Friday, June 4, 2010

The Hoca Speaks

You know you've been covering Turkey for too long when you breathlessly tell an editor in the U.S. about something significant that Fethullah Gulen just said and the editor says, "Fethullah who?"

Still, an interview with the U.S.-based Gulen in today's Wall Street Journal does seem very significant, at least in the Turkish domestic context. No matter how you look at it, Gulen is among the most powerful figures in Turkey, even without living in the country. Which makes his criticism in the interview of the recent Gaza flotilla fiasco, an event that has brought Turkish-Israel relations to brink and unleashed a wave of fury in Turkey, very interesting. From the WSJ article:
Speaking in his first interview with a U.S. news organization, Mr. Gülen spoke of watching news coverage of Monday's deadly confrontation between Israeli commandos and Turkish aid group members as its flotilla approached Israel's sea blockade of Gaza. "What I saw was not pretty," he said. "It was ugly."

Mr. Gülen said organizers' failure to seek accord with Israel before attempting to deliver aid "is a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters."

Mr. Gülen's views and influence within Turkey are under growing scrutiny now, as factions within the country battle to remold a democracy that is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. The struggle, as many observers characterize it, pits the country's old-guard secularist and military establishment against Islamist-leaning government workers and ruling politicians who say they seek a more democratic and religiously tolerant Turkey. Mr. Gülen inspires a swath of the latter camp, though the extent of his reach remains hotly disputed.

His words of restraint come as many in Turkey gave flotilla members a hero's welcome after two days of detention in Israel. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development Party condemned Israel's moves as "bullying" and a "historic mistake."

Mr. Gülen said he had only recently heard of IHH, the Istanbul-based Islamic charity active in more than 100 countries that was a lead flotilla organizer. "It is not easy to say if they are politicized or not," he said. He said that when a charity organization linked with his movement wanted to help Gazans, he insisted they get Israel's permission. He added that assigning blame in the matter is best left to the United Nations.
The full article is here.

My own read on this is that Gulen and his (wide) circle of supporters, who represent a more moderate approach, must be alarmed by the legitimacy the flotilla incident is giving to the Islamic far-right in Turkey and are intervening before things go any further.

I have a piece up now on the Christian Science Monitor's website that looks at the rise of the IHH, the Turkish NGO behind the flotilla and how it reflects a kind of mainstreaming of the Turkish Islamic far right, particularly regarding the discourse on Israel/Palestine. From my article:
At the heart of the diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey over the Gaza 'Freedom Flotilla' lies the rise of the previously obscure IHH. The Turkish Islamic NGO bought and manned the Mavi Mamara, by far the largest boat in the flotilla and the one that saw a fatal skirmish between rod-wielding activists and Israeli commandos who killed nine activists after resorting to gunfire.

It was the financial heft of the IHH that set this flotilla apart – even before the Israeli raid – from previous convoys that had bobbed toward the blockaded Gaza Strip with little effect. But Israel is troubled that its ally Turkey has in effect paved the way for such a group to rise to a position of such strength and influence.

Indeed, some very profound changes, both promising and troubling, have reshaped the landscape of Turkish society. The Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was driven a wide-reaching effort at democratization and liberalization since coming to power in 2002. This has allowed civil society organizations to flourish – a phenomenon that has been especially pronounced for Islamic groups, which had previously been targeted by secularist state institutions.

“They have more room to operate in Turkey now,” says Soli Ozel, a political analyst and columnist for the Haberturk newspaper. “The more room comes from the fact that we do have a party in government that doesn’t see them as alien creatures.”

So far from seeing the IHH, which had been targeted by the government in 1997, as alien, Turkish authorities helped make the flotilla possible by selling the Mavi Mamara, a decommissioned 1,000-passenger cruise ship formerly owned by the Istanbul municipality, for a mere $800,000.

The blessing Ankara gave IHH's lead role in the Gaza aid convoy is also reflective of a potentially troubling move of groups from Turkey’s Islamist far right into the mainstream, particularly regarding the volatile Israeli-Palestinian issue, says anthropologist Jenny White of Boston University.

“What it says to me is that the far-right Islamists have captured the political issue of Gaza and the government is using this for their purposes,” says Prof. White, who is currently working on a book about Islam and Turkish nationalism. “It doesn’t mean that society is becoming more radicalized but the radical segment of society has captured the issue of Gaza and the anti-Israel sentiment, which has a lot of political capital behind it.”

The question now, she adds, is to what extent the government will feel a need to pay back those radical groups and leaders.
Full article here.

Is the fallout from Israel's flotilla attack going to lead to an internal struggle between Turkey's perhaps now rival Islamic camps? The blowback from the flotilla incident may end being more unpredictable for Turkey than previously expected.

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