Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 30 May 2020

Turkey’s seculars see an opening as Islamists break rank

The two major religious groups active in Turkey have an increasingly fractured relationship as Prime Minister Erdogan's power becomes entrenched, which might give the secularists an opening.

Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the Turkish social-religious movement named after him, leads an extensive network of communities that have schools in 140 countries. Mr Gulen, 75, has been living in a self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. Though the network does not have formal membership, he is known to have one of the largest groups of active followers in the world. The network has roots in the US, Europe, Central Asia, Africa and some countries in the Middle East.

The Gulen movement has shown remarkable solidarity with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. They have managed to challenge the nationalist Kemalist-secularist movement. But there are signs that the alliance between these two powerful allies is increasingly fragile.

At critical junctures for the Islamist ruling party, when it went head to head with the military, and when military officers were being arrested by the dozens, police inspectors, prosecutors and judges who sympathised with the Gulen movement believed to have played a key role in undermining the old guard, or the “deep-state”.

Historically, since the two groups began to establish their organisations in the 1960s, they had their differences and neither approved the other’s approach. While political Islamists believe that after winning elections, they should change the society from top down through legislative means, “social Islam” followers believe the best way is to focus on education and other areas to spread Islam from the bottom up. But by 2010, there was a marriage of convenience between the two strong conservative blocks despite their differences.

Meanwhile, the opposition appeared to be hopeless, with its fragmented secular and nationalist base and ineffective leadership. There was no reason to think this marriage would fall apart any time soon.

But this enviable partnership quickly began to fracture. After Mr Erdogan’s recent order to shut preparation schools, which are some of the most effective recruitment institutions for the Gulen movement, both sides began to openly attack each other – including an open spat between Mr Erdogan and Mr Gulen. Major newspapers with ties to the Gulen movement began criticising the government, while members of the movement also launched effective social media campaigns in which it displayed its ability to mobilise. Its effectiveness has sounded alarm bells inside and outside of Turkey.

This latest tussle came after a series of disagreements between the two groups over domestic and foreign politics since 2010, when Mr Gulen took the unexpected position to chastise Mr Erdogan for not preventing the Mavi Marmara flotilla sailing to Gaza. In 2012, leading columnists in pro-Gulen media argued for a more balanced diplomacy on Syria, a cool-headed approach to regional politics and improved relations with Israel. The Gulen movement has also voiced its opposition to perceived Iranian influence in Ankara.

The movement also does not hide its dislike of the Turkish intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, who is known to be Mr Erdogan’s most important confidant. The Gulen movement is said to have little influence in the intelligence service MIT, which is seen as responsible for the purges of bureaucrats, police inspectors and judicial officials who are known to be close to the movement in the last 18 months.

AKP officials, on the other hand, complain that the movement’s intrusion in the state affairs has reached unprecedented and unacceptable levels. Hatem Ete, a leading scholar in the pro-AKP think-tank Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, argued that followers of the movement who work for state institutions look out for the interests of the movement, rather than those of the state. AKP officials also say that preparation schools create a parallel education system, independent from the education ministry.

About a month ago, details about a meeting at the National Security Council in 2004 revealed that a decision was made by the AKP, in partnership with the military, to take action against the Gulen movement. According to sources in Ankara, the revelations might be only the beginning of a long war between the two, as little over three months are left till the local elections.

One question to which nobody seems to have an answer is why Mr Erdogan would strike against his most valuable ally now, before the 17-month election cycle in which three important elections will be held. Why would he turn his most powerful ally into an enemy by publicly threatening to shut down its most productive institutions, the preparation schools, and give them a reason to organise against his party.

One answer might be that after his 11 years of successes, there is no adviser left around Mr Erdogan who can dispute, disagree or even ask tough questions. Or there are other unconventional tactics in Mr Erdogan’s toolbox against the movement.

Whatever the reason, the die is cast and the marriage is over. Turkish seculars might be the greatest beneficiaries from the fight as Mr Erdogan is reaching a point where no one can check his power. The secular opposition, which seemed hopeless just a few weeks ago, might have also just found an opening to challenge the incumbent party in the upcoming elections, and can emerge as a winner.

lhan Tanir is a Turkish analyst, who writes extensively on Turkey-US relations, Syria and issues related to the wider Middle East

On Twitter: @WashingtonPoint

Updated: December 16, 2013 04:00 AM