Aug 23, 2010
Islam, Secularism and the Battle for Turkey's Future
A deep power struggle is under way in the Republic of Turkey. Most outside observers see this as the latest phase in the decades-long battle between Islamism and Kemalist secularism. Others paint it as traditional Anatolia's struggle against modern Istanbul, egalitarianism versus economic elitism or democracy's rise against authoritarianism. Ultimately, the struggle boils down to a fight over a single, universal concept: power.
Turkey occupies a key geostrategic position. It sits at the crossroads of Asia and Europe and forms a bridge between the Black and Mediterranean seas. Turkey's core historically has centered on the isthmus that straddles the Sea of Marmara and Black Sea. Whether the map says Constantinople or Istanbul, whoever lays claim to the Bosporus and Dardanelles has control over one of the most active and strategic commercial routes in the world, a key military vantage point against outside invaders, and a launchpad for expansion into Eurasia. When Turkey is powerful, the country follows a Pan-Islamic model and can extend itself far and wide, from ruling over the Arabs and balancing the Persians in the Middle East to challenging the clout of Christian Europe in the Balkans to blocking Russia in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The AKP is by no means pursuing the Islamist vision alone. A powerful force known as the Gulen movement has quietly and effectively penetrated the armor of the Kemalist state over four decades. The charismatic imam Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, leads the transnational organization, along with a small group of what the Gulenists term "wise men." Inside Turkey, the Gulen movement follows a determined agenda that aims to replace the Kemalist elite and transform Turkey into a more religiously conservative society.
Turkey's power struggle begins in the classroom. The most intense period of ideological cultivation for many Turks takes place between grades eight through 12, and the Gulen movement has spent the past three decades working aggressively in the education sector to mold young minds in Turkish schools at home and abroad. The goal is to create a generation of well-educated Turks who ascribe to the Gulen tradition and have the technical skills (and under the AKP, the political connections) to assume high positions in strategic sectors of the economy, government and armed forces.
But the Gulen movement and AKP do not only want loyal students to attend Gulen-run universities. Indeed, a core part of their strategy is to ensure the placement of their students in a variety of secular institutions where they can gradually grow in number and position themselves to influence strategic centers of Turkish society. For example, the university results of a Gulenist student may qualify him to attend the most elite university in Istanbul, but the movement will arrange for the student to attend a military academy instead, where the Gulenists are trying to increase their presence.
Gulenist Schools' Expanding Global Influence
Over the past few decades the Gulen movement has spread to virtually every corner of the globe through its expansive education network. The Gulenist international footprint comprises 1,000 private schools (according to Gulen estimates) spanning 115 countries, including 35 African countries. These Gulenist schools can be found in small towns everywhere from Ethiopia, Bosnia, Cambodia, India, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Cote d'Ivoire, Azerbaijan — and even the United States, where according to some estimates, the movement runs more than 90 charter public schools in at least 20 states.
Ataturk, a military man at heart, wanted to ensure his work and vision for Turkey would remain intact long after his death. The Turkish armed forces seized responsibility for that legacy upon his death. Article 35 of the Army Internal Service Law of 1935 gives the military the constitutional right to protect and defend the Turkish homeland and the republic. While the Turkish Constitution outlaws the removal of democratically elected governments by force, according to the majority of the armed forces and the Kemalist camp, a constitutional republic is defined as the liberal and secular republic founded by Ataturk, not the religiously conservative republic growing under the rule of the Islamist-oriented AKP.
From Deep State to Ergenekon
The Gulen movement began this task with the police intelligence services. The Turkish police force had long been the weakest institution within the security apparatus, largely a reflection of the country's rural-urban divide through much of the 20th century. In the early part of the century, the rural population comprised two-thirds of the country, giving the gendarmerie, the branch of the armed services responsible for the security of the countryside, far more influence than the police, which patrolled urban areas. As more Turks began moving to the cities in the latter half of the century and eventually came to outnumber the rural population, however, the police steadily gained clout, providing the Gulen movement with a rare opportunity.
Breaking Precedent with Jailed Generals
A new and even more politically explosive coup plot was revealed in January by Taraf, a newspaper regularly praised by Gulenists. The plot, called "Balyoz," Turkish for "Sledgehammer," allegedly involved 162 members of the armed forces, including 29 generals. The group reportedly composed a 5,000-page document in 2003, shortly after the AKP came to power, detailing plans to sow violence in the country and create the conditions for a military takeover to "get rid of every single threat to the secular order of the state."
Controlling the Message
Turkey's media sits at the center of the country's power struggle. Newspapers are the source of leaks that have thrown generals in jails, courtrooms are filled with legal battles between media agencies and op-eds spar daily over which ideological direction the country should take. The media is an especially potent tool in the Gulenist and AKP fight against the armed forces. The vast majority of leaks in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer probes mysteriously emanated from a single newspaper, Taraf. Taraf was founded in 2007 as a paper for liberal democrats shortly before the Ergenekon probe was launched.
Anatolia Takes on the Istanbul Business Elite
A handful of secular family conglomerates based in Istanbul have dominated Turkey's business sector for decades, serving as Turkey's economic outlet to the rest of the world. On the other side of the struggle stand the millions of small- and medium-sized businesses with roots in more religiously and socially conservative Anatolia. While the secular-nationalists still enjoy the upper hand in the business world, the Anatolian tigers are slowly gaining ground. At present, the Turkish economy is dominated by names like Sabanci, Koc, Dogan, Dogus, Zorlu and Calik. Dogan Media occupies the staunchly secular niche of the business sector at odds with the AKP's Islamist-rooted vision, and has taken a public stand against the ruling party.
The Gulenist Business Cycle
The AKP and Gulen movement recognize the lack of space for competition with the Western-oriented trade markets ruled by Koc, Sabanci and the other secularist business elites. Instead, the Islamist forces have created their own business model, one that speaks for Anatolia and focuses on accessing markets in places like the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region. The drivers behind this business campaign are Turkey's Independent Industrialists and Businessmen's Association (MUSIAD) and Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), made up of thousands of small- and medium-sized business owners.
The Gulenist transnational network is a natural complement to the AKP's foreign policy agenda. While many within the secularist and nationalist camp are highly uncomfortable with the notion of Pan-Islamism and Pan-Turkism — strategies that, in their eyes, brought about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire — AKP followers embrace their Ottoman past and favor an expansionist agenda. As espoused by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey is a unique geopolitical power, at the same time European and Asian, Middle Eastern and Central Asian, Balkan and Caucasian and straddling the Black, Caspian and Mediterranean seas. In the AKP's view, Turkey's potential is great, and though it shies away from the term "neo-Ottomanism" for fear of provoking an imperial image, it is difficult to see Turkey's current foreign policy as anything but a drive to return to its Ottoman sphere of influence.
Success in Image Control
AKP officials often deny Gulenist claims of serving as intelligence satellites for fear the AKP could be seen as pursuing a subversive global Islamist agenda. Indeed, some on the far left in Turkey have characterized the Gulen movement as a group of violent Islamist extremists ultimately aiming to impose Shariah in Turkey. Though inaccurate, this view belongs to a fringe group within the secularist camp that wants to reverse Turkey's trajectory.
Whether the issue is headscarves worn in universities, media firms charged with tax evasion or soldiers charged with coup-plotting, virtually every strand of Turkey's power struggle eventually finds its way to the courts. The dividing line in the judiciary lies between the secularist-dominated high courts and the AKP-influenced low courts. This division results in a dizzying judicial system in which court rulings are often mired in political mayhem. The high judiciary in Turkey is made up of the Constitutional Court (or "Anayasa Mahkemesi" in Turkish), the High Court of Appeals ("Yargıtay"), the State Council ("Danistay"), and the High Panel Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK).