The main difference between Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen and the politician who became Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is that the former is vehemently opposed to the use and abuse of Islam as a political ideology and party philosophy while the latter sees the religion as an instrument to channel votes and to consolidate his ranks among supporters.
Whereas Gülen talks first and foremost about building bridges established on basic humanistic values and democratic principles as part of interfaith and intercultural dialogue efforts, Erdoğan has only been interested in building his leadership around a political Islamist ideology with which he thinks he can appeal to conservative Muslims, not only in the Turkish streets but in the former territories of the Ottoman state.
Gülen talks about education as the most important institution to establish a society through which most of the world's problems and malaise can be resolved, ranging from the low rate of women's participation in the labor force to insufficient transparency and accountability in governance and from substance abuse among young people to soaring crime rates and fanaticism/terrorism. He believes that if family values centered on a strong character in individuals can be promoted through education, then this will have a trickle-down impact on neighborhoods, towns, cities, the whole nation and even the world. That is how he aspires to help contribute to world peace, albeit in his humble ways from self-imposed exile in a small retreat in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.
On the other hand, Erdoğan's way represents a top-down imposition of Islamist values that are distinctly separate from the mainstream Sufi orientation in the predominantly Sunni population of Turkey. He wants people to show off their religiosity and to help state powers make it more visible, as opposed to Sufism's mystic and inner-oriented, soul-searching character. Erdoğan's authoritarian tendency is only equaled by the now-defunct, repressive, military-backed Kemalist attitude that had an oppressive, stigmatizing impact on much of the history of the republic. Just as the hard-core secularists failed to achieve what they sought for years, i.e., establishing a society in their straightjacket image, Erdoğan's Islamist agenda is doomed as well, given the strong, vibrant civil society, affluent middle class and very dynamic, young population in Turkey. That, though, does not mean that Erdoğan's style of governance will wither away without leaving scars on Turkish democracy, just as the meddlesome generals did in the past.
The recent corruption scandals that have rattled and perhaps even threatened Erdoğan's rule were wrongly perceived as a fight for power between Erdoğan and Gülen. For one thing, Gülen, a 75-year-old cleric, has never been interested in politics in his life and has publicly refused to engage in it. He is not seeking to govern the country and never will. Based on issues, he has supported candidates and parties that he believed might benefit the nation. On the eve of the public referendum in 2010 that brought further freedoms and rights with the constitutional overhaul, he said that he would have applauded the main opposition or junior opposition parties as well, if it had been they who brought such reforms that benefited the people of Turkey.
The fact that he has never committed himself blindly to a single party platform put Gülen in an independent position to criticize Erdoğan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government when warranted. For example, regarding the 2010 flotilla incident where a humanitarian aid convoy en route to Gaza was attacked by Israeli commandos who killed eight Turkish civilians and one Turkish-American, he said that the organizers' failure to seek accord with Israel before attempting to deliver aid "is a sign of defying authority and will not lead to fruitful matters." Erdoğan, whose government allowed the ship to sail without any protection or assurances from the Israeli side, seized on this tragedy to mobilize people around his Islamist agenda in Turkey and ratcheted up his anti-Israeli rhetoric. Gülen, on the other hand, saw this as dynamite blown up under the bridge of a religious interfaith campaign. His focus was more on the substance of easing the plight of the Palestinians and making their daily lives better, rather than exploiting the sensitive issue with mere symbolism.
The difference between Gülen and Erdoğan emerges in other foreign policy areas as well. The EU membership process seems to be a tactical rather than a strategic choice for Erdoğan, who used the accession talks as leverage against the once-powerful military and later dropped the agenda after he had pushed them to their barracks. The fact that Erdoğan is now trying to roll back some of the accomplishments Turkey has achieved in areas like the judiciary and fundamental rights and freedoms is strong indication that he does not really have his heart set on advancing Turkish democracy with strong checks and balances. Gülen, on the other hand, has been supportive of the EU process, even during the 1990s when Erdoğan was publicly bashing the EU and calling it a “community of Christian Catholic countries.” (As strange as it sounds, that is what he said in a YouTube video dated March 1990.) Gülen, however, has always seen the EU process as an opportunity to give substance to his interfaith and cultural dialogue efforts and has sincerely endorsed the idea from the beginning.
There are of course various reasons why Erdoğan has now started attacking Gülen, an intellectual and scholar who is neither a political figure nor a religious leader seeking a revolution in Turkey. Faced with massive corruption investigations that implicate people in his government with criminal charges, Erdoğan is trying to make a villain out of Gülen and make him the scapegoat of government problems so that he can distract the public from the fallout of the damaging revelations. He did this during the Gezi Park protests also, when he floated the murky idea of an “interest lobby” acting with international powers and media groups. Since Gülen has always been highly sensitive about combating corruption in Turkish society and has harshly criticized people who have squandered taxpayers' money, he came out strongly against Erdoğan in the face of hard evidence exposing a major graft network. Erdoğan targets Gülen with smear campaigns in public rallies to silence him and his followers while at the same time trying to derail investigations with a purge of police officers and prosecutors.
Not surprisingly, Gülen is not the only one in a long line-up of suspects, a list that includes the main opposition Republican Peoples' Party (CHP) and the junior opposition party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Both of them are public enemies, according to Erdoğan, who has openly described them as being involved in “treachery” against the Turkish nation. Turkish media outlets who run critical stories of government corruption scandals are also traitors. Business groups like the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen's Association (TÜSİAD), the club of the wealthiest businesspeople, and the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), the largest trade advocacy group, are also on the same list. By the definition of his ideology, the list goes on to include unions, leftist groups, Kurds, Alevis and even football fans who chant against the government during a match. Hence, this is not a fight between Erdoğan and Gülen, but rather Erdoğan's war with every group that is critical of his government on corruption and other issues. Erdoğan wants total subordination and commands loyalty with no questions asked, as an outgoing former Cabinet minister bluntly described it.
As for the claim of infiltration of the police department and the judiciary by Gülen sympathizers, this is an old argument in Turkey that has been trotted out time and again with no evidence to back it up. The junta-dominated military pursued these allegations against Gülen in the Turkish courts with frivolous lawsuits and they all resulted in Gülen's acquittal. Erdoğan leveling similar accusations against Gülen now is just another attempt to shift the blame and turn the focus elsewhere. If Erdoğan has any evidence of wrongdoing, he should have settled it in a court of law, which seems quite unlikely. Just like the use of terms like “interest lobby” or “chaos lobby,” Erdoğan plays to the gallery by raising the specter of “gangs” within the state, a veiled reference to Gülen sympathizers. It is, of course, very natural for people who like Gülen's ideas to work in public agencies as full-fledged citizens of this country, based on their merits and not because of ideology, value or personal preferences. As long as they act within the laws and regulations, they should not be profiled or targeted, as President Abdullah Gül said last week when he commented on the corruption investigation.
Since the Turkish state has always been authoritarian and not allowed any religious or non-religious orders to officially exist in Turkey apart from the state's Religious Affairs Directorate, faith-based groups were forced to operate in a gray area. This included Alevis, religious orders and many other diverse groups that make up the vibrant Turkish society. This was not unique to Muslims, of course. Even non-Muslims who were officially recognized in the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 have had great difficulties in Turkey due to a major democratic deficit in governance. When most Turks, including the government, were looking at non-Muslim minorities with suspicions of subversive activity in 1990s, Gülen was reaching out to the ecumenical patriarch and Jewish rabbis in a bid to promote understanding. Hence, the claims of a lack of transparency leveled at Hizmet today are part of the larger problem in Turkey, a country with a notorious past of profiling its citizens based on their beliefs, race and ethnicity. Even now, we have learned from recent media leaks that the Erdoğan government has maintained massive profiling schemes on citizens, including those in the Hizmet movement.
In a nutshell, Erdoğan's creeping Islamist agenda with a heavy focus on symbols rather than substance has started threatening the very fabric of Turkey's variegated social structure. The richness of diverse views and perspectives is an important asset that makes Turkey perhaps one of the rising stars of its neighborhood. It offers a good and workable model in which Islam and democracy can function, despite all its current shortcomings. However, dressing down Turkish society with an Iranian mullah-type domineering agenda of political Islam will sabotage the future of Turkey and all others who have pinned their hopes on Turkey. We have never seen, for example, young people wearing shrouds in public and chanting “Jihadist Erdoğan” at government-endorsed rallies before. This is very troubling in a country with a young population that might be easily pushed to radicalization if left unchecked.
Since Erdoğan is playing with fire in Turkey and pushing the country off the cliff with symbolism and adventurism, perhaps Gülen felt compelled to take a stand to protect the very values he has been advocating his entire life.