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A House Divided: Civil Society and Democracy in Turkey

I have followed the news of the recent visit of Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan to Turkey and his meetings on 3-4 January 2019 with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Imran Khan has fondly described President Erdogan as his political favorite hero and their joint statement reiterating about Hizmet organization was utterly disturbing to me [1]. I too had been very much an admirer of Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his first decade of premiership when Turkey had become a progressive and admirable model civil society, well on its way to a modern welfare state and a genuine champion of democracy with zero enemies in the region. A definite hope had arisen in Turkey at the time that its Constitution would be rewritten, limiting authoritarianism and the power of the military. A bid for Turkey’s EU membership was also launched in 2005 that seriously prevailed for a while.

However, over the past several years worrisome internal political and societal crisis had somehow begun in 2013 when Turkey started declining and has ended up today with zero friends in the region. Several analysts had pointed out serious concerns about the corruption scandals and charges against the top ministers and members of Erdogan’s government. Hizmet movement naturally being the integral component of the civil society also became concerned about the corruption scandals but the Prime Minister Erdogan started to become angry with the Hizmet leadership without any logical reasoning.

Being a Pakistani and respectfully concerned about our historically brotherly nation Turkey, I did write an open letter [2] to the prime minister Erdogan with some constructive criticism and suggestions on December 14, 2013. Soon thereafter on December 30,2013, I also happen to read about a call made by the then Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu for a dialogue to finding a way out of the political crisis and related corruption. FM Davutoğlu had then stated that the corruption scandals that had plagued the Turkish government at the time had led to the resignation of several ministers; he also had said that the government in the future would be stricter in dealing with the corruption cases.

Unfortunately, I have certainly not seen any overall positive and constructive developments or dialogue in the resolution of those increasing and ongoing tensions between President Erdogan and Hizmet movement leadership to this day. As a matter of fact the tensions had aggravated further since the failed Turkish military coup in July 2016 having been blamed on civil society Hizmet movement leadership.
Such issues need an urgent awareness not only of the world but also of the Muslim world particularly to bring about emergent resolutions sooner than later.

During the first decade of Erdogan’s admirable period as a PM, I had not only become a great admirer of him but also of the foundation and evolution of a new Turkish civil society (Jameah Madani like) that came about over the decades as a result of genuine and constructive contributions of a non-political Hizmet civil society movement that began in 1960s. I believed that President Erdogan might have had a positive impact and impressions of the movement on his own personal humanistic growth and development during the early years of his life.

I am of the firm opinion that Hizmet movement had been practically the core civilizing, and transformative engine for strong Turkish civil society in this modern age. The movement has had, without any doubt, facilitated and consolidated Turkey’s strong civil society and democracy following many decades of prevalent Laicism and the deep state in Turkey since its inception. The movement in the last two decades has increasingly been impacting the world spanning over 120 countries and remains committed to the altruistic “service” for all of humanity to this day.

The Prime Minister Erdogan himself also had undoubtedly brought a tremendous and positive political transformation in Turkey for a decade in conjunction with parallel contributions of the Turkish civil society in the presence of Hizmet movement. Since AKP was founded in 2001, it too had defined its policies and mission as “service” emphasizing that AKP was a “service-oriented” party rather than an ideological one and one with servant leadership. It was also an important and interesting point that the two entities, one newly formed Turkish national political party and the other born-again civil society (Jameah Madani like) movement already in existence for over 4 decades both defining themselves similarly through the mission of altruistic “service ”in Turkey.

The Turkish state and civil society for a decade stood side by side and in parallel, having common ideals and goals without any political merger of the state and the mosque. Modern democracies locally, in the Middle East and globally should have seen that as an example where the public civic sphere helped built the Turkish democratic state. The whole world could have embraced such developments for democratic renaissance and the Muslim world should have particularly looked at Turkey then as an example in the twenty-first century for them to follow.

Unity and cohesion under the worldview of tawhid remains prohibitive to the divisions of civic human engagements. Tawhid was indeed the foundational stone of (Jameah Madani) a strong civil society founded and demonstrated by the prophet (PBUH) himself in the city state of Medina in the 7th century A.D. I admire PM Imran Khan of Pakistan for his own mission statements about the welfare and democratic state of Medina being his potential future model for Pakistan since he has been recently elected as PM of Pakistan in July 2018. I am rather shocked as to how Imran Khan ended up making a negative joint statement about Hizmet with Erdogan that was most certainly a naïve and misleading statement on his part.

Through Fetullah Gulen’s thought and practice, there had been a rebirth of a strong civil society (Jameah Madani like) movement during our own modern age in Turkey. This had already demonstrated a civil society’s direct and positive relationship to genuine democratic evolution. This approach to societal problem solving and the conceptions of ‘the public sphere’ thus remain an extremely objective way to understand the contributions of Hizmet Movement and what had been accomplished through the societal transformational works over the recent decades in Turkey. Insightful and influential Western writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, Robert Putnam and Jürgen Habermas have also acknowledged similar conceptual thought and practice on the subject of strong civil society and its relationship to the genuine democracy.

What went wrong in Turkey from having zero enemies to zero friends and how to correct this wrong?

Turkey today is a house divided going back to 2013 and with continuous worsening– as the two sides tend to nip and tear at each other. President Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic tendencies go on stoking a war between Hizmet civil society and the Erdogan state. On the one side with much of the power being Erdogan and his (AKP); on the other side, the self-exiled and genuine spiritual humanist-like Fethullah Gulen, living 5000 miles away in Pennsylvania, the US. From there he has been blamed for pulling the strings of a movement that was thought by Erdogan to be embedded in key government institutions and departments. Hoja Effendi Gulen has been insisting that the Hizmet movement had grown quite naturally and spontaneously over the decades and became an integral part of the civil society at all intellectual and social levels, without any of his personal guidance.

However, the question does arise if Hizmet movement was such a spontaneous and innocuous movement through inspirations of Hoja Effendi Gulen’s teachings only based on humanism, peace and harmony, why did Erdogan then turn against him with desperate anger and accusing Hoja Effendi Gulen of plotting the failed coup?

In Turkey, Hizmet operated as a transformational civil society movement with one of their objectives as looking out for the democratic accountability. They were naturally so entrenched across the civic realm that Erdogan started blaming them for everything .In 2013, it was for manipulating the police, prosecutors and the judiciary to expose rampant corruption, even involving some of Erdogan’s family and some of his closest associates .In July 2016, it was the attempted but failed coup incriminating Hizmet movement that was the prime-mover of Turkish civil society.

Erdogan blamed charging that a ‘minority’ within the military had acted on the orders of Hoja Effendi Gulen 5000 miles away in Pennsylvania. Erdogan who was wearing his paranoia on his sleeve, apparently failed to dismiss his own delusional and political obsessions. Gulen and his supporters had consistently denounced intrusions saying “we condemn any military intervention in domestic politics of Turkey.” There cannot be and there is no evidence that a humanistic scholar in the likes of Hoja Effendi Gulen could ever be involved in such a criminal plot when he has lived in USA over the decades.

The Hizmet line – ‘Erdogan had stage managed the whole coup crisis as a pretext to impose martial law, under which he could ram through sweeping constitutional changes that might legally, if not morally, legitimize his bid to consolidate great power in his presidential office which, legally, remains a titular post’.

Sadly in a divided house between the civil society and the Erdogan State, there are lasting disagreements between president Erdogan and Hizmet movement leadership since 2013 and continuing to this day given the world-wide Hizmet movement contributions in serving humanity in multiple realms inclusive of higher quality education that remain very popular while for some odd reasons this remains most annoying to president Erdogan to the point of stubbornly demanding many countries around the world to close down Gulen’s educational philosophy based global net work of Schools and colleges. This demand is certainly unfair to all nations and to the millions of children in countries where such a system of education has been very popular over the decades.

A recent devastating example was Pakistani SC ruling that has very recently ordered closures of such schools and colleges being run by PAK-TURK schooling system even if students and their parents go on protesting against the unfair closures.

This is devastating to our two brotherly nations Turkey and Pakistan, the entire Muslim world and even more than 120 nations in the wider world where Hizmet movement has been contributing to global educational network and other service areas. Turkey’s internal conflicts and foreign Policies certainly need overhauling through constructive suggestion by Pakistani leadership like Imran Khan and other influential world leaders and OIC leaders .The core and the most seriously basic conflict remains between two leaders the President Erdogan and respect-worthy Fethullah Gulen. Therefore the Muslim and the rest of the world need to become better informed of all this and bring about a permanent resolution to this globally evolving predicament.



Muzaffar K Awan MD is a Pakistani-American physician who has lived in the USA for over 40 years. He practices medicine in Allen Park, Detroit Metropolitan area of Michigan. He has had keen interests in the enlightenment thought and practice of moderate Islam, East-West intellectual exchanges and interfaith dialogues. He is an amateur writer and has written numerous articles in International and Pakistani magazines and newspapers.

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Muzaffar K Awan MD is a Pakistani-American physician who has lived in the USA for over 40 years. He practices medicine in Allen Park, Detroit Metropolitan area of Michigan. He has had keen interests in the enlightenment thought and practice of moderate Islam, East-West intellectual exchanges and interfaith dialogues. He is an amateur writer and has written numerous articles in International and Pakistani magazines and newspapers.

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