Erdogan’s Purge Is a Sectarian War

The alliance between Erdogan and Gulen came apart because it's impossible to reconcile their rival interpretations of Islam — and Islamism.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 17 : President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) speaks to press members after performing Eid al-Fitr prayer at Mimar Sinan Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey on July 17, 2015. Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Fitr (Ramadan Holiday) as the fasting during Ramadan Month finishes. (Photo by )
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 17 : President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) speaks to press members after performing Eid al-Fitr prayer at Mimar Sinan Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey on July 17, 2015. Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Fitr (Ramadan Holiday) as the fasting during Ramadan Month finishes. (Photo by )

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular Turkish Republic that replaced the Islamic Ottoman Empire, died in 1938, but Turks still define themselves as pro- or anti-Ataturk — though women need not say anything because their headscarves, or lack thereof, proclaim their allegiance. The anti-Ataturk camp that wants to remake Turkey into an Islamic state was always supported by the less educated majority of the country’s population, but until 2002 it was firmly kept under control by the Turkish officer corps, whose unifying “Kemalist” ideology was strictly secular.

What undid this equilibrium was a winning alliance of populist Islamists, led by the thinly educated ex-soccer player Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the university-educated followers of Fethullah Gulen, a religious entrepreneur on a huge scale, whose followers established more than a thousand schools from Texas to Tashkent, as well as dozens of universities, student halls, and teaching institutes. Erdogan’s talent was, and is, to rally the masses by invoking their Muslim identity against all comers, from the West in general to better-educated, less devout fellow Turks; in 1999, he spent months in prison after being convicted for inciting religious hatred.

Gulen’s winning formula was to collect funds from the devout to offer free, or discounted, educational opportunities in schools presented as entirely secular, indeed with an emphasis on the teaching of science, in which Islamic practices are propagated very gradually by the friendly persuasion of slightly older students in private chats. Under Ataturk’s rules, Turkish universities were to be completely secular, banning the wearing of the Islamic headscarf and any form of worship on the premises. But with student housing both scarce and expensive in Turkish cities, Gulenist lodges offering free rooms served to convert tens of thousands of graduates into his devotees, many of them ready to do their bit after graduation by contributing funds, helping to establish schools or teaching in them, or by working in the media to good effect. Others did more than that, successfully infiltrating the Turkish officer corps by outmaneuvering its no-beard and no-headscarf rules with the blessing of Gulen, who no doubt justified such concealment with his own interpretation of the Islamic tenet of taqiyah.

So when Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the 2002 elections, it was able to govern Turkey successfully, remaining in power until now, instead of being forced out or dissolved by military order, as with all previous attempts at forming Islamist governments. It was not Erdogan’s brawlers and provincials who implemented the AKP’s economic policies but rather Gulen’s competent technocrats, achieving good results that dissuaded a military intervention, along with obdurate European pressures in the name of democracy, and the vigilance of disguised Gulenists within the officer corps.

What destroyed the alliance was the exact nature of Gulen’s Islam, which allows the dishonesty of systematic deception, but whose own substance is genuinely moderate — his creed truly accepts coexistence with other monotheists, including non-Sunni Muslims, and totally prohibits any form of violence in the name of religion against polytheists as well (in spite of the Quranic injunction).

But for Erdogan and his core AKP colleagues, such as former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Islam is something else entirely: specifically Sunni and the only religion entitled to exist at all. Its conquest of the planet must be advanced by all means possible, from mandatory religious education in Turkey (achieved by closing more and more secular schools) to the use of any amount of violence by Sunni Muslims fighting non-Sunnis anywhere in the world, from Hamas in Gaza to the al Qaeda affiliates in Syria and the Uighurs in China. That is why Erdogan tacitly supported the Islamic State as long as he could, initially prohibiting the use of the Incirlik Air Base against the group and allowing Turkish dealers to import its oil. (It’s no coincidence that when some Turkish truck drivers were kidnapped by the group, they were not beheaded but released.) Even when over-the-top outrages committed by the Islamic State finally forced Erdogan to allow U.S. airstrikes from Incirlik, the Turkish air force bombed only the Kurds. It was again because of its specifically Sunni identity that Turkey’s ties to Shiite Iran — and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s nominally Shiite Alawite ally — were always strained in spite of their common hatred of the West. (It’s notable that Davutoglu and Erdogan never used the common label “Alawite” to describe the religion of Syria’s leader but rather “Nusayri,” a heretical epithet among local Sunnis.)

When they met Erdogan and Davutoglu, their European colleagues and U.S. President Barack Obama saw the Armani suits and heard the standard language of statecraft. But by 2009 or so, Gulen judged that he had helped engender a monster, a covertly extremist Islamist regime that would ruin Turkey and damage Islam by starting violent quarrels with all its neighbors, which duly happened.

The Gulenists in the police and judiciary tried to solve the problem in 2013 by bringing down Erdogan and a number of his ministers on amply justified corruption charges; there is no other explanation for the billions of dollars accumulated by Erdogan’s family. But instead of resigning, Erdogan ordered the abrupt dismissal of the prosecutors and police involved, rightly counting on the unconditional support of his Islamist AKP base; the rule of law, after all, is a Western concept of and about which Erdogan’s most fervent supporters know little and care less.

Erdogan struck back by denouncing the Gulenists’ “parallel structure” inside the government and armed forces and dismissing as many as his spies — or merely jealous subordinates — could identify for him while shutting down Gulen-affiliated banks, businesses, and media outlets, including Zaman, the country’s largest-circulation newspaper. Because there were, of course, no membership lists — to be a Gulenist is a state of mind — what ensued was not a roundup but a witch hunt, which kept expanding in scope as more and more denunciations came in, many no doubt motivated by personal rivalries or career ambitions. Another 2,500 or so police investigators, public prosecutors, and judges were about to be dismissed when the botched coup intervened on July 15.

That, in turn, unleashed the no-holds-barred Erdogan, with mass dismissals and arrests even before the proclamation of martial law, devastating the entire apparatus of the Turkish state, including the armed forces, which lost 87 of 198 army generals, 30 of 72 air force generals, 32 of 55 navy admirals, seven of 32 in the gendarmerie general command, and the only coast guard admiral, as well as 1,099 less senior officers. For a country fighting militant Kurds affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in earnest, and at least pretending to fight the Islamic State, those are devastating losses.

As for the country’s economy, the confiscation and paralysis of many businesses, large and small, are inflicting much damage, even as tourism revenues have plunged. Yet more damage is certain as less educated, miseducated, and uneducated AKP militants move into key government positions vacated by the dismissal or arrest of supposed Gulenists.

Ataturk would not have been surprised: He was convinced that Islam in any form would be the ruin of the Turks.

Photo credit: BERK OZKAN/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


Edward Luttwak is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.