Witnessing the Death of a Secular Turkish State, Part 3

Ales Nemec


Fethullah Gulen

Fethullah Gulen

According to the sources available on internet, Gulen movement was designed as a moderate or even progressive Islamic movement that stresses the role of education. In a way, it resembles Cultural Marxism with its stress on the role of education and propaganda in the schools. Some Western news sources praise it as truly progressive and secular movement that opposes religious radicalization. There are a number of Gulen schools in US.

I do not think this view is even remotely correct.

Once again, I am mentally returning to those last months in Turkey. Along with her classes, my wife was also conducting academic research among her students, which included personal interviews. These interviews gave her a glimpse into what was really happening behind the official façade of that institution.

The students had always been extremely reluctant to talk to my wife outside of class and their comments about cultural issues, social life, and personal interactions, their personal stories and information were, as a rule, extremely evasive. However, my wife was surprised that many students enthusiastically agreed to come for a personal interview. Of course, the interviews were confidential. While the interviews dealt with the subject of academic learning and knowledge development, the participating students had also naturally discussed their daily lives and activities.

That way we learned a few things that we couldn’t have otherwise learned.   Frankly, some of them were astonishing.

It turned out, for instance, that many students, especially the international ones, lived in special school dorms, naturally separated by genders, and also in private apartments with draconian rules. They were forbidden access to the internet (which explained one particular mystery — why students failed to bring their homework if it required doing an internet research).  Students who lived in private apartments were placed under the supervision of a special ‘teacher’ or ‘an elder brother/sister’ whose job was not only to supervise their behavior, thus preventing them from any acts of immorality (which could include going out with friends, smoking, drinking alcohol, getting on internet or trying to spend time in the company of the opposite sex), but also to provide them with proper religious guidance and learning. All daily prayers were to be performed in the strictest fashion; in addition, students were placed in ‘discussion groups’ were they were obliged to discuss words of the Quran and learn about high moral standards and values provided by Gulenist literature.

Many of the students came to the university directly from Gulen high schools. Thus, some of them started their Gulen education from a young age. I suppose those schools were not fun either. Some students described bullying, fights and physical punishments that happened there. It also turned out that all traditionally oriented students came from devoted Muslim families, most of which were ardent supporters of Gulen.

It is surprising how well the administration and the local Turkish faculty of the university managed to hide these facts. Although they had some books by Gulen in the library, not much about him or his movement was discussed. Thus we could not connect all the dots and see the overall picture almost until the very end. Now I think that it is not surprising. After all, does not Quran teach to lie to unbelievers, to use all necessary deceptions, and even to relax or to forsake completely the religious prescriptions if it does help deceiving and destroying an unbeliever?

*    *   *   *

I guess at this point the reader might enquire as to why the author felt so compelled to write about this. In fact, the message that I am trying to get across is somewhat twofold. On a personal level, I feel genuinely sorry for Turkey and Turkish people, and my only hope is that the totalitarian change there will not reach the point of no return.

On the other hand, our experience provided food for thoughts regarding a relation between Western culture and Islam. After all, Turkey is a member of NATO and supposedly, a US ally. Besides, ever since Ataturk’s revolution in1923, it has positioned itself as a bridge and a buffer between the East and West. It saw itself in glowing terms as being the first secular Muslim country where two religions — Christianity and Islam — could co-exist, where all national minorities were able to live in peace, and finally, where democracy and a personal choice of political, cultural and religious beliefs were respected. In short, it positioned itself as a living example of long sought cultural unity, a counter argument against all kinds of traditionalistic, fundamentalist systems with their rabid religious indoctrination and strict ideology that cannot and would not co-exist with anything else.

Now, all this seems to be a thing of the past for Turkey is apparently sliding into a new model which in my view would pretty much resemble the present day Iran. Perhaps, Erdogan would go further and try to bring back not only the idea but in fact nearly all elements of the late Ottoman Empire. It didn’t take him long to bring the country to the point where it is now. Indeed, the “Allah sent coup” of July, 2016 opened for him a flood of not only opportunities to elevate his position further, but also the ability to unleash terror against his opponents.

There were speculations in the US press about the credibility of his claims that the coup was a genuine one. Personally, I believe the coup was staged.  As to the patriotic enthusiasm of the people — Ergodan has been playing with a populist agenda for quite a long time, for he knows how the ordinary, poorly educated and underprivileged populace has always felt about the so-called Kemalist elite. Indeed, it does not require a political genius to ignite this resentment and even outright hatred of ‘the common people’ towards certain political and business figures, military and intelligentsia — in short, the privileged wealthy minority that has always enjoyed not only the best education, the best life standards and opportunities, but also the corrupt Western lifestyle. I recall that during the national elections Erdogan said something about ‘those who right at this moment drink whiskey on Bosphorus while we (the JDP party) work day and night to elevate our poor from their poverty, etc.

Erdogan’s rhetoric has always been aimed at Western tendencies and the Western lifestyle, Western attitudes, and the Western values — everything that the Kemalist party has tried to instill into the minds of the people. The military was entrusted with the role of protector the democracy. It is not surprising however, that on Erdogan’s list of candidates for the cleansing, the military was the first.

And so this tragic spectacle continues, as the country slides deeper and deeper into a weird mix of medieval tyranny with strong elements of totalitarianism. Old and long-forgotten ghosts of the corrupt Ottoman Empire with its traditions of torture and lawlessness under the absolute rule of one man return from oblivion and once again become a grim reality. Even the famous Hagia Sophia that had been a museum since Turkey became a secular republic has become (albeit semi-officially) a mosque once again.

Speaking of democracy, Erdogan expressed his position brilliantly: “Democracy is a like a train: once you reach your destination you get off.”

There is no need for me to recite recent events in Turkey, for they are continuously covered in the news. I am deeply surprised, though, that the reaction of academicians around the world was minimal at best. No one cried foul when repressions of teachers and professors started, and continue to this day. But there are enough people to condemn ‘Islamophobia’ and its proponents. No one in EU seems to be troubled by the rising tyranny right on their doorsteps, perhaps because tyranny in the EU is all too real.

It is my conviction that Gulen movement and current policies of Erdogan are not as different as Erdogan tries to present them. Gulen and Erdogan had been long-standing allies; both are proponents of ‘moderate’ Islam, traditional values and, to some extent, a clandestine resurrection of the Ottoman Empire.

In conclusion, I would like to say a few words about the young people who were raised under influence of Gulen movement or being raised in today’s political atmosphere of Turkey.  Our experience demonstrated to me how young people are being radicalized. On a personal note, Turkish people in general, young and old, have not struck me as natural-born traditionalists or religious fanatics. The Turks are mostly mild and well-meaning, reasonable people who want to live normal lives, have their families and their little fun. The same goes for the young people. In fact, given a chance, they would do the same things the youngsters in Western countries do. They love loud music, weird hairdos, and fashionable clothes. It is the same bunch of old, or middle-aged, guys, hungry for power and absolute control under the pretext of beliefs, religion and morals, national patriotism and traditional values that try to radicalize them under a ruse of education, morality or patriotism.

Many of my wife’s former students keep in touch with her. They even ask her advice occasionally, for many of them now live in different parts of the globe, but mostly in Europe and US. They all went through the type of education I have described above. My question is — how many of them, are now marginalized and therefore, radicalized? Who knows? Will they listen to messages of democracy and management science that they had got in their classrooms from international and Western-educated faculty or to a call for Jihad? In any case, they have no legitimate place in the West and should return and try to reform Turkey.

Finally, as a result of my experiences I now know that a ‘moderate’ Muslim simply does not exist. If you doubt it, just think about what I have mentioned about the legitimacy of lies and deception as part of their world view. I believe it is our duty to liberate these young people from the medieval and just purely evil teaching of obedience and conquest and bring them into the light of education, excellence, and success. They are nice kids. I remember one of them showing me a turtle during our hike in the mountains and asking, “Is not it super cute?” So it was, and so was the kid. However, while we, as a country, as a civilization, allow the likes of Erdogan and Gulen to poison their minds with bloodthirsty doctrines of Jihad, they are going to turn not for the light of the education, democracy and civilization, but into the darkness of terrorism and murder. The Muslim youth should be reclaimed for the good of the world, and it is not going to happen in Erdogan’s new Turkey.

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