Towards the End of a Dream? The Erdogan-Gulen Fallout and Islamic Liberalism’s Descent

Dec 22 2013 by Cihan Tugal – Jaddaliyya

While international headlines regarding Muslims these days are understandably focusing on bombings, historical court cases, a palace coup, and a civil war, something more world-historical than any of these is happening without much public attention. Islamic liberalism is in a state of coma. The so-called Turkish model, the alleged marriage of liberalism and Islam, is collapsing under its own weight.

The two core components of the Turkish model, the Gülen Community and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s entourage, are dealing fatal blows to each other. Both sides’ salvos in the preceding months could have been just warning shots. Now, however, these actors are approaching an all-out war. Such a war would not simply entail the end of a coalition in the ordinary sense, but the end of a bloc and its project.

What differentiated Turkish Islam was not simply its more liberal content when compared to other interpretations of creed in the region. Perhaps as important was its form: the convergence of the quarreling Islamic traditions in their pragmatic efforts to become competitors in a global economy.

Liberal Islam found expression in many circles for more than a century. It crystallized in Turkey in groups like the Gülen Community. What made it a truly popular force, a sociopolitical project capable of transforming the whole Islamic world, however, was its convergence with elements of previously radical Islam. Before the near-merger of the two lines, the intellectuals and communities who had subscribed to liberal Islam had (at best) institutional influence; they could never organize popular will.

What the current war puts into question is the sustainability of the convergence, and hence of the pragmatic integration of broad Muslim strata to global capitalism.

The (Convoluted) Historical Roots of the Merger and the Split

Why isn’t the convergence between Gülen and Erdoğan a simple strategic move, which either of the camps can shed without global ramifications, once it has fulfilled its purpose (that is, coming and clinging to power in Turkey, one nation-state among many others)?

Erdoğan and some of his coterie come from the Milli Görüş (National Outlook) tradition of Necmettin Erbakan, the late leader of the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party). This tradition is anti-West and has major doubts regarding the free market economy and democracy. The movement is, loosely speaking, a counterpart of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups. Gülen, by contrast, has been pro-West and strongly free market-oriented. His democratic credentials, however, have been exaggerated, given his strongly pro-state position on the Kurdish issue, the military interventions of 1980 and 1997, and other topics. So, even though both sides have had strongly authoritarian tendencies, in the former this was condensed into a demand for a rigidly Islamic state, while in the latter the implication was upholding the existing Turkish state (with its semi-democratic, somewhat secular structure).

However, after the secularist coup in 1997, the two sides converged ideologically on a free-market, consumerist, culturally conservative, flexible and pragmatic, and majoritarian and authoritarian democracy project. That is, they became the organizers of “Islamic liberalism.” There were serious tensions during that decade too, but mostly about how to share the spoils of power, rather than about ideological matters (with some exceptions, such as differences over relations with Israel).

For the first time in history, this led to the empowerment and popularization of the pragmatic, business-oriented, flexible interpretation of Islam. This liberal Islam was not only able to defeat the old secularist guard, an increasingly inefficient and unreliable partner of the West (strike one), and marginalize unwanted interpretations of Islam (strike two), but also put the country on the path of sustainable growth and diplomatic-military influence (strike three). The results showed promise. This “model” had to be exported to the rest of the Muslim world.

Many saw in this model an antidote to the revolutionary Islam of Iran and the violent Islam of al-Qaeda (or name your favorite villain—this was supposed to work against them all). On the local scene, liberals, nationalists, Marxists, and conservatives, and on the global scene the New York Times, the Economist, al-Jazeera, and Le Monde, all celebrated the Turkish miracle.

To be more precise, these actors partially constructed the merger. Especially on the local scene, these liberal, nationalist, Marxist, and conservative intellectuals became solid parts of the new power bloc, rather than lecturing it from the outside.


One thing that has changed in the last couple of years is that the fight over the spoils became much more intense, as both Gülenists and Erdoğanists scrambled to monopolize power. Elements of the old regime were mostly pacified, marginalized, or subordinated, creating the illusion that such internecine skirmishes would not be fatal. Erdoğanists sought more elbow room among the ranks of the police; the Gülen Community wanted more say in the intelligence world. Perhaps both wanted it all.

However, this wasn’t what really plunged the new bloc into a crisis. Up until 2010 or so, the lines between them had become so blurred that it was at times difficult to tell an Erdoğanist from a Gülenist. So, if all else had remained the same, there would not have been a true fight between two clearly separate camps. But what also changed was a revival of some of the old-style Islamist themes among Erdoğan’s circles, especially the idea that an Islamic state is possible. Why did this happen?

After the Arab Spring, the AKP was definitively destabilized, and it is not certain whether it can stick to its original path. This only intensified emergent problems within the party, and with them, tendencies to revive Islamism, which had resurfaced mostly as a response to the post-2008 economic situation, where financial and real estate speculation seemed to reach its limits. As a result, the party’s constituents could not be expected to remain loyal solely through patronage. It was hoped that a rediscovery of Islamist themes would allow the regime to intervene more rigorously in the Arab Spring and assuage political and economic difficulties.

The Kurdish question added to the difficulties. While the Kurdish issue led to a publicized clash between the Gülen Community and Erdoğan—the infamous and perhaps semi-fabricated “February 7 coup”—there were many smaller frictions throughout the last two years. The Community remained very much wedded to classical Turkish nationalism and to dreams of assimilating the Kurds. The AKP was not too far from these ideas either, but again, the Arab Spring strengthened some of its transnationalist-Islamist tendencies.

Along the lines of his re-discovered “pro-Kurdish” stance, the Turkish Prime Minister engaged in several public shows in the recent weeks. In open sympathy with these moves, sources close to the Kurdish guerrillas took sides with Erdoğan (against Gülen, who was always an archenemy anyway), despite ongoing problems between the guerrillas and the government. In one of his informal moments, Erdoğan rebuked celebrities who had participated in the attempted lynching of the famous Kurdish singer Ahmet Kaya, declaring: “you were all there, dude.” Many of these celebrities had recently claimed they were temporarily absent during the lynching, a quite ridiculous claim since the participation of some of the denialists was recorded on camera. The Prime Minister was justified in his comment (if not in his generalization of the nationalist frenzy to all anti-AKP celebrities). Throughout the new regime’s golden decade, however, there has been a merciless war against the Kurds (inherited from the old regime and revised, certainly). The celebrities were not alone in their nationalism; the constituents of the power bloc “were all there” as well.

This is not to belittle the differences between the new regime and the old regime in regards to the Kurdish issue. A Gülen-supported restoration of the old regime would probably lead to a more anti-Kurdish social and political environment (where the singer Ahmet Kaya would no longer be a hero). In this sense, too, the Erdoğan-Gülen split is not only the result of a fight over spoils. This is why it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Kurdish movement put its weight behind the reproduction of the regime. The armed wing of the movement is currently weighing its options in light of these complexities.

And the Fight Gets Ugly…and Entertaining? The Eerie Public Atmosphere

The strongest indication that the fight was approaching a point of no return came when the government announced its decision to close down dershanes, special evening and weekend schools that prepare students for college entrance exams. These schools constitute one of the Gülen Community’s major sources of influence and recruitment.

Things got even more tense as both sides implied that they had sex tapes of the top figures in the rival camp. Speculations about the extramarital affairs of top AKP figures had been the topic of frequent coffeehouse and cabdriver talk in the recent years. More interestingly, when some hidden hands circulated the sex tapes of the new regime’s rivals, completely discrediting them (especially in the eyes of the conservatives), Islamist magazines warned their audiences that this was a self-defeating way to go, for their own leaders also probably had such tapes. Nobody except Islamists read these magazines, however, and all of this was a few years ago. In recent weeks, the openness of the threat by Islamic actors against each other regarding the possibility of disclosure was surprising (and amusing).

How is the counter-public in Turkey reacting to these developments? The atmosphere of glee (in both non-conservative and non-liberal circles) cannot be understated. Opposition newspapers and social media are full of jokes and jubilation. Starting with the Gezi Revolt in June 2013, mockery has become a dominant style in opposition circles, regardless of ideological color. Yet today, exuberant statements regarding the travails of the regime, the police, the AKP, or the Gülen Community are usually followed by warnings and somber notes. Commentators are well aware that failures of the regime do not necessarily mean victories for the opposition.

One frequent metaphor in social media is the idea of the maç (sports game or match). People say they are watching a maç and enjoying it. Ever since the high-profile arrests and court cases in 2007, Turkish politics has assumed a soccer-game-like quality, in which citizens can only be the audience. Disempowering entertainment was indeed a defining characteristic of the “society of spectacle” for decades, but in the last few years, the surreality of such drama has reached its apex.

The Community and some pro-Gülen intellectuals (not necessarily members of the Community) were the main architects of this new kind of public-ness based on extreme versions of spectacle. Liberal newspapers (home to some top intellectuals of Turkey), for example, became experts in tossing around sometimes authentic, though at other times semi-fabricated, leaked documents that revealed deep (and then deeper) coup and counter-coup plans, top-level conspiracies, etc. These would be followed by high profile court cases that led to major reshuffling within the power bloc without any say from the electorate. Rather than revolting against this spectacle, however, many citizens championed the alleged coup plans, the conspiracies, the counter conspiracies, or the conspiracy theory-driven court cases. These same liberal newspapers then claimed that this spectacle constituted the ultimate democratization of Turkey!

How enchanting it is to see that the same kind of spectacle is now unfolding within the new regime, pitting its founders against each other. But should we really be entertained?

Some journalists and radical left-wing organizations quickly announced that they are not going to be spectators in this new battle, but rather will actively intervene to make sure this is a fight against corruption, as opposed to one whereby spoils are merely re-portioned between two giants. The Gezi Revolt might have created the ideological atmosphere for such interventions, but we also have to keep in mind that the social strata that would benefit from such a move are far less organized than factions of the existing power bloc. They are even less organized than the elements of the old regime. Old regime and new regime elements (as well as invisible international actors) are still more likely to manipulate this apparent “corruption” scandal for their own ends.

Scarier yet are the implications of these scandals for politics and society in general. These implications reach beyond Turkey. The events have shown that the police state has accumulated tons of dossiers and tapes on unacceptable deeds, yet gestated on them until the moment was right for some unspecified, hidden purposes. These dossiers (and the people who accumulate and play around with them) have more power to shape the future of Turkey than anybody else. At rare moments “the games” might be upset by a Snowden, but overall it seems that states throughout the world are moving in a direction where the masters of the puppets are less and less visible. They are not even close to being accountable to the public. Representative democracy has lost its meaning.

Seen from this global angle, the crisis is not only one of liberal Islam, but rather one of liberalism. Anybody who cares about people’s rights to decide their own future will have to imagine new ways in which more visible and accountable actors can matter. Could the post-Gezi political reshuffling in Turkey and the overall global wave of revolt enable democratic maneuvers?

The Gülen Community’s “Left-Wing” Turn and the AKP’s Re-Emergent “Islamism”

This is certainly the question on the Gülen Community’s mind.

What is most interesting about the recent tide of “corruption scandal” arrests is that the Community specifically targeted the winners of corrupt, neoliberal urbanization. These were the businessmen, politicians, and their families who became extravagantly rich thanks to the AKP’s urban renewal projects. Among the targets of the Community’s interrogation are the people who presumably pillaged the historical legacy of Istanbul, more specifically of the famous “Historic Peninsula.” Also targeted are the AKP’s mass housing projects (TOKİ), which hit two birds with one stone. These projects not only created new urban capitalists, but also provided transitory housing solutions and false hopes to lower income sectors, thereby expanding the party’s electoral base. In short, the Community is attacking both illicit bourgeoisification and the mass consent for it.

As some journalists pointed out, the Community is attempting to steal Gezi’s fire. The Gezi Revolt was strong enough to stop illicit renewal in the heart of Taksim, and also to bring urban issues to public consciousness, but there was no way it could put a stop to corrupt urbanization nationally. The Community is implicitly showing itself as the address for healing the urban wounds.

While the Community’s interrogation hurts urban capitalists (and its ideologues couple this “anti-capitalism” with complaints about the AKP’s “authoritarianism”), it also winks at old regime elements. It is widely speculated in the media and social media that Community-connected courts have released the alleged perpetrators of the 1997 military coup (courts with similar dispositions were at the root of their persecution). Since “they [the Community, as well as its intellectual supporters] were all there,” citizens are allowed to ask: why did they round these people up in far from transparent ways, and why are they releasing them now? The perpetrators of this heinous intervention should have been punished in a clear, public, and transparent way. What was the reason for all the secrecy, and why are some of the presumed guilty actors being let go now? It is quite possible that the Community is unconnected to these court cases, but we will not know until the extent of its control over the judiciary is exposed. Given its obscure organizational structure, it is amazing to see that many intellectuals still believe in the Community’s role as the major anti-authoritarian force in the country.


Meanwhile, Erdoğanist circles are also engaged in deep soul-searching. Some of them hope to weather the storm through reviving the anti-imperialist, pro-Iran, and puritan tendencies in Turkish Islamism.

These journalists claim that the Community (and, behind the scenes, MOSSAD and the neocons) is striking against the government because of its links with Iran. One wonders whether these ideologues have any sense of shame. They spent years battling Iran and picturing it almost as the source of all evil in the region. Now they paint a new reality, where their party suffers because of its alliance with Iran!

A prominent Islamic intellectual’s “radical” move is notable at this juncture. Abdurrahman Dilipak is among the most popular Islamic journalists in Turkey. Previously on a radical path, he became one of the leaders of liberalization at the end of the 1990s. He sought to become a mainstream figure, acceptable to the broader intelligentsia, and preached (even in his speeches and seminars away from the eyes of the mainstream in poor urban Islamist strongholds, which tend to be radically-oriented) that in the current world order democracy was the closest system to Islamic rule. The best way forward for Islamic activists, therefore, was to fight for democratic freedoms, not for a distinctly Islamic state.

Dilipak intervened in the “scandal” debates in a way that even the most seasoned poker player would envy. He had been arguing that the Community has massive information regarding some AKP members’ corruption. It had put together corruption files regarding fifty parliamentarians and sex tapes of forty. The Community was planning on using the tapes to coax these libertines to divide the party. In response to the recent interrogation, Dilipak now bluffed: he called upon the AKP to preemptively expel these parliamentarians. In this way, the party could also move in a cleaner, more Islamic direction. And other actors, he suggested, could expose dirty secrets of the Community’s own members.

We don’t know if there are ten or a hundred tapes instead of forty, but Dilipak’s comments no doubt added to the atmosphere of decadence. While entertaining, he also threatened. He not only brandished his keyboard at the Community, but at the rest of the country (and its Western allies) who had become too accustomed to the laxity of Islamic liberalism. “If you sabotage our path, we will go back to our old-style puritanism.” That was the message.

But shouldn’t somebody remind these anti-imperialists, and the would-be puritans, that the very Turkey they created has made all of these games possible? “You were all there,” one is tempted to say. And exactly where does Dilipak hope to find the enthusiasm and the dedication to revert back to Islamic cleanliness? Are the moral boundaries between these dozens of AKP parliamentarians and the rest of the party really that thick?

The Power Bloc’s, Turkey’s, and Global Interests

The Turkish power bloc is languishing in a lose-lose game. Will Turkey as a whole also be a loser in this fratricide? This depends on how the forces outside of the power bloc will respond.

The existing power bloc has presented its interests as the interests of Turkey as a whole. This was certainly a reality, even if a partial one. The crumbling of the power bloc might not only bring about the slowing down of Turkey’s spectacular and speculative growth, but also result in an overnight impoverishment like the one in 2001…or perhaps in an even more serious crash.

But let us also point out what can’t result from this split. Many journalists and academics still hope that the Community’s war with the allegedly authoritarian Prime Minister will result in more transparency and democracy in Turkey. At the root of this hope is either naïveté or duplicity. As one opposition newspaper pointed out, the two sides built the nontransparent authoritarianism of the last decade hand-in-hand (with considerable support from the intellectuals who now voice hopes for transparency and democracy). The newspaper did not forget to add the Prime Minister’s words: “you were all there, dude.” If the recent past is any guide, the Community and most intellectuals are also likely to turn a blind eye to the plundering of historical and natural legacies as long as a united power bloc can ensure a pragmatic approach to religion, stable growth, and integration with the world.

This background puts into question pro-Gülen scenarios widely in circulation, such as the fantasy that the Community would form its own party and come to power, or that Islamic liberalism could be rejuvenated through a new, Erdoğan-free AKP (or a similar scenario, that the AKP could be split into two parties, one Islamist, the other Islamic liberal). First of all, it is quite dubious that any of these parties would enjoy the popular support of the old AKP. They would have to rule through coalition governments, further watering down Islamic liberalism and depriving it of any meaningful Islamic content. Second, it is not clear the divided or “reformed” AKP scenarios would work, given the level of allegiance to Erdoğan in the party’s ranks. Finally, none of these scenarios would lead to a transparent democracy.


Islamic liberalism can persist as intellectual fashion, individual choice, or a project of internationally supported, resource-rich, and influential (if non-popular) communities. However, if the new regime in Turkey falls, or decays into a defensive, conservative nucleus of ex-Islamists, liberal Islam can no longer pose as a viable alternative to revolutionary, conservative, Wahhabi, or Salafi Islam. As Turkey heads into an interregnum, the global stakes are quite high.