Ahmet Kulsoy
Sep 07 2018

Gülen movement partly to blame ruling AKP to radicalise – fmr TRT manager

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have their roots in the country’s long tradition of political Islam, a movement that over decades has grown from the margins to become one of the dominant political forces in the country.

Yet Erdoğan’s success in consolidating his party’s grip over the country since it came to power in 2002, and his stance on issues important to them, does not necessarily translate to unconditional support from the pious conservatives who traditionally form the AKP’s voter base.

“As a Muslim, I see the struggle against imperialism as going hand in hand with the fight for freedom,” İslam Özkan, a Middle East analyst and former manager of TRT Arapça, the Turkish state broadcaster’s Arabic-language channel, told Ahval.

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So, while Erdoğan presents his current conflict with the United States, sparked by a diplomatic crisis over imprisoned U.S. citizens and retaliatory sanctions, as a battle against imperialism, for Özkan under current circumstances this does not add up.

“While (Turkey is) becoming more authoritarian and less free, taking a stand against the United States is neither consistent nor sincere. This position could change at any moment, and if negotiations lead to a compromise, (the AKP government) may end up collaborating with the U.S. government it calls imperialist,” Özkan said.

The feud with the United States has stemmed from Turkey’s prosecution of U.S. citizens and consular employees for alleged links to the outlawed Gülen religious movement that the government says was behind the July 2016 coup attempt.

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As such it plays out as the latest episode in years of conflict that Özkan describes as leading the country towards authoritarianism and dangerous polarisation. For this, he says, the Gülenists must shoulder their portion of the responsibility.

The group, which is led by Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen from his self-imposed exile in the United States, is accused of having infiltrated high positions in Turkish state bodies, including the police force and judiciary, and allegedly used these initially to help the AKP purge its enemies.

A later split in the alliance became public on December 17 2013, when prosecutors allegedly linked to the movement launched corruption investigations into AKP ministers and their relatives. The ensuing power struggle has since dominated the political narrative in Turkey.

“Turkey’s government has become far more radicalised, and that in particular is due to (the Gülenists’) coup attempt and the cadres they illegally formed within the state. This of course does not justify the illegalities currently at play in Turkey, but we should not forget that they initially worked with the AKP before trying to overthrow its government, or their role in bringing us to the point where they are being purged through extra-legal means,” Özkan said.

This has led the country to a period of serious human rights abuses, he said.

These may not as grave as the abuses suffered during the 1990s, a decade blighted by crackdowns on the Kurdish and Islamist political movements, but they are worryingly being carried out in a suffocating political atmosphere that allows no room for dissent or scrutiny, he said.

“There are human rights violations, journalists imprisoned, psychological and political repression, a rush towards authoritarianism … and the media has been taken fully under control. (The opposition) can’t get across to the people they need to reach,” Özkan said.

This heavy-handed approach to opposition has been complemented by the wealth of incentives offered in exchange for supporting AKP policies, he added.

“Most frightening is the high level of public support for these undemocratic practices, and that a large majority of people have come to adopt systematic fascism and the intimidation and suppression of the opposition,” he said.

A large portion of the blame for this lies with the media, or rather, the government’s domination and subversion of the majority of the country’s media outlets to present only its own take on the news to the public, according to the former TRT Arabic head.

Through its control of this media, Erdoğan’s government has been able to simply ignore unwelcome events – as in 2013, when a pro-government news channel famously broadcast a documentary about penguins while the anti-government Gezi Park protests rocked the nation – or to present them as conspiracies against a legitimate government.

In the end the protests were blamed on shady foreign powers plotting against Turkey and then tied in to the government’s narrative that Gülenist provocateurs had attempted to exploit the unrest to topple the government.

Creating or exploiting conflicts to stay in power is by no means a new form of politics, and the AKP’s frequent reference to shady foreign powers or traitors threatening the country follows a style of politics seen the world over for centuries, Özkan said.

But in Turkey, the hold this form of politics has taken over the country, and the polarisation this has caused, are remarkable.

Özkan shared an anecdote about Erol Olçok, a prominent advertiser and campaign manager for the AKP who was killed on the night of the coup attempt in 2016.

“Around 2011, before the Gezi events took place, and before the December 17 corruption probes, Olçok told a journalist friend of mine who worked with him that the AKP had run out of enemies and would have to create a new one,” said Özkan.

“This shows that the search for an enemy appears to have been planned to an extent on one hand. But on the other, we have the Gülenists’ ‘kamikaze’ attacks against an elected government … which they have illegally tried to topple. If their intentions had been good, if they had truly wished to defend human rights, they would have shared this evidence with the public as soon as they laid hands on it,” said Özkan.

The Gülenists’ decision to instead use it as a weapon in its power struggle with the government backfired, leading to the rise of radicalisation within the AKP, he said.

The backlash against the Gülen movement led to its criminalisation, and its branding by the government as FETÖ, the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation.

As a result, the legitimate concerns around this group have been turned into a period of runaway polarisation that the government has knowingly encouraged in order to consolidate its voter base, according to Özkan.

“This may be of use to the AKP, or it may contribute to keeping certain groups within the party energised, but it does nothing for Turkey. Polarisation takes Turkey nowhere good,” he warned.