Eager to see the site where Turkey’s civil unrest began last summer, I made my way to Taksim Square via one of Istanbul’s most famous streets, Istiklâl Cadessi: European capitalism incarnate exported to the artery and lifeblood of an ancient Eastern capital. I pushed my way through the frenetic throng and passed a small group of peaceful protesters, armed modestly with placards and a collective sense of disaffection. They shuffled slowly in the same direction. As the meandering highstreet took me around the bend, I was met by a group of riot police waiting for them; there were at least three times as many police as there were protesters. It was an unsettling disparity. This was quite plainly part of the state’s reflex; authority’s residual anxiety over the countrywide rioting and antagonism of last summer, all originating in troubled Taksim Square.
[quote]A small group of peaceful protesters was armed modestly with placards and a collective sense of disaffection[/quote]
And what were these riots all about? In short, they were Turkey’s ‘Occupy Wall Street.’ I hesitate to be so reductive: peering below the surface reveals sociopolitical dynamics that are far more complex, nefarious and murky than the spontaneous disgruntlement of a briefly galvanized liberal elite minority.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party (the AKP) started off encouragingly. AKP’s first term, from 2002-2007, found success on a number of fronts. A savvier foreign policy, which included various overtures made by Erdogan to both the East and West, saw improved relations with the EU and the Middle East. Erdo?an pursued a “good neigbours” approach to remedy abiding regional contentions, repairing relations with Greece, Armenia and the Kurds. Stability and pragmatism buttressed the economy and adopting Neoliberal privatization reforms (no doubt a helpful initiative in wooing the EU) attracted an unprecedented degree of foreign direct investment. Simultaneously, inflation and interest rates were lowering, encouraging domestic consumption. According to World Bank development indicators, Turkey’s GDP growth rate in 2001 was -5.7%; by 2004 it was 9.4%. It came then as little surprise that the AKP was reelected in 2007 and 2011, despite the grumblings and suspicions of Kemalists – a term for the adherents of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s fervently secular vision.
In a book entitled Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are, co-published by the Woodrow Wilson Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace, contributing author Ömer Ta?pinar writes of the Kemalists’ fears: behind all this progress and development there existed Machiavellian maneuvering to weaken Turkey’s singular secular legacy. There was the belief that moves to improve eligibility for EU membership were a guise, just one of the myriad ways the government sought to undermine and weaken the military. (Historically the military, run by Kemalist elites, had loomed in the background, perennially ready to enact a coup should the government sway from the path of hardline secularism.) Such critics, according to Ta?pinar, “…balked, for instance, at AKP measures to increase the ratio of civilians to military officers on the National Security Council, elect a civilian to head the National Security Council, remove military representatives from the boards of the Council of Higher Education and the Radio and Television High Council, and grant broadcasting and cultural rights to Kurds.” The Kemalists’ fears were not only actualized but becoming increasingly explicit.
Eventually a mass trial was launched by the AKP government against a number of senior military personnel, “…which culminated last summer in the imprisonment of dozens of retired army officers, including a former chief of the general staff, on much inflated charges of planning a coup,” writes Turkey specialist Christopher de Bellaigue in The New York Review of Books. Frustration amongst the alcohol-consuming, PDA-partaking, abortion-supporting liberal minority (as distinct from the Kemalists) had reached a critical mass. Political machinations and paternalistic legislation alike were fuel for the fire of unrest in Taksim and even across rural, conservative Turkey.
Now here we have an interesting twist to the story. So far I have omitted one crucial player: the cleric, Fethullah Gülen. He is a polarizing figure but, no matter what one may think of him, it would be hard to deny the extent of his far-reaching power. Gülen (think a Turkish, mustachioed Robert De Niro) has lived in Pennsylvania for the last 15 years in self-imposed exile. The nebulous Gülen movement, or Hizmet, acts as a kind of fifth estate in Turkey, with troubling extensive membership in the police and judiciary. De Bellaigue describes the network: “An organisation without a declared membership or leadership structure, the Gulen empire is thought to encompass more than five hundred fee-paying schools in one hundred countries (including the United States), along with banks, hospitals, media groups, and a business association, Tuskon, which has spearheaded the Turkish penetration of new markets, notably in Africa.” He goes on to say that the aforementioned military trials, though carried out at Erdogan’s behest, are believed to have been orchestrated by prosecutors closely tied to Gülen. And in a damning exposé of just how pervasive Gülen’s infiltration into the police was, The Guardian’s Constanze Letsche interviewed a number of policemen who corroborated the claims. One anonymously said, “They kept tabs on every recruit, had a grading system from zero to five – five being the ones who prayed, fasted, never drank alcohol…” Upward mobility, they said, was based almost entirely on how one was graded and whether or not one accepted the subtle invitations into the network.
Erdo?an and Gülen started off as allies against a common cause: establishing a modern Islamic nation and dismantling the Kemalist elite that stood in their way. Gülen’s support of the AKP in 2002 is in fact what helped pave its way to victory. Sadly, as many love stories go, one party was jilted (though it’s not entirely clear which one) and they’ve been exacting revenge on each other ever since, in an increasingly public manner and to enfeebling economic effect. Last December, Turkish police, led by Gülenists, arrested a number of AKP in a series of raids, including the sons of three cabinet ministers. These were due to “…suspected corruption, bribery and tender-rigging,” reported Letsche.
And just as Musharraf was to Chaudhry, Erdogan was to his judiciary. De Bellaigue reported on the Prime Minister’s response to the raids: “Mass transfers of Gulenist personnel in the police and judiciary have had the effect of halting the corruption investigation (the prosecutors who initiated it have been removed)…”; also delayed by AKP purges are the investigations into nepotistic tenders and Erdo?an’s cozy relationship with a controversial Saudi businessman. Furthermore, Erdogan has done a fine job of reining in the media and ensuring censorship; his ban on Twitter, mandated after new recordings of Erdogan and company’s dirty dealings began to circulate nightly (courtesy of Gülenists, it is loudly whispered) was lifted only last week by a constitutional court. In a further, retaliatory blow to his adversary, the Prime Minister pushed a bill through parliament just last month, banning all of Gülen’s private preparatory schools. They are a major source of income to the exiled cleric, as well as the supposed breeding ground for new Hizmet recruits. Erdogan officially justified the bill as part of much-needed educational reform to remedy Turkey’s poor ranking amongst developed countries. Though the targeted schools are known for producing excellent results and subsequent placement in coveted institutions.
While it is manifest what Erdo?an desires – to annihilate his meddling foe – Gülen’s wants are slightly harder to identify. It remains unclear if his attempts at dismantling the AKP and targeting Erdogan are motivated by the injured pride of a fallen angel or if there is a larger stratagem at play.
Scylla and Charybdis were two sea monsters – embodied as a rock shoal and whirlpool respectively – flanking a narrow strait Odysseus had to pass through. With Erodogan’s intensifying autocracy and extreme, irrational paranoia (his chief adviser, Yigit Bulut, accused malevolent foreigners of trying to kill the PM by way of telekinesis) and Gülen’s impressive capacity for remote political machinations, it would seem Turkey’s future is caught somewhere in the metaphor. What remains to be seen is whether pluralism and democracy, in their truest sense, make it through this strait, or if they fall victim to Turkey’s two sea monsters on either flank of power.