• Issue 2017 / Special 2017

    Erdoğan’s Fight against the Gülen Movement & The Demise of Turkish State Rationality

    Sage Chen

    Since the corruption scandal of
    December 2013, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has waged an all-out war
    against the Gülen (or Hizmet) movement. The anti-Gülenist campaign started with
    the closing of private tutoring centers operated by members of the movement and
    was followed by the jailing and mistreatment of journalists, bureaucrats, and
    businessmen who were claimed to have connections with the movement. The
    operation has become Erdoğan’s main source of legitimacy in recent years. Erdoğan
    has not only utilized the brute force of the state apparatus, but also the soft
    power of manipulation and propaganda, to suppress and criminalize the movement
    and tarnish its reputation around the world.


    Erdoğan’s strategy against the
    Gülen movement can be characterized by “the
    Diversionary Theory of War”
    in political science, according to which
    leaders generate foreign
    policy crises to divert the public's attention from discontent with their rule
    and to bolster their political fortunes through a “rally ‘round the flag.”
    By exploiting
    existing religious and ethnic cleavages and dubbing some civil society
    organizations, including the Gülen movement, as national security threats, Erdoğan
    has long chosen to rule on dissonance and difference and has practiced the Diversionary
    Theory of War within domestic politics through the demonization of domestic


    A prime example of tactic in Erdoğan’s
    policy was his classification of the Gülen movement as a terrorist organization.
    By equating the movement with radical terrorist organizations such as ISIS [1],
    he hoped to shatter and alter the favorable global perception of the movement
    and its activities.


    However, this intense psychological
    and rhetorical warfare did not serve any purpose but to harm the country’s
    credibility abroad, as the categorization of the movement as a terrorist
    organization was found to be irrational and inconsistent with Erdoğan’s former
    attitudes toward it. His fight against the movement has been perceived as a continuation
    of his power games and as an indication of his increasing authoritarianism in
    the country [2]


    Erdoğan’s diversionary political
    tactics are also reflected in his portrayal of foreign actors. For example, in
    order to appeal to his voter base, the conservative and nationalist masses
    within Turkey, he recently claimed that a new type of crusade has started
    between Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East, between the cross and the
    crescent [3]. This is both anachronistic and antagonistic that does nothing but
    consolidate his power through the fictitious creation of an enemy. It
    undermines the dialogue and cooperation between the EU and Turkey, and between
    the East and the West in general.


    Which Erdoğan is the real Erdoğan?
    Is it the one expressing this antagonizing and polarizing worldview or the one
    who founded the alliance of civilizations in 2005, in an effort to defuse the
    tensions between the Western and Islamic worlds? The answer is neither, for
    there are various types of Erdoğans, each fitting a different situation. For
    instance, the Erdoğan of 2005 was a reformist which gained him the support of
    Liberals and EU advocates. This support translated into electoral victories and
    prestige abroad. Whereas the Erdoğan of the 2010s has been extremely concerned
    and worried about his authority and charisma, in part due to the corruption
    scandals and newly emerged foreign policy issues. The Erdoğan of the 2010s has
    been adamant and determined to go back to the classical strategy of divide-and-rule.


    His rhetoric over the last
    half decade is a sign of this shift in political stratagems. His language is
    telling: “The country is in an all-out war and surrounded by internal and
    external enemies
    ”; “the world is on the verge of a new series of
    ; “the Gülen Movement is the fifth column and the extension of
    such dark forces that are striving to undermine the state and fabric of Turkish
    Erdoğan is the epitome of Machiavelli’s ideal leader as he is, at
    most, concerned with his own political career and personal image rather than
    the image of the country in the international arena. He may appear to be
    subscribing to a Manichean worldview where history is perceived as a struggle
    between good and evil, between the divine and evil forces, but this is a
    sleight of hand. His nod to this Manichean view of the world is predicated upon
    his characterization of events, actors, and personalities as either favorable
    or unfavorable to his political interests. The good is what serves his
    political interests and the bad is what risks and dooms his political fortunes,
    a moral approach that is neither embedded in religious nor secular
    understandings of morality.


    Even though, Erdoğan has been
    relatively successful delegitimizing and suppressing the Gülen movement within Turkey
    by sidelining and subjugating the judiciary and state institutions, the
    dramatic shift in his attitudes towards the movement has confused the
    international community [4]. Erdoğan’s last visit to the United States on May
    16, 2017, when he came hoping the U.S. would declare the Gülen movement a
    terrorist organization, was even more surprising in that regard. His hopes were
    in vain, however, as President Trump consciously avoided characterizing the
    organization and its activities as detrimental to American society. This was indicative
    of the fact that President Erdoğan was having a hard time justifying his enmity
    towards the movement to others and was losing credibility in the eyes of
    international actors.


    Despite all of this, why does
    Erdoğan adamantly persist in his global psychological warfare against the
    movement? The answer is quite simple. He wants neither to win nor lose this psychological
    battle, but rather wants the Turkish public to believe that he is in an all-out
    war against the enemies of the state, embodied by the Gülen movement in the
    form of a so-called parallel state. What Erdoğan means by “the protection of
    the state” is not the protection of democracy, nor the protection of rule of
    law, nor the protection of the separation of powers; rather, he means the
    protection of his firm monopoly on power.


    This manufacturing of pseudo-domestic
    and foreign enemies, and the promotion of a political culture saturated by
    existential threat narratives, has disillusioned the public about the meaning
    of elections in the country. Over the last five years, the public has constantly
    been under the impression that they were not making a choice between different
    political parties in the elections, but rather between whether the country
    would maintain its existence – by providing Erdoğan with another election
    victory – or submit itself to chaos and destruction. This way of framing the elections,
    coupled with intense pro-government propaganda and the banning of many liberal
    and critical newspapers, media outlets, and social media platforms such as Twitter,
    and even Wikipedia, has left almost no room for political dissent, resistance,
    and advocacy on the part of civil society.


    In a nutshell, Erdoğan’s
    divisive political rhetoric and his attempts to foster anti-Gülenist sentiments
    have perfectly served his own political interests within the country, but they
    have not served the country’s interests in the international arena, as they
    raise serious doubts about the credibility and rationality of the state as embodied
    in Erdoğan’s personality.










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