been growing within the last several years.
After transition to the multi-party politics in Turkey in 1946, it’s not the first time that religious formations such as the Gulen movement were part of the grand ruling coalition that united under the umbrella of a center mass political party. However, it was the first time that a religious movement has become boldly assertive in trying to shape government policies in addition to its assertiveness to claim the share it thinks it deserves in the distribution of economic resources and bureaucratic cadres.
Both international media and some elements of Turkish media antagonistic toward the Erdogan government try to highlight the importance of the internal factors in this confrontation. They also tend to discredit any analyses trying to find any connection between the confrontational attitude of the Gulen movement toward the government and international factors. Even they don’t hesitate to call these efforts as conspirational. Nevertheless, this approach is very naive and inconsistent in the first place. First of all, including external dynamics into the analysis does not mean that we deny the capacity and hard work of its committed supporters. Second, finding a correlation between the movement’s behavior and conditions dictated by the international context does not reduce movement to a mere puppet.
In fact, as a firm believer of the Sunni tradition of “order by an oppressor sultan is better than chaos”, it was unexpected of Gulen and his movement to challenge the government. Gulen has always preached against confronting the state, which may bring its repression. He compared political Islamist movements to a hay flame, which will not last long, in contrast to his social movement, which, according to him, resembles the sun that will always warm and brighten the earth.  If Gulen had decided to confront the government, he must have either believed that his movement were the true representative of the state, or would have had the support of external forces. In short, any effort to understand the conflict between the Gulen movement and the Erdogan government by excluding the role of external dynamics will be insufficient.

Although the Gulen movement’s success was an outcome of its members’ idealism and dedicated work, its dealing with the government(s) at certain historical conjunctures opened the doors for it to reach the strength it has at present. During the 1960s, when Marxist youth movements were gaining popularity among the university youth in Turkey, FethullahGulen took a pro-state position and participated in the activities of the Association for the Struggle against Communism, whose honorary chairman was the President CemalGursel, a retired army general. The 1970s were the formative years of his movement. Left the Nurcu movement supportive of the center right Justice Party during those years, he remained close to Islamist National Outlook movement of Necmettin Erbakan, who became the first Islamist prime minister of Turkey in 1996-97 ousted by the military from power. Disturbed by the increasing sympathy toward the Iranian revolution and other Islamic political movements in the region among the youth of the National Outlook, Gulen began to stay aloof from Erbakan. While the death toll was going up every day as a result of  increased violence between the nationalist and socialist armed groups during the late 1970s and months prior to the 1980 military coup, Gulen was calling on youth to stay away from political demonstrations and school boycotts and stand together with the police and military against anarchy and chaos.
Gulen supported the 1980 military coup that closed all existing political parties and associations, imprisoned and tortured tens of thousands and executed dozens. Although he was on the “wanted” list of the military regime, his movement had established strong ties with the military authorities. After transition to multi-party politics in 1983, he strongly supported the lateTurgutOzal’s Motherland Party that ruled the country between 1983 and 1991. Calling the Gulen movement as a creation of the state is no doubt a conspirational thinking. On the other side, it is futile to deny that his movement was considered as an antidote to rising Islamist political youth activism of the era of post-Iranian Revolution.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union opened new avenues for the Gulen movement. In an interview conducted by the Time Magazine in 1991, TurgutOzal, the Prime Minister of the time, defined Turkey’s role in the post-Soviet era as a barrier against radicalism in the Central Asia inspired by Salafism and Iranian Revolution. Geopolitical changes in the late 1980s and early 1990s left a vacuum in the region in many aspects. In order to fill the vacuum in the religious sphere, Turkey as a state had not only mobilized its own resources (Directorate of Religious Affairs) but also opened the way for the Gulen movement to exert its influence in Central Asia. These efforts were also in conformity with the post-Cold War era threat assessment of the NATO, which focused on terror as an outcome of “radical” Islamic political activism.
The relations between the Gulen movement and the Turkish state were extended to the post-Ozal era as well. Rather than the movement being a tool in the hands of the state, in this relationship, mutual interests of both sides were being served. Considering the statist and nationalist views of Gulen, it should not be strange to see a religious movement concerted its efforts with the state’s policies. Moreover, these close relations with the state enabled the movement to have an access to bureaucratic cadres.

The military intervention of 28 February 1997, also called the post-modern coup, forced the coalition government of Islamist Prime Minister Erbakan to resign and opened a period of execution toward all religious segments. In the early stages of this intervention, Gulen had thought that his movement could avoid a crackdown by being indifferent to the persecution of other religious formations. Indeed, the media, which supported the coup, manipulated Gulen’s position vis-a-vis other religious segments in order to justify the coup’s repression. However, Gulen had to leave Turkey for the USA when he realized that he was next in the line of the coup leadership’s list.
Gulen’s choice for the U.S. to move was a rational choice. Starting from mid-1990s, Gulen began to develop a new Islamic discourse that presented him and his movement as enlightened and pro-Western face of progressive Islam. Moreover, the movement has spread all over the world by engaging in educational and business activities. As we mentioned earlier, the U.S. constructed its post-Cold War threat discourse on “radical Islamic” terrorism. Being a globalized Muslim movement with a discourse as an antidote to “radical Islamic terrorism”, the Gulen movement would feel itself at home in the U.S..
Avoiding close contact with the National Outlook Movement (NOM) in the past, Gulen’s support to the AK Party in the 2002 elections and beyond should be understood within this context. The AK Party leadership, as representatives of the splintered group from the NOM, had been aware that they must have been recognized by national and international centers of power in order to survive in politics. The overthrowing of the Erbakan-led government and the ban on the Refah Party were the results of concerted efforts of both centers of power. Although Europe and the U.S. did not allow an overt military coup against the Refah-led government, they did not object the military’s pressure on it. Through the channels of communication they established with the US policy makers, the AK Party founders also had gotten the impression that the US would positively look at a political party seeking reconciliation between Islam and democracy. The full-pledged support of the American Consul to Erdogan when he was given a 10-months prison sentence because of a speech he delivered was an early indication of the positive view the Americans had about the political formation.
Before the establishment of the AK Party, both Erdogan and Gul had some contacts with certain US officials. Consequently, both sides came to a mutual understanding about each other. For two reasons, the US saw a golden opportunity in the new political formation. First, for Americans, keeping the doors closed to Erdogan, the only popular figure in the country at that moment, would extent the political and economic chaos and instability in a strategically very important country. Second, for certain segments among the US policy makers, a compromise between Islam and democracy would bring political stability to the Muslim world and might reduce the tensions between Western and Muslim cultures. In achieving such a compromise between Islam and democracy, Turkey and Turkish Islamic movements had the greatest potential in comparison to the ones in other parts of the world.
In this historical context and conjuncture, the Gulen movement and AK Party had become expected partners for all sides concerned to transform the exhausted Turkish political system.

Although there has been an alliance of convenience between them since 2002 that culminated with the 2010 referendum, their relationship has not always been smooth. The period between 2007 and 2010 that witnessed to the military’s return to its professional responsibilities became the golden era of solidarity between the two. Even during this time frame, differences between the two forces had already appeared. The Gulen movement had complaints about some ministers whom the movement thought that they were not receptive enough to its interests. Nevertheless, this was a minor issue in comparison to other disagreements they had.
When the movement attempted to shape the government policies and demanded what it supposedly deserves, of course it did not do it due to the mandate granted to it by the popular will. There is not any known member of the movement among the ruling party’s leadership cadres. It basically relied on its strength in security forces, intelligence, judiciary and bureaucratic cadres in addition to its weight in media, the business world and the financial sector. It is true that it enjoys a certain level of popularity among the populace. Millions of people in the country identify themselves with the social and cultural goals of the movement. Nevertheless, this affinity with these goals may not translate into support to the movement’s political positions in various issues in the presence of a strong political party sharing same or similar values and ruling the country quite successfully in comparison to previous governments.
The uncertainty about the volume of the mass support for the movement in terms of being a top player in the power game automatically reduces the weight of its strong presence in the bureaucracy, media and economy because the government still holds the necessary means to eliminate most of the risks induced by this presence. Aware of his movement’s vulnerability vis-à-vis the state, MrGulen made some conciliatory remarks in his most recent sermon. The latest opinion polls suggest that AKP continues to command around 50 percent in support. People close to MrGulen acknowledge that the movement’s image has suffered. For sure they can really hurt the government; but in the end, what they will get may not pay off what they will lose.

Source: World Bulletin





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