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Erdogan’s Role in Suppressing Peaceful Movements and Encouraging Radicalism

I attended the ‘Service, Education, and Countering Radicalization’ Panel held at Oxford University on Thursday. The program emphasized the doctrine and practice of the Hizmet (Service) Movement-also called Gulen Movement- as an antidote against radicalization and violence.

Despite the fact that 323,000 people have been arrested, hundreds of thousands have been imprisoned, and subjected to severe oppression and humiliation since 2016, it was pointed out that they have refrained from any involvement in violence. The reasons for millions not resorting to violence despite the theories of radicalization were discussed. Dr. Kamil Yılmaz stated that “Gulen Movementy have experienced all the factors of radicalization mentioned in the theories, such as political persecution, imprisonment, torture, social pressure, and forced migration, yet their non-radicalization cannot be explained by current theories.” Dr. Yılmaz and Dr. Recep Doğan presented their extensive academic study, which they have been conducting for over two years under the guidance of Oxford academician Prof. Dr. Paul Weller.

Haham Dr. Yakov Nagen, who participated in the panel with a presentation titled ‘Service is Rescuing Islam from Radicalization by Returning to Its Own Resources,’ expressed that those who resort to violence in the name of Allah are usurping religion. Haham Nagen stated that “Mr. Fethullah Gülen prevented radicalization not by reforming religion but by returning to the essence and origins of religion. This is a route that needs to be followed, and the model developed by the Gulen Movement should be imitated and universalized,” which was a very significant observation that Muslim intellectuals had failed to see.

The most impactful part of the panel was the discussion of how Pak-Turk schools, established in Pakistan in 1995 and closed under pressure from the AKP government after 2016, prevented radicalization. This was explained by Pakistani academics, parents, and teachers who participated in the online discussion.

Academician Dr. Seema Arif, who joined from Pakistan, stated that before the establishment of Pak-Turk schools, ‘education’ was used as a means of radicalization in Pakistan, and the Gulen schools changed this. Research journalist Dr. Naveed Ahmad, who entrusted his two children to Gulen schools, emphasized that the schools not only educated the students but also the parents.

Farman Ullah Anjum, who sent his children to Pak-Turk schools and served as the Chairman of the Pakistan Higher Education Commission for many years, shared the sacrifices and selflessness of the teachers during the period when Pak-Turk schools were closed. He mentioned that Hizmet (the Gülen Movement) teachers, who were expecting deportation or arrest, stayed in different places every night and, even during times when they had nothing of their own, they would donate the food packages brought by parents to orphanages.

Meral Kaçmaz, a former biology teacher at Pak-Turk Schools, explained that Hizmet schools had campuses even in the most underdeveloped and prone-to-radicalization regions of Pakistan. She mentioned how they traveled to remote mountain villages to convince parents to educate their daughters. She tearfully recounted the pressure from the Erdogan regime, with Pakistani police coming to their homes, handcuffing them in front of their children, and then deporting them to Turkey with sacks over their heads. In response to this account, the Pakistani participants were moved and apologized to the Kaçmaz family for what they had endured in Pakistan.

For the past three centuries, Muslims have struggled with ignorance, conflict, and poverty. After the colonization of Muslim lands by the West, there was a rise in political Islam and related radicalization and a tendency towards violence as a reaction to these challenges. Despite Islam explicitly stating that civilians should not be harmed, and even the dead enemy’s body should not be subjected to torture, some groups that claim to fight in the name of Islam consider killing civilians, abducting children, and carrying out suicide attacks as ‘jihad.’

The double standards applied by the world, especially the West, in matters of human rights are a topic for another discussion. Political leaders like Erdogan, who view killing civilians as ‘resistance’ and openly endorse organizations like Hamas, encourage and legitimize Muslims to move away from their core values and towards radicalization and violence. Unfortunately, in Muslim-majority regions, political Islamic movements and parties have had significant influence over the past century, pushing Muslims towards radicalization by prioritizing political approaches over the teachings of the Quran and Hadith.

Unlike the Arab world and the Iranian region, Turkey had a more tolerant and inclusive interpretation of Islam. This was influenced significantly by the Sufi tradition that had been prevalent in Anatolia and the Balkans for over a thousand years. Additionally, traditional religious communities and orders in Turkey, which did not endorse political Islam, acted as a barrier against Islamic approaches that promoted radicalization and violence.

Except for marginal groups, Turkish Muslims, despite the repressive and exclusionary secular policies of the Kemalist regime, did not radicalize and never turned to violence. In this regard, Turkey served as a prominent example of the compatibility of democracy and Islam, showing that Muslims were open to living peacefully with people of other religions, beliefs, and views. However, over the last decade, the Erdogan government has tried to co-opt even traditional religious communities and orders that had not aligned with political Islam, either by threats or by financial incentives, making them reactionary and prone to radicalization.

Some young members of historically non-violent Sufi orders (such as the Naqshbandi and Qadiri orders), except for marginal groups, joined jihadist organizations in the Middle East due to the divisive effects of the political environment. The Erdogan regime, which instrumentalized Islam and political Islam, has even managed to turn patient, humble, and virtuous Sufis and Sufi saints, who are known for their forbearance and piety, into radicalized groups ready for violence and lacking tolerance for others. Consequently, Turkish Muslims are moving further away from their historical and sociological codes, and under the influence of political Islam, they are adopting the reflexes of political Islamic groups. They are becoming more prone to violence and radicalization.

In Turkey and the Islamic world, the Hizmet Movement, the most widespread and effective religious group of the last 40 years, promoted tolerance, dialogue, and acted as a barrier against violence and radicalization. Hizmet reached thousands of institutions and millions of members within Turkey but never engaged in any form of violence and always maintained a distance from radical tendencies and political Islamic approaches. In line with Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s approach, which is one of the most important reinterpretations of the past century, “The material sword has returned to its sheath. Conquest over civilizations is achieved through persuasion, not coercion.” Hizmet took a clear stance against violence and radical tendencies.

As expressed in the panel at Oxford, despite enduring severe and widespread persecution and being labeled as ‘terrorists,’ members of the Hizmet movement never resorted to violence. Hizmet dedicated its entire strategy to combating ignorance, poverty, and discord. It established around 1,200 schools, thousands of educational institutions, dormitories, and 16 universities in Turkey alone to address these issues. It didn’t stop at Turkey but also engaged in combating ignorance and poverty and making investments in various regions. However, the Erdogan regime focused on eliminating this Movement that refused to submit or surrender.

Closing and seizing thousands of institutions in Turkey, labeling millions, and seizing their assets were not enough. The Erdogan government utilized state resources to launch campaigns to shut down Hizmet activities in various countries around the world. Hizmet had established schools, universities, and conducted social and economic investments in many African and Asian countries. The Erdogan regime deployed the resources of the Foreign Ministry, co-opted politicians and bureaucrats, and made it its mission to close down schools in these countries. However, these institutions and initiatives contributed significantly to reducing ignorance and poverty and also built bridges between Turkey and these nations.

Hizmet had significant institutions and activities in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where radical Islamic tendencies were strong, even during ongoing internal conflicts. Hizmet teachers did not leave Afghanistan, and thousands of students graduated from both girls’ and boys’ schools, with some of them going on to attend prestigious universities like Harvard and Oxford. As mentioned earlier, Hizmet accomplished many important tasks in Pakistan over more than 20 years. However, Erdogan fervently worked to close down many of these institutions and to punish the teachers, even in countries where poverty, destitution, and radicalism were prevalent.

While Turkey opened its doors to groups involved in violence and provided them with support, even extending it to Sufi orders, it aimed to eradicate Hizmet, which had never engaged in any form of violence and had focused on educational activities in a peaceful manner. What is Erdogan’s aim in persistently encouraging and supporting Muslims inclined toward violence and terrorism while labeling those who engage in peaceful educational activities as ‘terrorists’? What is the purpose of shutting down schools in Afghanistan, where even the Taliban refrained from interfering, through political pressure?

Over the last ten years, Tayyip Erdogan has transformed Turkey, once the most tolerant and potentially democratic country in the Islamic world, into a stronghold for political Islam. He turned the state into a supporter of radical groups worldwide. Erdogan even altered the genetic structure of traditional religious communities and Sufi orders, making them more prone to violence by forcing them into the realm of politics. He targeted a movement that advocated for tolerance and dialogue, making significant investments in education. He focused on destroying this movement within Turkey and rendering it ineffective globally. Even the most beneficial projects for Turkey and Muslims were targeted for destruction.

In one of his well-known videos, Erdogan says, “I am the co-chair of the Greater Middle East Initiative (BOP).” In another video, he says, “If my command center tells me to wear a priest’s robe, I will.” However, no one asked, “Where is your command center, and who is in it?”

Looking at Erdogan’s 22-year reign, the first two terms were about building trust, followed by years of consolidating power and becoming a sole leader while executing his project. He stumbled and was caught red-handed multiple times, seemingly on the verge of losing everything, but each time, he was saved and put back on his feet. Perhaps they granted him extra time because his mission was not yet complete. If he was given a task as the co-chair of the Greater Middle East Initiative, that task has not been completed.

Perhaps the next step is further fragmenting the Middle East, including Turkey…

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Mahmut Akpinar
Mahmut Akpinar
Dr. Mahmut Akpinar is a political scientist focusing on international relations and Turkish politics.
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