Turkey Pulse

Gulen community should return to civil society

Article Summary
The Gulen community should acknowledge that its strategy of building cadres within the state has backfired, jeopardizing the very realm of civil society this strategy intended to safeguard.

Turkey’s judiciary held controversial elections Oct. 12 to determine the new members of the Higher Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK). The main issue of discussion before and after the elections was the number of “Gulenist candidates.” Newspapers claimed ahead of the election that out of 15,000 judges and prosecutors 3,000 to 5,000 were Gulenists. After the vote we were told that “only two Gulenists got elected to the HSYK” and front-page headlines trumpeted “the defeat of the community.”

The “defeat” may have upset many members and sympathizers of the community, led by Muslim scholar and preacher Fethullah Gulen, but if they try to see the issue from another perspective they will realize that the cloud has a big silver lining. Because any perception of the community wielding disproportionate clout in the judiciary is harmful both to the community itself and Turkish democracy.

Let’s first recall how we got here. The Turkish public became widely acquainted with the Gulen community in the 1990s, though its roots date back to the 1970s. The community won a reputation as a civil society movement running highly successful schools both in Turkey and abroad and promoting intercommunal tolerance, dialogue and understanding. Teachers, community volunteers and pro-dialogue activists were the movement’s embodiment in public perception at the time.

However, a new perception — of “Gulenist prosecutors and police” — emerged in the mid-2000s. Those cadres, backed robustly by Gulenist media, spearheaded the landmark Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases in what they clearly saw as an epic struggle to dismantle the Turkish military’s tutelage. What they achieved in terms of “touching the untouchables” was indeed remarkable. Yet, as the cases proceeded, they became increasingly marred by excesses, legal breaches and even allegations of fabricated evidence, which damaged not only the credibility of the trials but the image of the Gulen community as well.

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Still, in the period from 2007 to 2011, the Gulen community and the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) government jointly dismantled the military tutelage. Then a period of tension and ultimately confrontation began between the two. The Dec. 17 and Dec. 25 corruption probes last year marked a major breaking point. It was obvious that the government had a big bag of dirty laundry, which was exposed as the conflict heated up. To cover it up, the government claimed to be the victim of a “conspiracy” and fingered the Gulen community as the culprit. Moreover, it started an unprecedented hate campaign against the same community.

I’m pretty much convinced that many of the claims voiced in this campaign are nothing but unfair accusations and slanders. To say the least, I give no credit to AKP propaganda that the Gulen community is a “subcontractor” or a “gang of traitors” in the service of the United States and Israel, just as I gave no credit to neo-nationalist propaganda in earlier years that the AKP was a stooge of Zionism.

However, the existence of “Gulenist cadres” in the judiciary and police who, to say the least, are biased in performing their duties (or in other words stick obstinately to ideological attitudes on certain issues) is now a quite clear fact. The more this fact is denied, the more it sticks out and stokes suspicions.

Thus I believe the Gulen community has reached a stage where it has to make a strategic decision. Will it continue fighting to preserve its establishment in the judiciary and the police? For instance, will it still strive to “win” the next HSYK elections? Or will it put an end to its “state within state” image that has preoccupied Turkey in the past eight years and make efforts to redeem its reputation as a movement devoted to education, community service and dialogue?

To me, the second option is the right one — both for the community itself and Turkish democracy.

That is the case, because the claim that the community has built a “parallel state” within the police and the judiciary, no matter how overblown this may be, is destroying the community’s civic image and demonizing it in the eyes of various sections of Turkish society. The government, meanwhile, is seeking to make the best of the “demon,” arguing that we are faced with “an extraordinary threat” to justify its authoritarian practices and disregard for the law.

It seems highly probable that by building cadres in the bureaucracy, especially in the police and the judiciary, the Gulen community sought to safeguard its civil realm. This, in fact, was quite an understandable strategy, given Turkey’s political tradition where the heavy-handed state has refused to recognize any autonomous space for civil society. No wonder, the ensuing logic, “If the state dominates everything, then we should win clout within the state” was entertained not only by Gulenists but many other quarters in Turkey.

However, the Gulen community today must acknowledge that its strategy has backfired and proved counterproductive, jeopardizing the very civil society realm it intended to “safeguard.” As part of the war within the state, the community’s schools, tutoring halls, boarding houses, companies and bank have become a target for the government. There is no doubt that this all-out offensive by the government against the community is unfair and unlawful. Yet there is also no doubt that this is a political price that one pays in a country with no semblance of a rule of law, still governed by the law of the jungle.

In sum, if the Gulen community moves to close the chapter of the “parallel state” as the government calls it by sending out a convincing message that it seeks no clout in the police, the judiciary or any other institution and only aims to maintain its services in the civil realm, it will do the best service to itself and Turkey. Then we can defend this civil realm all together against the tyranny of the state. The overall struggle for rule of law and democracy in Turkey will be the community's safeguard. Meanwhile the government, stripped of the “parallel threat” narrative, will find it harder to come up with pretexts for its growing authoritarianism.

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Found in: turkey, security, religion in turkish politics, politics, police, gulen movement

Mustafa Akyol is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse, a columnist for the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News and a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times. His articles have also appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. He is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for LibertyAkyol is currently a visting senior fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College. On Twitter: @AkyolinEnglish

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