Erdogan-Gulen Power Struggle Divides European Turks
On the night of July 15, members of the Turkish military stormed the state-run TRT news agency in Ankara and forced an anchorwoman to read a statement calling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a “traitor.” Within moments, tanks began to drive menacingly through the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, as military planes roared over Turkish skies. The parliament was bombed. The fifth military coup in the history of modern Turkey had begun, taking even the most anti-government Turks by surprise.
But Erdogan regained complete control within hours, thanks to his fervent supporters who took to the streets in his defense. Throughout the night, pro- and anti-Erdogan military forces and civilians clashed across the country, leaving nearly 300 dead and 2,100 injured by morning.
The attempted coup and its aftermath, however, soon exploded into more than just a national crisis; it has had incendiary repercussions globally, particularly in the Turkish communities of Europe.
Erdogan declared a state of emergency on July 16, and began cracking down on suspected members of the coup plot and their allies. By July 20, more than 45,000 people had been arrested, including 2,700 judges and 15,000 teachers. As Erdogan called for reinstating the death penalty, credible reports emerged of prisoners being tortured and raped.
In the meantime, tens of thousands of others have been fired from their jobs as the state takes over or shuts down nearly all the country’s media outlets — including three news agencies, 16 television channels, 45 newspapers, and 15 magazines, Reuters reports. And on Monday, more than three weeks after the failed coup, Turkey recalled five senior diplomats from its embassy in The Hague.
All who have been sacked are accused of complicity in the coup, based on their (ostensible) ties to Fethullah Gulen, a powerful cleric now living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Once one of Erdogan’s closest allies, Gulen has become his most despised enemy in recent years, thanks in large part to Gulen’s criticism of Erdogan during the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations. Now Turkey’s president accuses Gulen of being behind the coup attempt, and demands his extradition from the United States. In the meantime, he continues his crackdown on the cleric’s followers.
But those followers are not just in Turkey, and neither are Erdogan’s. Millions of European Turks — both immigrants and subsequent generations — ally themselves with the Gulenist movement, or Hizmet. While some call it a cult and claim it represents a zealous Islamic religious movement, others view it as a more moderate strain of Islam and praise Gulen for his interfaith initiatives, and for the hospitals, schools and universities he has founded internationally, including more than 100 charter schools in the United States. But since the split between the two men, tensions have also emerged between pro-Gulen and pro-Erdogan groups that are far more virulent than the disputes between those who favor Hizmet and those who condemn it.
As a result, the clashes between the conflicting sides have spilled beyond the Turkish borders into Europe, and have now exploded since the coup. Often they have been violent, with pro-Erdogan protesters hurling stones into the windows of Gulen organizations in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, and Rotterdam, Holland, or calling to set fire to a building housing a Gulenist organization in Beringen, Belgium (“Burn them alive!” the protesters shouted.). Arsonists also attacked several Gulen buildings in the Netherlands.
In other instances, the attacks are quieter but more sinister: members of 70 different Gulen-affiliated groups in the Netherlands report receiving hate messages and death threats. People believed to support the movement — or who fail to support Erdogan — report being banned from mosques and refused entry to restaurants. Dutch children have told each other, “I can’t talk to you anymore.” A number of Gulen followers have gone into hiding, fearing for their safety.
And in Germany, home to Europe’s largest Turkish community, estimated at nearly 3 million, some 30-40,000 Erdogan supporters marched through Cologne on July 31. And while the demonstrations went off without incident, they represent a chasm within the country — not just between Germans and Turks, but — as in the Netherlands — among the Turks themselves. Noted Deutsch-Welle‘s Gero Schleiss in an editorial, “After the coup attempt in Turkey, divisions have emerged in this country that no one had seen for a long time – or hadn’t wanted to see. The failed coup and President Erdogan’s massive onslaught against civil rights have deeply divided the Turkish community in Germany. The split runs right through families and neighborhoods, regardless of social strata or profession.”
But at least as disturbing is the idea of 30-40,000 people marching in support of the man who has led the profoundly anti-democratic crackdown in Turkey. While it may be understandable to oppose a military coup, it is something else entirely to continue marching in support of Erdogan in light of the abuses that have followed. Moreover, according to Politico, the situation has also “reignited a decade-long debate in Germany about the Turkish state steering public opinion within the German-Turkish community through a web of lobbying groups, religious institutions, media outlets and public figures.”
Religious groups seem to be chief among them, such as the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, which is sponsored by the Turkish state. That Turkey is therefore subsidizing mosques in Germany demonstrates the strength not only of the country’s influence on the political visions of German Turks, but on their religious ideas as well. And in an increasingly Islamist Turkey, those ideas no longer reflect the secular, humanist values of Ataturk; rather, they are based on an increasingly strict vision of Sunni Islam in which the state and the mosque are one.
Other Turkish religious groups, including Milli Gorüs, an Islamist group headquartered in Cologne, are also believed to hold sway over European Turks, particularly in the Netherlands.
Behind them all, particularly in Belgium, is the Diyanet, the official Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs .
Ataturk created the Diyanet soon after the founding of the Turkish republic to help ensure that imams preached moderate interpretations of Islam. They were critical to maintaining the separation between mosque and state. With the rise of Erdogan and his AK Party, however, they have served to do just the opposite: they now promote Islamist views in Turkey and among the Turkish community abroad.
As Istanbul-based journalist David Lepeska noted last year, the Diyanet’s budget has quadrupled since 2006 to over $2 billion, with a 2015 budget allocation that was “40 percent more than the Ministry of the Interior’s and equal to those of the Foreign, Energy, and Culture and Tourism ministries combined.” In addition to presiding over Turkey’s own mosques, the directorate governs hundreds of mosques across Europe, has increased the number of religious classes in public schools, and, reports Lepeska, “runs a 24-hour television station, Diyanet television, available via satellite, cable, and YouTube, and manages a Facebook page (with nearly 230,000 fans), two Twitter accounts (more than 50,000 followers), and an Islamic lifestyle hotline.”
The result is a toxic mixture of religion and politics that could not be further from the secular ideals of the founder of modern Turkey. Add Erdogan’s and the AKP’s human rights abuses and dictatorial leanings to this, and the cauldron boils hotter and more dangerous than ever. Whatever problems existed previously, the post-coup situation bears far too many parallels to the impulses and ideologies of radical Islamism: whoever does not support Erdogan becomes the enemy. And Erdogan, as the leader of Turkey, is the leader of the Diyanet.
The outcome is a kind of tribalism that already infects the rest of the Middle East: to be outside the Erdogan support core is to be outside the realm of the Diyanet — an apostate of sorts, threatened with death.
That this could become the future of Ataturk’s secular democratic republic is tragic. But there is also a very real possibility of the impulse spreading into Europe. Other events this year, such as the attacks on Dutch journalist Ebru Umar and German comedian Jan Bohmermann, both of whom criticized the Turkish president, demonstrate that many European Turks lean towards such a radicalized and tribalist vision. It is a vision Europe’s leaders would do well to extinguish while they still can.
Steven Emerson is the Executive Director the Investigative Project on Terrorism (www.investigativeproject.org) where this article first appeared.