If you spend some time in Turkey’s prolific Twitter universe these days, you will likely read lots of messages about the “spies” in the country.
You will also notice that this narrative has two diametrically opposed versions. Some Turks seriously believe that their state has been deeply infiltrated by spies who work on behalf of Israel. Others believe that the same treason has been carried out by spies who instead work on behalf of Iran. If you pay attention, you will also see that the subscribers to the first conspiracy theory are supporters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the subscribers to the second are supporters of the US-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.
In other words, the political war between the Erdogan government and the Gülen Movement, who were once allies, has a propaganda side as well. Among other things, it has both sides seeing each other as a proxy of a detested enemy: Israel or Iran.
The detention of dozens of police officers that shook the country during the final days of Ramadan only added fuel to these conflicting claims of conspiracy. (Most of the detained officers, who are widely believed to be affiliated with the Gülen Movement, were released after a weeklong interrogation, but 11 of them were held for trial while in custody.)
According to some of the details that leaked to the press, these officers were charged with wiretapping some 251 Turkish citizens on the suspicion that they were members of a pro-Iranian terrorist group called Tawhid-Salam. But journalists point out that many names on the wiretap list — such as journalists, businessmen and, most importantly, advisors to Erdogan and other ministers — could not possibly have been imagined as a pro-Iranian terrorists. The police officers, therefore, were then accused of wiretapping people on the pretext of imaginary or exaggerated threats. (See the pro-government Daily Sabah’s story: “Court arrests more Gülenist police officers for espionage.”)
In response, the police officers in question and their supporters are emphasizing the authenticity of the covert Iranian threat. One of the arrested officers, former Istanbul Police Department Intelligence Bureau chief Ali Fuat Yilmazer, spoke to the press about this shadowy “Tawhid-Salam” group, defining it as “the stealthiest and the most dangerous terrorist organization of recent times Turkey has ever faced.” (Notably it was Today’s Zaman, a paper with clear pro-Gülen sympathies, that highlighted this story.) Today’s Zaman also printed another story last week, quoting a former interior minister saying, “Tawhid-Salam is a real organization, not fictional.”
This focus on the Iranian hidden hand in Turkey, real or imagined, fits into the larger narrative we have also seen in the pro-Gülen press about the government since last December, when the Erdogan-Gülen war broke out. The presence of the covert gold-for-oil deal with Iran, along with the role of Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab in the corruption scandal that led to the resignation of four ministers in Erdogan’s cabinet, was interpreted in the pro-Gülen media as evidence of pro-Iranian treachery within government circles. It was even rumored that some government members had engaged in “mut’ah marriage,” which is allowed in Shite Islam but despised by most Sunnis as legalized prostitution, as an additional evidence of the Iranian connection.
While this narrative is quite dominant among the pro-Gülen commentators, the anti-Gülen (i.e., pro-Erdogan) ones are similarly eager to explain the Gülen Movement as nothing but a Zionist mouthpiece. That Gülen distanced himself from the deadly Gaza Flotilla of May 2010, that his movement has a “dialogue” effort with Jewish organizations, and even that Gülen has been based in the United States since 1998 were taken as enough evidence that the Gülen community, Turkey’s largest Islamic group, was in fact a “subcontractor” for Israel’s global and regional schemes which has selected Erdogan as its target.
That is why the policemen who were detained last week were accused of “espionage.” The prosecutor has not fully disclosed the nature of this claim, but the common allegation in the pro-Erdogan media is that these policemen and their larger network — the “parallel state” — were wiretapping large numbers of Turks for allegedly sharing information with Israel. While there apparently is no single shred of evidence for this Israeli connection, many pro-Erdogan commentators simply take it for granted.
In my opinion, these wild claims make it clear that the supporters of Erdogan and Gülen, who defeated the old establishment together, engaged in an increasingly bitter power struggle in the past two years. It also seems clear that the power struggle has a covert side, which involves some confrontation within Turkey’s security (especially intelligence) services. It is also true that the Gülen Movement is relatively more pro-Western and less anti-Israel in its political rhetoric, compared to Erdogan’s ummah-oriented Islamist narrative, which is less alarmist about Iran.
Yet none of this proves any foreign conspiracy, whether from Iran or Israel. It is much more reasonable to assume that neither the Erdogan government nor the Gülen Movement act as “pawns” of some third party, but rather as actors in and of themselves, with conflicting views, values and interests. It is just that Turks love conspiracy theories, and prefer demonizing their opponents as puppets of darker forces. By doing so, however, they are only feeding their own zeal, and making the much-needed national reconciliation much harder to achieve.