Fethullah Gülen and the Kurdish question in Turkey today

This is an update of an earlier post on this topic . . .

I’ve been working with the British Turkish Muslims organised in the UK as the Dialogue Society (DS) for about five years now. They follow the philosophy outlined by the Turkish Muslim scholar Fetullah Gülen.  (A link to explain more about Mr Gülen appears in the article attached below.) The DS asked me to be one of their advisers, even though I am not a believer, and I like them so much I agreed. This relationship started around 2007 while I was Leeds Met University. With the active support of the then Vice-Chancellor, Professor Simon Lee, Leeds Met had formed a partnership arrangement with the Dialogue Society, and I became involved in various activities with their members.

This post describes a contentious issue that I became aware of during 2012: what exactly does Mr Gülen think about the Kurdish question in Turkey?

There’s some background to my interest in this issue. In 2001 the DS asked me to co-organise with them a conference on multiculturalism, to be held at Mevlana University in Konya, Turkey. Since multiculturalism was one of the topics in the book I was working on (now published as Islam in the West – Key Issues in Multiculturalism) I agreed, and the conference took place last April (2012) in Konya. Delegates paid their own plane fares, but the Dialogue Society paid for everything else and, as usual, their hospitality was lavish. Conference proceedings were published by the DS and can be downloaded here. My rather anodyne reflection on the conference appears on the Dialogue Society’s web-site.

DS members in the UK support multiculturalism. In Turkey, all the many academics and others that we met supported multiculturalism. (Of course, this is a highly contested discourse in the UK, as I argue here.) Most, perhaps all, of the Turks we met were followers of Mr Gülen. But when I told friends in the UK – secular Turks from Turkey, or Brits who weren’t Muslims but know about Turkey – that I was going to Turkey with members of the Gülen movement (now called Hizmet – ‘service’) I got various reactions, none of them enthusiastic.

Among the Turks, one expressed real distress that I should associate with people whom he regarded as a serious threat to secularism in Turkey, and particularly to the Kurdish minority in Turkey. (By implication, he rejected their commitment to multiculturalism.) Others were (in varying degrees) suspicious of the authenticity of the movement’s commitment to dialogue, its support for democracy and human rights, and its willingness to continue with Turkey’s existing policy of separation of Mosque and State. They say that Gülen supporters are very close to the Turkish Islamic government, which, in practice, is restricting freedom of speech and imprisoning people it regards as dissident. (Cihan Tugal’s excellent evaluation of the  response to the Arab Spring by Turkey’s Islamic government appeared in a recent edition of New Left Review (76, July/Aug 2012).) As the document appended below points out, Mr Gülen and his supporters are independent of the government.

Among the Brits who are not of Turkish heritage, but who know quite a bit about Turkey, the reaction was less hostile. They know that people who have followed Mr Gülen are in the AK party, which has won successive elections in recent years, and they know that the government seems to be becoming more authoritarian. They ask questions about the movement’s wealth, about its attitude towards women’s rights, homosexuality and pluralism, and they note that it is unashamedly pro-capitalist in its economic policy. (The latter was the subject of an article I wrote for openDemocracy after my first trip to Istanbul to meet their members in that wonderful city.) But most of them are broadly supportive of the recent developments in Turkey – in particular, the government’s commitment to democracy and its restriction of the power of the army –  and if they know the Dialogue Society, they like what they see.

It’s worth noting that Hizmet considers itself to be a movement in civil society, and quite separate from the government. Its intellectuals have in fact been critical of aspects of the government’s policy and are sometimes criticised by government leaders. (Today’s Zaman is the place to read about the news and debate in Turkey, written from the point of view of movement supporters.)

The thing that really provoked discussion among everyone who knew about Turkey was ‘the Kurdish question’. It proved difficult to get this discussed at the conference in Konya. Perhaps we were so seduced by the welcome, the kindness, the generosity that we didn’t want to rock the boat. When it did come up, it was clear that this is touchy a question. A month later, on holiday in Turkey (I love this country!) I had a conversation with a highly educated Turkish woman who dropped her voice and used the expression ‘the southern question’ rather than ‘the Kurds’ – because there were some other Turks nearby. She was critical of the government’s approach to this issue, though not hostile to the government overall. She did not want to be overheard in case her views provoked conflict.

My secular Turkish acquaintances have read reports of Mr Gülen advocating a military solution to the armed attacks being launched by Kurdish militants in the south of Turkey. They say that this shows the true face of the movement – instead of dialogue, it resorts to guns. Again, the implication is that the government’s, and the movement’s, commitment to multicultural pluralism is shallow, perhaps non-existent. When we got back to the UK I discussed this with my British-Turkish friends in the Hizmet movement. With their guidance, I’ve put together the document below, which sets out Mr Gülen’s approach in great detail.

It shows that ‘the military solution’ is a distortion of Mr Gülen’s position. In keeping with his general philosophy, he advocates thorough, modern education for the Kurdish children in Turkey so that they can make social and economic progress. He breaks with government policy by advocating the use of the Kurdish language in schools to assist with their learning. He also advocates full democratic engagement by the government with the Kurds. He does, however, say that those Kurds who use military methods in support for their claim for independence should be met with an overwhelming military response by the Turkish state.

The Kurdish question is Turkey reminds me of the republican struggle in the north of Ireland to secure full democratic rights for the Catholic population. The initial political struggle by Sinn Fein turned (around 1970) to armed struggle by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), in alliance Sinn Fein, when the British government cracked down on republican protests with great force in the late 1960s. The British government’s military response to the IRA in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, in my view, exacerbated the situation and unnecessarily prolonged the process of achieving peace, which was not formally agreed until 1998. In 1971 the British government introduced internment without trial, having already stationed huge numbers of soldiers in the north. In 1972, on ‘Bloody Sunday‘, the army’s Parachute Regiment shot 26 unarmed protesters. Instead of incarcerating Irish republicans and suppressing their political movement, the British should have immediately (ie in the mid 1960s) entered into sustained dialogue with Sinn Fein about how Catholics could quickly achieve equal rights and full political representation. The British policy, pursued by both Labour and Conservative governments was one of military suppression of the IRA. (Actually, secret discussions did take place between the British government and Sinn Fein in the mid 1970s and these resumed in the early 1990s – but the British commitment to full representation of the Catholic population was half-hearted.) The result was a bloody conflict lasting more than 30 years. So I respectfully disagree with Mr Gülen on this. Military force against minorities making legitimate political demands is counter-productive. It prolongs conflict instead of promoting peace. (My friends in the Dialogue Society, having read my views here, remind me that Mr Gülen’s primary commitment is to peaceful engagement with the Kurds.)

Fethullah Gülen is a central figure in the new forms of Islamic philosophy that are emerging today. Turkey is a nation of enormous importance both to Europe and to the Middle East. I would urge anyone who is seriously trying to understand the developmentof this new type of Islamic thinking and politics in Turkey and the Middle East to read the document attached below. The Hizmet movement, inspired by Fethullah Gülen, seem to me to be a good example of the progress that is being made  in civil society in Turkey. Their work is influencing developments across the Middle East, where militant, fundamentalist varieties of Islam seem to be gaining ground. I see the Hizmet movement as an important alternative to the hard Islamist parties.

Please download this for more information:

Gulen on the Kurdish Issue and the PKK_final-1

On the Turkish government’s imprisonment of journalists – and some positive remarks on criticism of the government in the Gülen-supporting Turkish newspaper Zaman – see this article by Aslan Armani in openDemocracy (April 2013)


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