Another blow against press freedom: police raid offices of Zaman

Stumbling towards collapse

In light of the latest moves against the media, Esen Uslu analyses the contending forces within the state apparatus

The cracks in the ruling bloc of Turkey first became apparent to the casual observer in August 2013. In the aftermath of the Gezi Park resistance of that year, the Journalists and Writers Foundation - a public front of the secretive Gülen movement, named after its leader, Islamist scholar Fethullah Gülen - published a statement refuting allegations against it. The statement contained unusually strong wording about its relationship with the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government.

For the seasoned observer of the Islamist political scene in Turkey, the presence of fault lines within the AKP is well known. Their roots lie deep in the history of early 20th century Turkey, when a new nationalist politics emerged as the cosmopolitan, Islamist Ottoman state collapsed. During the long 20th century, Islamist organisations, under attack by the racist-nationalist regime, split and bent, but proved resilient and able to survive under adverse conditions.

The decolonisation era after World War II gave a new impetus to Islamist politics, while the onset of the cold war opened up new perspectives and opportunities, as the US strategy to ‘contain’ the USSR ushered in a new era of cooperation with the Islamists. Under all those sometimes conflicting influences, Islamist politics began to flourish within new types of organisations.

Nur and Gülen

The standard-bearer of such politics in Turkey during most of the 20th century was the ‘Nur (Holy Light) community’, led by Said Nursi. He was a Kurdish Sunni scholar, active from late Ottoman times until his death in 1960. He was revered and referred to as the ‘Badi’ al-Zaman’ - a rarely used honorific that means ‘The Wonder of his Age’.

He considered the Quran as a living book, which needs to be freshly interpreted in every era. His own interpretations were contained in the Risale-i Nur (‘Tracts of light’) collection, which consists of his writings on various subjects between 1926 and 1949. The tracts were copied by hand and circulated clandestinely across Turkey - this duplication constituted the main activity of the Nur community for decades. It was no mean feat, since the total text came to over 6,000 pages when legally printed after 1956.

Said and his movement were avowedly anti-Kemalist, since Kemalism represented their anathema - secularism - as well as dictatorial state control over the social sphere. On the other hand, the Nur community was tapping into the Islamic veins of an old regime that still survived into the new one. So while it was prosecuted by the state, there were forces within the Kemalist establishment rendering mostly covert, but occasionally open, protection and support.

The state’s religious affairs department was the main target of Islamist venom, since it was considered as the tip of the Kemalist spear, aimed at the heart of Islamist politics; particularly in relation to what they saw as state interference in the control of schools.

On the other hand, mullah Said and his movement was rabidly anti-communist, and that created new opportunities in the late 50s. The USSR containment strategy pursued by the US and its allies aimed to create a ‘green belt’ along its southern flank. The pro-US regimes in Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan were to be propped up despite their instability, while at the same time covert support and assistance was offered to the Islamist political underground, with a view to taming them through a conversion to ‘moderate Islam’. That strategy created new opportunities for anti-communist Islamist groups and organisation.

The Nur movement suffered after mullah Said’s death. New avenues were opened up for Islamist politics within the mainstream parties, while the nationalist-racist military juxtaposed itself to the Islamist underground and put pressure on the clandestine Nur community. At the end of the 60s the Nur movement was crumbling and new Islamist political organisations appeared. Successful offshoots included a legal political party that was centred on Necmettin Erbakan and a ‘moderate’ grouping around Fethullah Gülen Hodja, which refrained from any participation in mainstream politics.

From the early 70s both organisations pursued almost the same aims, but operated within differing spheres. Erbakan formed several parties, each of which were eventually banned by the military regime or closed down by courts dominated by the military and its allies. But he enjoyed growing electoral support and was first a minister, then deputy prime minister and finally prime minister in the 1996-97 coalition government. However, you could not say that he ever enjoyed holding the ‘reins of power’. Each success of whatever party he was heading was followed by yet another military intervention. When in 1998 his party was closed down once again, a split took place in the movement.

A new grouping was formed, including some conservative liberals and democrats with Islamist leanings, who were disillusioned with the old mainstream parties. The AKP’s Islamist core consists of a small cadre that had cut its teeth in militant Islamist student politics in the 70s and extended its political experience in Erbakan’s party. One of this grouping was a certain Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had served as mayor of Istanbul. They formed an alliance with the Gülen movement to increase their electoral chances.

The Gülen movement has been visibly active in the shape of various charities, especially in the field of education. It has used the difficult, centralised system of examinations for university admissions to its benefit, organising special courses preparing students for them all over the country. Those courses became money-spinning enterprises.

In addition, new media channels were opened up, including daily newspapers and satellite TV channels, as well as news agencies for the holding companies of the newly emerging bourgeoisie of the Anatolian cities. Their well-educated cadres were active on the web and in other media, creating attractive sites and channels. They initiated interfaith dialogue and were involved in high-profile conferences, etc, where they built a media presence for Fethullah Gülen, who is currently in self-imposed exile in the US out of fear of prosecution, should he return to Turkey. This current, viewed as the moderate face of Islam, enjoyed the support of some influential mainstream politicians.

During this period, the racist-nationalist underground also suffered various splits, and the most influential section has arrived at a new world view summarised as the ‘Turkish-Islamic synthesis’ - a hodgepodge of nationalist-racist and religious ideas. Some have even jumped ship and joined the Gülen bandwagon - those who previously damned political Islam have turned out to be ardent supporters of the Gülen movement.

Meanwhile, it has developed a strong cadre of followers in the agencies and departments of the state, especially in the security services and judiciary. Previously activity in the armed forces was carried out clandestinely - even moderate Islamism was despised by the military, so it was not possible to build a strong follower base in the armed forces.

Attention was instead focused on the police department, and by the late 90s the movement boasted quite a strong organisation within the ministry of interior, which oversees the police. It paid particular attention to intelligence-gathering, and especially the tapping of communications. Under the benign gaze of successive AKP governments, the movement’s influence extended to other critical ministries and departments.

Cracks deepen

The first crack in relations between the AKP, centred on president Erdoğan, and the Gülen movement appeared in 2004. At a meeting of the national security council, where ministers and the top brass of the armed forces come together with the president of the republic to discuss security issues, the armed forces supported a resolution calling for measures to be taken against these Islamists.

The resolution - coyly signed by the premier and other senior ministers - named the Gülen movement as one of the main components of religious reaction. That was, of course, duly noted by the movement itself, which had been half-expecting such treachery from its fellow-travellers. It did not respond immediately, but we can trace its new strategy, which was subsequently adopted to strengthen its position, back to that time.

One of the main cards it has played in this game takes the form of secret dossiers on the government and AKP built up through illegal phone taps with the assistance of their operators in the judiciary, which have provided a cloak of legitimacy for their wiretapping activities. Its other trump card has been its knowledge of the secret negotiations conducted between the national intelligence agency, attached directly to the prime minister, and the Kurdish freedom movement, which were aimed at a truce leading to a negotiated settlement of the age-old ‘Kurdish problem’.

The AKP government was treading a thin line in the face of the military clique’s covert interventions through their men in the judiciary. In 2008 a case was initiated before the constitutional court, the aim of which was to disband the AKP government on the grounds that it breached the principles of secularism. The Gülen movement’s support for the government was crucial in stopping this move in its tracks; however, the court fined the AKP itself and half of the state’s aid to the party was withheld.

However, in 2010 the AKP supported the Gülen movement’s police and prosecutor teams in their instigation of charges against the army top brass for planning a military intervention in 2003. The arrest and ensuing trial of top generals, which focused on wiretaps and digital evidence, ended in their conviction in 2012. That was the zenith of the Gülen movement’s organisation within the state apparatus.

However the controversy did not end, since claims of fabricated evidence were brought before the court of appeal, which quashed some verdicts, but upheld most. However, when the case was brought before the constitutional court in 2013, all convictions were quashed and the officers were released.

Then, in order to undermine the AKP government, the Gülen movement instigated a prosecution against the head of the national intelligence service. Even though the government succeeded in stopping the case, in the course of investigations it had become apparent that the prime minister’s offices had been tapped by Gülen movement supporters.

The AKP started to seek new allies. One of Erbakan’s remnants was lingering on as a political party and it contained some high-profile figures who may have been tempted to mount a challenge to Erdoğan. To avoid a damaging contest they were invited to join the AKP and guaranteed influential positions, provided they persuaded their party to switch too. The subsequent gobbling up of the Erbakan party in 2012 strengthened the Islamist core of the AKP.

That marked a change in Erdoğan’s strategy of alliances. He now sides with the nationalist-racist clique in the military, which seems at present to support his dictatorial tendencies, and has dropped the Gülen movement. The price to pay for the new alliance was the termination of attempts to find a negotiated settlement with the Kurdish freedom movement, and a new assault on Kurdish towns and cities was launched.

While the Gülen movement was paying the price for its overconfidence and reliance on the AKP to further its aims, the AKP itself now had new allies for its project of amending the constitution in order to bring about presidential rule that would dominate the legislature and the judiciary, as well as executive power.

Such change has been rapidly snowballing since Gezi Park and the crackdown in June 2013. The so-called liberal media - that is, the media controlled by the Gülen movement and used for the benefit of the AKP - was liquidated through quasi-judicial means. Amidst the sacking and prosecuting of police officers, other state officials and financiers associated with the Gülen movement, many media channels, newspapers, news agencies and TV channels were forced to close down - or else were brought under state control through court-appointed caretaker administrators. Overnight the editorial direction of such media was changed from one of criticising the government to supporting it.

However, action against the Gülen movement created cracks in the core of the AKP. The former deputy prime minister, former president of the republic and former influential ministers were now in open rebellion. Erdoğan the Invincible suddenly seemed to lose his magic touch. In order to pass his much desired constitutional amendment he now needs the support of the nationalist-racist opposition.

The ever-increasing brutality in the war to reconquer Kurdistan, and meddling in Syrian affairs to stop the formation of a Kurdish regional government there, are the sops to these forces. The Islamist rhetoric of the AKP has been replaced by the ever sharper nationalistic-racist rhetoric of the MHP (Nationalist Action Party). The paramilitary police forces used in the Kurdish campaign, along with the army, have committed atrocities beyond belief. They openly displayed their adherence to those nationalist-racist MHP politics.

The Syrian war and refugee crisis has helped to obscure the war in Turkish Kurdistan. Refugees have become a new weapon in the hands of the AKP government, enabling it to haggle with the European Union. While all political attention and rightwing rhetoric in Europe has been focused on the refugee crisis, nobody seems to care about the Kurds and the fate of democracy in Turkey.