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Closing Turkey’s Erdogan-Gulen divide 20 janvier 2014

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Straits Times (Singapore) January 20, 2014, p. A 19

Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

A clash between two Turkish leaders over the role of Islam in the life of the nation has far-reaching implications.

Fresh from a recent Asian tour which included Singapore, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will arrive in Brussels tomorrow for talks with European Union (EU) leaders about the crisis in the Middle East.

However, EU chiefs are likely to raise another subject: Mr Erdogan’s recent purge of Turkish policemen who tried to investigate allegations of corruption in his inner circle. While European leaders are likely to be critical of Mr Erdogan’s actions, there is an awareness that the battle inside Turkey is not just about good governance, but about the very nature of political Islam. It is a battle which no longer concerns just the Turks, for it may influence politics in many other Muslim countries around the world.

The return of Islam as a political force, almost a century after it was relegated to the sidelines and almost banished by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, was accomplished by two distinct popular movements. Neither found the process easy, and both succeeded only when they joined forces.

The first movement was led by successive generations of marginalised Turkish activists, all seeking to win power for the banner of Islam through the ballot box. They invariably failed in challenging an almost hermetically sealed political system in which the all-powerful military, the judiciary and the business elite remained resolutely secular.

And even if some Islamists succeeded in gaining power, they were swiftly removed by the military or by the courts in the sort of « creeping coups » for which Thailand is equally famous. Most Islamist politicians ended up ignored or jailed; that is the tradition from which Mr Erdogan and his AKP ruling party come.

The other Islamic trend in Turkey is more spiritual than confrontational. It believes that Turkey’s secular system is not necessarily anti-religious, and that the faithful can still protect and promote religious values by concentrating on good deeds, on helping the poor and the helpless. The chief proponent of this approach is Mr Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic scholar now living in self-imposed exile in the United States, a man who combines a fearsome intellect with a steely determination.

Mr Erdogan’s AKP movement succeeded in winning power and, more importantly, in holding onto it since 2002, largely because, for the first time in the history of modern Turkey, these two Islamic trends united.

The AKP concentrated on delivering good governance, something no previous Islamic party ever thought necessary. And Mr Gulen’s movement focused on getting its supporters into the judiciary and the police, the only state institutions which were relatively open to « outsiders ». The result was that the police acted as a counter-balance to the military, shielding the government from the traditional coups.

Yet, the real glue to the alliance between Mr Erdogan and Mr Gulen was the fact that they were not only promoting a religious revival, but also a social revolution, pitting the bulk of Turkey’s rural population against the urban, secular and wealthy elite.

The Erdogan-Gulen split

TURKEY’S political experiment proved a huge success. Mr Erdogan’s government tripled Turkey’s per capita gross domestic product in one decade; the « sick man of Europe », as the country used to be known, is now the world’s 16th biggest economy. And, instead of forcing religion down the throats of his people as many feared, he left most of Turkey’s secular institutions untouched. Confounding his critics, he even retained the official cult of Kemal Ataturk, the father of the secular state, whose outsized portraits continue to adorn public buildings.

Mr Erdogan, who won three consecutive elections, each with bigger margins, became a symbol for a brand of Islam, one which refuted the claim that there is some inherent conflict between faith and modernity.

Given such achievements, why is the Erdogan system fraying now? The Prime Minister is largely a victim of his own success: His tough, uncompromising style may have been useful when he first came to power after decades of indecisive governments, but is now a liability as he faces the inevitable backlash which every long-serving politician has to contend with.

He could have responded to the large demonstrations which erupted last May in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, by offering concessions; the demonstrators wanted only the cancellation of the planned construction of a shopping mall in a public park.

Instead, Mr Erdogan sent in the police for a week-long violent battle with the protesters. That was a disaster, scuppering Istanbul’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics and creating the first major split between his government and the Gulen movement.

But the biggest reason for the confrontation between Mr Erdogan and Mr Gulen are their competing views on the role of Islam in the life of the nation. Instinctively, one is tempted to assume that a preacher like Mr Gulen would be more unbending on such matters, insisting that Islam should trump all other considerations, while a politician like Mr Erdogan who ducked and dived for decades would be more flexible.

In Turkey, however, these roles are reversed: While the Gulen movement focuses more on a social revival and morality, Mr Erdogan and his party support what in Turkey is known as the « national view », an explicitly political version of the faith with pronounced anti-Western, pan-Islamic views.

These differences matter particularly now because Mr Erdogan has started injecting religious notions into the same secular national institutions he previously pledged to respect.

Clashes over policies

The government is proposing to segregate men and women university halls of residence to stop « immorality ». And it is also planning to hit at the 1,000 schools run by the Gulen movement in Turkey, which teach largely science subjects and have an excellent record of preparing Turkish youngsters for university entrance exams.

This infuriates Mr Gulen, who frequently claims that nobody should have the right to coerce people into believing, that 95 per cent of all Islamic beliefs are permissible and feasible within the existing Turkish secular state, and that the remaining 5 per cent are not worth fighting for.

The clash is equally acute over Turkey’s foreign policy, another area where the role of Islam is hotly disputed.

Mr Erdogan believes that the Turkish brand of Islam must be exported to other nations, and that Turkey should resume the historic role it enjoyed during the times of the Ottoman empire as the Muslim world’s leader. But Mr Gulen claims that such foreign policy adventures are not only likely to fail, but also constitute unnecessary diversions from the government’s real task, which is to create a solid, prosperous and God-fearing society at home.

As a wave of revolutions erupted in the Middle East, Mr Erdogan initially seemed vindicated: Almost every Arab revolutionary claimed to follow the Turkish model. But ultimately, it was Mr Gulen who was proven right.

Turkey’s incessant preaching started grating with Arabs, all of whom still resent Turkey’s colonial past. Mr Erdogan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was a disaster: Turkey’s ambassador was kicked out when the Egyptian military overthrew the Brotherhood.

Champion of Muslim cause

MR ERDOGAN’S determination to champion the Muslim cause worldwide also pushed him into repeated confrontations with Israel, isolated Turkey within the US-led Nato military alliance and embroiled the Turks in a dispute with China after Mr Erdogan accused the Chinese government of « genocide » against its Muslims in Xinjiang.

Mr Gulen and his supporters point out that all these actions have done nothing for Turkey’s national interests, a criticism which is now shared even by Mr Abdullah Gul, the Turkish President who also belongs to the AKP ruling party, and who publicly called last week for a « recalibration » of his country’s foreign policy.

In a pointed rebuke to the government’s claims that by championing the cause of Muslims, Turkey is gaining « strategic depth », President Gul retorted that « strategy is for amateurs; logistics is for professionals ».

The confrontation could not have come at a worse time for the government. For the Prime Minister wants to change the Turkish Constitution in order to make the presidency the most important position in the land, a post he is eyeing for himself later on this year.

Without the support of the Gulen movement, which numbers more than two million supporters, controls media networks and is highly disciplined, it is difficult to see how that can be accomplished. For once, it is Mr Erdogan who has to contemplate concessions.

Fundamentally, this is not just a debate about who rules a country, but a fight over whether political Islam should be a national preference, applied within one country and adapted to that nation’s peculiarities as Mr Gulen sees it, or whether it is a universal idea similar to an ideology, and should therefore be exported from one Muslim nation to another. That is a question that has implications well beyond Turkey’s borders.

Turkey has already succeeded in breaking the usual stereotypes in this debate. Mr Erdogan has proven that it is possible to combine faith with technological progress. Mr Gulen has proven that it is feasible to be both deeply religious and moderate.

It is now up to these two Turkish leaders to take the final step by proving that they are also capable of resolving fundamental differences peacefully.


1. HumanBeing - 21 janvier 2014

I am sorry to say so but the author seems to miss various points, especially since he claims that « Mr. Erdogan (…) even retained the official cult of Kemal Atatürk ».
Since Erdogan has become Turkey’s Prime Minister his goal was pretty clear. It was to separate Turkey and to follow an Iranian way of leadership, while being open for corruption (As seen since December 17th and the following weeks).

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