The Turkish-Canadian community condemn arrests of Ekrem Dumanli, editor-in-chief of Zaman daily, Hidayet Karaca, chief executive of Samanyolu Media Group, and dozens of others, on phony charges, as a blatant breach of press freedom and rule of law. This development is a huge blow to Turkey’s already waning image as a progressing Muslim democracy compatible with Western values. Similar actions aimed to suppress the dissent in Turkey at the anniversary of the corruption scandal in December 2013, are expected to continue in the following days.
Due to increasingly reckless anti-democratic policies of ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) under the direction of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey is rapidly transforming into a one-man, one-party state. Separation of powers and rule of law has been seriously undermined. Many societal groups unhappy with the direction of the country have been subject to constant pressure and intimidation. Protests in Gezi Park in 2013 were suppressed by extremely harsh police tactics. Since the corruption scandal of December 2013, ruling AKP has been treating almost everyone who questions the government’s controversial actions as enemy of state, with an obsessive focus on the adherents of peaceful Hizmet movement. Corruption investigations have largely been covered-up and press is usually silenced by coercion or bribes. Unsurprisingly, independent news organizations such as Zaman, Today’s Zaman, Bugun, Taraf, Sozcu and STV are the main targets of the politically guided legal action.
Turkey is already been under international scrutiny for poor governance and human rights. Freedom House recently downgraded Turkey to ‘not free’ in its latest press freedom report. According to Transparency International (TI) 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, Turkey’s ranking has worsened the most among all nations, dropping by five points to 45 out of 100. A new wave of attacks to critical journalists and civil society leaders would only bolster Turkey’s image as a failed democracy. In the light of these unfortunate developments, we strongly call on Turkish government to respect rights of all its citizens, particularly freedom of press, expression and assembly, and refrain from actions undermining democracy and rule of law. The need for Turkish support and resources on war against ISIL should not stop international community from pressing their counterparts in Ankara privately and publicly on human rights and democracy. A Turkey which turns away from the shared democratic values would only become a less stable and reliable Western ally, and more susceptible to radical influences.
BACKGROUNDER: WHAT IS GULEN MOVEMENT?
The Gulen movement (a.k.a. Hizmet) is a social movement of volunteers that promotes philanthropy for serving humanity, education for cultivating virtuous individuals, and dialogue for peaceful coexistence. It originated in Turkey in 1970s around the ideas of Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim scholar, and has increasingly become transnational. The movement is non-partisan and exercises its democratic right for participating political processes as an independent civic group. Participants have founded educational, dialogue, media, healthcare, and humanitarian aid institutions as well as business, professional, and intellectual associations. Hizmet envisions a secular, democratic and pluralistic Turkey which is at peace with its own diverse population and foreign nations. They want and help Turkey to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem in the world. Gulen movement’s non-confrontational approach to international affairs is a great asset for the world. The movement supports peaceful resolution of world’s problems, including the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is no other Muslim group which is as deeply invested and dedicated to interfaith dialogue and understanding as Gulen movement at both local and global levels. The movement has been consistently supporting Turkey’s EU accession process, a crucial strategic goal for both Turkey and the West. Hizmet contributes to successful integration of Muslim Turkish immigrants into European countries, presenting a model for others as well. In US, state and federal officials and public intellectuals commend the movement for enhancing social peace and harmony in the country through a vast network of educational and cultural organizations. Given the challenges with extremism, the transnational Gulen movement represents a constructive alternative to narrow, radical and/or violent interpretations of Islam all over the world. With its moderate Turkish sufi outlook, Hizmet is increasingly making inroads with the Middle East at the expense of Wahhabi, Hezbollah and Al Qaide type of groups. Growing number of Arab scholars and intellectuals – secular and religious – are being attracted to Fethullah Gulen’s sensible outlook, emphasis on modern education and universal values. Widespread activities of Gulen movement in Africa helps promote social and economic development and offers an antidote to radical Islamic influence in the continent. Private schools affiliated with the movement offer quality educational opportunities in 160 countries. The schools have been instrumental in bridging the gender gap in especially majority Muslim countries, such as strategically important Afghanistan and Pakistan. Absent Gulen movement’s relief efforts, less people will heal and more people will suffer in the world. From Somalia to Haiti, many disaster victims and underprivileged count on Gulen movement.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GULEN MOVEMENT & AKP
The relationship between the AKP government and the Hizmet movement in Turkey was one of mutual respect roughly until 2012. AKP founders had previously been drawn from a political Islamist past; but they largely appear to have abandoned this view in favor of a “conservative democratic” view when they established the party in 2001. Hizmet supported early AKP initiatives of membership in the European Union, limiting military influence in politics, and expanding rights and freedoms. In the last two years, however, political Islamist discourses have resurfaced, blended with an adventurous version of neo-Ottoman foreign policy outlook. An effort also emerged to present the AKP as the true refuge of the religious and Erdogan as the leader, if not the ‘Caliph’ of all Muslims. Hizmet, on the other hand, subscribes to a more modest, embracive and open minded interpretation of Islam that is comfortable with ideas of democracy, universal human rights, and interfaith dialogue. Thus, the recent ideological shift of the AKP did not leave any room to accommodate a view such as that of the Hizmet movement for ideological and political/practical purposes.
When AKP leadership shifted its political vision from further democratization to abandoning new civilian-drafted constitution project, and leaned toward an Erdogan-centered system of governance, the rift between Hizmet movement and AKP further widened. There was not much good will left between the AKP and Hizmet after the movement’s distanced attitude to harsh crackdown on Gezi protesters and the tension brought by Erdogan’s plan to shut down prep-schools run by the movement in November 2013. Since the graft probe unfolded on December 2013 against some cabinet ministers and businessmen close to the Turkish government, the Gulen movement has become the main target of Erdogan and his government. According to Erdogan and his lieutenants, the corruption charges by Istanbul prosecutors on December 17 and 25, 2013, were in fact insidious attempts to topple the AKP government that were orchestrated by Hizmet sympathizers and affiliates in the Turkish state bureaucracy. Erdogan portrays the movement as a state within the state and a fifth column of the West. The movement’s vast international presence feeds into conspiracy theories pumped by AKP and its media. The Hizmet movement calls Erdogan’s accusations baseless, serving to cover up the corruption charges.
PERSECUTION OF HIZMET
Erdogan has been using state powers and friendly media to crack down on Hizmet movement. Systematic persecution includes defamation, conspiracy, discrimination, blacklisting and other unlawful conducts. Erdogan has been using hate speech such as ‘virus’ and agitating masses against the movement. He personally called the nation to boycott Hizmet institutions. Tens of thousands of bureaucrats were purged and demoted due to suspected ties to Gulen movement, which Erdogan did not hesitate to describe as a ‘witch hunt’. Ankara has been pressing US government to extradite Fethullah Gulen without any legal basis. Host nations are under constant Turkish government pressure to shutdown law-abiding and successful Hizmet schools. Systematic efforts to bankrupt Bank Asya run by Hizmet friendly businessmen continue. Many Hizmet institutions, including Kimse Yok Mu relief organization, schools, hospitals face constant bureaucratic hurdles from central government and local AKP administrations. News organizations affiliated with the movement are not granted access to press briefings by major government institutions. Journalists, intellectuals, businessmen face frequent threat, harassment and intimidation.