Turkey in Crisis: Understanding the Erdogan/ Gulen Split
TRNN Replay: Baris Karaagac: The events of the past two years has plunged Turkey into crisis, pitting two of the country’s most powerful figures and former allies against each other Turkish PM Erdogan and Islamic preacher Gulen, currently in self-imposed exile in the United States
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
In 2002, when the AKP Party came to power in Turkey, it was considered a new form of Islamic government. It was a marriage, some said, of neoliberalism and Islam. And this was going to be the alternative to the Iranian or even the al-Qaeda model. Turkey was headed, sooner or later, everyone thought, into the European Union. Certainly many forces on both sides within Turkey and Europe wanted it. Of course, there were many opponents. But it was a system, a government, an economy that was fully integrated into global capitalism, and increasingly with success.
Well, now is all that unraveling? Is this marriage of neoliberalism and Islam coming apart? It’s an incredibly complicated drama that’s going to affect the lives of millions of people in Turkey and in the region, and it’s very complicated. And we’re going to try to make some sense of it and introduce you to some of the main players, including a preacher, an Islamic preacher that lives in the United States that’s considered certainly one of the most influential Muslims in Turkey, and some people say even in the world.
Now joining us to try to make sense of all this, for those of us who really don’t understand it that well–and I would have to include myself–is Baris Karaagac. Baris is a lecturer in international development studies at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. He teaches, amongst other things, Turkish affairs. He’s also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crisis, Struggles: Capital and Labour in Contemporary Capitalism.
Thanks for joining us again, Baris.
BARIS KARAAGAC, LECTURER, INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT STUDIES, TRENT UNIV.: Hello, Paul.
JAY: So, as I said, this is a very complicated story. But as quickly as you can, give us a little bit of background. Just my starting point is, I understand it, Erdoğan comes to power in 2002. He becomes the prime minister a year later. And he’s in alliance with a preacher living in the United States named Gülen. And now they have turned on each other, and it’s throwing the whole project into severe crisis. And, of course, combined with that is the issue of the arrests of the military leaders and so on. So make some sense of this for us.
KARAAGAC: For many people who’ve been following Turkish politics, the recent events since December 17 came as a huge surprise, a shock. As a part of a corruption probe on December 17, a couple of weeks ago, 47 people were detained, and including the sons of three ministers, cabinet ministers. A construction tycoon [incompr.] has really close ties to the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and who has been really–really become rich, quite wealthy in the last decade [incompr.] AKP [incompr.] as well as the CEO of one of the major banks in Turkey, Halkbank, the seventh-largest bank in Turkey. And these people were detained, 47 people, based on charges related to fraud, bribery, money laundering, and smuggling gold.
So Turkish–it was a surprise for all of us, because if we leave aside–of course, it’s difficult to do that, but if we could leave aside the Kurdish issue and the Turkish state’s adventures in the Middle East recently, Turkish politics has been quite stable for over a decade, since the AKP came to power in 2002, because I remember it really well. Many people in Turkey and abroad remember it really well. There had not been a majority government in Turkey for about ten years before the AKP came to power. So it was a decade of stability.
But this stability seems to be over, with the two constituent components, elements of the AKP, the ruling party, fighting right now.
Actually, there has been significant tension for a couple of years. Two years ago–.
First, before I talk about it, I need to give you some information about those two major components of the coalition.
So the first one is the Fethullah Gülen community. Fethullah Gülen is a former preacher and imam who has worked in and preached in Turkey for many years. I think he retired in 1981. But he’s risen as the leader of this community.
JAY: Now, this is the preacher who’s now living in the United States and, if I understand it correctly, very pro-West, very pro free market, and so on.
KARAAGAC: Since 1999, he’s been living in a self-imposed exile in the United States, in Pennsylvania, and he has not gone to Turkey in the last 14 years.
And this guy is not only a religious scholar, a preacher, or imam, but he’s the head of a very, very powerful community. And this community has been able to take control of important parts of the Turkish state in the last ten years during its coalition with Erdoğan and his supporters.
JAY: Can I–just let me ask one question first. Given that he was in alliance with Erdoğan until–what?–just a couple of years ago, why is he living in exile all this time?
KARAAGAC: Well, he still, I think, has concerns about, you know, his safety. Or, you know, he still is–his organization is so well-founded and strong, powerful in Turkey that he doesn’t need to go there. This person has been organizing since the 1970s, but particularly after the military takeover in 1980, which created significant space for him. And now he controls the police force–at least until now, he’s controlled the police force and the key positions in the judiciary. And this is one component.
JAY: And this is why Erdoğan thinks he’s driving these corruption investigations and charges.
KARAAGAC: Yes. And he’s actually–his own community’s behind these corruption charges.
But I would like to give you some numbers to understand the power of this community. His community, in 134 countries today, has more than 400, or, according to some sources, even more, more than 500, 600 private schools, and it has 38 dormitories. And within Turkey, if there is a more than 200 private schools, if there is–you know, there are those places where many students stay and hold houses of lights, referring to the movement itself, and again, 460 private schools that prepare secondary school students for university entrance examination.
And on the other side, when we look at the economic aspect of his community, we don’t know the exact figures. No one knows. And some of the capital it controls is unrecorded. But many sources argue that it controls more than $100 billion worth of capital, because it’s–.
JAY: And where did all this come from?
KARAAGAC: Well, this is the work of decades of organization in Turkey. And they have their own business organization called TUSKON, which has offices from the United States to Beijing to Addis Ababa and Moscow, and they have completely integrated into international global circuits, markets.
Again, as you said, some of the defining characteristics of this person, Fethullah Gülen, and his movement are that they are pro-West and they are pro free market. They are neoliberals. Right? So now they’re an important part of those global circuits, markets. This is one–.
JAY: Baris, hold on. So how religious is all of this? I mean, this is starting to sound like this guy Moon from South Korea.
KARAAGAC: No. There is–of course there’s a quite religious base to everything that I’ve said. These are, in the end, conservative Muslims. But when I say conservative Muslims, we’re not talking about the Islam of al-Qaeda or Iran.
JAY: So what are his differences with Erdoğan?
KARAAGAC: With Erdoğan–so the tension started in–well, it started to increase two years ago, when the Gülen community tried to take control of the national intelligence agency and they failed. So he wanted a bigger piece of the pie. So this is a struggle, a fight over more political power in the country, a struggle, a fight over [incompr.] control a larger part of the Turkish state.
JAY: And Erdoğan’s supporters to some extent, from what I read, paint this that Erdoğan is less pro-West, less believing in free markets. I mean, is that any truth to it? Or is this just a rivalry for power between two groups that don’t have that much difference in how they would actually rule Turkey?
KARAAGAC: Well, actually, you’re right. When we go back to late 1990s, they converge over an ideology based on neoliberal ideology, actually, based on free markets, integration into the global circuits, you know, a lighter version of Islam compared to–that’s practiced in the neighboring countries in the Middle East. But Erdoğan, maybe the major difference is that while Erdoğan has more zigzags, Fethullah Gülen and his community has been consistently pro-West and consistently pro-neoliberalism.
JAY: But would the Americans–I mean, even if he’s more pro-West and more neoliberal, is there any suggestion here that the Americans would actually prefer and might be encouraging him? Because you would think the destabilization of the Turkish state is more threatening to American policy than to have, you know, this guy versus Erdoğan.
KARAAGAC: Recently there has been some tension between the Americans and Erdoğan, and Erdoğan accusing the American ambassador in Ankara for meddling with Turkish politics, but I think it’s still quite early to say something about it.
But there’s another significant difference when it comes to nationalism. So the Gülen community has assumed a much more nationalistic–and, you know, [incompr.] refer to it as a chauvinistic attitude towards the Kurdish issue, particularly recently, compared to Erdoğan.
JAY: Now, Erdoğan wants to have a constitutional rewrite that would give him a lot more power and see him in office a lot longer. Is this part of what’s triggering all of this?
KARAAGAC: It could be, but those attempts, you know, no one’s talking about them right now. It’s a power struggle within the state. That’s how I see it. That’s–many people see it in Turkey.
JAY: Now, just quickly, in terms of some of the stuff that’s happening–and tell me if I’m summing this up correctly. So the prosecutors who are going after these circles around Erdoğan, which–people consider that Gülen is the guy kind of driving this–they were the same prosecutors that went after much of the military leadership a few years ago, and a lot of those military leaders went to jail. And now Erdoğan is saying, oh, well, if those guys put the military in jail and maybe they put them in jail unjustly, ’cause I think they’re going after my guys unjustly, but in fact is what’s happening here that Erdoğan wants to make an alliance with the old military leaders and see if he can’t get rid of Gülen?
KARAAGAC: I think the military right now is the Armed Forces are more sympathetic towards Erdoğan. Again, it was the prosecutors of the Gülen community that started all these trials [crosstalk]
JAY: Against the military.
KARAAGAC: So they–I think they’re siding with Erdoğan right now, as opposed to the Gülen movement.
But also I would like to talk about the Iranian connection here.
JAY: Yeah. Go ahead.
KARAAGAC: Should I go on? Okay.
So one of the interesting figures, people who got detained and then arrested four days later, last month, is that Iranian–originally Iranian Azeri guy called Reza Zarrab. And he assumed the Turkish name of Rıza Sarraf. And this guy acted as a middleman to–because, as you remember, in March 2012 the international–Iranians were banned from using the international monetary transfer system called SWIFT. So in order to circumvent this ban, these sanctions, in Turkey, this public-owned bank, Halkbank, Turkey opened an account for Iran so that it could continue to buy gas and oil from Turkey and then pay the Iranians. So this guy acted as a middleman.
What would be done is that this money would be deposited in this bank. Then on international markets gold would be purchased, and through this guy, Reza Zarrab, it will be funneled, it will be sent to Iran. And this continued for over a year.
And in this process, what now we know or what the allegation or the accusation is that Reza Zarrab paid in bribes millions and millions of dollars to some of the leading figures in Erdoğan’s cabinet. One of them is the minister of economy, Çağlayan, and over–in the course of only two years, Zarrab paid him 103 million Turkish lira, equivalent of USD 49 million.
JAY: Paid them to do what?
KARAAGAC: So that this transfer of gold from Turkey to Iran would be realized. And the same guy paid the CEO of Halkbank about–close to $8 million in the same period.
JAY: So just in short, in terms of the consequences of this political crisis in Turkey in the region, in terms of global politics, are we really looking at anything that promises any kind of different character to the basic objectives of this Turkish state? I mean, everyone in this story so far is essentially–you know, one way or the other, wants to be part of the Western sphere of influence. They want to stay within the global capitalism. And that includes the military. So, I mean, there’s a jockeying for power, but is it really going to–whatever comes of it, is it going to be that significant?
KARAAGAC: It is difficult to predict, first of all, the outcome of this process, this power struggle. But even if, you know, we knew or, you know, even if one of these two parties or components, elements of the coalition Erdoğan, I don’t think that much will change in Turkey. And this is mostly due to the absence of an opposition with a counterhegemonic project in Turkey today.
JAY: So, just in short, I mean, one thing I guess it might do, although I think this was already happening within the last few months, Turkey’s involvement in Syria, you would think their eyes are not going to be very much on what’s going on in Syria right now, trying to deal with all this domestic crisis.
KARAAGAC: Absolutely. Absolutely. And then Turkey has followed a very unsuccessful policy, foreign policy in Syria. I would call it vary spineless and vicious. And it has been an utter, a complete failure.
And, now, again, while some people still discuss and there are some references to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, of course this is in the background.
And before I forget, there’s–you asked the difference, or about the difference between Erdoğan and Gülen, the Gülen community. One of the major differences also would be their stance towards Israel, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For example, during the flotilla incident of 2010, the Gülen did not put any blame on the Israeli state and its forces, but it blamed the government for allowing those people to go to Palestine.
JAY: But is Gülen any–I mean, actually, you have to clarify what you just said. Is Gülen considered more or less critical of Israel?
KARAAGAC: Well, in this case he’s more cautious when he voices opposition or when he wants to voice criticism against Israel than Erdoğan. Again, we should keep in mind that Erdoğan comes from, originally, from the National Vision or Outlook movement, which was founded in the late 1960s by the late prime minister Necmettin Erbakan. And the characteristics of this movement was anti–or [incompr.] were anti-Westernism and incredulity towards free markets.
JAY: Right. But my understanding during the Gaza flotilla business, that Erdoğan was, you know, in terms of rhetoric and sort of public positioning, very critical of the Israelis, but in reality didn’t do much, there was still military cooperation going on, lots of economic cooperation going on. You know, he didn’t–you know, his opposition to what Israel did to the Gaza flotilla didn’t go very deep.
KARAAGAC: Yeah. Sure. Not much has changed. And even if they were not going on at the time or were–some of these relations were frozen; they resumed later on. But still, I think he feels that tension that emerges within his real base. So he was–for example, what happened in Davos, and later on when we look at his discourse, this really critical discourse towards Israel, then he was responding, actually engaging with his own electoral bases.
JAY: And I guess in the final analysis, the army’s going to decide the winner of this, are they?
KARAAGAC: Of this power struggle in Turkey?
KARAAGAC: I doubt that, if you’re implying that it would intervene.
JAY: No, not implying it would intervene. But if Erdoğan gets the army on its side, fully on his side, and they–it seems to me that’s why he would let all these old military guys out of jail who were sent there for corruption charges, which I assume the military will be happy with. If the military’s fully behind Erdoğan, how much can Gülen do?
KARAAGAC: Well, it is really very, very difficult to say anything about it. But, again, we’re talking about a very, very well organized and powerful community in Turkey.
Recently, one of the leading figures of Erdoğan’s circle, Numan Kurtulmuş, he wanted a survey to be done with regard to the power, the actual power of the Gülen community in Turkey. He thought [incompr.] many people with the AKP there, it may be 3 percent of the electoral vote. But then it turned out that after a poll [incompr.] about 8 percent, but their influence could go up to 16 percent of the vote. So we’re dealing with a very, very powerful community with, also, international linkages.
JAY: Right. Alright. Well, as I started in the very beginning, it’s very complicated. We went a fair–longer than usual trying to get into this, but this is a complicated issue. And we will return to it, ’cause certainly what happens in Turkey is of tremendous consequences to the region, and thus to the rest of us.
Thanks joining us, Baris.
KARAAGAC: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.