Dr. Ahmet Uysal
Last updated: 29 December, 2013

“The secular opposition that failed to offer any viable alternative to the AK Party is now seeking alliance with a religious movement”

Dr. Ahmet Uysal tells the story of a Turkey juggling between different paths. A secular opposition, finding support with a religious movement. Will Erdogan prove resilient enough?

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the founders of the Turkish Republic conceded to be allies with the West rather than a competition. For this reason the Republican Turkey remained indifferent to the emergence of Israel and Arabs’ struggle for independence during the most part of the twentieth century. Due to the lack of democratic leadership, Turkey’s poor economy and its rulers’ western orientation also prevented Turkey from a leadership role in regional affairs.

The gap between elite and popular interests during the early years prevented Turkey from realizing its potential in economy and politics until the transition to democracy. Democratic governments began to achieve significant developments in the 1950s and 1980s. However, this change brought about serious resistance from the established elites led by the military and bourgeoisie because they distrusted the conservative forces of Turkish society, and leaders that steered the country towards liberal democracy were removed from power.

Democratic governments began to achieve significant developments in the 1950s and 1980s

When the Islamist Necmeddin Erbakan came to power in 1996, he could stay in power for only 11 months before he was toppled by a civil-military coalition. Erbakan’s government or Refah-Yol represented the coming to power of the societal periphery. That is, the conservative masses and the emerging Anatolian bourgeoisie were forming an alternative to the established elites in government. The coalition of old bourgeoisie, bureaucracy and secular intellectuals forced Erbakan out of power and suppressed his societal bases such as the conservative educated and Anatolian bourgeoisie in the following years. However, their economic and social policies failed, leading the way for the rise of Erdogan in 2002.

The status quo forces in Turkey considered Erdogan a bigger threat than his tutor Erbakan. He was more charismatic, dynamic and inclusive, and enjoyed success as a mayor in Istanbul during the early 1990s. During the suppression of the Refah Party, the establishment was very worried about him as they jailed him for reciting an historic poem and prevented him from taking a public office. The secular establishment even tried to prevent Erdogan from running for a seat in the Parliament in 2002 but he was able to obtain this right only after the major success of his party in the elections. Similarly, the secular establishment and opposition did not want Erdogan to run for president in 2007 as the military threatened with intervention. They compromised with the election of Abdullah Gül.

ON THE SAME TOPIC Erdogan weakened for a better Turkish democracy

During his rule Erdogan was obviously the main target of criticism by both the opposition in the Parliament and the unconventional opposition such as old bourgeoisie and the deep state. Probably because of his strong character, they demonized Erdogan more than any other politician in his party, including president Abdullah Gul. The premier also sought a more balanced foreign policy by leaving Turkey’s strictly western oriented position. The criticism began to increase in the West after he adopted a strong stance against the Israeli aggression in Palestine, culminating in the event of Mavi Marmara. We slowly began to notice the claims of an authoritarian Erdogan and the change of course in Turkey’s foreign policy.

The domestic and international criticism peaked during the Gezi protests this summer where Erdogan was again framed as a “dictator”. This event also represented the outburst of accumulating criticism at home and abroad against the long rule of the AK Party. In sociology protests are considered “politics by other means”. These protests occurred mostly because the parliamentary opposition was not able to provide a viable alternative to the AK Party government. Also, the ruling party was still leading the opposition in defending democratic rights such as religious and civil freedoms and minority rights. However, the claims that the AK Party was seeking an Islamist agenda found more resonance in the mainstream media and the West. After the Gezi protests failed to weaken Erdogan, the next major assault came from the Gulen movement.

The Gulen movement is a post-Sufi movement

At this point it would be useful to note the major similarities and differences between the two movements. The Turkish establishment did not allow the function of any religious parties or religious groups that officially operate in the country. The Gulen movement is a post-Sufi movement more local to Turkey as an offshoot of the Nurcu movement that focuses on faith and spreading liberal Islamic teachings. The Ataturk republican verdicts banned the existence of Sufi or other religious groups from operating publically. Instead, these groups, including the Gulen movement, operate through private schools and charity organization. They were pressured but were not totally banned and persecuted in the country due to democratization and an implicit need for them to fight against Communism during the Cold War.

With a holistic organization, the Gulen movement is a religious group that began to operate in education and social services in the 1980s. It is known as Hizmet Movement since it focuses on social services such as education. However, the group slowly expanded to other areas such as economy, politics and bureaucracy. Its founder Said Nursi adopted an apolitical stance while the Gulen version slowly became politicized without publicly admitting this change. The Gulen movement and the AK Party cooperated in limiting the military’s role in politics and implementing democratic reforms. However, the Gulen movement demanded and received more political power during the AK Party rule, especially in the bureaucratic posts.

The Gulen movement maintains a moderate Islamic perspective but has strong ambitions to transform and dominate Turkish society with its own vision of politics, economy and bureaucracy. For this reason, they sought to dominate the AK Party (similar to the Evangelists did to the Republican Party in the USA). Despite its moderate and liberal attitude with especially non-Muslim groups, the Gulen movement is known for suing its opponents and sending them to jail. The writers of two books critical of the Gulen movement, Hanefi Avci and Ahmet Şık, were sentenced to jail terms. This became public after the movement’s split with the AK Party.

The split became more public after the government’s move to reform education and plans to cancel the seminaries mostly controlled by the Gulen movement. Because the Gulen movement has members infiltrated in all sectors of power, i.e. in the judiciary, police and main bureaucracy, it seems that the pro-Gulen prosecutors and police officers launched a secret corruption investigation involving the sons of four ministers. Erdogan considered this action a conspiracy against his government only three months before the elections and he also promised to reveal the secret organization as a parallel state.

The conflict has quickly turned into a duel between the two groups during the last weeks. The corruption investigation poses a serious threat to the AK Party rule given the three main elections during the next two years: the municipal, presidential and parliamentary elections. The secret behind Erdogan’s success was his ability to mobilize the masses behind his AK Party. These investigations have a potential to reverse this tide and decrease his popular support. As a reaction, Erdogan changed the police chiefs thought to be closer to the Gulen group in the main cities, fearing the continuation of the investigations. He took an uncompromising stance against the investigation by promising to punish the wrongdoers while wavering what he sees as a conspiracy against his government in particular and against Turkey in general.

As a conservative Muslim democratic party, the AK Party managed to compromise Islamic values with democracy and secularism in Turkey. After the submission of the military to civilian authority during 2010, we began to see a different type of resistance from a coalition of some social groups such as the Gulen movement and the old bourgeoisie and the opposition CHP. The AK Party seemed to align itself with the rising Anatolian bourgeoisie and the other religious groups. Ironically the secular opposition that failed to offer any viable alternative to the AK Party is now seeking alliance with a religious movement that the Kemalism distasted from the beginning.

After the failure of the Gezi protests that blamed Erdogan for authoritarianism, the next charge came from an unexpected source: the Gulen movement, its former ally. The apparently Gulen-affiliated judges opened a corruption investigation against the people close to Erdogan such as the ministers, businessmen and bureaucrats. Even though the Gulen denied any involvement in the investigation, there is a general consensus about this connection. This crisis also caused friction between the judiciary and the administration as the prosecutors’ efforts to deepen the operation was reportedly prevented by the government as a political conspiracy. That is because the legal investigation involved several businessmen and Bilal Erdogan, the son of the prime minister, and it was reportedly thwarted by the government as a politically motivated move. These allegations were denied by the ministry of justice and the General Prosecutor.

Erdogan is resilient in responding to these challenges

The next rounds of the investigations seem to have come to a halt but the trial of the first round will continue to be a headache. The AK Party government is currently maintaining its weight in the parliament along with its control over bureaucracy and some market power. Even though Erdogan’s hands will not be tied against this investigation he has so far been able to depict it as a political plot against him personally and against a rising Turkey.

It is not very clear how far this crisis will affect the upcoming presidential elections but it already caused serious tension in the financial markets. The impact on the Turkish economy remains to be seen but it is obvious that Erdogan is resilient in responding to these challenges. A tense atmosphere is common prior to elections, and while Gulen can inflict some harm to the AK Party’s popularity, this crisis will ultimately be guided by the ballot box in 2014.