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The Nasty Public Divorce


The conflict between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and Hizmet Movement of preacher Fethullah Gulen could not have come at a worst time. Saurabh Kumar Shahi is closely following the battle in Turkey and sends first of his several dispatches from Istanbul that will appear in this space.
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: March 23, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : AKP | Fethullah Gulen | Recep Erdogan | Mustafa Yesil |

It is surprising how things change dramatically in world politics. Sitting inside the offices of the members of Hizmet movement in Turkey, two and a half years ago, it was difficult making sense of what was going on. After years of suppression by Kemalist parties and institutions, especially the armed forces, Turks were voting with vengeance and it had catapulted religious rooted AKP several times to the top. The relationship with the armed forces was uneasy as AKP was trying to clip its wings much to the former’s chagrin. In between all these, Hizmet movement was trying to find its role.

In the post-Ataturk Turkey, where religious repression was institutionalized, emergence of a conservative movement like Hizmet was inevitable. Founded on the principle of preacher Fethullah Gulen, Hizmet movement spread its wings in close to 200 countries without ever getting into trouble with the local administrations. Based on the principle of love, coexistence and dialogue, the movement has achievement a lot. With its spiritual leader, Gulen, self-exiled in Pennsylvania, US; the movement dug its heels deeper in Turkey and was instrumental in catapulting Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and his AKP to power.

With its wide network, the movement took on the existing deep state head on and boosted the process of democratization in Turkey. However, the relationship with Erdogan and his AKP was always tenuous. Technically speaking, Hizmet movement is not supposed to be political and hence there is no diktat or such to its followers to vote for any party. However, it did find resonance with AKP, a fellow conservative movement, and put its force behind the party. Erdogan and AKP thanked them profusely for their support and praised them specially for helping curtail the power of the Deep State.  

That is why, last week, sitting in those same offices, it was kind of surreal listening Erdogan blaming Gulen and his movement for everything ill that afflict Turkey today. Among other things, the same Hizmet movement was also branded as a Deep State itself, an octopus whose tentacles were spread in every institution. It started with casual insinuations on the part of Erdogan, but as he sank deeper and deeper in troubles, insinuations gave way to outright accusations and insults. The chessboard of Turkish politics started to change.

It is now a common knowledge that during the famous Ergenekon and Sledgehammer coup case trials that saw over 250 people, including military personnel, going to jail; it was followers of Gulen movement with contacts inside intelligence and police who provided the damning evidence. Now, as Erdogan finds himself trapped, he is using this against the Gulenists. In a virtual extending of olive leaves towards the armed forces, Erdogan and his aides have started to say that it was Gulen’s shadowy people inside police and intelligence who trumped up cases against the army. And that the corruption cases against him are an extension of that influence.     

“I won’t say that the Deep State has vanished. It is still there. It is merely lying low but has definitely been weakened. However, Erdogan’s desperate attempt to look for partners will lead to them getting back to strength. Not to mention, he will lose his moral position over the armed forces that have snuffed out democracy for over five decades,” observes Mr Sahin Alpay, noted Turkish academician and columnist who has had a history in country’s ultra-left movement.

This very public divorce between Hizmet movement and Erdogan started in December last year when a police and investigators unearthed a massive corruption that trailed itself to the very top of the government. Police arrested several businessmen, bankers and other people with links with AKP and also implicated the sons of three ministers, who later had to resign. A separate investigation targeted Erdogan’s son Belal. Erdogan, like many others in Turkey, blamed Gulenists and vowed to teach them a lesson. Gulenists on their part pleaded ignorance and insinuated towards the previous Deep State.

“The kind of corruption we are talking here is unprecedented. It will be foolish for Erdogan to think that it won’t affect his party’s chances in the upcoming local elections. I foresee a minimum of 15 percent dent in his vote share. While it will still make AKP the single largest party, it will surely start a domino effect inside the party leading ultimately to Erdogan’s fall from power,” observes Mr. Bulent Kenes, editor of the Today’s Zaman, the most widely read English newspaper in Turkey, whose roots lies in the Hizmet movement. 

In fact, Erdogan’s trouble has been increasing in the run-up to the local elections. Everyday there is a systematic leakage of audio tapes of his conversations with various people indicating his involvement in corruption cases. Erdogan has retaliated furiously and has dismissed or transferred over 2000 police personnel whom he considered Gulen’s men inside the system. There have been similar attempts to purge jurists and prosecutors too. Of course Gulenists continue to claim that they are not their people and that Erdogan is just getting after anyone who is trying to unearth dirt about him.

However, there is something that affects the movement directly and Erdogan is trying hard to hit it: Hizmet movement run prep schools. These schools are sort of lifeline of the movement and through a legislation, Erdogan has ordered these schools shut. This has rattled the movement to its core but its members are keeping a brave face and trying to find a way out of it.

“It is a violation of constitution in my assessment. The constitution gives us the right to run private enterprises and the prep schools fall under its preview. We have challenged it in the constitution court and believe that the decision will be in our favour,” observes Mustafa Yesil, chairman of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, an umbrella group for academicians and intellectual that has its roots in Hizmet Movement.

In any case, the upcoming elections will be a make or break call for Erdogan and his party. If there indeed is massive dent in its vote bank, murmurs will start to rise within his party. And one can expect that it will all be downhill from there.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017