Foreign Policy Blogs

Can Turkey Steer Away From Catastrophe?


Sunday’s suicide car bomb in the heart of Turkey’s capital marks the third bombing that Ankara has seen in the past several months. The latest killed 34 people and wounded over 125 was clearly targeting civilians since it was detonated in a public square. Before any one officially claimed responsibility*, Turkish fighter jets were already bombing Kurdish rebel targets.

Though this article is not about the Kurdish dilemma, I will be remiss if I don’t mention the complexity of the issue, its bloody history, and the necessity to find a new paradigm.

In dealing with this immediate threat, it behooves the Turkish government to put politicking on the back-burner, separate the non-violent from the violent, and mend fences with the former. Swallowing that bitter pill is necessary for terrorism to be brought “to its knees.”

Within its first decade after AK Party came to power in 2002, it was credited for paralyzing Turkey’s “deep state”—a behind the curtain network of high-ranking military officials and secular power-brokers committed to protect the markedly Islamophobic order of Ataturk’s brand of absolute secularism. Moreover, it was credited for Turkey’s remarkable economic and geopolitical expansion as well as the “sweeping transformation of the Turkish state and society; and the leading role that Turkey has come to play in world affairs.” That said, none of these would’ve been achieved had it not been for the alliance between the AKP and the Gulen Movement.

Compromise In Short Supply

Ever since late 2013 when the AKP, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Gulen Movement (Hizmet), led by religious scholar Fethullah Gulen, publicly locked horns, Turkey has found itself sinking in a political quicksand.  And indeed there is enough blame to go around.

As someone who has respect for both leaders, who has friends on both sides of the fence, and believes in the timeliness and viability of the Turkish model of governance and the education-centric Gulen Movement, I have been profoundly disheartened by the recent turn of events. Next door in the Middle East, the political landscape is peppered with new graves of states that perished due to abuse of power and failure to think strategically.

A couple of years ago, in an article titled Turkey’s Test of Wills, I wrote: “Erdogan and Gulen are well aware that Turkey is more important than any individual, organization or party interest,” but now I am not so confident. Both leaders, who are also trained Imams or Islamic preachers, seem not to mind the bare-knuckle political cage fight they found themselves actively engaging. Granted, one side is overtly more aggressive.

Personalized Schism

So, what lead to this AKP-Gulen dichotomy?

Three main factors come to mind. First, corruption and power abuse by AKP affiliates and politicization of the matter by the Gulen loyalists. Second, domestic and foreign elements that are driven by the ideological conviction that any model of governance that demonstrates that Islam can exist within a constitutional framework, embrace modernity, and share space with a pluralistic society is a threat. Third, leaders on both sides suffering from what might be called political de-realization syndrome.

De-realization is a psychological condition that gives one the perception that his or her surroundings are not real. That perception in turn inspires delusional reasoning, and at times, self-harm. Tragically, in their tit for tat frenzy, both the AKP and the Gulen Movement make a good case for such syndrome.

Worsening Situation

The AKP-led government paints any and all things Gulenist—schools, media, businesses—as terrorists or treasonous sympathizers. These charges are dismissed by some Gulenists as government’s payback against them and all who oppose it. Others consider this as a unilateral abuse of power by President Erdogan.

As someone who was imprisoned and banned from holding office, Erdogan is a product of the hard-knock school of politics where one survives by completely knocking out opponents. As a result, he has made many domestic and international enemies along the way. However, by all objective standards he has gone overboard when, in December 2014, he declared a 74 year old man—Gulen—as the head of a terrorist organization conspiring to establish a “parallel state”. And he has indeed outdone himself when he shut down a media group by criticizing his policies.

However one may explain or spin this, ordering a police raid of an opposition media group and placing it under government trusteeship—in this case the Gulenaffiliated Zaman newspaper—is a dreadful and an alarming action. This kind of infringement on freedom of press only makes President Erdogan and the Turkish government look like President Sisi and the Egyptian regime.

According to his critics, Erdogan is accused of overreaching to control all levers and switches of power—executive, judicial, legislative, social, and economic. “This is one man’s unquenchable lust for power and it demonstrates how a well-functioning clientelist system of epic proportions can change the masses’ views of politicians,” said my friend, Dr. A. Kadir Yildirim, a research scholar at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “Erdogan has spent his long-time ideological comrades like Bulent Arinc and Abdullah Gul just because they voiced some of their criticisms,” Yildirim added.

On their part, Erdogan supporters put all the blame on Gulen. “He is the one who politicized the matter and went for the jugular vein. Once he defanged the military, he wanted to come after AKP by any means,” said a pro-government friend who preferred not to reveal his identity. In the U.S., the AKP supporters are far out-numbered, out-organized and out-lobbied by the Gulenists and their active institutions.

Where There Is A Will, There Is A Way

As an outsider looking in, it is not too difficult to see how both sides need strategists from their respective camp to constantly remind them not to lose sight of the big picture. It is hard to predict where the current crisis and deadly explosions at the heart of Ankara might lead to. Turkey is too important to fail; not only for its citizens, but for the Middle East, Europe and the U.S.

Make no mistake; Turkey is in the crosshairs, both domestically and beyond its borders. At this critical juncture, the government’s strategy to routinely ram through political conflicts might prove unsustainable, if not suicidal. In order to preserve the Turkish state, pragmatism should be the new order.

The situation in Turkey, the broad Middle East and many other parts of the world begs for transformational leaders with vision, wisdom, and the right temperament. It takes more than winning elections to cultivate a harmonious society, an optimally functioning state and a nation that puts its national interests above their own or the party’s. A divided nation is a weak nation, and leadership by wrath is a suicidal option.

In other words, in order to save Turkey, President Erdogan might have to clean up the political debris and extend an olive branch to oppositions. Otherwise, “Lord, have mercy on Turkey.”

*Update: A militant group called the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) claimed responsibility for Sunday’s bombing in the Turkish capital early this Thursday. Click here for more.



Abukar Arman

Abukar Arman is a former diplomat, serving as Somalia's Special Envoy to the US. As a widely published analyst, he focuses on foreign policy, Islam, the Horn of Africa, extremism, and other topics.
Twitter: @Abukar_Arman
or reach him via e-mail: [email protected]