The Jacobins of Turkey

Every revolution has its Jacobin period, characterized by post-revolutionary civil strife for the control of power and the implementation of goals and particularly the means through which these goals are achieved.

Turkey is no exception. Τoday, after the hitherto successful completion of the Islamic revolution against Turkish nationalists and their secularized compatriots, the political networks of Fethullah Gulen and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are clashing over how to apply and implement their common objective. One could interpret recent developments in Turkey through this prism.

It’s true that Gulen and Erdogan share a common goal – traditional Islam’s supremacy in the country’s political and social life – but they differ in regard to the method. While Gulen believes in a moderate form of Islam in the medium term, in a gently and patiently operating model in domestic and foreign policy, Erdogan argues that once the Islamists have prevailed over the nationalists, there is no reason for moderation, but rather a need to act quickly and with full force in promoting traditional Islam at home and in support of similar-minded Muslims elsewhere. The conflict between Gulen and Erdogan for the country’s foreign policy is summarized in the case of Ankara’s deteriorating relations with Israel and Egypt. Gulen has repeatedly opposed these developments in favor of patience, not spasmodic actions. Unlike Gulen, Erdogan is outspoken in his Islamic rhetoric, avoiding the feints and evasions of his rivals.

Additionally, as chief spiritual leader and mastermind of the Islamic revolution in Turkey, Gulen considers Erdogan a simple political player and part of his network and a person who should be loyal to him for the support Gulen has provided him thus far. Erdogan, for his part, views the spiritual leader of the revolution with respect. But he deems that his political leadership has been of equal service to the revolution. Obviously it is a clash between the political and religious leaders of the Islamic movement.

Both claim that their view is right, but both know that they are two sides of the same coin. They are aware of the fact that this crisis will not last long; otherwise both the revolution and the country’s security will be jeopardized. The recent political unrest in Turkey is a result of Gulen’s effort to teach Erdogan a lesson. For his part, the Turkish prime minister knows that by employing blows below the belt, Gulen wants to damage his popularity ahead of the upcoming presidential election. However Erdogan is learned in such knocks. Despite Gulen’s curses, Erdogan is full of confidence and knows that he is at the helm of the country and that he has his own sphere of influence. Both know they each have their own role in Turkey’s future, because they each represent one of the two poles in Islamic tradition, i.e. the political Sultan (Erdogan) and the religious Sheikh ul-Islam (Gulen). It is up to both of them to realize this as soon as possible.

* Dr Evangelos Venetis is head of the Middle East Research Project at the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

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