Friday, June 3, 2011
All eyes are focused on Turkey for yet another significant voting day, June 12. In Washington, lately, three questions occupy the minds of those who follow Turkey: First, they wonder whether the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, will be able to gain enough seats to write the Constitution by itself. Second, they wonder about the sex-scandal tapes, which wiped out a considerable number of high officials in the opposition National Movement Party, or MHP. And third, they want to know exactly what the Fethullah Gülen movement wants to do and what their ambitions and intentions are.
While the first two questions can only be speculated upon, Gülen-U.S. relations are becoming more interesting as the days go by. Gülen, the leader of millions of Muslim followers based in Turkey, himself lives in the U.S., and many in the country’s media are well aware of who he is.
The movement in Turkey has long since abandoned the policy of keeping equal distance from political parties. Especially during the constitutional referendum last September, members of the movement actively worked for the passage of the changes. The movement argued that it wasn’t politics they got involved with, it was a matter of principal; supporting the independence of the judiciary.
This time, though, it is a general election, and the movement’s media organs are openly supporting the AKP and doing so forcefully. Even olive branches offered by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the new leader of the main opposition party, CHP, to the movement on several occasions were turned down. In appearance, the CHP’s decision to put forward a few jailed Ergenekon suspects as candidates is the sticky point between the two. Having an ideological adversary like the CHP also works for Gülenists to show there is still more to be done in Turkey.
In the U.S. though, the biggest criticism appears to be the ambiguity about the group’s structure. Its informal membership of millions of followers worldwide, rapid increase in the numbers of schools and how they are funded in U.S., and a vast variety of narratives about its real power in Turkey continue to pique the interests of Turkey watchers. Today, there is even confusion over what to call the followers of Fethullah Gülen; while Gülen refuses to describe it as a “movement,” and rejects any direct link; other prominent figures of the group have no problem calling it so.
To Gülen’s credit, lack of transparency on the part of the movement, or as one U.S. investigative journalist called it, “evasiveness,” is not all reasonless, but merely the result of decade-long habit. The rigid secularism of the Turkish state since the beginning specifically targeted religiosity.
The Gülen movement, which started in the early 1970s, had therefore plenty of reasons to go undercover to avoid the wrath of the Turkish military, which was supported by a coalition consisting of the bureaucracy, judiciary and media for decades.
Sophisticated strategies, which were designed by Gülen and leading figures of the movement, foresaw that violence, or civil disobedience was not the answer for the future of Muslims in Turkey. Pursuing the best education and one’s elevation in every state institution was the answer to changing the country from the bottom to the top. The movement still believes that the circumstances are not entirely changed and that the old reactionary mindset of Turkish secularism is there and alive; therefore, it is not time to come out into the public sphere with full disclosure.
How the strategies that worked so well for the movement in Turkey can be translated into the U.S. is still an open-ended question. Obviously, the movement does not see the U.S. as an equal to Turkey; instead, the U.S. can be seen as the best market to prove that a pious Muslim can coexist and be perfectly happy in a Western democracy.
In the last couple of months, especially since Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener’s arrest in Turkey, negative publicity against the movement seems to be gaining momentum in the U.S.
“There is a great deal of interest and curiosity on the side of the U.S. media and unless questions about their closed structure and some other tax allegations are answered clearly, the U.S. media will not leave them alone,” said one U.S. Turkey observer in Washington. Arguing that hundreds of schools are being opened in more than two dozen U.S. states without any links or coordination of some sort, the movement fails to convince the U.S. media and the experts alike.
The United States’ Anglo-Saxon tradition and tolerance make it rather easy to organize and become involved with any kind of religious sect, as long as it is peaceful. When U.S. journalists and authorities feel they are left in the dark about some of a movement’s other activities, they complain they can’t find any spokesperson for the movement to ask their question; understandably, the mood turns sour toward the movement.
In addition to all of that, in recent times, some conservative Christian groups, who have considerable influence on conservative media and politicians, coupled with growing Islamophia in America, appear to be promising that the smooth ride the movement has so far enjoyed in the U.S. might get tougher.
As the movement increases its visibility in U.S., the scrutiny on its activities is also inevitably increasing.
The impression is that the movement is conscious about some of these shortcomings and is looking for ways to handle questions of transparency in the U.S. Only time will tell whether decades-old habits can be changed.
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