Last week during a TV interview, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he had complained to President Barack Obama about Fethullah Gulen in phone conversation. Erdogan added that Obama had responded favorably.
The White House retorted in unusual language, telling journalists: "The response attributed to President Obama is not accurate.”
I am amazed how naive our government can be. As far as I understand, they are not aware of how fast their image is collapsing and how the United States handles such issues. Let me explain:
Obviously from the beginning Washington didn’t want to get involved in the tensions between the AKP [Justice and Development Party] government and the Gulen movement [Cemaat]. This is why there was an instant stern reaction to Erdogan’s remarks targeting US Ambassador to Ankara Francis Ricciardone, along with the behind the scenes message saying, "Don’t get us involved in your internal squabbles."
I don’t believe that the United States takes a side in this fight. On the one hand there is the Gulen movement's strong civil society network that extends all the way to Washington, and on the other there are the deeply rooted, institutional ties with the legitimate Turkish government. Instead of taking sides, the United States prefers to watch the fight from the sidelines.
To request Gulen’s deportation to Turkey means asking the United States to take sides. This is not practically or politically feasible. Those who know a little about the United States know that the country was established by clerics and religious people who had escaped from European political oppression. This explains why US politics is sensitive to religious and political freedoms.
Erdogan’s style of approach to Gulen and the judicial process he has initiated against him has not endangered Gulen's position in the US, but rather reinforced it. Erdogan’s threatening narrative against Cemaat and his demand for the extradition of the religious leader of Cemaat has the potential of automatically branding Gulen, in American eyes, as an internationally wronged victim equal to the Dalai Lama or Li Hongzhi, the leader of the Falun Gong sect that the Chinese Communist Party has been fighting against for years.
Faced with such an offensive, neither the existing US legislation, nor Congress, nor Obama, nor administrations to come will allow the deportation of Fethullah Gulen. As long as Erdogan maintains his offensive, Gulen is safe.
Fine, but what happens should the accusations of [building a] "parallel state" against Gulen become a concrete judicial process? What if coordination is exposed among some prosecutors and police chiefs close to Cemaat and their relations with Pennsylvania [Gulen's residence] is established?
At that time, judicial mechanisms will enter the picture, but I still don’t think it will result in Gulen’s deportation to turkey. Let me say this: As long as you can’t prove that Gulen is planning a suicide bombing attack from his room in Pennsylvania, nothing will change.
Why not? Several reasons. First of all what we have is a political conflict. There is no terror crime. In his talk with Obama, Erdogan reminded him that the United States from time to time requests extradition of some figures from Turkey. But all these are al-Qaeda related issues.
In the eyes of the West, the Gulen movement, just like the AKP, is an Islamic model that must be supported as an alternative to al-Qaeda. An American congressman years ago had simplified the issue to me as, “Aren’t they [Gulen] anti-mullah Muslims?” The West looks at the Islamic world from a wide perspective. In the geography that extends from Pakistan to Libya, you don’t have to have brains to understand the attraction for the West of a conservative group that has adopted the Western education system and democracy, especially if it is so influential and well organized.
One of the reasons why Prime Minister Erdogan has already started 0-1, behind in the international match against Gulen, is his bruised personal image as a result of the Gezi Park events. Western public opinion does not anymore see him as the "Muslim democrat" who was once on a Time magazine cover. Let me sum it up: A leader who is talking of banning YouTube and Facebook cannot possibly find the institutional support he expects from the West. Since the Gezi Park protests, the United States and European media have described Erdogan as a rigid leader dragging Turkey into authoritarianism. Foreign media outlets frequently report their perception of Erdogan trying to cover up corruption investigations.
Unfortunately, although there are government advisers who speak English, very few of them understand the Western world. For example, it is impossible for a Dane, German or French person to feel at ease with massive crowds in election rallies and young people dressed in robes and approve of the government’s thesis, “We will settle the corruption issue at the ballot box.” These are countries where every single lira is audited, where absolute power is feared and where solid governments have been toppled because the state funds were used to buy an air ticket for a politician’s wife. These countries will not easily accept the Turkish democracy’s equation of “oratory + power = legitimacy.”
When you put all these together, the picture that emerges is the government’s wrong course not only in the domestic arena, but also in relations with the outside world. I am sure that many world leaders, including Obama, are guessing that Erdogan is a strong leader and he will come out the winner from the March 30 elections.
But this doesn’t mean they will do everything he wants. This is why legitimacy is an important element.
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