This post is part of the “Rethinking Nation and Nationalism” symposium.
On Dec. 17, 2013, Turkish prosecutors started a corruption investigation into the activities of the sons of three ministers of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, businessmen close to the government, and bureaucrats. The corruption allegations later included then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after wiretapped telephone conversations between Erdogan and his son about hiding large sums of cash were leaked on the Internet. The prosecutors were believed to be followers of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic scholar who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
The scandal exposed a conflict between two longtime Islamist allies, the AKP and the Gulen movement, which has rapidly reshaped the Turkish political scene. Many analysts have argued that the rift emerged from a power struggle. Erdogan was threatened by the growing influence of Gulenists within the state while the Gulenists were concerned about Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and personalization of power. While there is certainly something to this, there are also deeper reasons for the schism. The AKP-Gulen conflict also resulted from an ideological clash about the nature of the relationship between Islam and Turkish nationalism.
The AKP, which has ruled Turkey since 2002, is typically described as a moderately Islamist party. The less well-understood Gulen movement is Turkey’s most influential and internationally active religious network. The community refers to itself as the Hizmet (service) movement, encompassing a large commercial, media and education network, inspired by the teachings of Fethullah Gulen. Although Gulenists portray themselves as members of an apolitical, civil movement, this image is misleading. The movement has been an influential player in Turkish politics since the late 1980s. In the 2000s, it openly allied with the AKP government, supporting a number of its key policies, most importantly the weakening of the power of the military and secularist judiciary. Many have alleged that the Gulenists have come to dominate many cadres in the state bureaucracy, particularly the police and the judiciary, making them a significant political force to reckon with in Turkish politics. Today the AKP government accuses the movement of forming a parallel organization within the state to capture state authority. Since the corruption probe the government has purged hundreds of alleged Gulenists from the cadres of the police and the judiciary.
In the past decade, scholars have noted the rise of a different conception of Turkish nationalism, called Muslim or Islamic nationalism, which has led to a transformative shift in the official state discourse. The AKP and the Gulen movement share some broad tenets of Muslim nationalism. Challenging the secular and Westernist character of Kemalist nationalism, they emphasize Muslim identity as the key element in defining Turkishness. Accordingly, the ideal Turk should have a strong moral character informed by Sunni Islamic values. They criticize Kemalist nationalists for being elitist and imitative, forcing people to change their authentic selves in the name of Westernization. Muslim nationalists endorse this strong discourse of victimhood and present themselves as the genuine representatives of the Turkish nation. Building on this sense of victimhood, they hold Kemalist nationalists responsible for Turkey’s loss of status in the international arena, attributing it to the defensive and inward-looking character of Kemalist nationalism. Instead, Muslim nationalists imagine Turkey to be a major world power, guided by an assertive and ambitious foreign policy that rests on building Turkey’s soft power and economic strength. They associate national pride with economic success and desire that Turkey play a leadership role, particularly in the Muslim world.
Such commonalities aside, there have been significant disagreements between the AKP and the Gulen movement. It is true that these two groups’ nationalist discourses can be fluid, and at times multi-vocal. Unlike the Gulen movement, the AKP is subject to the pressures of electoral politics. The Gulen movement’s discourse can be inconsistent, partly because what its representatives say or do in their “window sites” can differ from what they say or do in private. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify the broad points of contention.
The most important difference between the Gulen movement and the AKP is that while the first advocates an ethno-cultural understanding of Turkishness, the latter prioritizes Muslim identity over ethnic identity. Fethullah Gulen is a leading advocate of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, endorsing the view that Turkish Islam is unique and superior to the Islam of other ethnic groups. According to this view, Islam did not come to the Turkish world from the Arabs but came to Anatolia from Central Asia by way of Sufi dervishes. This Sufi connection makes Turkish Islam more moderate, tolerant and open to interpretation and change than the Arab and Persian forms of Islam, which are more prone to radicalization. Gulen emphasizes the importance of Turkey’s cooperation with the Central Asian countries to create a strong Turkic world. In his schools that are spread all around the world, his followers try to familiarize their students with Turkish-Islamic morality and culture, teaching them the Turkish language and history. In Gulen’s writings and the movement’s spectacles, such as the Turkish Language Olympiads, the central emphasis has been on exalting and praising the culture of Turkish Anatolia.
For the AKP, on the other hand, the main points of reference are Ottoman and Islamic history. The AKP’s symbolic capital rests heavily on Ottoman and Islamic references as seen, for instance, in the official celebrations of the conquest of Istanbul or the prophet Muhammad’s birthday. The AKP’s nationalist view downplays the role of ethnicity. It does not emphasize a hierarchy of nations within the Muslim world and does not contain a critical discourse about other Sunni-Muslim ethnic groups. In that sense, the AKP holds on to a more universalist-Islamist perspective. It is nationalist because it imagines a Turkey-centered Muslim world but the Muslim identity is more dominant in its conception of the Turkish nation than a unique Turkish ethnic identity. Erdogan’s special interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his outright support of activists who tried to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza in violation of Israel’s naval blockade in 2010 were informed by his Muslimhood-centered nationalism. In contrast, Gulen criticized the initiative for violating Israel’s sovereignty. The disagreement between the AKP and Gulen in fact first revealed itself during the Gaza flotilla crisis.
This divergence in their nationalist perspectives has important implications for their relations with minorities in Turkey, particularly the Kurds. While both groups use the discourse of Muslim brotherhood as a bond between the Turks and the Kurds, the AKP has endorsed a more pragmatic approach toward the resolution of the Kurdish problem. In his speeches, particularly those in the Kurdish provinces, now-President Erdogan frequently brings up the concept of citizenship, downplaying the discourse of ethnic Turkish identity. The AKP government’s recognition of many Kurdish linguistic and cultural rights and its negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have faced the Gulen community’s opposition. What crystallized the rift between the two former allies were their clashing views about the Kurdish question. The movement has been much less compromising toward Kurdish nationalism. The movement sees the resolution of the Kurdish conflict through the recognition of Kurdish linguistic rights (with elective Kurdish classes in schools) and the provision of more social services to the Kurdish areas but stops short of any negotiations with the PKK and its affiliated groups. It refrains from forming relations with Kurdish nationalists and supports military solutions to end the insurgency. The pro-Gulen television channel, Samanyolu, is noted for its militaristic and nationalist TV series. Because of its heavy emphasis on Turkish nationalism, the Gulen movement has not been popular with Kurdish activists. Many believe that the movement was behind the mass arrests of pro-Kurdish activists. Starting in 2009, thousands of journalists, politicians, mayors and publishers were arrested because of their alleged membership in the KCK, the urban, political wing of the PKK. While the movement has opened several schools in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast as well as in Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region, Kurdish activists have perceived these schools as institutions of assimilation.
Unlike its relations with the Kurds, however, the movement has had closer relations with the leaders of Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities, such as the Greek Orthodox and Jewish communities. Since the 1990s, the movement’s Journalists and Writers Foundation has organized meetings on interfaith dialogue, bringing religious minority leaders together. The Gulen movement’s public face has nurtured a discourse of religious tolerance and engagement and boasted of helping non-Muslim communities solve their daily problems resulting from social prejudices.
The AKP, on the other hand, has had a more distanced relationship with Turkey’s non-Muslims. Despite pressures from the European Union, it refrained from addressing the major problems of Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities. While it undertook legal reforms to ameliorate the institutional autonomy and property rights of non-Muslim minorities, it dragged its feet to enforce these changes. Particularly at times of political challenge, the spontaneity and ease with which the AKP’s rhetoric can take an anti-Westernist, anti-Christian or anti-Semitic tone underline the stronger weight of its Islamist tradition. The defiant, conspiratorial discourse of Erdogan, accusing the West, Zionists, secularists and non-Muslims during and after the 2013 Gezi protests, and his derogatory remarks about Jews and Armenians have recently made hate speech against non-Muslims more visible and ordinary in the public space. For example, in an interview, Erdogan stated: “Let all Turks in Turkey say they are Turks and all Kurds say they are Kurds. What is wrong with that? You wouldn’t believe the things they have said about me. They have said I am Georgian. Excuse me, but they have said even uglier things. They have called me Armenian, but I am Turkish.”
The analyses of Muslim nationalism in Turkey have largely ignored the conflicting trends within the Islamic discourse about Turkish national identity. Like Kemalists, Muslim nationalists have not been coherent and monolithic nor have they necessarily endorsed a more inclusive understanding of Turkishness. The two main constructions of Muslim nationalism have been exclusivist and intolerant of diversity, but in different ways. How the conflict between the movement and the AKP will be resolved is still not very clear. But the way it is resolved and the upcoming general elections in June will have serious implications for Turkey’s democracy, social peace and relations with minorities.
Senem Aslan is assistant professor in the Department of Politics at Bates College. She is the author of “Nation-Building in Turkey and Morocco: Governing Kurdish and Berber Dissent” (Cambridge University Press, 2014).