Gulenism: The Middle Way or Official Ideology?

Cihan Tugal
Jadaliyya

As a result of excessive repression of the Gezi protests, the legitimacy of the new Turkish regime took a serious blow during June 2013. Coupled with the government’s inability to make progress in its peace negotiations with the Kurds, the repression and its aftermath resulted in a political crisis.

[Left: Fethullah Gülen, from Diyar Muhammed, via Flickr; right: Prime Minister Erdoğan, from World Economic Forumvia Flickr.]

Debate now centers on whether this is a crisis of the Prime Minister, of the governing party, or of the whole regime the party established during the last decade (in cooperation with liberal intellectuals and the Gülen community). Some proponents of the new regime, at home and abroad, are looking for a way to fix the damage through sidelining Erdoğan, restoring the prominence of the liberals, and shifting the balance of religious forces in the country.

The proclamations of the globally influential Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, as well as the writings of pro-Gülen intellectuals, seem to present a middle way between the allegedly “marginal” position of the Gezi movement and the authoritarianism of Prime Minister Erdoğan. Can these really constitute a basis for resolving the crisis? An analysis of the pro-Gülen and pro-Erdoğan discourses throughout the protests might provide some clues.

Gülenist Discourse: Dehumanizing the Protestors

In the first few days of the Gezi protests, the pro-Gülen Zaman newspaper (which sells more than one million copies) expressed sympathy with the demands of the protestors. There were even rumors that some young followers of Gülen joined the revolt (and even after the editorial line of the paper shifted, Zaman published an opinion piece by a young person who had participated in the protests).

However, in a few days, the sympathy was quickly replaced by a line that closely followed Erdoğan’s overall framework: Gülenists insisted that Taksim Square was hijacked by “marginal” groups, which did not reflect the demands of the initial and “innocent” activists. Erdoğan and the Gülenists explicitly agreed in their characterization of left-wing unions, parties, professional syndicates, and intellectuals as “marginal.” But Gülen went further than that.

In a half-hour speech, Gülen characterized the protestors as illogical (mantıksız) people who had lost their humanity (gayri-insani; insani çizgisini korumamış). “We need to pity them,” he said. With his poetic style, he also placed the protests in their historical context and evaluated them in terms of the power of the Ottoman-Turkish state (a favorite theme among conservatives):

Generations were raised without authority [başı boş]. These generations do not know right from wrong.…What should we do to control them…to bring them in line with humanity [insani çizgide birleştirelim]…to make them march toward being a great state again?

In the rest of his diatribe, Gülen accused the protestors of weakening the state against its external enemies. He called on psychologists and pedagogues to devise a “common reason” so that national unity and a strong state could be built. The Cleric is certainly not alone in looking for the roots of social unrest in pathological individuals (rather than social structures and politics); there is a long lineage of authoritarian expertise in this matter (all the way from the Nazi state to the Stalinist state and others in between). Yet the Gülen community perhaps owes its brand of psychologizing to more local traditions, especially to the pro-coup academics of the 1980s, and their ideological descendants who explain away the Gezi revolt by referring to the deformed brain structures of the Facebook generation.

After a false honeymoon with Gezi, Zaman’s pages were filled with numbers and pictures attesting to the “damage” done by the protestors. The columnists, who had mildly sympathized with the activists in the initial days, (mostly, but not exclusively) turned against them and started to write pathologizing pieces. A few of the opinion pieces written by non-regulars (along with a number of news items) also engaged in conspiracy theories (for example, the Gezi protests were a part of a coup plan), but such blatant misreading of the events remained the bread and butter of other conservative newspapers (of which more below). In fact, Gülenists’ persistent criticisms of Erdoğan’s authoritarianism paved the way for the pro-Erdoğan conspiracy theory that Gülen (along with the US, Israel, the Turkish “deep state,” global finance-capital, etc.) had incited the protests or had a stake in perpetrating them!

By early July, the community’s official line (and its attempt to picture itself as the middle way and the voice of reason) had become very clear. In the words of one of the top pro-Gülen journalists, “the Gezi fracas” had abused the concerns of Istanbul’s residents. The real goal of the protesters was not a love of and respect for the city, but making Turkey ungovernable. The government had the right to stand and fight against this attempt, but it had also made a few grave mistakes. This telling tone of reconciliation with the governing party (and a slight shift towards its conspiratorial tone regarding the real cause of protest) followed on the heels of the Prime Minister’s speech on the need to raise a new generation in peace with its “traditions,” a covert nod to the Cleric’s diagnosis of the revolt (as an outcome of the lack of Islamic education, rather than a deep international conspiracy: in the speech I referred to above, Gülen had also argued that the cause of the revolt was a generation severed from its “spiritual and meaning roots”).

This convergence certainly does not mean that the rift between the Gülen community and the Erdoğan wing of the new regime is healed, but it does remind us of the ideological proximity and the constant interaction between these two core constituents of Turkey’s new order.

Historical Background: The Marriage of Islam, State, and Secular Conservatism

Let’s take a short look at the Gülen community’s history in order to make sense of this regime resilience in the middle of interaction and internal bickering. One of the many medium-sized religious communities in Turkey at the end of the 1970s, Gülenists rose to prominence thanks to their support for Kenan Evren’s military intervention in 1980. Their businesses and civic activities also benefited from Turgut Özal’s neoliberal policies (which were possible only after the 1980 coup). The community was locked in what seemed to be a fatal battle with anti-regime Islamic forces in the 1980s and 1990s. This culminated in its support for the anti-Islamist military intervention in 1997 and the pro-military coalition government of 1999. Throughout these years, the community also supported the military’s war with the Kurdish guerilla.

The Gülenists’ stance changed as the military kept on persecuting them along with the Islamists. A few years into the coalition government, the community changed sides and merged its forces with a splinter Islamist party (now the governing party in Turkey, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, henceforth AK Parti), which had itself moved very close to Gülen’s understanding of religion, society, economy, and politics. However, despite the merger, tensions persisted between the community and the ex-Islamist AK Parti. There were ideologically-based disagreements, as well as frictions regarding how to share positions within the bureaucracy. During the last decade, the community, it was suspected, excluded not only secular nationalists, but also ex-Islamists from the judiciary and the police forces. The tensions came out into the open when Gülenists allegedly attempted to take over the core institution of Turkish intelligence (MİT).

Almost all of the mainstream Islamic press denied that the community expanded its power in such a way during the last ten years. But when the community allegedly tapped into the Prime Minister’s calls (as a prelude to its MİT operation), the gloves were off. The pro-Erdoğan Yeni Şafak and other media outlets explicitly or implicitly attacked the community and accused it of monopolizing power. Pro-government sources claimed that the community had recently tried to arrest the Prime Minister (and even planned a coup). Only one day before the Gezi protests became massive, these sources implied that Erdoğan was now in a counter offensive in order to prevent Gülen from becoming the sole ruler of Turkey.

As the Erdoğan wing of the regime has been pointing out in the last months, Gülen’s expansionism does not quite square with the global image the community projects (as Islamic reformers who uphold “tolerance” and “inclusivity”). Yet the community is in fact quite inclusive and tolerant, within the boundaries of an authoritarian conservatism. Its struggle against Islamic radicalism, its active promotion of secular as well as non-Muslim figures, and its generous support for (and ongoing merger with) the repressive apparatuses of the state all indicate that (unlike some other Islamic circles) the community is quite flexible, pragmatic, inclusive, and tolerant in its attempts to build a strong state. In this sense, it should be primarily evaluated as a conservative movement, more than an Islamic one.

The Cleric and the Intellectual

There is a strong tendency among not only Western but also left-wing secular Turkish audiences to explain Gülenist authoritarianism and conservatism based on Islam. But conservatism is a modern worldview that does not need any specific religion, even if it frequently legitimates itself through religious references. The strongest proof of this is the secular intellectuals in the Gülen circles who share the Cleric’s vision without sharing his religious beliefs. A good example is one of Turkey’s top conservative intellectuals, Etyen Mahcupyan, who has been on the forefront of the struggle against progressive politics (as well as against the community’s non-progressive enemies) for the last decade. According to Mahcupyan, the Gezi protestors are “irresponsible,” “adolescent,” “alienated.” These are the core concepts that liberal-conservative social sciences used in the 1950s and 1960s to discredit the Civil Rights movement and the ensuing student movements.

One wonders if these esteemed clerics and intellectuals, whether secular or religious, had the opportunity to observe any of the popular assemblies organized by the Gezi movement or the patience to sit through any meeting where people listened to each other for hours regardless of rank, seniority, class, and status. Their understanding of being “human” and “mature” probably conflicts with such egalitarian experiences. Nevertheless, the gerontocrats (who call the Taksim protestors kids and infantile, timeworn big brothers [kart abiler]) have a point: the Gezi movement will have to construct its own version of (non-conservative, non-liberal) political maturity and responsibility. But it will do this away from the shadow of conservative elders.

A Creeping Extremism?

Why, then, do the Turkish liberals invest so much hope in the Gülen community (or in half-veiled pro-Gülen resolutions such as an Abdullah Gül-controlled governing party, which will presumably work more in tandem with Gülen and his vision)? There are two major reasons for this. First, Turkish liberals hope to remain a part of the new hegemonic regime and they see the Gülen line as a guarantor of this. They seem to think that if the Prime Minister accumulates more power to the detriment of Gülen, the partial and ongoing purge of the liberals will be intensified. Second, they fear that if Gülen does not weigh in, the governing party will return to its historical Islamic roots.

There are signs that some in the government camp are moving toward right-wing extremism, but not exactly in the way liberal intellectuals picture it. Instead of “returning” to the Islamism of the 1970s and 1980s, some ex-Islamists are actually developing a novel, fascistic path. Their recourse to anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist discourse seems to echo the Islamist themes of these decades. However, back then anti-capitalism was the discourse of upwardly mobile sectors in coalition with marginalized and defensive classes. By contrast, now it is a discourse of an established pious upper class. In that sense, it is openly manipulative and dishonest (there are certainly exceptions, such as a couple of journalists even in the pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak who have stuck to their anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism throughout the last ten years of neoliberalization). According to the government’s conspiracy theories, the main actor behind the Gezi protests is the financial “interest lobby.” Ironically, as the rump Islamist party (which the AK Parti had split from in 2001) points out, the government is the offspring of the so-called interest lobby: finance capital actively contributed to the formation of the AK Parti government and immensely benefited from it.

Moreover, Islamist anti-capitalism of the 1970s and 1980s consisted of a mixture of conspiracy theories (the growth of big business as a Zionist conspiracy to undermine productive small industries) and half-baked structural analyses and (developmentalist and Owenite) suggestions. Now that the Turkish-Islamic regime is intricately linked with global and national capitalist interests, a direct return to this kind of Islamism has become impossible. What remains is a criticism of capitalism as an anti-Turkish-Islamic conspiracy, quite in line with the fascist tradition in Turkey, rather than the so-called “political Islam.”

Pro-Erdoğan journalists and intellectuals, therefore, see the Gezi protests as an expression of this “deep” capitalism and frequently threaten to mobilize millions of people in order to smash them. The Prime Minister himself supports this line, and so do throngs who chant “Let Us Crush Taksim” (Yol ver geçelim, Taksim’i ezelim).

Hence, mainstream Islamic discourse in Turkey is narrowing into two major currents: conspiratorial right-wing extremism and conservative pragmatism. Certainly, this narrowing was on its way, but the Gezi Resistance 1) pushed Yeni Şafak away from Zaman and towards the newspaper Akit (the main source of Islamic conspiracy theories in Turkey); and 2) reduced the critical voices in Yeni Şafak to silence or made them side with pro-government conspiracy theories (as I was finalizing this essay, one of the prominent secular liberals of the newspaper was fired). Naturally occupied with the movement’s internal difficulties and problems, Gezi activists have taken little note of these changes within the hegemonic camp.

The False Messiah

In short, while the threat the Turkish liberals sense is real, it has little to do with the “re-politicization of Islam” or a return to Islamism. Their recipe, we need to add, is more misleading than their diagnosis.

Rather than simply offering a middle way between Erdoğan’s authoritarianism and the Gezi movement’s relentless activism, the Gülen movement is the core producer of Turkish-Islamic democratic authoritarianism. To the extent that Erdoğan swerves from the established hegemonic ideology of the state, Gülen and his followers pull him to the right path. The Gülenization of the regime, in other words, is a deceptive middle road: the Gülen community has been at the very center of the authoritarian-democratic regime for the last ten years. Re-Gülenization can perhaps save the skin of liberals (and other pro-regime ideological, religious, and ethnic minorities), but cannot address the issues that the Gezi revolt raised: participatory democracy, police violence, and the unending privatization of public goods. Citizens of Turkey need to create new organizations explicitly committed to the Gezi Revolt’s goals, rather than count on saviors.