17 February 2012

What is Happening in Turkey?

I was in Istanbul last week, on a business trip.

Every day, Turkish papers, usually full of provocative pictures and gossipy news items about minor celebrities, devoted their front pages to what they unanimously called, the state crisis.

A special prosecutor subpoenaed the head of the National Intelligence Service (MIT) for having conducted secret talks with PKK, the Kurdish separatist guerrilla army. When he refused, the prosecutor issued an arrest warrant and all hell broke loose.

The top spy went to talk to the President and then to Prime Minister while police executed search warrants for top MIT officials. Needless to say, this has never happened in the history of the republic. And I doubt that it happened anywhere else.

Newspapers main claim was that this was a purge attempt by rival fractions within the state.

I thought that, if true, given Turkey's increasingly central role in the region, this is the kind of problem that could throw the whole Middle East into turmoil.

Yet, there was no mention of it in Western media outlets, as I searched in vain from my hotel room. The first reference to those event was a Reuters piece that popped into my mailbox yesterday with the cryptic title "Turkish opposition blasts new government spy bill."

It is a good summary of the media frenzy but it does not tell us what is happening in Turkey.

First some background.

AKP and its Many Fractions

The ruling AKP party is composed of many fractions, some are genuinely Islamist, others are staunchly nationalistic, a number of them are moderate conservatives who support pro-business policies and there are other factions with people representing unique combinations of these elements. You could say that they resemble the GOP in that respect.

The two main Islamist fractions within the party are the Nakshibendi Order and Hizmet Movement founded by Fethullah Gulen.

It is believed that the Nakshibendi group is represented by the Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan. Outside the Turkish context they are the only Sufi order to claim direct spiritual lineage to the Prophet and they have been very active politically in every era and region one finds them.

Within the Turkish context, the lineage of Order extends to all the Islamist parties that came before AKP. Despite their Sufi background, their views are not just pious and otherworldly but mainly nationalistic and expansionary. Unlike your typical Sufi sect favor political activism: they have always been an integral part of every Islamist party in Turkish history.

A cautionary note: it would be a mistake to construe that to mean that AKP is half Gulen and half Nakshibendi. As I noted at the outset it is a large coalition and one finds in it every color of the conservative spectrum.

Fethullah Gulen and the Hizmet Movement

Gulen group was formed in 1979 when Fethullah Gulen left the Nur (meaning Light) Order of Said-i Nursi and formed the Hizmet (meaning Service) Movement. He preached interfaith tolerance and dialogue, stressed the importance of education (including girls) and placed the idea of "serving the common good" (hence "Service") at the center of his teaching.

Within a short span of time he managed to establish many schools throughout the world (at some point there were about 3,000 of them, now the estimates are around a 1,000) and he did that without attracting much media attention. His schools have a modern and science oriented curriculum, use Turkish as the language of instruction and have a very good reputation, especially in countries where decent public schools are not very common.

By mid-nineties, his movement had a widespread organizational presence in all facets of Turkish society and even though Gulen maintained that his movement was about common good and as such completely apolitical, Hizmet was credited with the Islamist Welfare Party's unexpected electoral success in 1995. So when, what had subsequently become known as the post modern coup in 1997 took place (the army ousting the government with a memorandum), his movement was not spared by the new wave of secularism.

That is when he moved to the US and since 1998 he has been in a self-imposed exile in a huge compound in Pennsylvania on a "alien of exceptional ability" visa, served and protected by a large entourage even though he has no visible financial means to sustain that arrangement.

From the beginning there were rumors that Gulen was created by some external forces as an antidote to radical Islam. Over time, his insistence on staying above politics, his eagerness to enter into dialogue with Jewish and Christian leaders (including the Pope and you know how hard that is), the ease with which he got seemingly limitless funding for his schools and his ability to live in peace in the US even after 9/11, made him suspect in the eyes of traditional Turkish Islamists, chief among whom were the Nakshibendi Order.

Interestingly, he was also seen as a fake moderate by secular Turks who suspected him of slowly taking over state institutions (especially the judiciary and the police). Even now, when something ominous takes place, whether it is a stock market crash or acts of terrorism, a good percentage of the country mutters his name by way of explanation. If he preaches tolerance towards minorities, people say that he wants to divide the country and give half of it to Kurds. If he counsels caution about acts of belligerence towards Israel, people hail this as proof of his allegiance to the US and Zionism.

My personal view is that most of the mystery surrounding him could be explained by his greatest achievement, which is not well known even in Turkey. He set up the Hizment movement in such a way that it led to the creation of a genuine bourgeois class. I know bourgeoisie is a quaint term and since the demise of Marxism it makes people smirk. But by genuine bourgeoisie, I mean a group of people who are conscious of their class identity, class interests and who put those interests ahead of their individual enrichment. They also deal with the state on their terms and are cognizant of the fact that as wielders of economic power they are the most important group in that society.

Previous business classes in Turkey were primarily focused on getting rich quick schemes, using their connection to the state. This new Islamic bourgeois class -sometimes called Anatolian Tigers-  gets help from the state but for the most part it is a self-reliant and self sustaining group and they keep their distances from the state.

Moreover, unlike the previous business classes, they are imbued with the Calvinist zeal (or Weberian Protestant ethic, if you like) of the 19th century bourgeois classes. They shun ostentatious consumption and invest for the long haul and yes, they evaluate their actions in terms of contributing to the common good.

They are the ones who funded the schools and generously donated to keep Gulen in his compound. And as the rising star of business classes they are the ones who push the state apparatuses like the judiciary and the police to their way of seeing things. (Any decent political economist can tell you that a bourgeois class does not have to infiltrate or provide personnel for state apparatuses to make them do what they need)

That does not mean that Gulen is not collaborating with the US and others to propagate a milder version of Islam and confront the Wahhabi ideology from within. I suspect that he does.

What I advanced above simply means that Gulen movement is not a crude tool created and used by some super power. The movement has a genuine social, cultural, economic (and therefore inevitably) political  power and presence in Turkey. And through his schools he is posing a serious challenge to Wahhabi supported madrasas.

What is interesting is the fact that just as Erdogan is seen as the top politician representing the political and expansionary Nakshibendi group, Abdullah Gul, the president, is seen as the top guy for the social and culturally oriented Gulen movement within the state.

Gul and Erdogan: Conjoined Twins or Secret Rivals?

Abdullah Gul and Tayyip Erdogan were long appeared as an inseparable duo, very much like Medvedev and Putin. They seem to trust each other. Gul stood as Prime Minister when Erdogan was banned from getting elected and, once Erdogan cleared that legal hurdle and got elected, Gul happily resigned to let him reclaim that post. He was then elected President, a largely ceremonial post he currently holds, and it has been rumored that when his term expires, he will let Erdogan become the President (after a constitutional change to create a presidential political system). And perhaps, like Medvedev, he will again become the Prime Minister.

Erdogan is considered a charismatic figure whereas Gul is viewed as dull and affable. Erdogan is fiery and confrontational, credited with browbeating the powerful Turkish military, whereas Gul is measured and conciliatory, ready to extend an olive branch to those who incurred Erdogan's wrath. Erdogan and his family and close friends are widely believed to have amassed very large personal fortunes, whereas Gul seems relatively untouched by personal greed.

Knowledgeable observers are convinced (link in Turkish) that these two movements formed an alliance after the "post modern coup" and that is how AKP won 34 percent of the vote in 2002 just one year after it was formed. And they think that the alliance has been under enormous strain and current crisis is one of the many signs of an emerging rivalry between the two sides. Hence the in-state purging narrative of the media.

I can see why this appears like a plausible explanation. Gulen movement and AKP disagree on many issues.

Let me give two not-so-random examples.

Right after Mavi Marmara tried to reach Gaza with great fanfare and was raided by Israeli commandos, Gulen agreed to a rare interview with the Wall Street Journal, and he had some harsh words for that stunt. He said that the organizers should have sought prior permission from Israel. You can imagine how this was received by the nationalistic and religious right in Turkey, especially when you consider nine people died in that incident. Both the AKP rank and file and the opposition parties (with primarily nationalistic platforms) blasted him as a lackey of the US and Israel.

The second example is very much linked to the current crisis. In recent years, the government launched a policy dubbed the Kurdish opening, which consisted of giving the country's substantial Kurdish minority more cultural rights and some form of limited autonomy in exchange for PKK laying down its arms. After some initially successful reforms, violence erupted and the fervently nationalistic discourse that dominates Turkish politics made further progress difficult, if not impossible.

As a response, Erdogan took up a strident and nationalistic discourse towards Kurds and went after their political organizations and NGOs with his usual zeal.

While this "Kurdish closing" was being played out, in September 2011, someone leaked to the media that the Head of the Turkish Intelligence Organization (MIT), a recently appointed man by the name of Hakan Fidan, met with PKK and its affiliated groups to discuss the revival of that policy of opening. When that hit the papers and TV stations, the predominant nationalistic sentiment in the country fueled by incendiary opposition speeches, led to a major crisis.

Tellingly, Gul rose to defend the head of MIT, signalling to Turkish observers that the driving force behind this policy of giving more rights to Kurds was the Hizmet movement.

The crisis was suppressed eventually, as most Turkish media outlets are either owned by the new business classes (who are obviously sympathetic to the government) or by corporations who would rather avoid any controversy because of a reasonably justified fear of retaliation.

This was a small dress rehearsal for the current crisis.

Current Crisis

As I noted at the outset, the crisis consists of a special prosecutor investigating the same guy who was embroiled in controversy in September 2011 and charging him with establishing special ties to a terrorist organization.

As you can imagine, this is a serious crime, kind of like the head of the CIA being accused of dealing with Al Qaeda.

The observers who claim that there is a deep rivalry within AKP, and by extension within the state, represented by Gul on the one side and Erdogan on the other, are basing their argument on the fact that there is no way anyone can take seriously the charge against the head of the country's main intelligence organization. That's because he was clearly ordered to establish those ties by his political masters and therefore, they conclude, the prosecutor was going after the Prime Minister.

And because the judiciary is thought to have been taken over by the Hizmet Movement, pundits feel that it was Gul vs Erdogan as the Movement was trying to take out the Prime Minister through his Spy Master.

Could This Be True?

To my contrarian eyes, this does not make much sense.

It is true that the order to establish contact with PKK and its affiliates was given by the Prime Minister and the man in question is one of his very close collaborators and confidants.

But, first remember that, when the September 2011 crisis erupted it was Gul who provided cover for the head of MIT, not Erdogan.

Secondly, if the judiciary was taken over by Hizmet and Hizmet was believed to be the driving force behind the Kurdish opening, why would the special prosecutor try to criminalize that policy?

Thirdly, if for some unknown reason he wanted to go after the policy of Kurdish opening why would he do it through such a public stunt, which guaranteed the failure of his move?

With a huge majority in Parliament, all the government had to do was to quickly pass a new law -as they did- curbing the subpoena and arrest powers of special prosecutors. And before even they did that the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors intervened to chastise the prosecutor in question for abuse of power and he was ultimately taken off the case.

Fourthly, why would Hizmet want to get rid of Erdogan and the fractions he represents? There is no one else to control them.

This rivalry and infighting could appear plausible to you if you took Erdogan's incendiary speeches seriously without taking into account a number of contradictory actions of his government, Or if you were convinced that the man's delusions of grandeur are such that he genuinely thinks that he was the super hero who would put Israel in its place and the US, faced with that prospect, would simply pat him on the shoulder.

As my tiny but extremely well-informed readership remembers, I am no such person. I have been maintaining that Turkey's actions make more sense if you interpret them through the prism of regional power plays and the US interests that inform them.

And considering the US attitude towards both Gulen and Erdogan, I seriously doubt that these two fractions are using two separate playbooks when it comes to Turkey's role in the Middle East.

Far from being a rivalry, I see the Gul-Erdogan dance like a well rehearsed tango of two wily partners. The idea of a tension and rivalry provides them with a lot of cover and room of maneuver. On the Kurdish issue, Erdogan feels free to make nationalistic turns to preempt the opposition. After a PKK attack he takes radical steps that steals the opposition's thunder and makes him even more popular to the nationalists within AKP.

Because he knows that while he is performing those acts, behind the scenes Gul and the Movement maintain the Kurdish opening dialogue going.

On the Israel and Palestine issue, Erdogan fiercely attacks Israel, accuses them of all sorts of crimes, supports over the top measures like sending a flotilla to Gaza and he becomes a hero both at home and in the Arab streets.

All the while Gul establishes back channels to Israel, uses government power to push Hamas in a different direction and takes seemingly contradictory steps like thwarting flotillas to reach Israel.

There is no way that Erdogan would not be in on all this.

Turkish pundits notwithstanding, I think this crisis will not have a significant impact on what I assume to be the grand plan in the region.

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