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Erdogan can't win against Gulenists without purging civil liberties

By Saeed Naqvi | PUBLISHED: 03, Sep 2016, 18:55 pm IST | UPDATED: 03, Sep 2016, 18:55 pm IST

Erdogan can't win against Gulenists without purging civil liberties Sometimes, important events take place after stories connected with them have been taken off the front pages, when anchors moved on to to new scenarios.
Turkish armour moving into Syria, or warlike conditions in southeast Turkey, or Aleppo, are the new stories catching eyeballs.

Forgotten is the Turkish soccer hero, Hakan Sukur and his father, both hunted for being with Fethullah Gulen, the cleric who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes masterminded the failed coup of July 15.

There is no official count available but over 1,00,000 alleged Gulenists have been purged from the military, police, judiciary, press and the department of education.

How do we know that the most committed Gulenists have been purged or arrested? How does one measure the success or failure of this kind of a clampdown?

Can Turkish intelligence produce a document for Erdogan's "eyes only", claiming that all Gulenists have been purged? Or let me offer you a seemingly absurd hypothesis. Supposing relations between the Narendra Modi government and RSS headquarters in Nagpur sour and reach breaking point.

How will the state embark on a purge when so much of the government is indistinguishable from the RSS? When Jana Sangh leaders Atal Behari Vajpayee, LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi joined the Morarji Desai-led Janata government in 1977, RSS-trained hands took up positions in key departments, some of which their political progeny are still in occupation of. Both Erdogan and Gulen are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi sect, but they were both part of secret groups opposed to the army, which saw itself as the upholders of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's tenets of uncompromising secularism. Politically, Erdogan is an understudy of Necmettin Erbakan who came to power as leader of the Islamist Refah party.

Refah's rise can be traced to the brutalisation of Bosnian Muslims and the four-year siege of Sarajevo. These are part of Turkish historical memory. Refah rode on agitated public sentiment. But the secular army dethroned Erbakan. Turkey's Islamists fell into deep thought.

The AKP or the justice and Development party pulled out a page from the patently Shia practice called Taqiyya, a sort of prudent, precautionary denial of religious belief to escape persecution.

The vast network of Muslim Brotherhood, and Gulen, knew the truth but the army, as the watchdog, could not legally bar him. Erdogan came up trumps with 36 percent of the vote in the 2003 elections. The vote share climbed to 42 per cent in 2007 and 50 per cent in 2011.

Taqiyya was involved in tactically abandoning its "Milli Gorus" (Islamic Nationalist view). This was akin to the pan-Islamist, anti-West line of Sayyid Qutb or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Success begets success. He blocked transit rights to US troops for the invasion of Iraq and broke relations with Israel when a Turkish boat on a humanitarian mission to Gaza was attacked by Israeli troops. He dramatically walked out on Shimon Peres at Davos.

The late Mehmet Birand, journalist and friend, was brilliantly ambiguous: "We are now a proud, dissident nation in the Western alliance." But that was before the Syrian misadventure -- which is another story and not my theme here.

Gulen was hand-in-glove with Erdogan when the target was the "anti Islamist" (secular) military. But soaring heights of political success was not Gulen's principal mission. A follower of theologian Ustad Said Nursi, Gulen focused more on faith, morality and scientific education for Muslims.

The quest for science and knowledge blunted any mechanical anti Westernism. He was as uncomfortable with political Islam as he was with anti-religious secularism. Armed with these teachings, Gulen embarked on a project of reform as early as 1970 -- guiding members to find jobs in the judiciary, police and educational institutions. In 40 years it had become a massive network.

Obviously it had also benefited from Erdogan's political power. Over the years, tensions developed between Gulen's power within the state apparatus and Erdogan's desire to tighten control from above. Buoyed by success, Erdogan saw electoral profit in his anti-US, anti-Israel approach. Gulen saw this as a distraction from the brick-by-brick social edifice he was building.

Since July 15, Erdogan has been unforgiving in his public pronouncements against Gulen. Coteries around Erdogan have for long been nervous at Gulen's control in, say, Turkey's prep schools. These were to close down in 2013 but they survived Erdogan's wrath. There have been other skirmishes.

The break came last month. The disturbing question is: Can a state really cleanse itself of a social movement which has surreptitiously made inroads into all departments since 1970? State power can subdue incipient uprisings but only at the cost of civil liberties.

# A senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on The views expressed are personal.