No doubt that Turkey’s Schindler’s List today involves members of the Gülen movement who have done nothing wrong other than volunteering their time, money and expertise to improve the lives of people around themselves with a special focus on science education, eradication of poverty and reconciliation efforts. They are viciously being demonized and vilified by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan because they stood up against this tyrant’s massive corruption dragnet and arming of radical militants in other countries.
Most importantly this non-political movement’s special emphasis on efforts at outreach and dialogue represent an antidote to what a xenophobic political Islamist like Erdoğan is doing in order to further his political goals, by triggering clashes with other faiths and cultures. Erdoğan’s religious zealotry thrives on extremism and violence by constantly seeking an open and latent confrontation with others, shifting blame to scapegoats and seeking to frame debates with religion to legitimize his actions. At the same time, he exploits the democratic space, renders checks and balances ineffective and, for all intents and purposes, makes a mockery of democratic principles, the rule of law, rights and freedoms.
Whereas Erdoğan tries to use Islamic symbolism to rally Muslims at home and abroad, Gülen, with unimpeachable credentials in interfaith dialogue and a thorough knowledge of Islamic principles and values, presents a formidable challenge to this tyrant. The fact that Gülen’s progressive stands differ distinctly from Erdoğan’s views of Muslims and non-Muslims is the main reason why Erdoğan declared this man a traitor, terrorist and coup plotter with all sorts of false charges. Simply put, Turkey’s autocrat wants to muzzle the voice of common sense, taint the success story and kill this very dynamic network that has established itself with its transparent structure in over 170 countries.
Having set up the Gülen movement for an unprecedented persecution at home with trumped-up terror charges that lack any evidence, Turkey’s fundamentalist president has mobilized the nation’s diplomatic, economic and political muscle to hunt down members of this civic group abroad, asking foreign governments to jail and deport their members as well as shut down their institutions, including high-performing science schools. So far, most countries have balked at Erdoğan’s overtures, with some labeling it as an outright interference into their own domestic affairs and others simply putting the Turkish president’s requests on ice.
Unlike many observers of Turkey tend to believe, Erdoğan and his Islamists are not just anti-Western in his political discourse but also anti-Asian as well. Russia and China are perhaps the number one on Erdoğan’s list of enemies, although he does not say it out loud, in contrast to the public bashing of the West. Erdoğan’s pouring in of arms and the facilitating of the Jihadist network in Syria exposed deep fault lines between Erdoğan’s Turkey on the one hand and Russia and China, with a sizable Muslim minority, on the other. The Chinese and Russian foreign Jihadists who entered Syria through Turkey with the help of Erdoğan’s intelligence services providing passports, arms and funds are leading the pack, according to Turkish military data that revealed border incidents. That put Erdoğan squarely at odds with both these major powers in the north and east of Turkey. This is hardly surprising knowing how Islamists in Turkey are predisposed against Russia and China.
But, above all and at its core, Erdoğan is in a fight with the soul of Turkey, which is rooted in Sufi tradition and represents moderation, self-reflection and going along with others. Put differently, Erdoğan and his Islamist pack that draws most support from less educated segments of society are clashing with the best and brightest part of Turkey. To some degree, the Gülen movement is a microcosm of that soul, given the fact Erdoğan’s crackdown includes members of society across the board and among many different professions. The arrest of some 50,000 doctors, teachers, journalists, lawyers, academics, human rights defenders, union workers, public employees and even housewives in four months is quite telling about this terrible picture.
It also reveals the path through which Erdoğan wants to transform Turkish society. He envisions a nation that is rooted in aggressive, expansionist and fundamentalist ideals that are often manipulated by a wrong interpretation of Islamic principles rather than a democratically forward-looking and progressive nation. For that, he has adopted a Machiavellian mentality and a McCarthyism-style witch-hunt to create a leadership vacuum and rob the nation of role models that people ought be looking up to on critical issues. He wants to discredit anyone, be it Gülen or anybody else, who may threaten the political Islamists’ long-held dream project of backward transformation.
This process has already taken a toll on Turkish society. The void that was created by the forced exodus of Gülen movement members from the public and private sphere is now being quickly filled by all sorts of radical groups including Al-Qaeda affiliates. Many Islamist extremist groups such as the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders’ Front (İBDA/C or IBDA-C), Hizbut-Tahrir and Kurdish Hezbollah all now operate freely under Erdoğan’s protective political cover. No wonder it was the Salafi-Wahhabi champion nation Saudi Arabia that pushed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to smear the Gülen movement in a political statement at the foreign ministers’ meeting in October by labeling it terror group without a shred of evidence. Erdoğan returned the favor by launching a relentless public campaign against the US Congress’ bipartisan 9/11 bill that allowed families of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia. Erdoğan also succeeded in adding a sentence to a political resolution adopted by the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that described the Gülen movement as terrorist.
Even though the GCC and OIC approaches are based on short-term tactical and political considerations and do not represent a blanket check for Erdoğan’s ideology and his ambitions in the Arab and Islamic world, it nevertheless shows the dismal state of performance by the so-called Muslim countries. They dumped everything for political expediency by quickly jumping on Erdoğan’s bandwagon of labeling his critics as terrorist without due process, the right to have a fair hearing or the presumption of innocence. Perhaps the deep resentment and hostility harbored against the West in general and the United States in particular among the leadership of many Muslim states has also played a role in misjudging Erdoğan’s behavior toward the Gülen movement, whose leader has been living in the US in self-exile since 1999.
In any case, this explains why these Muslim nations performed the worst in compliance with Islamic values as opposed to many Western nations that are on top of the chart. According to a study of 153 countries based on the Islamicity index developed by professors of international business and international affairs at The George Washington University Hossein Askari and Scheherazade S. Rehman, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland were ranked the top three countries, respectively, in a 2015 survey in terms of how they stacked up against the values and teachings offered by the Quran. Turkey was ranked 65th, showing how its governance, economy, politics, human rights and foreign policy were in terrible shape compared to many non-Muslim states. A new survey will be released this month.
As members of the Gülen movement face unprecedented persecution in today’s world, it remains to be seen who is actually stepping up to thwart Erdoğan’s full-frontal attacks against these peaceful, open-hearted and humble Muslims who have a strong track record of community volunteerism and philanthropic activity to improve the lives of people around them. Turkey’s Islamist government has been using a range of unlawful actions to oppress these people, from jailing them en masse, dismissing them from their jobs and seizing their private property to demonizing them in government media. Every day, police raid their homes and workplaces and drag them to detention centers where they will be subjected to torture and cruel treatment. I’m not sure whether they are safer in prison or on the street after being blacklisted and publicly vilified.
Since the Turkish government profiled them based on the list of subscribers to a critical newspaper or membership in an opposition union or an association that is affiliated with Gülen, they have no prospect of finding a decent job, at least legally, because they are marked for good. Their past employment records will come up in the social security system when they apply for a job with a company, showing that they have been declared pariahs in Turkish society. Erdoğan does not want them to leave the country, either. He unlawfully denies granting them passports and arbitrarily bars them from travel even if they have valid travel documents. For those whose number has not yet come up in the crackdown, obtaining a visa from an embassy of a safe country is no easy job, either. Some try to get out by way of dangerous and illegal border crossings. Even if they manage to get out of the county and apply for an asylum in a foreign country, Erdoğan’s agents will not leave them alone.
Why is Erdoğan doing all these reprehensible things to his own citizens? He has already tightened his grip on Turkey’s institutions, including the military, the last bastion of the secularists, using the July 15 abortive coup as a pretext, and did away with transparency, accountability, the constitution, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and democratic principles because he feels quite insecure and vulnerable. He knows that Turkey’s diverse social fabric and its trade/investment-dependent economy cannot survive this rollercoaster turmoil. This is a fight for survival for him, and for that he’ll risk anything and everything to cling to power. His interests are no longer aligned with Turkey’s national security interests. In short, President Erdoğan has become a clear and present danger for Turkey as well as for its allies and partners.
One day, this embattled president will be remembered in the history books as the villain who did great evil to Turkey and its neighbors. Those who stand up to tyrant Erdoğan at a terrible cost will be remembered as heroes who paid a heavy price for their commitment to principles and values. Perhaps we will later know how many Schindlers were out there to offer sanctuary, grant safe haven and help alleviate the suffering of Turks, including Gülen movement members, in these most daunting and challenging times.