Today’s Zaman columnist and academician Dr. Ihsan Yilmaz talked about a recently published report on Turkey by the US-based think tank Stratfor. According to Yilmaz the reports “shows once again that it is not easy to comprehend and analyze the complex, sophisticated and multilayered transformations taking place in Turkey.”
The report seems to be, unfortunately, only a caricature of what is really going on in Turkey and instead of being a skillfully mastered academic endeavor, it looks like hastily drafted, biased propaganda material. Needless to say, it is not only full of biased and one-sided interpretations of complicated events but is also full of factual errors, mistakes that even an elementary student in Turkey would never make. One could write about the report in detail, but this would result in too long of a piece. Instead, I will try to focus on the major points and serious, factual mistakes.
Stratfor’s recent report titled ‘Islam, secularism and the battle for Turkey’s future’ is not only full of biased and one-sided interpretations of complicated events but is also full of factual errors, mistakes that even an elementary student in Turkey would never make, which I will focus on.
First of all, the report arbitrarily makes (ab)use of the term Islamism. I do not want to write in detail about a term which has been discussed extensively, so I will cut it short and instead refer curious readers to my earlier writings. Islamism is a modern phenomenon. It is first and foremost a state-centered ideology. Secondly, it is a reactionary political ideology that emerged as a response to Western hegemony, imperialism and colonialism. Thirdly, it is focused on daily and partisan politics. Fourth, there is not much focus on the spiritual aspects of Islam in Islamism. Fifth, tolerance, acceptance of diversity, respect for pluralism and dialogue are not emphasized much in Islamism, to say the least. Sixth, secularism is an anathema to Islamist ideology. Seventh, generally, Islamists’ understanding of democracy is not based on universal suffrage.
Misuse of term ‘Islamist’
The report keeps calling the Gulen movement, under the direction of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamist movement but when we examine its discourse and worldwide practice the movement is almost in total contradiction to Islamism in all the above-listed seven major aspects. There is an unfortunate tendency among some journalists and scholars to label socially-active Muslims as “Islamist.” But this usage is unhelpful as it blurs the lines between several kinds of Islamic understanding and practices, and instead of helping us analyze phenomena leads to the conflation of the term “Muslim” with “Islamist.” This comes at the expense of ordinary but practicing Muslims. When examining the incorrect usage of the word, one ends up thinking that in order not to be called an Islamist one should either not practice the religion or jettison all its social aspects that are fundamental to Islam as documented by classical Islamic sources, mainly the Qur’an. If the author perused the works of respected American academics such as John L. Esposito, John O. Voll, Dale Eickelman, James Pictatori, Robert W. Hefner and Muhammad Ayoob, she would never mistakenly label the Gulen movement Islamist. We also need to highlight that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is not even a post-Islamist party, let alone an Islamist one. I call it a non-Islamist party, underlining the fact that some still mistakenly call it Islamist.
The report also claims that the AK Party views international politics through a pan-Islamic lens. This is an accusation voiced by staunch AK Party adversaries, some neo-conservative and pro-Israeli, right-wing writers. But these people have so far failed to substantiate their claims with robust and sound evidence. They simply cherry pick certain aspects of Turkish foreign policy and turn a blind eye to the fact that Turkey also has good diplomatic relations and economic ties with non-Muslim countries such as several EU-countries, Russia (now Turkey’s biggest trade partner) and Georgia. It is even trying to develop better relations with Armenia. Some observers also forget the fact that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established pacts with Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan and so on. Students of Turkish foreign policy know very well about the Atatürk’s Saadabad Pact and Bahgdad Pact. His successor, İsmet İnönü also followed a multi-dimensional foreign policy. During the Cold War, everything was, of course, different and the Iron Curtain prevented Turkey from fully following a multi-dimensional foreign policy. Moreover, those who accuse the AK Party of following a pan-Islamist foreign policy seem also to forget that a leading ultranationalist, General Tuncer Kılınç reportedly suggested that instead of having an alliance with the West, Turkey should look towards Iran, Russia and China. Many ultranationalists are also disappointed with a West that does not share the same sentiments, and would not support a coup.
Those who wrote the report are also uninformed in matters of Turkish law and claim that the National Security Council (MGK) banned Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party (RP). It was not banned; it was shut down. And it was shut down by the Constitutional Court. The MGK has no such legal power. If the report was trying to refer to the de facto situation, then it should have directly mentioned military generals, as the MGK includes civilian politicians as well; Erbakan was also a member.
‘Infusion of politics and religion’
The report also claims that the AK Party’s vision infuses politics with religion. But this is again a groundless accusation. Could the writer provide any convincing evidence? Is respecting society’s religious sentiments equal to infusing religion into politics? If that is so, every politician in Turkey and even our ultra-secularist generals are Islamists as well. If the author is referring to the fact that AK Party politicians are practicing Muslims she is missing two points. First, several AK Party politicians are not practicing Muslims, and second, many Western politicians are religious but no one claims that they infuse religion into politics.
Another claim of the author is that the AK Party has been more cautious about exposing its Islamist-rooted political vision. This is simply mindreading and should have no place in academic work.
The report also talks about an Anatolian class. It seems the author coined the term, but it should be noted that the term “class” is loosely used here, all the more confusing the complex phenomena it refers to, rather than explaining it.
The author mentions that Fethullah Gulen advised his followers to quietly infiltrate the arteries of the system, but does not balance its argument by referring to what Gulen had to say about this. The author also gives no information on the context for these comments — the Feb. 28 post-modern coup, when every single practicing Muslim civil servant was persecuted and sacked by the ultra-secularist military generals. Fethullah Gulen explained that his words were diligently doctored and that he was simply advising practicing Muslims to keep silent so that they could avoid being treated unjustly, inhumanely and undemocratically by the military. The report unfortunately shows only one side of the picture and seems to claim that practicing Muslims began a power struggle out of the blue while everything was going perfectly well and normal. The report does not mention that for the past several decades leftists, socialists, Kurds and practicing Muslims were considered enemies of the state by the ultra-secularist, nationalist and staunch Kemalists who controlled the state. Several academics refer to them as a bureaucratic oligarchy. The fact that headscarved, adult Muslim women are not allowed in universities because of the decisions of the Kemalist powerhouse, the Constitutional Court, is telling.
Another claim the report makes is that the AK Party pushes Gulen’s political agenda. This also needs to be verified. As it stands currently, it is only a claim denied by all sides.
Alleged AK Party allies
The report unjustly and wrongly claims that the lower courts are full of AK Party allies. This is only a groundless accusation. Even staunch AK Party opponents do not claim this but argue that some of the prosecutors that go after Ergenekon suspects are under the influence of the AK Party. What is more, the report never suspects that maybe these prosecutors who deal with the Ergenekon case are simply trying to uphold the rule of law, ensure justice or simply fulfill the duties they are paid to carry out. Science and Cartesian methodology teach us to never be sure.
Another artificial observation of the report is that Turkish citizens are debating over whether drinking rakı is offensive to Turkish-Islamic culture. I wonder who is having this discussion. Even the Doğan Media Group, which openly dislikes the AK Party, does not make such a claim. Drinking alcoholic beverages, rakı being one, is, of course, prohibited in Islam and everybody knows this. But, for centuries, no one interfered with people who consumed alcohol. During the AK Party era, some observers have noted that it is difficult to find alcoholic drinks in some conservative Anatolian towns, but this has always been the case. To cut it short, practicing Muslims are not offended when they see someone drinking rakı; it is a personal sin and only God can deal with those matters.
The report indulges in gossip when it claims that free textbooks distributed by the Ministry of Education were published by a Gulen movement publisher. I had never before heard such a claim. Secondly, the books are published by several different companies. Thirdly, their content is open to public scrutiny and so far no one has voiced anything negative other than a few factual mistakes, etc. This claim is simply based on gossip and strengthens Gulen-mania and Gulenophobia, but otherwise has no place in academia.
The report also mistakenly claims that girls are permitted to wear headscarves in imam-hatip schools. That is not true. Only in religious classes are girls allowed to wear them, but in many other classes, in corridors and in the schools’ gardens, they are not allowed to wear headscarves. The report also presents a biased picture of the headscarf and debate over imam-hatip schools.
When reading the report, one gets the impression that headscarves were always banned in Turkey and that imam-hatip institution graduates were not allowed to enter any university department they wanted even if they scored high on the entrance exam. And, all of a sudden, the power-greedy and Islamicizing AK Party wanted to change this situation that had been in place since time immemorial. Reality, however, is different from what is presented in the report.
Until the post-modern coup of Feb. 28, women with headscarves were practically allowed into every university and imam-hatip graduates could freely enroll in any university department they wanted. However, it was the generals who pressured everyone so that headscarved women would not be allowed on university campuses and so imam-hatip graduates could only study theology. The AK Party only tried to return to the original system. And, in the headscarf case, it was the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) that supported the AK Party in its attempt to amend the Constitution. Indeed, the MHP also voted in favor of it.
There is also an unbelievable claim that the Gulen movement says that the majority of Turkish students are enrolled in its private and public schools. Unless we are speaking British English here, public schools are owned by the state. The schools affiliated with the movement are all private schools. But then, there are only 150-200 such schools in Turkey and compared to tens of thousands of state-owned (public) schools, they make up less than one percent of the Turkish educational system, let alone being in the majority. This claim only fuels anti-Gulen paranoia.
Chair of the Higher Education Board (YÖK) Professor Yusuf Ziya Özcan is also claimed to be an AK Party loyalist and Gulen sympathizer. It is the first time I have heard such a claim and as far as I know he has a “secular” life style. But in Turkey it has become common practice among the ultrasecularists and ultranationalists to label every single liberal or democrat or objective or EU-process advocate as a Gulen sympathizer.
The report simply copies and pastes anti-Gulen conspiracy theories about the movement without giving any opportunity to the movement to respond. It talks about secret Gulen sympathizers in the army who remain quietly in touch with their Gulenist mentor. But this is pure conspiracy theory that is constantly repeated by Gulen’s enemies. Until now no such person was caught and prosecuted. It is only natural that there could be several soldiers who like Gulen and his ideas. Gulen himself said that for years he preached in mosques to Anatolian people that they should get their children educated to become engineers, doctors, lawyers, police and soldiers. In any democratic country these people would openly show that they are reading Gulen’s books and practicing Islam. It is the undemocratic system’s fault that they keep a low profile. But to follow what Gulen has to say, they do not need a secret mentor who could easily be spotted by military intelligence services. They could simply refer to Gulen’s books and websites. Gulen was on trial for years over these accusations and he was acquitted despite pressure exercised by the bureaucratic oligarchy over the courts.
The report talks about another myth, that free housing is provided to university students. I wonder why the author did not go and ask a few students who stay in these places? Only some of them need partial scholarships while the majority pays their own rent. In most cases they make voluntary donations for the needy in Africa, etc. The report also gives the impression that the schools take advantage of the poverty of the students but the fact is that all Gulen schools charge tuition fees and in Turkey the fees are currently about $10,000. Only about 20 percent of the students obtain scholarships. So, many well-off families also send their children to these schools. The movement is not a poverty-based phenomenon.
Another groundless accusation is that the schools in the Central Asia and Caucasus aim to revive moderate Islam. The author fails to mention that all leaders of these countries are dedicated secularists and they have well-functioning intelligence agencies. If they were to detect anything resembling Islamic missionary activities they would close down the schools.
The report looks at the multidimensional issues through an Islamist-conspiracy lens but fails to take into account the EU process, among many other things. The democratization process in Turkey, increasing the transparency and accountability of the state and the military’s eventual loss of power need also be attributed to the EU process. Several secularist governments that had nothing to do with Islamism legislated numerous laws to this effect. Even the military dominated MGK declared repeatedly that EU-membership is a major state policy. Linked to the EU process, we also need to note that the EU very closely monitors Turkey and every year the EU prepares detailed progress reports about Turkey. However until now the AK Party has never been accused of following an Islamist policy and so on and its legislative attempts have been encouraged. Even the Turkophobes in the EU that do not want to see Turkey in the EU have not raised such a point despite the fact that it would give them a good excuse to exclude Turkey from the EU.
Another groundless claim in the report is that AK Party is using the Ergenekon investigation to quash political dissent. This is again without evidence. Moreover, until now not even a single member of the AK Party’s major political opponents (the Republican People’s Party [CHP], MHP and so on) was prosecuted. The ones who have been prosecuted openly had a radical and anti-democratic rhetoric and prosecutors claim in their tens of thousands of pages of indictments that there is a plethora evidence that they were engaged in illegal activities. The cases are going on but the Stratfor report has already found some of the suspect non-guilty.
The author also superficially claims that there are Gulen movement supporter within the ranks of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT). But she supplies no evidence — which seems to be a habit of hers.
The report constantly, but mistakenly, portrays the AK Party and the Gulen movement as identical twins, and claims, for instance, that a probable economic crisis would cause the population to be dissatisfied with the AK Party and the Gulen movement. The Gulen movement is not running the economy, so why would they be held accountable for an economic crisis?
The report mentions leaks to the Taraf daily but does not provide any details on the contents of those leaks. Much of the information Taraf reported could not be denied by the military, and the generals could only declare that they were trying to discover who leaked these documents. To give one example, the military has prepared many websites in order to disseminate fabricated and inflammatory pieces on the ruling AK Party and the Gulen movement. Military officers paid the fees for the web hosting services with their credit cards and the only thing that the chief of General Staff could say is they were given orders by a former prime minister to engage in such illegal activities against their own government. When they were challenged to show evidence, they could not produce any documents.
The report also repeats an oft-mentioned lie about the Zaman daily, claiming it is distributed for free. Many people in Turkey are unaware of how a subscription system works and think that papers are left every morning in front of homes for free. Every month I pay TL 55 with my credit card, but most of my papers are “stolen” by neighbors who think that the movement leaves them on my doorstep free of charge.
The report also claims that secularist newspapers that do not support AK Party or at least are not neutral face many legal obstacles. This is again a conspiracy. Even the report accepts that Doğan Media Group was engaged in tax fraud. But the report cannot explain why several other passionate AK Party enemies such as Cumhuriyet, Sözcü, Yeni Çağ, and Milli Gazete and others do not face any legal difficulties even as they continue to take the AK Party head on.
According to the author of the report, several members of Erdoğan’s administration are involved in money laundering. Can she give us just one name?
Despite what the report alleges, the İhlas group — a holding group that owns several media outlets — has nothing to do with the Gulen movement. Quite the contrary, they are in an amicable competitor. Ülker is also an independent group that contributes to almost every charity in Turkey.
The author claims that Türkiye Finans is now called Bank Asya. If she has ever wandered around the streets of İstanbul she would see that Türkiye Finans branches sit next to Bank Asya branches. Bank Asya has always been Bank Asya and Türkiye Finans is also not affiliated with the Gulen movement.
The report somehow attempts to link the movement to Turkey’s foreign intelligence agencies and unjustly makes it a target in countries where the movement operates. So far, it has never been claimed that the movement is engaged in intelligence gathering operations. It is not plausible that a movement that opens schools all over the world would make itself a target by engaging in dangerous acts, such as intelligence. But when we read the report carefully we realizing what the author intends; the word “intelligence” is used to refer to the movement’s willingness to put Turkish politicians and bureaucrats in contact with local officials in the countries they operate. But to use such a loaded word as intelligence to describe these act ivies not only reveals a careless use of the term, but also unjustly fuels Gulenophobia. The author also claims that Gulen schools are a natural complement to the AK Party’s foreign policy agenda but it does not remind the reader that these schools existed well before the AK Party, before Turkey was accused of following an Islamist foreign policy. What would the schools refrain from doing in an era of a possible CHP government which they aren’t doing now?
The report also hints that the AK Party’s efforts to join the EU are insincere. This is again another groundless accusation without any convincing evidence and one that is purely based on mind reading.
When talking about the AK Party’s efforts to make the closure of political parties more difficult, one is led to think that the AK Party is trying to hide and protect its illegal activities and wrongdoings from the law as the report does not provide any context for how the higher judiciary behaves towards the AK Party. In the most recent closure case against the AK Party in 2008, the prosecutor even made use of Erdoğan’s remark that we are all brothers and sister since God created all equally as human beings. The prosecutor argued that this very sentence undermined the secular foundations of the state. Is it not natural that the AK Party would try to limit higher judiciary’s arbitrary abuse of the law?
The author reveals her ignorance of Turkish law and unfamiliarity with processes in the country when she argues that the most recent constitutional reform package was first reviewed by the Constructional Court then passed by Parliament. But one does not need to be a professor on constitutional law to know that Parliament must first approve any legislation, or to know that 110 MP who opposed the move when to court which then ruled that the opposition’s claims that the package violated the democratic nature of the state were not true. Knowing that the court is staunchly secularist and has generally decided against the AK Party, even to the point of transgressing the law, this decision is meaningful in showing just how unfounded the accusations leveled against the AK Party are.
The report also alleges that the AK Party made some concessions and let some Ergenekon suspects free. This is another groundless accusation leveled at both the AK Party and the independent judiciary and this claim is asserted in the report without taking into account of the denials voiced by the AK Party or the prosecutors and judges involved in the case. This grave injustice to the Turkish judiciary also simply ignores the fact that the AK Party loses many cases in both lower and higher courts.
To sum it up, the report does not meet the requirements for balanced, objective and high-quality academic work. The report is generally based a biased, anti-AK Party, anti-Gulen group approach, and the accusations listed in the report are put forth as if they are grounded in solid evidence and are agreed on universally by everyone in Turkey. It is impossible to understand why Stratfor would take such a kamikaze dive and shatter its prestige with such a shallow report.
Author: Ihsan Yilmaz
Source: Today’s Zaman