By Ramazan Kilinc, University of Nebraska at Omaha

On May 29, 2015, the Turkish government seized Bank Asya, an Islamic bank that was founded by the followers of the Gulen movement. This seizure, which came just a week before the parliamentary elections, was part of an 18-month-long political feud between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the Gulen movement, a social Islamic movement led by US-based Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen.

When prosecutors initiated a corruption probe that rocked the AKP government and led the resignation of four ministers in December 2013, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the prosecutors, whom he thought were affiliated with the Gulen movement, of staging a coup against the government in collaboration with international powers, particularly the US and Israel. Since then, the government has implemented a number of repressive policies to weaken social and economic basis of the Gulen movement.

Although there had been previous ideological differences between the AKP and the Gulen movement, nobody expected that the dispute between them would go this far. Historically, the Gulen movement focused its attention on education and charity and distanced itself from politics. The movement denounced political Islam and supported the center right parties throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

In the 2000s, however, the movement supported the AKP for two reasons. First, by denouncing political Islam and coming up with the ideology of conservative democracy, the AKP offered itself as a center-right political party. Second, the military intervention in 1997 threatened both groups, and the prospect of weakening a common enemy brought these ideologically different Islamic groups together.

Once the AKP consolidated its power through three consecutive parliamentary elections in 2002, 2007 and 2011, the relationship between the two actors started to deteriorate. After 2011, the AKP focused its attention to change the system to a Turkish-style presidential system that would give the president expansive powers. Erdogan ambitiously sought to rule the country without having to find a consensus with other political and civil actors.

Especially after the Gezi protests which started in the summer of 2013 as a backlash against government’s plan to construct a shopping mall in a city park in Istanbul, Erdogan increasingly turned to authoritarianism and grew contemptuous toward any criticism of his government. The government’s increasing intolerance toward critical viewpoints brought to surface the differences and tension between the AKP and the Gulen movement.

Erdogan’s repressive policies against the Gulen movement rested on four pillars. First, the party used its control of business and media to discredit the movement. The businessmen who financed the movement faced several government tax audits. The AKP used pro-government media, formed through monetary contributions from the cronies that received big businesses from the state, to discredit the movement. Media controlled by the Gulen movement has faced government intimidations through police raids, the arrest of journalists and accusations of terrorism and treason.

Second, the government had a witch-hunt against the movement. Arguing that the Gulen -affiliated bureaucrats constituted a parallel state within the state and had staged a coup against the government in December 2013, the state reassigned or dismissed thousands of bureaucrats. The government went even further to close down the Turkish Police Academy with the assumption that many graduates were affiliated with the Gulen movement.

The AKP government also stigmatized Gulen-affiliated schools in Turkey. Erdogan asked his electorate to withdraw their children from these schools. The decade-old Turkish language competition programs that the movement organized with the support of the Turkish parliament had to change its venue from Turkey to other countries just because Erdogan did not allow the competition to be performed in Turkey. Erdogan even lobbied against the movement in his foreign visits and pressured countries to close down Turkish schools abroad run by the movement.

Third, the government passed new bills to increase its oversight over the judiciary in an effort to invalidate corruption charges against the government and to discredit the Gulen movement through judicial activism. The government amended the law on the constitution of Higher Council on Judges and Prosecutors and formed a new council composed mostly of the members closer to the government. The government, through newly-instituted courts with pro-government judges and prosecutors, started new investigations against the Gulen affiliated journalists accusing them of being part of a terrorist organization. The government declared Gulen a terrorist and requested that the US deport him.

Finally, the AKP government employed the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) to justify its policies and to demonize the Gulen movement. Through the use of state resources and benefits, the government got the loyalty of other Islamic communities. Right before local elections of 2014, presidential elections of 2014 and parliamentary elections of 2015, the pro-government religious groups ran full-page ads in the newspapers supporting the government. Similarly, thanks to its control over the mosques in Turkey, the Diyanet gave sermons during Friday prayers that supported the political positions taken by the government. This cooperation between the government and other Islamic communities increased isolation of the Gulen movement within the conservative circles in Turkey.

The new alliance between the state and other Islamic communities shifted the priorities of the AKP government as well. While the AKP justified its policies in reference to conservative democracy in the first decade of 2000s, its focus has shifted toward populist Islamism in the recent years. In contrast to its strong support to the EU membership in the past, the AKP leadership and their media supporters have employed a new discourse that emphasizes the importance of Erdogan and Turkey for the Muslim world.

Populist Islamism had two basic tenets to persuade its supporters. First, the AKP pointed out how the party brought religious freedoms such as the removal of the headscarf ban in public offices. By highlighting these freedoms, the party threatened the electorate of a return to the past when there were limitations for the manifestation of religious beliefs in the public sphere if the party lost its public support. Second, the party emphasized its pro-Islamic foreign policy, such as helping Syrian refugees, supporting Palestinians and increasing the discourse around pan-Islamism. In addition, supporters of the government used conspiracy theories and portrayed any critical actor against the government as a traitor and collaborator with the international powers. In this regard, the Gulen movement was portrayed as the Trojan horse for the US and Israel to undermine the increasing presence of the Islamic discourse in Turkey and beyond.

How does the rift between the AKP and the Gulen movement influence democracy in Turkey? The events in the last two years ended the alliance between Islamic groups but opened an opportunity for further dialogue between secularists, Kurds, Islamic social movements and some liberals. This contributed to a pluralist democracy that Turkish people aspire to have.

What brought the AKP to power in the early 2000s was a social coalition that gathered around the party to counter bureaucratic authoritarian institutions. Turkey experienced several reform packages and became closer to the EU membership. However, the 2010s brought another crisis for democracy. This time, Erdogan, by increasing executive control over judiciary and legislative, attempted to create a new authoritarianism around his own personality. In the wake of the June 7 elections, a new social coalition seems to have emerged to stop the new tide of authoritarianism and the rift between the AKP and the Gulen movement has contributed to the fermenting of this coalition across religious and secular lines.

Ramazan Kilinc is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The rift between the AKP and Gulen movement in Turkey

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