Turkey: Erdogan vs. Gulen

A struggle between titans for the hearts and minds of the Turks.

gulen-erdoganTurkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued his campaign to shut down all opposition to his authoritarian rule. The latest outrage occurred last weekend when Ekrem Dumanli, editor of one of Turkey’s largest newspapers, Istanbul’s Zaman, was detained on charges of plotting to overthrow Erdogan’s government. In addition to Dumanli, 27 other people were detained, charged with belonging to an illegal organization, and seeking to seize control of the state.

The European Union (EU) criticized the arrests of journalists, TV producers, police and TV drama scriptwriters linked to the Pennsylvania-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, condemned the arrests as “incompatible with the freedom of media.” U.S. State Department spokeswomen Jen Psaki opined that, “Media, freedom, due process, and judicial independence are key elements in every healthy democracy and are enshrined in the Turkish constitution. As Turkey’s friend and ally, we urge the Turkish authorities to ensure their actions do not violate these core values and Turkey’s own democratic foundations.” Erdogan responded by telling the EU “to mind their own business.” Yahoo reported that “The state Anatolia news agency said chief prosecutor Hadi Salihoglu ordered the arrests on charges of forgery, fabricating evidence and forming a crime syndicate to overtake the sovereignty of the state.” This episode marks the latest salvo in the feud between Erdogan and his former ally turned foe, Fethullah Gulen.

Gulen’s influence in Turkey is due to his enormous accumulation of assets. He controls a global network of religious Islamic schools that are far more moderate than the Saudi sponsored and funded (madrasas) schools. He is also in charge of large charities and media outlets. It is alleged that Gulen used his influence inside Turkey to start the investigation on charges of corruption among senior members of Erdogan’s AK Party (AKP). It led to a number of police commissioners being sacked, and to some of Erdogan’s allies being arrested. Erdogan accused Gulen’s allies of trying to “create a state within a state.”

After being charged with crimes against the (Turkish) state, Fethullah Gulen fled to the U.S. in 1999, and settled in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.  The charges against him were subsequently overturned and he was cleared.  For many years, the Gulenist movement worked closely with Erdogan’s alliance of the working class, and the religious and business communities.  The partnership with the Gulenist movement won Erdogan three elections (2003, 2007, and 2011).

The Guardian reported (February 15, 2013) that, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chairman of the social democratic Republican People’s party (CHP), said Erdogan, Premier since 2003, was determined to change the constitution to create an executive presidency to which post he would switch to after elections in 2014. Kilicdaroglu added, “Turkey needs a new constitution to protect individual rights. The 1982 charter imposed after a military coup was out of date and at odds with Turkey's EU ambitions, but Erdogan's plans ignored the need for a separation of powers, for instance by empowering the president to appoint judges.”

Calling Erdogan a dictator, Kilicdaroglu charged, “The prime minister (Erdogan) is more and more authoritarian.” He added, “Unfortunately, the sovereignty of fear is ubiquitous. No one can talk with ease on the telephone. Civil society is under pressure. The universities cannot express their view. The labour unions are completely silent. The media are fearful. There is not one single dissenting voice within his own party. The attempt to create an executive presidency is all about the concentration of power in a single hand. It will be a disaster for Turkey. It will cancel all the democratic gains Turkey has made.”

Erdogan won the 2014 presidential elections but not without serious controversy. Hurriyet Daily News reported (October 27, 2014) “Some 1,863 journalists have been fired in the 12 years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule.” Opposition politicians have also alleged that intimidation of the media is due to the government's attempt to restructure the ownership of private media corporations. Journalists from the Cihan News Agency and the Gülenist Zaman newspaper were said to have been repeatedly barred from attending government press conferences or asking questions. In addition, Erdogan was accused of using public funds to support his election campaign.

An Islamist in his ideology, Erdogan has systematically undermined the Ataturk legacy of secularism in Turkey. He is now focused on changing the educational system, and seeks to bring back the Arabic script to replace the Latin script adopted by Ataturk. He is also eager to foster Ottoman-language classes in the school system. Now that he has re-made the military and the Judiciary from the secularist in the fabricated “sledgehammer” affair, also known as the “Ergenekon case,” Erdogan is intent on changing the educational system, and seeks to make it more Islamic, and pre-Kemalist. The Gatestone Institute intimated that, “In 2012, Turkey saw the outcome of a trial that foretold the Ergenekon verdicts: the so-called "Sledgehammer" case. In that, more than 300 officers were found guilty for an ostensible coup plan allegedly originating in 2003, the year after AKP first won a national election. In that trial, as in the Ergenekon ordeal, evidence, the rights of defendants and prosecutorial conduct are said to have been monitored insufficiently.”

Although the Gülenists might have shared Erdogan’s quest to bring Turkey closer to Islam, they haven’t shared his authoritarian approach.  Erdogan and the AKP politicos have accused the Gülenists of being treasonous, by having alliances with Zionists and U.S. neocons and other forces who seek to weaken Turkey. The Gülenists, for their part, charge that the AKP has become corrupt and has plundered the state resources, while at the same time claiming to serve Islam. The BBC reported (November 14, 2014) that “a controversial 1000- room palace being built for Turkey’s president (Erdogan) will cost even more than the original $615 million price tag. Officials said the additional costs are due to a new 250-room private residence for President Tayyip Erdogan…”

Erdogan was a committed follower of the former (deposed) Islamist Prime Minister (1996-97) Necmettin Erbakan (Welfare Party) and has followed in his footsteps. Erbakan believed that Turkey should turn away from the West and forge a political, military, and economic union with Muslim countries. He also believed national strength required conflict with the West at the expense of building democratic institutions. The Gulenists, on the other hand, are strong proponents of closer ties with Europe. And while Erdogan expressed crude anti-Semitism towards Israel and Jews, the Gulenists clashed with Erdogan’s AKP over his bellicose foreign policy, and his belligerence towards the Jewish state. The Gulenists were also concerned with Erdogan’s strong support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Erdogan’s pursuit of legislation to restrict internet access, curtailing the power of independent prosecutors, the detention of Ekrem Dumanli, editor of Zaman, and 27 others, mostly from the press, does not bode well for democracy in Turkey. Erdogan has purged the independent judiciary, eroded the Ataturk secular legacy, decimated the military high command, which was the guardian of Turkey’s Ataturk secular republic, and now seeks to censor and restrict free press in Turkey. He is about to subvert the role of the Turkish presidency and assume executive power. It has all the makings of an Erdogan dictatorship. Fethullah Gulen and his organization are the only force standing in his way, and last week’s Erdogan’s government “putsch” in clamping down on the free press is a case and point.

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