Erdogan’s Government Takes on Islamist Dissent in Turkey

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s unrelenting four-year crackdown on his former ally, U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, and his movement is now a universally known phenomenon. Especially since the 2016 failed coup, which the government blamed on Gulen movement, the president was able to coalesce a large coalition of Islamist, religious and right-wing groups against the U.S.-based cleric. Majority of Islamist groups fell in line behind Erdogan in his zealous vendetta against Gulen sympathizers.

But that coalition has shown signs of crumbling after the crackdown on Gulen movement has reached conscience-wrenching levels, paved way for an emerging discontent within the ranks of the government and its supporters.

To crush any insurgency from within, the president periodically and brutally suppressed any voice questioning his methods. Alparslan Kuytul, a Salafi Islamist firebrand who calls for a Sharia-based law system in Turkey, recently broke with the president, openly and publicly criticizing his unlawful policies, oppression and repression of his opponents.

His critical video sermons did not fall on the radar of the government until he publicly began to question the government’s narrative on July 15, 2016 coup attempt. His characterization of the ruling party AKP — Justice and Development Party — as Oppression and Development Party (ZKP) made him an enemy of the government.

But it was his questioning of Turkey’s military offensive against the Kurdish enclave of Afrin was the last straw that broke the camel’s back.

The authorities acted with swift reaction. On Jan. 30, the Turkish police raided headquarters of his Furkan Foundation in the southern province of Adana and other offices across the country.

In total, 24 people, including the cleric Kuytul, were placed in detention. Last week, Mr. Kuytul was transferred to a high-security prison in the central province of Bolu.

“I think, unlike what many mistakenly think, the current crackdown in Turkey cannot be characterized as an Islamist suppression of leftist, secular and Gülenist groups. Kuytul case has now the primary example to show that,” Halil Ibrahim Yenigun, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University who studied Islamist groups and democracy in Turkey and in the region, told Globe Post Turkey.

“Kuytul, an Al-Azhar trained, Salafi-oriented opponent of the Erdogan regime, who still keeps himself apart from ISIS cells and the more pro-government pro-Al-Qaeda Salafis has been rounded up along with many of his cadres and followers.”

2016 Coup a Turning Point

The contours of the split between the government and Furkan Foundation have begun to emerge last year.

According to Mr. Yenigun, the Salafi cleric was not the first to draw the wrath of the regime. “In fact, vocal Islamist critics such as Kadrican Mendi have already served prison time earlier.”

He added: “The No front in the referendum among the Islamic circles have been repeatedly targeted and even one of their gathering places, a cafe named Buhurdan in Üsküdar, was shut down by the municipality for some bizarre excuses.”

What infuriated the regime most, he underscored, was Mr. Kuytul’s antiwar statements following the earlier, widely circulated comments that dubbed AKP “ZKP,” i.e., “Oppressive Development Party.”

President Erdogan’s fallout with Mr. Gulen took place in late 2013 when a politically-explosive corruption probe implicated his family members and cabinet ministers. Then-Prime Minister Erdogan blamed perceived sympathizers of the Gulen movement within state bureaucracy for launching a “coup” against him.

What followed was a still ensuing purge of real and imagined Gulen followers in civil service. Numbers are staggering. Since 2016 botched coup, more than 150,000 public servants, including generals, diplomats, judges, prosecutors and teachers, have been sacked in the government purge without a due process and evidence.

The targeting of Furkan faction, Mr. Yenigun argued, shows that, unlike many outsider observers, especially among the pro-Erdogan Muslim circles assume, Erdogan’s suppression of opposition include many religious Muslims whose only crime is to voice opposition, especially on ethical grounds, against Erdogan’s violations of rights and Islamic principles.

Also, many wrongly suppose that given the big threat against a democratic government in July 2016, Erdogan understandably prosecutes Gülenist circles and associates, he noted.

According to him, even critics of Gulen movement in religious sectors of the society have ended up in crosshairs of the government.

Not surprisingly, he added, Mr. Kuytul was also charged for aiding Gulenists (aka FETO, as the Erdogan regime calls), Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), and Islamic State (ISIS), all at the same time as many other targets of the ongoing persecution.

This alone, Mr. Yenigun emphasized, tells a lot about the current state of Turkish judicial system that defies any logic and mocks even the most basic sense of a reasonable understanding of the current Turkish politics and society.

The purge has created a vacuum within the Turkish public institutions, unleashing a race to grab the spoils and fill the empty positions. It also sparked turf wars between various religious groups.

The militant secularism that defined the pillars of Turkey’s century-old political system appears to be under genuine threat. Its exclusive character, which denied space to religious-minded people within the public service, has gone through a gradual transformation over the past decades.

But the pace of change has accelerated with Islamist-rooted AKP over the past decade. The post-coup era saw a full-blown drive towards a more Islamized state structure manifestly displayed in AKP’s appointment of new bureaucrats from religious quarters of the society.

It brought a new engagement with religious groups. But it comes with a price. President Erdogan demands unquestioned allegiance and loyalty; his government brooks no dissent.

To Ali Agcakulu, a visiting scholar at the Catholic University of America, the clampdown on Mr. Kuytul’s community is a matter closely related to President Erdogan’s strong impulse to control everyone and everything.

“Religious orders and communities. Even though they support Erdogan, they are regarded as a threat to the leader’s one-man rule and arbitrary governance,” he told Globe Post Turkey, expounding on how the character of the regime devolved into authoritarianism in Turkey.

“Erdogan’s active use of Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and control of religious groups through the state means require such interventions periodically,” he underlined.

But when someone looks at recent activities of the religious groups, their credibility in the eyes of the public suffer, he noted, referring to a cascade of sexual abuse reports that tainted some of the leading Islamist organizations in Turkey. “Such reports inflict tremendous damage to the reputation and integrity of those groups.”

It naturally feeds a negative sentiment among the society against such organizations. Mr. Agcakulu believes that this factor and similar other scandals would eventually lay the ground for a further crackdown, with more and more leaders of Islamist groups being imprisoned.

He forecasts a bleak future for Turkey’s faith-based communities. The brewing atmosphere at the moment would morph into a full-scale seizure and control of those groups by the government through Diyanet, he construed in a projection to the future.

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