The following article was written in response to a Gateway House Feature of 27 July 2016 entitled “The beginning of the end for Erdogan“, written by Vice Admiral Anil Chopra, Distinguished Fellow, International Security and Maritime Studies, Gateway House.
Turkey is barely emerging from an attempt at a coup of unprecedented barbarity. Equally unprecedented has been the spontaneous resistance to the coup by millions of ordinary people, who bodily tried to stop the military tanks from blocking the bridges over the Bosphorus and from taking over the parliament building and other key locations, even as soldiers shot at them, crushing them with tanks. By the morning of July 16, 240 people (excluding putschists) died and more than 2,000 were seriously wounded. Military jets bombed the national parliament, the high army command and the President’s palace, among other symbols of the country’s democracy and state. Jets flew low, terrorising the population, crashing windows of buildings in city centres in Istanbul and Ankara. For a moment it looked as if the country was caught in the grip of a civil war.
Notwithstanding the people’s succeed in defending their democracy, the parliament remained in session through the bombings. President Erdogan, Turkey’s first directly elected president, barely escaped death.
Erdogan’s elimination had been a primary objective of the putschists who included hundreds of army commanders. Their failure to do so turned him into a national hero. Ever since, Erdogan has tried to bring together the leaders of various contending groups and political parties in parliament – except the leader of the Kurdish political party, HDP, or the Democratic Party of People, which could not distance itself from the PKK or Workers Party of Kurdistan and its terrorist activities since July 2015. He has tried to unite them against what is perceived to be the common threat, the Gulenist ‘Islamist’ messianic movement with all its trappings of a New Age religion, which is being held responsible for the coup attempt.
The leader of the movement, Fethullah Gulen, currently residing on a ranch in Pennsylvania, USA, claims to be the messiah, rejecting Islam’s prophet and defying Islamic fundamentalism. The movement, horizontally organized in cells and vertically linked to the leader through a hierarchy of ‘imams’, has penetrated key state institutions, such as the army, judiciary, police force, the bureaucracy, as well as businessmen’s organizations, media, trade unions, political parties, universities, and is finally threatening to take over the state.
To date, 16,000 people connected to Gulen have been arrested and 6,000 detained under a ‘state of emergency’; thousands more have either been suspended or dismissed from their positions in the army, bureaucracy, and universities.
Hence, Turkey now has the colossal task of mending, if not recreating, its key institutions, namely, the army, bureaucracy, most significantly, schools, and the examination system for admittance to these institutions, the judicial system and academia.
Can this signal a new beginning? At the rally for ‘Democracy and its Martyrs’ on Sunday, August 6, a recurring leitmotif was that of a new war of independence, of liberation from the ‘foreign yoke’, similar to the one undertaken by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk at the conclusion of World War I following the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the country’s occupation by European powers. Nearly 5 million people who attended the rally responded with a resounding ‘No ‘when Erdogan asked: ‘Do you want to be enslaved and humiliated?’ A defensive tone, often expressed in religious terms, prevailed; it was reinforced by a sense of rejection and betrayal by the West.
The West and Turkish secular elites
Western governments took a good 24 hours before they contacted the Turkish government following the bloody coup attempt, and when they did, they primarily expressed concern about government actions against those suspected of involvement in the putsch (especially the army commanders). Little mention was made of the thousands risking their lives to defend their democratic choices and their gains. On the other hand, Vladimir Putin was the first head of state to call Erdogan, stating that Russia would not support any developments that violated the Constitution. Was the West betraying its own values by not owning up Turkey’s democracy, was Erdogan’s question during the rally.
Similarly, coverage by Western media highlighted the mass arrests and detention of putschists, expressing concern for their dubious lawfulness, barely mentioning the brutalities committed against ordinary people, suggesting, if not explicitly stating, that the entire coup episode was ‘theatre’ being staged by Erdogan to further his hold on power.
The negative stance in mainstream Western media dates back to 2009 when Erdogan first voiced his criticism of Israeli policies against the Palestinians and began closing down Gulen cram schools in Turkey. It became more pronounced after the Taksim Gezi Park protests in 2013. The Gezi protests initially began with an environmentalist agenda, then developed into a full-fledged hatred campaign against Erdogan, presenting him as a fanatic Islamist, a supporter of ISIS, a dictator, relying on the support of ignorant, religious masses, all presumably rural. It appeared that both the Western media and governments might have preferred instead a military regime, ‘secular’ and ‘westernized’ in the style of the Egyptian one which, in 2013, overthrew the elected Islamist government.
The Western position – both governmental and mainstream media — on Erdogan and on the state of Turkish democracy echoed that of secular Turkish elites, both at home and abroad, legitimising their claims and being legitimised by them. The so-called ‘white Turks’, secular and westernized, form the backbone of the main opposition party. They have always rejected Erdogan’s government, which allegedly represents the provincial, uncouth, shanty town, the Islamic religious, and the so-called ‘black Turks’. The ‘white Turks’ — against whom there was no systematic discrimination in recruitment to bureaucracy — looked to a military coup as a way to remove the Islamists from power and restore the secular elites to their former position of social and political prominence. A military coup would also restore the legacy of Ataturk , a secular Turkey aspiring to Western ways. Yet, the violence of what happened on July 15 seemed to irk at least some of the ‘white Turks’, especially those in the media. This was not the kind of takeover they were expecting. –which may explain the presence of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the secular opposition party (CHP or the Republican People’s Party) at the rally on August 6, hosted by President Erdogan.
The Western position toward Erdogan and his AKP was not always negative. Earlier Erdogan was held up as a model for a market-oriented moderate Islam. Indeed Erdogan and AKP were largely responsible for the making of a highly successful market economy which was first initiated in the mid-1980s following the military coup in September 1980.
Turkey first adopted market reforms, introduced by the IMF and World Bank, following the country’s financial melt-down in 2001, and then continued with reforms within the EU accession framework. Turkey, under AKP rule since 2002, was radically transformed from an underdeveloped economy into an emerging one, with significant industrial and service sectors. It was predominantly urban (75 %) with a substantial middle class of small- to medium-sized enterprises in the major cities and provincial centres. They had access to global markets as exporters of industrial and agricultural products and as investors in mega construction projects, these being activities largely facilitated through government initiatives and foreign policy moves.
Just as important was the attention given to the urban lower middle classes, including former shanty town dwellers around major cities, especially Istanbul. They are now owners of flats in choice locations, with access to new metro lines, all thanks to government initiatives. These groups are also the main beneficiaries of the new universal medical services, together with numerous programmes reaching out to the unemployed, the sick, and the handicapped, among others. They form the central constituency of the AKP party (more than 50% of all voters) and Erdogan delivered more than just ‘Islam’ to them. The economy writ large and the ability to create jobs in mega infrastructure projects , in industry , in agriculture, producing both for export and domestic markets , is central to Erdogan’s and his party’s appeal .
Similarly, Erdogan’s current popularity, following the coup attempt, was crowned by a trip to Russia within a few weeks of it to restore economic relations with that country, including resuming Turkish exports of industrial and agricultural goods, and flow of Russian tourists. Those relations had been interrupted since last November following the downing of a Russian plane by Turkey, which killed two pilots, for violating Turkish air space on the Syrian border. It also cost millions of jobs in Turkey.
The new middle classes also include Kurds, among them migrants to big cities in western Turkey, most importantly, in Istanbul, where a Kurdish bourgeoisie dominates the transport sector. The economic development drive raised Kurdish expectations in eastern and southern Turkey, where infrastructure projects provided employment for Kurdish youth — so joining the PKK WAS no longer the sole chance for employment — and opened investment opportunities for Turkish and Kurdish businessmen.
The government’s policies paid off, with the AKP receiving a good percentage of Kurdish votes in the general elections until the souring of relations between the PKK and the government, the onset of PKK terrorist attacks and flaring of warfare between the PKK and the Turkish army in south-eastern Turkey in July 2015. Economic relations with the northern Iraqi Kurds alienated the Iraqi government in Baghdad, which was backed by the Americans.
Then why the change in perceptions by the West of Erdogan and the AKP? First, Erdogan, flushed with continuous growth trends in the Turkish economy, began harbouring ambitions of establishing Turkey as a regional power, seeking markets for Turkish investors and exports in Africa, in the Middle East, extending aid to the needy and wronged in Somalia, in Gaza seeking to appeal to the down-trodden Muslims of the world.
He also did the unthinkable in the region: he was critical of Israel’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians, a departure from the policies of previous Turkish governments with unconditional loyalties to Israel and to the Western position in the Middle East. Instead, as part of the strategy for becoming a regional power, Erdogan supported the elected Islamist government in Egypt and established economic ties with the Kurdish Autonomous Region in northern Iraq, enlisting the support of its leader, Masoud Barzani, in initiating the peace process with the Kurds in Turkey. The peace process, possibly with the backing of the nascent Kurdish bourgeoisie, was a politically courageous move. In starting it, Erdogan defied nationalist sentiments in Turkey, fed by memories of the painful war with the PKK, which cost 30,000 lives in the 1990s. In creating a public opinion for the process, Erdogan had enlisted the help of the members of the intelligentsia, including some leading secular literati, who went to different parts of Turkey to talk to the people for reactions to the process.
The real game-changer was the Syrian civil war and the increased American involvement in that war with the escalation of terrorist activities ISIS in Europe and the U.S. The Kurdish opening came to an end when the PKK, through its Syrian affiliate, PYD or Democratic Union Party, began to fight for Americans against the ISIS in Syria, reviving hopes for independent Kurdish regions in south-eastern Turkey.
For the Kurdish political party, or HDP, which largely owed its existence to political reforms under the AKP, but which was unable to distance itself from the PKK, ambitions of autonomy overshadowed the more limited targets of securing the rights and well-being of Kurds within Turkey. The party, with the support of large segments of the left, became part of the fierce opposition against Erdogan in the 2014 presidential elections.
The PKK resumed terrorist activities in Turkey in July 2015. This ‘Kurdish offensive’ caused a serious setback in the 2015 elections for Erdogan’s party; the nationalists gained the upper hand. AKP also lost votes to the Kurdish party.
The nationalists blamed Erdogan for being ‘soft’ on the Kurds, which caused him to turn fiercely nationalist and aggressive in countering PKK terrorism, targeting the Kurdish political party and media. Western governments and media had pretty much ignored the Kurdish peace process and the political reforms which enabled the Kurds to freely speak their language and have their own political party, but they were very critical of the Turkish government’s ‘disproportionate’ reactions in the face of Kurdish terrorist attacks, accusing the government of violating human rights and the rule of law, depicting Erdogan as a dictator, an Oriental despot.
Prior to the coup, at the centre of Erdogan’s wrath, stood the Gulenists. He seemed as if possessed by an unhealthy obsession, isolating him even from individuals and groups within his own party. Initially, the AKP was allied with Gulen’s organization, which provided the new government with educated personnel to man the bureaucracy.
What happened? Most dramatically, in 2013, there was a failed attempt at a civilian coup by the judiciary, allegedly loyal to the Gulenist organization, which brought charges of corruption against Erdogan and his family as well as four of his cabinet ministers. The government had earlier closed down the numerous private cram schools which prepared students for state entry examinations to universities, secondary schools and to the bureaucracy as well as the military, and which were run by the Gulen organization and was a primary source of revenue for it. Gulen himself spoke out publicly against Erdogan’s stance on Israel, allying himself with the secular opposition in Turkey in the presidential elections of 2014 in which Erdogan had a landslide victory.
Notwithstanding Erdogan’s pleas to extradite Gulen and draw attention to the Gulenist threat, the U.S. looked the other way and EU officials focused on ISIS and the terrorist attacks in Europe, often finding the Turkish government’s measures against the ISIS lacking. They were critical of Erdogan’s ‘disproportionate’ reactions to PKK terrorist activity in Turkey. Similarly, both the American and European mainstream media’s coverage of terrorist attacks in Turkish cities, either by the PKK, or allegedly, by the ISIS was, at best, lukewarm. (In light of recent disclosures, attacks which were not claimed by ISIS were possibly initiated by the Gulenist organization.) Instead, both the European and American media intensified their attacks on Erdogan on what were termed as human rights violations regarding government measures against Gulenist and Kurdish media and the harsh military action against the PKK, suspecting him of giving support to the ISIS.
The Gulen Affair
The failure of the coup opened a Pandora’s box of Cold War and post-Cold War involvements, the engagements of Turkey’s Western allies, their governments, and their intelligence services both in the Middle Eurasian region and in Turkey, bringing forth a host of yet unresolved questions, not only about such involvements in the past, but about their role in shaping some of the present developments.
Gulen’s personal story was also a saga about the ways the post-war world order was built. He began as an imam or a local prayer leader in a village near Erzurum in eastern Turkey. Allegedly educated by the Turkish intelligence service and the CIA in the 1960s, Gulen formed his own community of followers in Izmir in Western Turkey. His theology was inspired by Saidi Nursi, a 20th century Sunni Islamic modernizer, who, departing from Salafiyya fundamentalism, advocated introducing the teaching of Western sciences in religious schools. Gulenists uphold market economics and dialogue among civilizations, calling their community an Alliance of Shared Values, advocating the takeover of state power to achieve their ends. In fact, Gulen in the numerous publications, seminars, conferences held in the U.S. and elsewhere, is presented as a religious leader, a messiah, transcending all religions and recognised and respected by all. (He has paid visits to the Pope and other religious leaders.) At issue has been the making of a New Age Prophet, a modern-day caliph with the very practical agenda of promoting a world order under the leadership of the U.S.
After 1976, commanding large resources, the extent of which is not known, but largely deriving from contributions from followers among whom are many wealthy businessmen, the Gulen movement focused its activities on education — kindergarden to university — establishing over 1,000 schools worldwide, with as many as 300 schools in Turkey alone. It also controlled a number of universities and a network of institutions that prepared students for state exams. These institutions were established in 160 countries, including non-Muslim ones, such as Bolivia and Columbia in South America. Gulenist schools made their debut in post-Communist Central Asian republics and in the Russian federation where, with a reputation for teaching applied maths and sciences, they established firm ties with the elites educating their children. In 2006, Putin, uneasy about their activities, closed these schools in Russia.
The movement also controls around 130 charter schools in the U.S., 36 of them being in Texas alone. That the movement’s charter schools flourished in the U.S. where everything Islamist drew open animosity is noteworthy. Equally significant are circumspect references to the Gulen movement in the U.S., almost protecting them from such animosity by describing the movement as Sufi or Turkish.
It is important to draw attention to the very practical, rational side of the Gulen organization and not view it as yet another fanatic religious order. In return for their absolute loyalty and contributions, the organization provides its followers access to a good education, giving them skills in maths and sciences, compatible with requirements of the present global economy. But just as significant is the organization’s access to networks in the bureaucracy, in the military, in politics and in the business world, to which it offers its followers entrée. It excels in the building of such networks, be it through penetration of state institutions by stealing exam questions and passing the answers to their followers, through access to elites in different countries via their schools, through their social and cultural work of organizing seminars and conferences, and inviting the elite and rewarding them for their attendance. Gulen’s personal contact with heads of state and world religious leaders is central to this network-building process. At issue is the making of an alternate order of networks, global and close-knit, with the ability to provide its members opportunities. These networks, the local intersecting with the global, endow the organization with the power to direct the actions of individuals and employ them in the service of the organization, thereby serving its purposes. Such a mobilization of networks in the military, bureaucracy, the business world, all with their global extensions, appears to be what was attempted in Turkey in July 2016, but which was somewhat short-circuited.
At the moment, Erdogan seems to have won, with the violence of the coup vindicating his worst fears about the Gulen organisation and adopting a defiant tone vis-a-vis the West. The latter has not been supportive of its ‘most important strategic ally’ in the Middle East in its hour of need, and is presently reluctant to extradite Gulen, simply worrying that current purges , especially of army high command, are weakening one of the strongest armies of NATO in its southern flank.
Yet, it is not likely that Turkey will distance itself from the West though it is a sore spot: it has been ‘waiting at the door of’ Europe’ for admittance to membership for 50 or so years. Europe is Turkey’s most important export market and it shares with Europe and the U.S. a long history of financial, political, and military entanglements, including its membership in the NATO alliance.
The current rapprochement with Russia, and Putin presenting himself as a friend in times of need, need not indicate a sharp turn to the East. Even during the Cold War, Turkey, a member of the Western alliance, had close economic relations with the then Soviet Union. The present resumption of relations after a brief interruption is simply going back to business as usual.
Erdogan will, however, try to use the renewed relations with Russia and the present favourable tide in domestic politics to push forward European membership, at least for visa-free travel in the EU for Turkish citizens. Turkey’s economy is too big and the stakes in economic and political relations with Europe and the U.S. are too high for a radical shift to take place in its position in the global economy and politics. As fiery as Erdogan may be in reproaching Europe and the U.S., he is not a third- world nationalist nor a xenophobe to be swayed by immediate emotional reactions. His own political survival depends on his ability to steer the economy in ways that it may deliver to his constituency of middle classes. He would not risk any moves that would provoke negative turns against the Turkish economy in global markets, for instance, occasioning interrupted credit or capital flows or provoking sanctions on exports.
Similarly, speaking for the down-trodden of the world, Erdogan’s tone has always been more inclusionary than exclusionary — his is a discourse for the inclusion of Muslims and the poor in the enchanted sphere of the market economy.
This does not mean that Erdogan may not use his newly-acquired confidence to explore new markets for Turkish investors in non-European markets, such as India and China, both of which Turkey neglected in its focus on EU. This will be more out of necessity to diversify market outlets than out of a knee-jerk reaction. The Turkish economy suffered heavily for its dependence on European and Middle Eastern export markets when these were hit by economic and political crises, respectively.
Moreover, Turkey may find in the ‘East’ partners more sympathetic to its struggle for democracy, for inclusionary politics in government. It implies addressing the tensions of achieving economic growth while ensuring an equitable distribution of the fruits of that growth in the global market and calling for effective government, decision-making, and initiative. The model of government in global market economies, proposed by the West, has been one based on a politics of exclusion, which has kept large segments of populations from having a voice in who governed them or who made decisions regarding their livelihoods, be they governments, market experts, or security or military regimes.
Painful experiences, both in the Middle East, following Iraq’s occupation by Western coalition forces in 2003 and in post-crisis EU, point to the bankruptcy of this model of exclusionary politics and reveals serious democracy deficits. Yet societal forces in various forms and extremes — Trump followers in the U.S., Brexit voters in Great Britain, right wing movements in Europe, the on-going civil wars and terrorism in the Middle East — find ways of expressing themselves or taking action against what they perceive to be threats to their fundamental right to a living, to survival.
The resistance of ordinary people in Turkey is a struggle against the prospect of being governed by actors with dubious global agendas; they want to assert the priority of their choices in determining who governs them. And this is what the West seems to be missing. It has been snubbing or ignoring their struggles for democracy, for inclusion in decisions on who rules them. It seemingly prefers non-democratic forms of government in Turkey that are possibly more pliant to Western concerns in the region.
Huricihan Islamoglu is a Professor of Economic History at Bogazici University, Istanbul, Turkey and a Senior Fellow, Institut d’Etudes Avancee de Nantes, Nantes, France.
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