BACKGROUND: On November 13, the daily Zaman – the Hizmet movement’s media flagship – announced that a draft bill was being prepared to close down the private preparatory schools that help Turkish students prepare for the centralized university entrance examination. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan soon confirmed that he did intend to close down the prep school system.
The move was portrayed as part of a general overhaul of the educational system, and as a step to combat the inequality resulting from students unable to attend such schools being disadvantaged. But this explanation is not credible: if that had been the intention, the government would have begun by addressing the problem of which the prep schools are a symptom: the centralized examination system that requires a level and type of knowledge and test skills that the public education system does not equip students to meet.
The Hizmet movement, led by U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen and popularly called Cemaat or “the community,” operates up to a third of the estimated 4,000 prep schools in Turkey. While the schools are an important source of funding for the movement, their main function is a recruiting tool: it is in these schools that many if not most of the movement’s past, present and future followers have been identified and cultivated. Thus, almost all Turkish observers agree, the move is a transparent attack on the Hizmet movement.
The Hizmet movement and the AKP both form part of Turkey’s Islamic conservative milieu but their roots are different. As detailed in the March 5, 2012 Turkey Analyst, the AKP has its roots in the orthodox Islamist Milli Görüş (National Outlook) movement, which draws its inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated groups; by contrast, the Hizmet movement is modernist, Turkish nationalist, and is now also globalized. The Hizmet movement never historically lent its support to Turkey’s Islamist political parties. Although its own tradition strongly discouraged the movement from associating itself with any political party, the movement developed proximity to the center-right parties of the 1980s and 1990s; in the elections in 1999 it threw its weight behind nationalist leftist Bülent Ecevit and helped make his Democratic Left Party (DSP) the country’s largest party. With the collapse of both the DSP and the center-right following the 2000 financial crisis, the movement lent support to the newly founded AKP.
The abortive attempt by the Turkish military to prevent the AKP from securing the presidency in 2007, and the subsequent attempt by the judiciary to close down the party led to a deepening of the alliance. Both Milli Görüş and Hizmet had been the targets of the military-led purges of the late 1990s. The support of the Hizmet movement was crucial: aside from electoral support, it had a strong presence in the police and the judiciary system, providing Erdoğan with the muscle to go after the military through the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations. And not least, the movement had in all likelihood become entrenched among the lower ranks of the military, allowing it to secure the leaking of (sometimes doctored) information troves that were subsequently propagated by media outlets close to the movement. This provided the fodder for prosecutors targeting officers, and helped reduce the military’s legendary popularity in Turkey. (See the 13 February 2013 issue of the Turkey Analyst)
The alliance culminated with the 2010 referendum, which provided the Hizmet movement with the opportunity to consolidate its position in the high judiciary. But by that time, differences between the two forces had already appeared, over foreign policy, and over the Kurdish question: Gülen opposed Erdoğan’s anti-Israeli and pro-Iranian policies at the time, and the peace process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdoğan came to resent, or fear, the growth of the Hizmet movement’s position in the bureaucracy, and its unstated ambition to co-govern the state. Ahead of the 2011 elections, Erdoğan purged the party lists of supporters of the Hizmet movement (and of those who were close to President Gül.) Hizmet followers also began to be thwarted and rotated in the bureaucracy. Then, in February 2012, a prosecutor believed to be affiliated with the movement tried to call in Erdoğan’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and two of his predecessors for questioning over their role in the negotiations with the PKK. (See February 20, 2012 issue of the Turkey Analyst) This was a strike directly at Erdoğan. Since then, the rift between the AKP and Hizmet has grown. Erdoğan conducted further purges of Hizmet followers in key position in the state, and abolished the specially authorized courts, dominated by its followers; the movement’s media outlets have in turn grown openly critical of the government. The rift surfaced with the Gezi Park protests of May-June 2013, when Hizmet media, unlike most Turkish media outlets, reported fairly and critically about the government repression. The movement faced accusations from the AKP that it had instigated the protests, an accusation that was denied in a statement by the movement’s key organization, the Writers’ and Journalists’ Union, on August 13. The statement nonetheless included sharp criticism of the government’s restrictions of the freedom of expression.
Until the prep school row broke, however, the two sides held out a hope for reconciliation, mostly avoiding direct references to one another. Thus, Erdoğan would hint at “the other side”, but not mention the movement by name; similarly, in his recorded interviews, Gülen would only obliquely criticize the government. Now, however, such civility is being dispensed with, Gülen making references to “pharaoh” and comparing the government’s measures to military coups, while Erdoğan directly urges the Hizme movement to back off.
IMPLICATIONS: The struggle is, in part, for the heart and soul of Turkey’s Islamic conservative movement. Because Gülen’s schools are very popular and provide a high-quality secular education, the bright and talented among the Turkey’s young conservatives gravitate toward it. By contrast, that has led interest in the traditional imam-hatip schools, loyal to the AKP’s core constituency, to drop significantly. Thus, the success of the Hizmet movement in time means a hollowing out of the AKP’s talent pool. If the Hizmet movement is reduced to size, however, the talented youth might return to the imam-hatip schools. Thus, the prep school crisis is likely the first step in an attempt to reduce the entire educational activities of the Hizme movement.
Beyond that, the fight between Erdogan and the Hizmet movement is about the control of the state; and it is ultimately existential. To Erdoğan, the Hizmet movement became a state within the state that mounted a “civilian coup” against him over the Kurdish issue, and must be crushed. He changed all his bodyguards in September 2012, suspecting the presence of Hizmet loyalists among the group. An AKP parliamentarian, Orhan Atalay, recently compared the prep schools to the KCK – the PKK’s civilian arm, which was targeted by the state in a vast operation in 2009-10, with 2,000 Kurdish politicians and activists being arrested.
To the Hizmet movement, by contrast, Erdoğan is an autocrat, who refuses to share power and who now seems bent on securing the movement’s submission. To the movement, the prep school issue is only the beginning: if Erdoğan gets his way, the obvious next targets are going to be the movement’s formal schools, its business interests, and its student dormitories – as well as forcing its media outlets into submission. The comparisons to the KCK suggest that that movement members may face the prospect of detention and prosecution. Furthermore, the conflict is not taking place in a vacuum: it is part and parcel of a broader trend, namely the ideological tensions within the Islamic conservative movement as a whole. While Erdogan is increasingly reverting to an old-fashioned conservatism, others, notably President Gül and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, are dissenting, espousing a more liberal approach. The differences manifested themselves over the Gezi protests and most recently over Erdogan’s initiative to crack down on co-ed student apartments. (See November 20, 2013, issue of the Turkey Analyst) Commentators in the media outlets of the Hizmet movement have taken strong issue with Erdogan’s conservatism. The movement’s advocacy of liberalism may be tactically motivated or based in principle, but it does nonetheless reflect trends within the pious bourgeoisie that is the main base of both the AKP and of the Hizmet movement.
CONCLUSIONS: For the Hizmet movement the gulf that has opened among Erdogan and the two other co-founders of the AKP, Gül and Arınç, raises the prospect of what some Turkish commentators have called “an AKP without Erdoğan”: reconciliation with the mainstream of the AKP, under different leadership. This very prospect – and the perception of Erdoğan as ideologically isolated at the top even though he continues to hold the reins of power tightly – ensures that the Hizmet movement will not give up without a fight. It is likely to focus its energies on helping such a scenario materialize.
The Hizmet movement may take a page out of its 1999 playbook, and lend its support to the main opposition Republican People’s Party as Turkey heads into a crucial election season, starting with municipal elections in March 2014. The Hizmet movement’s electoral base is disputed; AKP figures estimate it at three percent, a figure that is almost certainly widely off the mark. A poll commissioned by the AKP itself apparently returned a figure of at least eight percent, a considerable swing vote. The Hizmet movement’s die-hard support for the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases, in which numerous people have been imprisoned on evidence that is flimsy at best and fabricated at worst, raises concerns regarding the movement’s commitment to the liberalism that it is now embracing. Yet compared to Erdoğan, the movement at the very least appears to have a higher tolerance for people whose lifestyles differ from its own.
The difference between the two sides is clearer in the realm of foreign policy. In the wake of the Arab upheavals, Turkey has adopted an ideological, Sunni sectarian, foreign policy. And while Fethullah Gülen favors good relations with Israel and a strong attachment to the West, the anti-Israeli bent of the AKP is longstanding, and Erdogan explores eastern alternatives. On a recent trip to Moscow, Erdogan asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to facilitate Turkey entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization so that he could “be relieved” of the pain of EU integration.
The Hizmet movement, by contrast, is strongly suspicious of Russia and of Iran (with whom the AKP government developed close relations before Turkey’s Sunni sectarian intervention in Syria put it at odds with Tehran), while its Turkish nationalism makes it interested in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The outcome of the power struggle between Erdogan and the Hizmet movement is likely to go a long way to determine Turkey’s future course, both domestically and internationally. Not least, it could help define the nature of Turkey’s future relationship with the West.
Svante E. Cornell is Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, and Editor-in-Chief of the Turkey Analyst.