One Night in Turkey

Hizmet movement in the last few years had taken a terrible beating from Erdogan who tried to dismantle their structures, educational and communication, and who simply could not stand any source of authority in civil society apart from himself and the AKP.

President Erdogan has defeated the military coup in Turkey with the help of a popular mobilisation and loyal military chiefs. He now needs to explain why the coup occurred. It is no surprise that he has chosen the Gulen movement as chief conspirator and scapegoat He has been fingering them as a “state within a state” since the movement was implicated in fingering him for family corruption in 2013.

Hizmet (service to the common good), as the movement calls itself, is a good pick as a scapegoat. It evokes in many Turks a similar mix of derision and suspicion as the Freemasons in UK. Yet that is a poor parallel. Hizmet does not have secret rituals and funny handshakes. It does not sit outside mainstream religion. Though it does have powerful networks of members and organisations.

The movement follows the teachings of Fetullah Gulen. It is sui generi. It has a vision of religious modernism comparable to the Non-Conformists of the 18th century, at ease with economic liberalism and piety, and follows a strong commitment to an elite education. Rooted in the teaching of the Kurdish Quranic scholar, Said Nursi, it champions multi-party democracy and the teaching of the sciences in Muslim schools. But it has an extraordinary plethora of sophisticated communications channels, TV stations, newspapers, a Journalists and Writers Guild, and associations for inter-religious dialogue, and so on. It has been astonishingly successful amongst an aspiring Muslim middle-class in Turkey.
Not surprisingly with its own universities, and – formerly before Erdogan began closing them down – crammer schools, it has produced socially mobile, meritocratic members of the civil service, different armed forces and police. I doubt if many have read Gramsci on the importance of ideological struggle within civil society but Hizmet has followed did not need his theoretical help. They have developed a user-friendly version of Islam for a Muslim society in transition, a third way between Islamism and pugnacious Kemalist secularism.

About five years ago, before Recep Erdogan began his descent into authoritarianism, I accompanied a group of academics to Istanbul to learn more about the movement. How had they managed, using – what to a westerner was – Fetullah Gulen’s bland version of Islam, to attract so many followers and to expand as a major branch of progressive Islam in other countries? Well partly, it was by enjoining and keeping to strict moral codes. Our group suppressed a giggle when a Hizmet TV station boss told us that that he had to make compromises so they did feature female presenters showing their arms.

At Zaman, a widely read quality national newspaper, the policy was to eschew “malicious gossip and rumours” and there were no cartoons. One corrupted westerner muttered that they wouldn’t read it. Yet there was something admirable about a touch of Calvin’s Geneva surviving commercially in the brutal media world.

A Puritan streak was, of course, entirely acceptable to mainstream Islam. But another feature of the Hizmet, a strong and active commitment to interfaith dialogue and outreach, was not. Dialogue was seen as an integral part of modern Islam rather than an external demand. But at the end of the visit, and after reading some Gulen essays, I still failed to see how they had achieved such spectacular expansion, effective networking and genuine piety.

So this, according to the Turkish government, is the “FETO, Fetullah Terrorist Organisation”, that lies behind some 200 deaths and a failed military coup on 15-16 July. Forget the fact that the coup was instantly denounced by Gulen himself and constituent bodies within the Hizmet movement. Well, there might have been some active Hizmet members involved. The movement in the last few years had taken a terrible beating from Erdogan who tried to dismantle their structures, educational and communication, and who simply could not stand any source of authority in civil society apart from himself and the AKP. More likely as coup leaders, are old guard secularists and Kemalists in the armed forces whose hatred of anything smacking of more religion is passionate and frightening. And then there would be junior officers who didn’t like their superiors. It is a measure of the discontent surrounding Erdogan that a – probably – disparate group of people who wanted for different reasons to get rid of him, managed to keep their planning secret and away from military intelligence.

What now? Is it too much to hope that Erdogan will stop and reflect and change course domestically. Sadly the coup came exactly after he had done a u-turn on foreign policy towards Russia and Egypt, though not on the renewal of the war against Kurdish armed nationalists. So it is most unlikely. It will legitimate more authoritarianism. Nor will our new Foreign Secretary, having insulted the man for trivial reasons, be able to make the slightest difference or influence him.


This article was originally published in Huffington Post.

© 2017 Centre for Hizmet Studies