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Turkey from Kemalism to Erdoganism

The making of Turkey’s secular state and its evolution to embrace the past it once turned away from.

The first Turkish religious leader to emerge in the Kemalist Turkey was Said Nursi (1876-1960), an Islamic philosopher who authored Risale-i-Nur, a Quraniccommentary of more than five thousand pages.

The remarkable academic accomplishments of Nursi earned him the title “Badiuzzaman” meaning “the wonder of the time”. He lived through the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the World War I and the emergence of the Modern Turkish republic. He fought against Russians and was decorated for his bravery in action.

He fiercely resisted through his writings, British and Russian Occupation in WWI. He refused the offer of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk to join hands since he was opposed to secularism. Active against secular governments until 1950, Nursi never professed violent means. He was jailed and exiled several times in his life.

His Nurcu movement professed that everything in the world is sacred because everything is created by One God. He consid- ered materialist philosophy the true enemy and advocated learning sciences not just for the sake of worldly benefits, but for the great Glory of Allah as the ultimate Objective.

Nursi insisted that his students must avoid the use of force and through positive action and maintenance of public order, the damage caused by forces of unbelief could be repaired by the healing truth of the Quran. He considered communism as the great danger of the time.

Said Nursi’s influence persists through Gulen, Erbakan and presently through Erdogan.

The ideas advanced by Nursi had a profound influence on later Turkish leaders including Erbakan and Erdogan. Above all, his ideology continues to shape the Turkish thought today through the neo-Nurcu Gulen movement referred to as Hizmet (service), which is a 3 to 6 million strong volunteer-based movement in Turkey and around the world.

The Hizmet movement leader Muhammad Fethullah Gulen is a Turkish Islamic Scholar, preacher, Islamic poet, writer, social critic and activist-dissident living in the United States since 1999. In Turkey he was a local state Imam from 1959 to 1981.

Gulen’s worldview does not divide the globe between Islamic and un-Islamic spheres but regards the whole world as the locus of serving humanity at large or through this service attaining good pleasure of God. It has its basis in the social and spiritual concepts of Ihsan (God-Consciousness par-ex- cellence), altruism,and service.

The Gulen movement has been called “the modern face of Sufi Ottoman tradition”. Gulen has reassured his followers they can combine statist-nationalist beliefs of Ataturk’s republic with traditional but flexible Islamic Faith.

Gulenists are technology-friendly, work within current markets and commerce structures and are savvy users of modern communications. They own educational institutions all over the world. Gulenists are estimated to own assets worth 30-40 billion dollars worldwide.

Imam Hatip (Khatib or preacher) high schools which educate imams of masjids and preachers of Islam, originally banned by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, re-emerged in 1950s during the premiership of Adnan Menderes. In 2018, with their student enrolment at 1.3 million, these schools were expected to receive USD 1.6 billion in funding from Erdogan’s government.

The graduates of these schools – among them many luminaries and leaders active in all walks of life in Turkey including Erdogan and many of his ministers – have played a significant role in the development of Turkey over the past three decades.

Another notable movement was the Turkish Milli Gorus(Na- tional Outlook Movement), regarded as a continuous Islamic Political Parties’ movement since the 1970s.

The main object of the movement, led by former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan (1926-2011), was to restore the central role of Islam in Turkish society, to restore Islam as a national identify, and to make it the spiritual bond to achieve the cohesion of Turks. The movement has both religious and non-religious themes, accommodating traditional Islam and modernism in the political sphere. A politician, engineer and academic, Erbakan was the member of the Grand National Assembly from 1969 to 1980 and again from 1991 to 1998.

He founded the National Order Party (1970-71), National Salvation Party (1973-1980), Welfare Party (1987-98), Virtue Party (1998-2001) and Felicity Party (2010-2011). Every new party was formed when previous one was banned by the secular establishment.

After serving as deputy Prime Minister in three successive coalition governments between 1974 and 1978 and as Prime Minister of Turkey from 1996 to 1997, Erbakan was pressured by the military to step down as PM. He was later banned from politics by the Constitutional Court of Turkey for violating the separation of religion and state as mandated by the constitution.

The rise to power of Erbakan’s Welfare Party was fuelled by Anti-West sentiments of Turkish nation after EU’s 1987 rejection of membership application, and support of low income urban poor and conservative rural farmers.

Both the right and the left had been unable to solve the problems of unemployment, housing, healthcare, etc. The Welfare Party prom- ised economic and social reforms and changed its outlook from ‘Divine Order’ to more mundane ‘Just Order’.

After Erbakan’s Welfare Party was banned, the National Outlook Movement (NOM) split into two factions. The traditionalists formed the Felicity Party (controlled behind the scenes by Erbakan) while the reformists created the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan (b. 1954).

Erdogan became head of a local youth wing of Erbakan’sNational Salvation Party (MSP) while studying Business Administration at Marmara University in 1976. Later he became member of MSP, Welfare Party and Virtue Party.

In 1994, Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul to the shock of the city’s more secular citizens, who thought he would ban alcohol and impose Islamic Law. Instead he emerged over the next four years as a pragmatic mayor who tackled many of the city’s chronic problems including pollution, water shortage, and traffic.

Due to his fiery speech in response to the banning of the Welfare Party, Erdogan was sentenced to a 10-month prison term and banned from holding political office for life.

In 2001, Erdogan and Abdullah Gul established the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan asserted that AKP was “not a political party with religious axis”, but rather a broad-based centre-right party. In 2003, Erdogan publicly broke the relationship with the National Outlook Movement.

In contrast with the NOM’s adherence to Islamic values and Islamic discourse, the AKP was trying to reconcile conflicts between modernity and tradition, universalism and nativism, reason and spirit. The AKP’s break with NOM manifested itself in three key areas. The first of these was the AKP’s political philosophy of conservative democracy that entailed a refusal to use revolutionary rhetoric to change society; the establishment of limited government and the protection of individual freedom; resolution of political issues on the basis of consultation; acceptance and tolerance of different socio-cultural currents; and a firm belief that political authority and legitimacy should be based on rule of law and public support.

The second area of AKP’s break with the NOM was the former’s political program of justice and development, which had been the classic theme of the rightist parties in Turkey since the 1950s. The purpose has been to fight the secular state elites and military bureaucracy in the shadow of the Kemalist ideology, relying on widespread public support. The idea was to share the benefits of economic development with the public and empower the people against the overbearing secular elites in national affairs.

Thirdly, AKP unlike NOM embraces the neoliberal economyand the idea of full integration into the global economy, prompting the rapid development of the Turkish economy. The AKP rejects any dogmatic anti-Western stance, and refutes Huntington’s theory of the Clash of civilizations, instead focusing on dialogue among civilizations.

The AKP changed its foreign policy, actively sought EU membership, focused on the balance between the West and the East, and actively participated in various international organizations, which made Turkey an important player in global governance.

Despites some differences, the Gulen movement formed a tactical alliance with Erdogan’s AKP against the praetorianismof the secular-military combine. This alliance helped catapult AKP to power in 2002, 2007, and 2011 elections.

Through this alliance, Gulenists gained influence in Turkish Police Force, Judiciary and defence forces. However, fissures emerged in the alliance in 2010-11, pitting the pro-Gulen Police and Judiciary against the AKP in a power struggle.

Things came to a head in 2016, precipitating an attempted coup d’état by a faction of Turkish military officers. Erdogan was able to mobilise the public in time to avert the coup and his government was quick to blame it on Gulen and his followers.

In the aftermath of the failed coup attempt, the Erdogan govern- ment arrested thousands of government functionaries including military personnel and judges. Over 10,000 government education staff were suspended and licenses of over 20,000 teachers working at private institutions were revoked.

Gulen denied involvement and some in the opposition blamed Erdogan of masterminding a staged coup to use as a pretext to crush his opponents.

For now, Erdogan seems to have the upper hand in the fight between secular and religious forces in Turkey, but the struggle is far from over. Turkey under Erdogan has emerged as a modern state with an Islamic social order championing the cause of oppressed Muslims the world over, quietly challenging Saudi leadership role in the Muslim world.

On the economic front, Erdogan’s AKP was able to raise Turkey’s GDP per capita from about USD 10,500 in 2000 toaround USD 18,900 in 2011. His polices have boosted industrial growth and expansion bring prosperity to the common man. At the same time, he has strengthened his own executive authority while weakening the influence of the secular and military praetorians. Erdoganism has rightly been described as the “strongest phenomenon in Turkey since Kemalism”.

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