Erdoğan’s overarching purge is not a road accident

Dr. Ismail Sezgin

The Economist recently published an article entitled “Fethullah Gulen shares blame for Turkey’s plight” about Turkey, Erdoğan, and Gulen, in which it argues “no one helped him [Erdoğan] cripple Turkey’s democracy more than Mr Gulen and his sect [the Hizmet Movement].”

As the co-director of the London-based Centre for Hizmet Studies, and also a part-time Research Assistant at Regents Park College, Oxford University, where I follow all Gülen/Hizmet related publications as part of a project to produce an annotated bibliography on Gülen/Hizmet, this article interests me professionally.

It is heartbreaking to witness Turkey, a country with so much potential, collapsing into authoritarianism. So, I’d personally like to thank the Economist for its concern for Turkey’s democracy and its future. Undoubtedly, the responsibility for the demise of Turkey’s already fragile democracy rests on many shoulders, and the Hizmet Movement is no exception; however, the arguments and assumptions in the article do not portray this responsibility either objectively or fairly.

In citing examples of how Gülen and the Movement helped Erdoğan “cripple Turkey’s democracy”, and how Gülenists played “a big part” in the July 15 coup attempt, the author is convinced that the public officials who were allegedly responsible for the arrests of “thousands of Kurdish activists, army officers, secular types and journalists” and those who took part in the coup attempt, were solely acting on their Gülenist convictions — whether to serve the Movement’s own political agenda, or to obey a direct order from Gülen. Each case cited by the article requires a separate discussion of its own. However, assuming that the existence of a Gülenist conviction is possible, why doesn’t the article apply the same lines of argument to those cases that contradict its arguments?

Firstly, the author ignores how coups have taken place in Turkey in the past. While some participants from the Hizmet Movement said, in the aftermath of the coup attempt, that “Gülenist” people — like others — may have been involved in the coup, it was never a statement of a fact, nor was it based on extensive investigation. It was an attempt simply to entertain the possibility that, given how a coup is usually attempted by an army, it was likely that Gülen supporters — like others — may have been involved in the coup as mere soldiers, not necessarily from their “Gülenist” motivations. They expected, as did many people, including Turkey’s Western allies, that the Turkish government would conduct an effective investigation into the coup attempt and bring those responsible to justice, regardless of their affiliations and motivations. Unfortunately, President Erdoğan accused the Movement of plotting the coup on the very night that the coup was taking place, and the investigation into the coup has turned into the persecution of the alleged members of the Movement, regardless of any actual wrongdoing on their parts, an important detail which I am happy to see that the article also highlights.

Secondly, the author claims that “…there is no doubt that the Gülenists played a big part. At least some of the officers who directed the violence turned out to be graduates of the Gülen system”. It would be nice to see how the article could particularise its conclusion that “the Gülenists played a big part”, and give the names of those “officers who directed the violence”, so that their accounts could be checked and verified. More importantly, however, there are many cases  where army officials, who were later arrested for allegedly being Gülenists, fought against the coup attempt and prevented the mobilisation of army cadets under their command, protected Erdoğan and flew him to Istanbul, clashed with the putschists and were injured. According to the Turkish Armed Forces’ own statement, on the night of the coup, there were 8,651 personnel on the street. 2,890 of them were cadets, which suggests that they were most likely ordered to take it to the street. It is also clear that all the remaining officials were not Gülenists, which was also noted in the article. The government purged almost 15,000 army officials, almost ten thousand of whom did not take part in the coup. This is in addition to the fact that there was no police participation in the coup attempt. 31,000 police officers were later purged by the government. This is particularly important given the general perception of an overwhelmingly Gülenist presence in the police, which the author also seems to believe, saying that “By one estimate, Gülenists held 30% of top jobs in the judiciary and 50% in the police”. If we follow the author’s logic, above, why is the author not convinced that these army officials and police officers might also have acted from their Gülenist convictions when they acted against the coup attempt? If the presence of some allegedly Gülenist army officials in the coup attempt is enough to hold the Movement and Gülen culpable, to some extent, the cases that suggest otherwise should surely be noted as demonstrating the plausibility of their innocence.

Thirdly, by insinuating on the way in which a Hizmet person would only act within their professional capacity, the article essentialises the issue and sees a Gülenist conviction as the sole explanation for the alleged failures or wrongdoings of Gülenist public officials in upholding fundamental human rights, for example, in relation to the Kurdish question. More importantly, he doesn’t recognise the agency of a Gülenist in conducting their profession — both in a good and bad way — but ignores the systematic shortcomings in the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms in Turkey. For example, has there ever been a time in Turkey’s modern history when Kurds’ rights were categorically recognised and their freedoms protected? The answer is “no”. This is not to obfuscate the Movement’s, or a Hizmet person’s, responsibility in any way, but to recognise that the Kurdish question is Turkey’s single most important issue, having implications for almost every aspect of its democracy and the state of its human rights. The presence and absence of a particular person, group or ideology in the state bureaucracy unfortunately has a limited impact on the progress towards Kurds’ rights, not least because Turkish nationalism is deeply ingrained in society, and the Movement is also thus affected. We could, therefore, only speak in relative terms by comparing different periods of Kurdish rights in order to understand whether any particular period is better or worse than another. Otherwise, all we have in the context of the Kurdish question is a big failure, in every sense of the word. As per the article’s argument, if we are also then convinced that the Movement has had a direct impact on how the Kurdish question and the so-called peace process have progressed, the question is how would this period compare to the ‘90s, and more recent years, but, more specifically, has there ever been a policy or law that the AKP government wanted to implement in order to recognise the Kurds’ rights in a meaningful way, but which the Movement chose to oppose?

The Movement could, and should, surely have done much more in relation to the Kurdish issue and the advancement of fundamental rights and freedoms in Turkey. However, seeking a Gülenist conspiracy in every shortcoming or wrongdoing of Turkey’s justice system is unhelpful, since, if we really follow this logic, how do we then explain Turkey’s last seven years, when human rights violations of any kind have become not only possible, but also increasingly regular? We can’t possibly argue that those officials — police officers, judges, prosecutors, etc., — whose decisions and actions cause these human rights’ violations, are all hardcore Islamists and Erdoğan supporters. Should we really rely on these officials’ religious or secular inclinations and social or cultural traits to explain why they act in a particular way? It is clear that this not only hinders the possibility of identifying the underlying issues that affect the wider society, but also dislocates the responsibility of the political actors.

Fourthly, the article, perhaps inadvertently, parrots the Kemalist narrative of “they are everywhere” by exaggerating the Hizmet people’s presence, power and influence in the state bureaucracy, albeit by successfully avoiding the use of the term “infiltration” to describe those Gülenists in the state bureaucracy. This argument exemplifies the pretence behind the ongoing persecution of Hizmet participants by the Turkish government “to restore law and order”, and incriminates Hizmet participants, attributing malevolence to their very existence in the state bureaucracy, regardless of any actual wrong-doings on their part. However, the way in which the allegation of infiltration is formulated, and its historical context, also explain both the ideological and social fault lines in Turkish society, as well as the arbitrary social hierarchies.

The Turkish Republic’s modernisation policies, in its initial years, resulted in ideological and social fault lines and deep social divisions in society due to the reimagining of the newly founded state as a monolithic nation state, in terms of its religious beliefs, ethnicity and language. The new Republic’s secularist and monolithic policies discriminated against linguistic, ethnic and religious minorities, and adamantly punished the public manifestation of identity of any kind that was outside the state’s secular and Turkish nationalist perception of a modern society. The transformative, yet totalitarian, policies of the new Republic created arbitrary social hierarchies in which some were entitled to enjoy more rights at the expense of those from an unfavoured  identity group in the eyes of the state, such as Kurds, Alevis, non-Muslim minorities, or religiously observant and socially mobilised Muslims.

The projection of Turkey in this way as being a modern secular nation state, and the privileged position of certain ideological convictions that arises out of this projection, inadvertently led to the creation of “gatekeepers” in Turkish society. A self-entitlement to the enjoyment of rights and freedoms emerged among those who supported the Republic’s modernisation project and who considered those who belonged to the unfavoured identity groups who are unworthy of holding important positions in the state bureaucracy. This has manifested itself in the enjoyment of fundamental human rights and freedoms, where some were entitled to enjoy more rights than others.

In fact, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party’s (the AKP) rise to power in 2002, and its subsequent success in elections, is often partly attributed to the ongoing support of those who were alienated by the state and were then mobilised due to the party’s promise to undo the legal and political barriers that the modern Republic’s modernisation project had set for them. Published in the August 6th, 2011 edition, the Economist described the AKP’s rise to power and its increasing popularity thus:

When AK [The Justice and Development Party] won power in 2002 the generals and their allies continued to hound him [Erdoğan]. They allegedly cooked up coup plans, including the bombing of mosques and murder of Christians. With AK becoming ever more popular, prosecutors sought to ban the party on thin charges that it was trying to impose religious rule. Such intrigues only added to Mr Erdogan’s popularity. In June, riding on a wave of sustained economic growth, democratic reforms and mounting global prestige, AK won a third term in government, winning a record 50% of the vote. (Emphasis added)

It is also important to underline that Turkey’s ideological discontent with a Muslim identity was not necessarily related to Islam or Muslimness; rather, it was with religious groups that had practices and an understanding of Muslimness that encouraged participants to become religiously observant and socially mobilised. It is, therefore, not surprising that firstly Fethullah Gülen, and later the Movement, have been perceived as a threat by the Turkish state since the ‘70s, long before the AKP, or any actual presence of Gülenists in the state bureaucracy.

Erdoğan conveniently used this already accumulated suspicion and mistrust against the Movement, firstly to persecute thousands of Hizmet participants, since December, 2013, and then to denounce the Hizmet Movement as a terror organisation in May, 2016, and, finally, to undertake a relentless purge from July 15, 2016, in the aftermath of the coup attempt. It is thus quite astonishing to witness the article lending an unquestioned legitimacy to Erdoğan’s purge by the following:

No one, however, is worse placed to preach about the dangers of Gülenism than Mr Erdogan, whose government was once joined at the hip with the movement. By locking up everyone linked to it, including lawyers, teachers and charity workers, Mr Erdogan has ditched the rule of law in favour of a vendetta. He has not helped his case by accusing nearly all of his other opponents of treason or terror.

The article appears to be so convinced of the regime’s legitimacy, if not of the necessity of a Gülenist purge, that it treats Erdoğan’s overarching purge as if it were a road accident and does not entertain the possibility that this was perhaps Erdoğan’s case all along. He has ditched the rule of law in favour of a vendetta because this was the only way to persecute Gülenists. Otherwise, how could you punish someone in the absence of an actual crime being committed, which is, by and large, the case in the Gulenist purge?

Some will, perhaps, think that I am being melodramatic and am exaggerating the impact of the Gülenist purge. If so, consider the following quotation in April, 2013, from the then AKP Istanbul Provincial Organisation’s Chairman, Aziz Babuşçu, and compare his depiction of the AKP’s new Turkey at the time with today’s Turkey, in order to see if his description has proved to be accurate:

Those who were partners with us in one way or another during our ten-year period of government will not be partners with us during the next ten years. The future is a period of construction. The construction period will not be to their liking. Therefore, those partners will not be with us. Those who walked together with us yesterday in one way or the other, tomorrow will be partners with the forces that are against us. Because the future that will be constructed, and the Turkey that will be built, will not be a future and a period which they will accept.[1]

Erdoğan has successfully operationalised “the dangers of Gülenism” narrative and has, step by step, realised his vision of a new Turkey with the help of those who have inadvertently or willingly subscribed to his narrative. The purge of the Hizmet Movement is what the Kurdish question was to Kemalism, a necessary tool with which to construct a new national identity, a tool to silence those who question it, and to design a social and political system that will foster it. Unfortunately, Turkey has no chance of going back, even to its fragile and dysfunctional democracy, without this narrative being completely rejected.

Dr Ismail Mesut Sezgin, born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey was awarded his PhD at Leeds Beckett University on the subject of Moral Responsibility in Contemporary Islam. He is a research assistant in Religion and Society, Regent’s Park College, Oxford and a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility at Leeds Business School. Dr Sezgin’s research expertise and interests in relation to political Islam, extremism, ethics and religious movements (the Hizmet Movement in particular) have led to him speaking at conferences internationally and offering comment and interviews on various media platforms, including the BBC’s Hardtalk.

[1] Özbudun, E. (2014), ‘AKP at the Crossroads: Erdoğan’s Majoritarian Drift’, South European Society and Politics 19 (2), 155-167.
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