In recent months Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been at the centre of controversy and the subject of passionate debate. Also involved is the spiritual leader of the Hizmet, or Gulen, Movement, Fethullah Gulen. However, as with all matters political, things are seldom the way they seem.
Although it is packaged as an all too familiar case of power politics of the kind that often pits allies of convenience against each other, beneath that façade is a relentless effort to restrict the Islamists’ capacity to govern. As in Egypt, at the heart of the issue is the question of whether or not so-called political Islam can exist within a constitutional framework, embrace modernity and share space with a pluralist society.
A hybrid model of governance
Since he came to office, Prime Minister Erdogan has had a remarkable record of transforming his country. For over a decade, Turkey has been a successful model for democratic pluralism, political stability, economic success and international collaboration while asserting its Islamic identity. These accomplishments have placed Turkey on course to meet its objective of becoming one of the world’s top ten economies by 2023, thus ensuring it considerable political clout in a highly volatile world.
For many Islamic thinkers and a number of Islamic movements around the world who, in one way or another, embrace their religious values as a frame of reference that informs their capacity to govern, the success of the “Turkish model” highlights a viable alternative to extremism and violence. The same is true for other analysts and many governments, including that of the US, which consider Turkey as a strategic partner. In the past decade, Erdogan has proven a sustainable model of governance with a capacity to build relationships between the Muslim world and the West. Turkey has become a shining example of how Islam does not reject modernity.
It is no secret that there has been a ferocious political rift between Prime Minister Erdogan and Imam Gulen, whose movement of broad transnational social network may have been the engine or the political base that helped the AKP rise to power and reform the military institution that for decades sidelined not only any form of Islam-based ideologies, but also practically all expressions of Islamic identity. Today, the AKP and Hizmet are in a fierce tug-of-war that could have serious consequences for both; at the end of the day, they could squander their jointly-earned political clout, with militaristic Kemalists waiting in the wings for the spoils.
It is worth noting that while the political climate in Turkey seems to intensify in terms of partisan hostilities and polarisation, it is important to underscore that political crisis is not a synonym of political turmoil. However, it is very difficult to arrive at that conclusion from the negative media frenzy and the forecasts of political fatalists both in Turkey and abroad.
Conscience-driven foreign policy
Turkey’s (zero problems with neighbours) foreign policy made good progress until Israel launched a “barbaric” attack on the Gaza Strip in 2008–09. Erdogan’s frustration with Israel would eventually spillover while sharing the stage with President Shimon Perez at the 2009 Davos World Economic Forum. Erdogan rebuked Peres publicly when the latter tried to lecture the prime minister on human rights with a self-righteous tone. Erdogan retorted angrily: “When it comes to killing, you [Israel] know very well how to kill. I know well how you hit and kill children on beaches.” He then walked off the stage. This raw exchange on a very public forum earned Erdogan admiration and antipathy, setting in motion a series of retaliatory actions or events and counter-events that went on to derail 50 years of Turkish Israeli relationship.
In 2010, Israeli commandoes killed 9 Turkish nationals aboard the “Freedom Flotilla” carrying humanitarian assistance to Gaza aiming to break the inhumane and illegal economic blockade of the Palestinian territory. This was clearly interpreted by Erdogan as hostile payback for Davos. He demanded an apology and a formal investigation. Israel said that it would be “inconceivable that we should apologise to the Turkish government” and also rejected a UN multi-national investigation. What followed was a diplomatic and geopolitical stand-off that lead to Israel’s new strategic partnership with countries such as Greece, Cyprus and Armenia; Turkey, meanwhile, turned to a newly established strategic partnership with Iran.
The United States has found itself in the awkward position of trying to mediate between two close allies on a matter of great diplomatic sensitivity. Congruently, pro-Israel special interest groups and some members of the Congress have been pressuring the Obama administration to push Turkey to drop its demands. Despite being uncomfortable with Erdogan and the AKP’s religious banner, the US State Department took a balanced position. Considering the current political uncertainties in the Middle East and the stagnation (if not decline) of the US economy, America needs Turkey more than the latter needs Washington.
“The rise of the religiously oriented AKP party is not inconsistent with democracy, modernisation or economic liberalism,” concluded a recent report by a US taskforce. “The United States must not view the sum of US-Turkey relations through the narrow prism of particular issues, whether they be Armenia, Israel or ties to NATO.” The taskforce was co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and former Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley.
Turning to Africa
Against this backdrop, Erdogan turned to Africa. Turkey not only expanded its diplomatic ties with dozens of nations across the continent, it donated and invested billions of dollars therein. Nowhere in Africa is that policy more visible than in Somalia.
Turkey’s policy in Somalia is the single most crucial for the revival of the Somali state and pulling it back from the brink of extinction. Turkey bypassed the extremely costly, and failed, model of the international community, by employing a strategy of direct engagement in humanitarian, security, reconciliation and development projects. It opened its embassy at a time when Mogadishu was considered to be “the most dangerous city in the world”; the restoration of hope and vitality was said to be impossible. On August 19, 2011, the world witnessed a genuine Erdogan moment when the Prime Minister, along with his wife, foreign minister and a senior delegation, landed in Mogadishu and challenged the international community to come as well. “This tragedy here is a test of humanity, human values, modernity and modern values,” he said. “We’re here to tell the world that this test should be passed successfully to prove that Western values are more than empty rhetoric.”
In the light of what has happened recently in Egypt, with an alliance of covert domestic and foreign elements have pulled the rug from under its first democratically-elected president, it’s naïve to look at the Erdogan-Gulen issue only through internal lenses or in terms of domestic power-play. Within that context, Erdogan’s accusations that others are conspiring to sabotage Turkey’s national interests cannot be dismissed as red herrings. “Who might these elements be?” is a matter of great controversy.
Erdogan is concerned about who is pulling the strings. Diplomatic saboteurs with abundant resources at their disposal are primary suspects. “Ambassadors are engaging in provocative actions,” the prime minister said in a television interview. “We don’t have to keep you in our country.”
Meanwhile, Gulen and his movement, which has been serving as an invaluable goodwill ambassador and the de facto positive image-builders of Turkey through public diplomacy, education and interfaith dialogue, have found Erdogan’s style discomforting. Political confrontation clearly contradicts Gulen’s teachings of dialogue. Furthermore, it invites an undue burden and politically-motivated negative campaigns against Gulen’s goodwill schools around the world, especially in the United States where the movement has been under a great deal of pressure.
In addition to pressures from various special interest groups, certain neo-conservative elements in the media, congress and other branches of the US government have been pressuring Gulen and his movement to lean hard on Erdogan and the AKP. Recent headlines such as “FBI operation targets Gulen” and “FBI raids Gulen school” are examples.
Be that as it may, since 2011 the two leaders and their political party and social movement have been drifting apart. That, needless to say, is not good for Turkey, the Middle East, the US or Europe.
The recent corruption scandal in which several of Erdogan’s ministers were implicated and his apparent retaliation that resulted in firing dozens of political chiefs suspected of being Gulen loyalists reflect badly on the prime minister.
Though he, as a hardnosed political warrior, has proven his resilience and capacity to win and has the scars to show for it, going in hard for the win in his current match may come at a profound political and strategic cost. In that context, continuing on the current zero-sum trajectory may lead towards a self-inflicted defeat.
Unlike Egypt’s (now broadly exposed) cardboard institutions, Turkey can bounce back as it has robust institutions befitting of a modern democratic state, albeit all hinges on the willingness of the AKP and Hizmet to mend fences. Both Erdogan and Gulen are well aware that Turkey is more important than any individual, organisation or party interest.