Examining the Ideologies and Practices of the AKP and the Gülen Movement Towards the Kurdish Community

One of the major issues facing Turkey today is the Turkish state’s management of the Kurdish community within its borders. Historically there had been conflicts between the government and the Kurds, particularly with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK was founded by Abdullah Öcalan in 1978 and had a communist ideology, which contradicted with a socially conservative and neo-liberal AKP, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.[1] Since the late 70s, the PKK has been heavily involved in guerrilla warfare against the Turkish state and the AKP inherited the issue once they ascended to power in 2002.[2] The AKP however is not the only influential voice in the Kurdish debate. The Gülen Movement also had thoughts on the Kurdish community. Because both the AKP and the Gülen Movement have widespread Turkish support, it is worth examining what ideologies have shaped their attitudes towards the Kurdish community, how that has influenced their actions or policies, and ultimately how they chose to handle the community’s grievances.

The Gülen Movement, also known as the Hizmet Movement, began in Turkey under the leadership of a Muslim preacher, Fethullah Gülen.[3] Gülen had started his teachings in the 1960s but the movement gained prominence in Turkey twenty years later.[4] By sponsoring schools and businesses and disseminating the teachings of Gülen, the movement aimed not only for spiritual growth for its followers but also taught that an Islamic way of life can coexist alongside a secular government.[5] Derived from Sufi spiritual teachings, followers of the Gülen Movement were taught to seek self-fulfilment and improvement introspectively rather than from material, selfish wants.[6] A main value of the Gülen Movement was its belief in charity and helping others in need, which could also be fulfilled indirectly by one’s job profession.[7] Service to society at large was considered by Gülen as an important pillar of Muslim faith and he believed that one’s service should be offered to others regardless of religion or culture.[8] According to Thijl Sunier in his analysis of Gülen and the movement, there are three main values of the Gülen Movement: “(1) tolerance, love and compassion; (2) dialogue, peace-building and coexistence; and (3) responsibility, civility and citizenship”.[9]

The movement existed as a privately funded organization and did not involve itself in politics officially, although many of its Turkish followers had supported the AKP.[10] As a religious teacher of a popular organization, Gülen did have influence in Turkish politics and had a mixed history of supporting more religiously conservative political parties such as the ANAP and the AKP.[11] While Gülen and his movement had a more nationalist approach in the past, that changed to becoming more inclusive as the movement gained followers among its international networks as well as among Turkish urban youths.[12]

The Gülen Movement claimed to be a spiritual rather than political movement, but it can be argued that there is a political ideology that fits the movement’s values.[13] Uğur Kömeçoğlu introduced the concept of Civil Islam in his work “Post-Islamism and Civil Islam”. His definition of Civil Islam was that it was an ideology that centred “on the spiritual development of individual Muslims and the promotion of the general conditions for human flourishing, including a robust civil society, human rights, religious freedom, peace, ethics, social justice, and the rule of law”.[14] Kömeçoğlu then further elaborated that Civil Islam supports secularism, so long as a secular state respected religious rights.[15] Civil Islam allowed Turkish citizens to keep their faith without being diametrically opposed to the country’s secular government.[16] Following Kömeçoğlu’s definition, the Gülen Movement can be aligned under Civil Islam as it does focus on spiritual concerns of its followers and encourages and promotes positive aspects of Islam to improve societies.[17] An example of how the Gülen Movement’s Civil Islam ideology benefited the Kurdish community was when the movement encouraged the AKP to move forward with Turkey’s membership to the EU and towards democratic reforms, both processes that could have benefit Kurds in the future.[18] Gülen affiliated schools also did not discriminate against Kurds and in fact employed Kurds as teachers in Turkey and Central Asia.[19]

Civil Islam however did have its drawbacks for the Gülen Movement’s stance on Kurdish identity. In regards to the Kurdish community, Gülen does place them within the larger framework of the Turkish nation and considered them a part of the majority rather than a marginalized group.[20] While Gülen movement did not approve of the AKP’s military efforts to supress the PKK because of its non-violent nature, other efforts to appease the Kurdish community would have been detrimental to the movement’s vision of a politically and spiritual homogeneous Turkey.[21] As Civil Islam placed emphasis on spiritualism and religion, to Gülen that aspect had greater weight than ethnic or cultural identity.[22] A great deal of Kurds that sought to establish a Kurdish state viewed the Gülen Movement as a threat as it not only had great influence in the Turkish government but that it was a movement that pushed for a “ethnic Turkish nationalism” agenda, interfering with plans for a distinct Kurdish identity.[23]

The concept of post-Islamism was similar to Civil Islam but also had key differences. As Kömeçoğlu phrased it, when political Islamism had led to little or no political gains in a society, then it gave rise to post-Islamism and their followers must “…reassess and reinvent their political ideology through democratic competition with other intellectual and religious tendencies”.[24] Islam still pertained to post-Islamism but the ideology also incorporated democracy and other modern political values as a means to blend them together to achieve a party’s goal of a government with Islamic values.[25] It was more politically direct ideology compared to Civil Islam.[26]  In Turkey, the AKP party would be classified as a post-Islamist party due to the fact that Islamist parties in Turkey, until the 1980s, were persecuted by the state, which led to shifts in party management and ideology, with the AKP being one of the results of that change.[27] The AKP classified itself as a “conservative democracy” and served the majority of Turkish Sunni citizens, which in theory, also included Sunni Kurds.[28] The AKP’s most ardent public supporters are the conservative, white-collar middle class.[29] The party also attracted nationalistic and religious factions within civil Turkish society.[30]

Post-Islamism as an ideology had influence in the AKP’s policy with the Kurdish community by allowing dialogue between the AKP and the PKK, in contrast to the Gülen Movement. The AKP and the Gülen Movement ceased their alliance after a series of incidences, one of which involved a dispute over the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).[31] The Gülen Movement was popular among educated professionals, which included professionals in the legal field and law enforcement.[32] In 2012, the AKP had kept negotiations with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan hidden from the public in a bid to create a peace treaty.[33] However, when a state prosecutor made an inquiry to the head of the Turkish Intelligence Agency on the negotiations, the AKP became defensive, believing that the prosecutor’s questioning was an attempt by the Gülen Movement to wrestle power away from the AKP and disrupt the negotiations.[34]  Although they did support the inquiry, the Gülen Movement denied trying to interfere with the peace negotiation.[35] The AKP and its supporters had used the incident as an excuse to brand the movement as being anti-Kurdish.[36] Despite whether the inquiry was due to the Gülen Movement’s meddling or not, the PKK negotiations did eventually lead to success in 2013 with a ceasefire.[37] The post-Islamism ideology created a more adaptable AKP that was willing to work with the Kurdish community, where more a ridged Islamist stance would have failed.[38] However as negotiations with the Kurdish community continued, the AKP’s religiously conservative and nationalistic stance began to erode the more democratic aspects of their post- Islamism elements.[39]

The “Kurdish opening” began in 2009 and was an attempt by the AKP to address the concerns of the Kurdish community in Turkey.[40] The AKP’s main motivations were to weaken the PKK and to legitimize themselves to the Turkish Kurds.[41] Potential membership to the EU was also a motivator for the AKP, especially as requirement for European membership was to conform to human right laws and policy.[42] Through the “Kurdish Opening”, the AKP granted Kurds greater civil rights for the Kurdish language such radio broadcasts in Kurdish and allowing Kurdish parents to name their children in their own language.[43] The AKP also allowed Kurdish to be taught in private schools and political events.[44]  They also tried to bridge the gap between the state and the PKK by granting clemency to former PPK fighters.[45] However, when a flare up of PKK fighting began in 2004, the AKP heeded the pressure from other conservative parties and halted the reforms.[46] Reforms had started to resume again after the fighting had become less severe but it halted once again due to the clemency policy failing to win over members of the PKK and the Kurdish public.[47]

Another ceasefire in 2011 was shorted lived once the PKK had resumed fighting and the AKP continued to crackdown on fighters with the full force of the Turkish army.[48] PKK fighters that had once been sheltered by the clemency policy were prosecuted by the state.[49] Thousands of party members and activists associated with the Kurdish BDP (the Peace and Democracy Party) were arrested and jailed for supporting the PKK, even if the allegations lacked evidence.[50] Even non-Kurdish parties that were sympathetic towards the Kurds, such as the DTP, were banned and their members were charged with treason.[51] The AKP’s policy towards the Kurds were restricted by their support base and once they began to complain, the AKP withdrew their reforms because they feared of alienating their voters.[52] The PKK had also challenged the core Islamic value of the AKP by providing their own religious services in Kurdish, therefore circumventing state religious institutions and putting the AKP’s self-proclaimed title as the guardian of Turkey’s Islamic heritage into question.[53]

In Cuma Çiçek’s article, “Elimination or Integration of Pro-Kurdish Politics: Limits of the AKP’s Democratic Initiative”, the author argues that AKP’s policy on Kurds failed for four reasons. The first was that the AKP’s nationalist stance and religious conservatism did not allow the party to fully understand or in some cases refuse, the needs of the Kurdish community, creating miscommunication and blunders in the process.[54] Çiçek also accused the AKP of not truly being a democratic party and that it handled the Kurds with an iron fist rather than offering an olive branch.[55] The third and fourth reason why AKP’s policy failed were due to the AKP’s ignorance of the Kurdish community, their refusal to allocate more resources to the Kurdish issue, and their poor coordination with other government entities and parties.[56]

There was a rift between an ideologically aligned post-Islamic AKP and the Civil Islam Gülen Movement despite similarities. While Civil Islam aims were universal and more passive, post-Islamism used governments and its bureaucracy as a tool to insert Islamic values in society.[57] Despite the AKP’s best efforts to manage what they viewed as a “problematic” PKK, they failed to achieve their goal of absorbing the PKK and the greater Kurdish community into their vision of an all-encompassing Sunni Turkish nation.[58] The Kurds did not fit neatly into the AKP’s political views and once negotiations proved to be too difficult, the AKP abandoned the more democratic elements of post-Islamism as they become more increasingly powerful.[59]  While the Gülen Movement’s goals were less urgent and direct than the AKP’s, it too had failed to gain the trust of the Kurdish community.[60] Despite preaching peaceful, universal values, Gülen, like the AKP, still held on to nationalistic values that undermined his message in Turkey.[61] In the framework of Civil Islam, Gülen did have high regards to coexistence and democracy but placed greater emphasis on a unified Turkey in order to achieve spiritual learning and salvation.[62] The Kurdish goal of greater freedoms, while important, was still considered a material need rather than a holy one.[63] Both the Gülen Movement and the AKP had carved a place for the Kurdish community in their respective ideologies and were willing to engage with them. However, both had failed due to their refusal to incorporate all the elements of both post-Islamism and Civil Islam. Had the AKP and the Gülen Movement been more flexible and had been more willing to compromise with the Kurdish community, perhaps the Kurdish issue would have been resolved.


Bibliography

  1. Balci, Bayram. “Fethullah Gülen’s Missionary Schools in Central Asia and their Role in the Spreading of Turkism and Islam”. Religion, State and Society, 31:2 (2003): 151-177. DOI: 10.1080/09637490308283. Access date: December 7, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09637490308283.
  2. Çiçek, Cuma. “Elimination or Integration of Pro‐Kurdish Politics: Limits of the AKP’s Democratic Initiative”. Turkish Studies, 12:1 (2011): 15-26, DOI:10.1080/14683849.2011.563498. Access date: December 7, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14683849.2011.563498.
  3. El-Kazaz, Sarah. “The AKP and the Gülen: The End of a Historic Alliance”. Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University, No. 94 (2015): 1-9. Access Date: December 7, 2016. http://www.brandeis.edu/crown/publications/meb/meb94.html.
  4. Kaya, Ayhan. “Islamisation of Turkey under the AKP Rule: Empowering Family, Faith and Charity”. South European Society and Politics, 20:1 (2014): 47-69. DOI: 10.1080/13608746.2014.979031. Access Date: December 7, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13608746.2014.979031.
  5. Kömeçoğlu, Uğur. “Islamism, Post-Islamism, and Civil Islam”. Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Vol.16 (2014): 16-32. Access Date: December 7, 2016. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/login.aspx?direct=true&db=poh&AN=95122821&site=ehost-live.
  6. Marcus, Aliza. “The Kurds’ Evolving Strategy: The Struggles Goes Political in Turkey”. World Affairs, Vol. 175, No. 4 (2012): 15-22. Access date: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41639029.
  7. Özbudun, Ergun. “AKP at the Crossroads: Erdoğan’s Majoritarian Drift”. South European Society and Politics, 19:2 (2014): 155-167. DOI: 10.1080/13608746.2014.920571. Access date: December 7, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13608746.2014.920571.
  8. Pusane, Özlem Kayhan. “Turkey’s Kurdish Opening: Long Awaited Achievements and Failed Expectations”. Turkish Studies, 15:1 (2014): 81-99. DOI:10.1080/14683849.2014.891348. Access Date: December 7, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14683849.2014.891348.
  9. Seufert, Günter. “Is the Fethullah Gülen Movement Overstretching Itself?: A Turkish Religious Community as a National and International Player”. Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik German Institute for International and Security Affairs, (2014): 1-31. Access date: December 7, 2016. http://europesworld.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2014/01/2014_RP02_srt.pdf.
  10. Sunier, Thijl. “Cosmopolitan theology: Fethullah Gülen and the making of a ‘Golden Generation’”. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 37:12, (2014): 2193-2208. DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2014.934259. Access date: December 7, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2014.934259.

[1] Özlem Kayhan Pusane, “Turkey’s Kurdish Opening: Long Awaited Achievements and Failed Expectations”, (Turkish Studies, 2014), 83.

[2] Ibid., 83-84.

[3] Uğur Kömeçoğlu, “Islamism, Post-Islamism, and Civil Islam”, (Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 2014), 20.

[4] Thijl Sunier, “Cosmopolitan theology: Fethullah Gülen and the making of a ‘Golden Generation’”, (Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2014), 2194.

[5] Uğur Kömeçoğlu, “Islamism, Post-Islamism, and Civil Islam”, (Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 2014), 20, 28.

[6] Ibid., 21.

[7] Ibid., 22.

[8] Ibid., 25.

[9] Thijl Sunier, “Cosmopolitan theology: Fethullah Gülen and the making of a ‘Golden Generation’”, (Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2014), 2197.

[10] Uğur Kömeçoğlu, “Islamism, Post-Islamism, and Civil Islam”, (Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 2014), 19-20.

[11] Thijl Sunier, “Cosmopolitan theology: Fethullah Gülen and the making of a ‘Golden Generation’”, (Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2014), 2200-2201.

[12] Ibid., 2201-2202.

[13] Uğur Kömeçoğlu, “Islamism, Post-Islamism, and Civil Islam”, (Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 2014), 19-20.

[14] Ibid., 17.

[15] Ibid., 18.

[16] Ibid., 27.

[17] Thijl Sunier, “Cosmopolitan theology: Fethullah Gülen and the making of a ‘Golden Generation’”, (Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2014), 2197.

[18] Uğur Kömeçoğlu, “Islamism, Post-Islamism, and Civil Islam”, (Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 2014), 28.

[19] Bayram Balci, “Fethullah Gülen’s Missionary Schools in Central Asia and their Role in the Spreading of Turkism and Islam”, (Religion, State and Society, 2003), 161.

[20] Sarah El-Kazaz, “The AKP and the Gülen: The End of a Historic Alliance”, (Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University, 2015), 3-5.

[21] Ibid., 3-7.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Günter Seufert, “Is the Fethullah Gülen Movement Overstretching Itself?: A Turkish Religious Community as a National and International Player” (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 2014), 5.

[24] Uğur Kömeçoğlu, “Islamism, Post-Islamism, and Civil Islam”, (Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 2014), 18.

[25] Ibid., 18-19.

[26] Ibid., 18-19.

[27] Ibid., 19.

[28] Ayhan Kaya, “Islamisation of Turkey under the AKP Rule: Empowering Family, Faith and Charity”, (South European Society and Politics, 2014), 50-51.

[29] Uğur Kömeçoğlu, “Islamism, Post-Islamism, and Civil Islam”, (Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 2014), 27.

[30] Ergun Özbudun, “AKP at the Crossroads: Erdoğan’s Majoritarian Drift” (South European Society and Politics, 2014), 155.

[31] Ibid., 159.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 159-160.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Günter Seufert, “Is the Fethullah Gülen Movement Overstretching Itself?: A Turkish Religious Community as a National and International Player” (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 2014), 20.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ergun Özbudun, “AKP at the Crossroads: Erdoğan’s Majoritarian Drift” (South European Society and Politics, 2014), 160.

[38] Uğur Kömeçoğlu, “Islamism, Post-Islamism, and Civil Islam”, (Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 2014), 18.

[39] Cuma Çiçek, “Elimination or Integration of Pro‐Kurdish Politics: Limits of the AKP’s Democratic Initiative”, (Turkish Studies, 2011), 22-23.

[40] Özlem Kayhan Pusane, “Turkey’s Kurdish Opening: Long Awaited Achievements and Failed Expectations”, (Turkish Studies, 2014), 81.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 84.

[43] Ibid., 85.

[44] Ergun Özbudun, “AKP at the Crossroads: Erdoğan’s Majoritarian Drift” (South European Society and Politics, 2014), 161.

[45] Özlem Kayhan Pusane, “Turkey’s Kurdish Opening: Long Awaited Achievements and Failed Expectations”, (Turkish Studies, 2014), 85.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., 86.

[48] Ibid., 86-87.

[49] Aliza Marcus, “The Kurds’ Evolving Strategy: The Struggles Goes Political in Turkey”, (World Affairs, 2012), 17.

[50] Ibid., 16-19.

[51] Özlem Kayhan Pusane, “Turkey’s Kurdish Opening: Long Awaited Achievements and Failed Expectations”, (Turkish Studies, 2014), 89.

[52] Ibid., 90.

[53] Aliza Marcus, “The Kurds’ Evolving Strategy: The Struggles Goes Political in Turkey”, (World Affairs, 2012), 20.

[54] Cuma Çiçek, “Elimination or Integration of Pro‐Kurdish Politics: Limits of the AKP’s Democratic Initiative”, (Turkish Studies, 2011), 22.

[55] Ibid., 22-23.

[56] Ibid., 23.

[57] Uğur Kömeçoğlu, “Islamism, Post-Islamism, and Civil Islam”, (Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 2014), 29.

[58] Cuma Çiçek, “Elimination or Integration of Pro‐Kurdish Politics: Limits of the AKP’s Democratic Initiative”, (Turkish Studies, 2011), 22-23.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Günter Seufert, “Is the Fethullah Gülen Movement Overstretching Itself?: A Turkish Religious Community as a National and International Player” (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 2014), 5.

[61] Sarah El-Kazaz, “The AKP and the Gülen: The End of a Historic Alliance”, (Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University, 2015), 3-7.

[62] Uğur Kömeçoğlu, “Islamism, Post-Islamism, and Civil Islam”, (Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 2014), 18-21.

[63] Ibid., 21.

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