Does a shadowy mullah in Pennsylvania really hold the reins of power in Turkey? If not, then why are the country’s leaders so intent on silencing a single investigative journalist?
- By Justin Vela Justin Vela is an Istanbul-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @justinvela.
For many Turkish citizens, the evolution of their democracy is best discussed in whispers. Turkey has come far in recent years, but these days they prefer not to speak too loudly about where it is headed.
In the past two years, thousands of citizens who have voiced criticism of the government have been detained, usually led away by police in predawn raids on their homes. On Jan. 5, one of the country’s most high-profile detainees, investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, testified in court for the first time to defend himself against charges of propagandizing for a shadowy pro-military conspiracy called Ergenekon, which allegedly plotted to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In his testimony, Sik mocked the evidence presented against him, which included transcripts of telephone conversations, published news articles, and the draft of his unfinished book, The Imam’s Army, which aimed to expose the Islamist Fethullah Gulen movement’s pervasive influence within the Turkish state.
"I am here today because of a politically-motivated trial, which is devoid of justice and law and which is conducted with falsified and fabricated documents," he said.
The charges against Sik appeared absurd from the start. He had dedicated much of his professional life to investigating the very structures Ergenekon represented, along with their various human rights abuses. According to those that support the government line, Ergenekon represents the military "deep state," which has served as the self-appointed guardian of Turkey’s secular identity since the republic’s founding. Democratically-elected governments that met with the military’s disapproval were ousted from power in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997.
But it’s not the military that has moved against Sik — it’s another, different deep state. The Imam’s Army chronicles the rise of Fethullah Gulen, an aging cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania who has built up a powerful network that claims to operate thousands of schools in 140 countries. He calls for inter-faith dialogue and promotes the study of both science and religion in his classrooms. Supporters say the group is solely involved in fostering education and an ethic of public service throughout Turkey and the rest of the world. While the true reach of Gulen’s network remains hard to quantify, his supporters flocked to Foreign Policy in 2008 to vote him as the top public intellectual of the year — an open ballot in which over half a million votes were cast.
But Gulen hasn’t just used his support network, known as the Cemaat (or "community") to tilt online polls — his followers provide a key voter base for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and have established themselves in top positions within Turkey’s bureaucracy, police force, and judiciary. And as the Sik case shows, their influence appears to be one of the forces pushing Turkey in a less free direction.
In a nine-page, hand-written response to questions sent to him in jail, Sik said the Gulenists were a key driver behind the current crackdown. "What Nedim [Sener, another journalist on trial] and I experienced was meant to intimidate other people from the media who were opposed to the Cemaat," he wrote.
While Sik supported previous investigations into the Turkish military’s covert influence over the country’s civilian leadership, he said the Ergenekon trial — which has seen the government push back against the armed services — has become an "illusion" and an excuse for mass arrests.
"The Ergenekon investigations are the most important part of allowing the Cemaat to take power in the country," he wrote. "I must say that the deep state is still intact. Just the owner has changed. What I mean by this ownership … is composed of the coalition of AKP and the Cemaat."
If the government’s goal in arresting Sik was to squelch his research, it failed miserably. While Sik’s book was initially banned, it was posted online soon after his arrest, most likely by friends who had copies of the unfinished manuscript. Later, it was published by a group of journalists and intellectuals under the title 000 Book – the file name of one of the saved manuscripts of the book that police found on Sik’s home computer. It currently has prominent placement in several bookstores along Istanbul’s central Istiklal shopping street and at the city’s airport.
The Gulenists were likely angered by Sik’s reporting on how they intervened in multiple internal police investigations in order to keep their presence within the force under wraps, according to a friend of Sik’s, journalist Ertugrul Mavioglu. Sik claims high-ranking members of the police force, both retired and active duty, as among his sources.
The criticisms of Gulen, who preaches a moderate version of Islam, are not focused on his religiosity but rather on the movement’s lack of transparency. The group has accrued a large degree of influence over Turkey’s nominally secular government and society, and the AKP’s own parliamentary deputies have confirmed that the party has links to the Gulenists. While nobody can pinpoint the precise scope of the Gulen movement’s influence in Turkish society, its affiliation with several prominent media outlets, such as the newspaper Zaman and the Samanyolu Broadcasting Group, and its prominence in the Gulen-affiliated Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists points to a highly organized, well-funded network.
"You can only make allegations and guesses about the institutionalization of the Cemaat within the state bureaucracy," Sik said. "Everybody should ask themselves, ‘Why such secrecy?’ If their only aim is to provide charity works as they claim, why do they have to organize within the state? As you can see I am just asking."
Sik is far from the only victim of Turkey’s runaway judiciary. Prosecutors moved on Jan. 9 to strip the country’s main opposition leader of his parliamentary immunity so that he could face legal charges, and the former head of Turkey’s armed forces, Ilker Basbug, was arrested on Jan. 5. And of course, dozens of journalists currently sit in Turkish jails, with the latest roundup coming only weeks ago.
The mass arrests are arguably the worst PR Turkey has faced in years, and the Sik case is a particularly nasty black mark on what has otherwise been a massively successful decade. Since the AKP came to power in 2002, it has been lauded for introducing political stability, reining in the country’s once all-powerful military, and presiding over economic growth that is second only to China’s among the G20. However, the growing crackdown suggests Turkey’s golden age for freedom of speech may be coming to an end.
"If Turkey wants to have international credibility and promote democracy in the region, it can’t neglect the state of human rights at home," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, an Istanbul-based Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch.
But the recent turmoil may be little more than a precursor to a larger political earthquake: a divorce between the Gulenists and the AKP.
"There was a marriage of convenience between the Gulenists and Erdogan because they shared the common goal of trying to demolish the old Kemalist regime," explained Gareth Jenkins, a Turkey expert and non-resident senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of Johns Hopkins University. Now, with that job nearing completion, the relationship appears to be fraying.
The Gulenists and Erdogan differed recently over the response to military air strikes that killed 35 Kurdish civilians. Erdogan supported the military, while Gulen-affiliated media alleged that still untamed members of the deep state were trying to destabilize the country.
Last month, the two sides also clashed over a soccer match-fixing scandal involving top business interests within the country. Erdogan was pushing parliament for the amendment of lengthy sentences for those convicted in the scandal, while President Abdullah Gul — who is considered closer to the Gulenists — nearly succeeded in vetoing the legislation while Erdogan was convalescing after surgery.
If the partnership between Erdogan and Gulen is coming apart, it will be the end of a long relationship. Pictures show a younger Erdogan and Gulen, though their dates are difficult to verify. Turkish journalists who have investigated the movement, such as Mavioglu, said that at least one meeting took place between Erdogan and high-level Gulenists in Istanbul soon before the Ergenekon investigation began.
But with Erdogan only too aware of his own popularity and the power of the military quashed, a struggle for dominance has emerged within the alliance. Sik agreed with Jenkins that it would be the AKP that would have to rein in the Gulenists. "Erdogan saw what this uncontrolled power is capable of," he said. "Because there is no one left to struggle with, there will be a struggle in sharing power."
Jenkins said the tension is likely to intensify in the coming year, as Turkey begins writing a new constitution and Erdogan looks for a way to remain in power. AKP rules state that Erdogan cannot serve again as prime minister, and many analysts expect he will try to change Turkey to a presidential system of rule — and then get himself elected president. "He has such control over the AKP that he can probably get them to draft a constitution along the ways that he wants it," Jenkins said
In this coming clash, it’s remarkable how little even the most dedicated researchers understand about the Gulen movement. Sik himself admitted he did not have a clear grasp of its overall goal. He rejected the notion that the group is trying to establish an Islamic republic, making the point that any goal beyond seizing power was not very clear.
"’Something’ has come to power in Turkey, but not sharia," he said in his letter. "I can’t name that ‘thing’ properly."
What is clear is that the Gulenists are prepared to respond to those who ask uncomfortable questions with the same tools once wielded by the secretive military organizations that pulled the strings in decades past.
"You should obey or you should stay silent or you should go to jail," Sik said. "Yes, this is the new ‘thing’ that has come to power in Turkey."