Turkey’s Failed Bureaucratic Coup
By Ertan Aydin-ANKARA – Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan intensified his
government’s response to the corruption investigations that have been roiling the
country since December, restructuring the leadership of the judiciary and police.
But it would be a mistake to view this as a fight between the executive and the
judiciary, or as an attempt to cover up charges that have led to the resignation of
three ministers. What is at issue is the law-enforcement authorities’ independence
and impartiality. Indeed, amid charges of fabricated evidence, Erdoğan now says that
he is not opposed to retrials for senior military officers convicted of plotting to
overthrow his government.
The recent developments reflect the widening rift between Erdoğan’s government and
the Gülen movement, led by Fethullah Gülen, a self-exiled Islamic preacher currently
residing near Philadelphia. The Gülen movement was an important backer of the
governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its efforts to establish civilian
control over the military during the AKP’s first two terms in office. Now, however,
the movement appears to have been plotting a coup of its own.
Many members of the judiciary and the police force associated with the wave of
corruption charges brought against government officials, businessmen, and
politicians’ family members are connected with the Gülen movement. What started out
as an investigation into alleged graft soon became an opposition-supported smear
Turkey’s current struggles raise important questions about the appropriate
relationship between bureaucrats and elected officials in a pluralist democracy.
Answering them will require a debate that transcends issues like the separation of
powers and judicial independence and elucidates the appropriate relationship between
politics and religion. For that, understanding the historical context of the current
crisis is crucial.
When Turkey became a democracy in 1950, the previous system’s secular Kemalist
elites attempted to harness the power of the military and the bureaucracy to control
the elected government. In fact, the Turkish military, with the judiciary’s support,
explicitly intervened in the civilian government’s functioning in 1960, 1971, 1980,
and 1997, each time in the name of protecting secularism.
In response, various religious groups, including the Gülen movement, encouraged
their followers to take positions in the bureaucracy and the military. In the
1990’s, military-backed secularist governments struck back, attempting to purge
religious bureaucrats and military leaders: those who did not consume alcohol, or
whose family members wore headscarves, were immediately suspected.
With the normalization of Turkish democracy following the AKP’s victory in 2002,
restrictions on the recruitment, employment, and promotion of religious citizens in
the upper echelons of the bureaucracy were eliminated – a process that especially
benefited members of the Gülen movement, with its extensive education, media, and
business networks. Gülen followers – who claimed to support liberal democracy and
the tolerant, modern form of Islam embraced by the AKP – seemed like natural allies
of Erdoğan’s government.
For a decade, Gülen-connected companies played a widely acknowledged – and
appreciated – role in Turkey’s economic growth and development, while Gülen-movement
schools trained students to pursue public-service jobs. As long as bureaucrats were
recruited and promoted based on merit, the AKP had no problem accepting the
over-representation of Gülen followers in certain branches of government.
This acceptance was rooted in the belief that Gülen members would adhere to the
fundamental requirement in a pluralist democracy that bureaucrats – whether Muslims
in Turkey, Mormons in the United States, or Buddhists in Japan – do not allow their
religious convictions to trump their commitment to public service and the rule of
law. What the government did not imagine was that a new vision of bureaucratic
tutelage over the civilian government would emerge.
Although Gülen followers have disagreed with several of the government’s policies,
they largely backed the AKP in the last three elections. What drove them to reject
the party completely was a policy debate on restructuring “cram schools” – expensive
private institutions that prepare high-school seniors for their university entrance
The Gülen movement operates at least one-quarter of these schools, which form a key
component of the movement’s multi-billion-dollar education network and help it
recruit new members. The movement’s members thus viewed the debate over cram schools
as a direct challenge to their influence.
But their reaction was disproportionate – not least because the government’s plans
were not finalized. Moreover, the proposal had nothing to do with the Gülen
movement; the government was responding to citizens’ complaints about having to pay
extravagant fees to prepare their children for free public universities. And the
Gülen movement was not exactly caught off-guard; cram-school representatives had
been engaged in a dialogue with education-ministry officials for some time.
As in any democracy, public criticism of Turkey’s government policies is normal and
healthy. But attempts by Gülen-aligned members of the judiciary and the police force
to blackmail, threaten, and illegally bargain with the government are unacceptable.
Now, it is up to the courts to discern the truth about corruption among Turkey’s
so-called “public servants.” But all of the signs point to a coordinated political
crusade by Gülen followers, including the chief prosecutors involved in the recent
corruption cases and the pro-Gülen media that have steadfastly defended the
prosecutors’ impartiality (despite the many irregularities – such as extensive
unauthorized wiretaps – that have come to light). Moreover, a coordinated group
within the judiciary is suspected of planting evidence – allegations that have led
to the calls for military personnel to be retried.
To be sure, this does not mean that there were no coup attempts by members of the
military in the past or cases of corruption by politicians and bureaucrats. The
point is that Turkey needs judicial reforms that eliminate the possibility of
organized cliques manipulating their constitutional powers to advance their own
This is a red line for any pluralist democracy. Individual citizens should be free
to live according to their beliefs; but an unaccountable theological vision must not
be allowed to shape their behavior as civil servants and bureaucrats.
More generally, the debate about the Gülen movement should serve as an opportunity
to clarify the relationship between religion and politics, while reminding the
Turkish public – and Muslim-majority countries throughout the region – of the core
democratic values that have enabled Turkey to develop and thrive.
Ertan Aydin is a senior adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
: Project Syndicate