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We’ve been had, boys and girls: the international community, the world press, Israeli intelligence, the United Nations, the lot of us. The existential drama off the Gaza coast turns out to be a Turkish farce, the kind of low comedy that in 1782 Wolfgang Mozart set to music in the opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan playing the buffo-villain Osmin and Turkish self-exiled preacher and author Fethullah Gulen as the wise Pasha Selim.
In the post-American world, where every wannabe and used-to-be power makes momentary deals with other powers it plans to kill later, one makes inferences with caution. But I’ve seen this opera before.
Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania in the United States, was silent as a jinn in a bottle about politics until last Friday, when he told the Wall Street Journal that the Free Gaza flotilla’s attempt to run the Israeli blockage of Gaza “is a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters.”
Erdogan’s Islamists have run a two-year campaign of judicial activism against secular politicians, journalists and army officers, and secular critics long have alleged that Gulen is the clerical power behind the prime minister.
For the secretive Gulen to criticize the Turkish government in the midst of its public rage against Israel is an imam-bites-dog story. Gulen appears to have positioned himself as a mediator with Israel. Turkey does not want to end its long-standing relationship with Israel; it wants Israel to become a Turkish vassal-state in emulation of the old Ottoman model.
The killing last week by Israeli commandos of nine activists on board the Mavi Marmara served numerous goals, and Gulen’s grand return to Turkish politics appears to be one of them. The question that every commentator in the Turkish press asked over the weekend, in one form or other, was: When will this voice of Muslim moderation reemerge as an open force in the ruling Islamist party?
There is every indication that the Turkish government dispatched the Gaza flotilla in order to stage a violent confrontation. The Erdogan government announced that it had carefully vetted the passenger list on the Mavi Marmara, which is to say that it knew that many of the passengers boarded with the intention of achieving “martyrdom” in a clash with the Israelis. They must have known this, for both the Turkish as well as the Palestinian press ran interviews with family members of some of the nine dead passengers explaining this intent.
The passengers’ plans for martyrdom have been celebrated in the Arab press, and translated on the website of the Middle East Media Research Institute. The Turkish government also knew that the Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), the Islamic charity behind the Gaza flotilla, had ties to Hamas, for it had banned the IHH from charitable activity in Turkey a decade ago due to its connection to an organization that the previous secular government regarded as terrorist.
What explains Israel’s apparent intelligence failure? Israel fields a small service tasked with operations in Iran, southern Lebanon, Gaza and Syria among other prospective enemies. The Mossad probably relied on counterparts in Turkish intelligence – with whom it has a long history of collaboration – to cover the passenger list on the Mavi Marmara. The often-unreliable Debka claims that “Turkish intelligence duped Israel,” which in this case is likely. By stealth or by sloth, Israel was roped into the comedy.
The star of the comedy, at least for the Turkish media, is Gulen. The 78-year-old imam has lived in self-imposed exile for two decades, due to charges by Turkish prosecutors that he led a conspiracy to subvert the secular state. He presides over Turkey’s largest religious movement, commanding the loyalty of two-thirds of the Turkish police, according to some reports. His movement – a transnational civic society movement inspired by Gulen’s teachings – also controls a network of elite schools that educate a tenth of the high school students in the Turkic world from Baku to Kyrgyzstan. And it reportedly controls businesses with tens of billions of dollars in assets.
His movement has been expelled from the Russian Federation and his followers arrested in Uzbekistan by local authorities who believe his goal is a pan-Turkic union from the Bosporus to China’s western Xinjiang province (“East Turkestan” to Gulen’s movement).
In Mozart’s Abduction, Belmonte and Pedrillo descend into the pasha’s harem to rescue Kostanze; in last week’s version, Israeli commandos descended onto the Mavi Marmara. And there is the stock villain of Viennese comedy, the Turk Osmin, played by Erdogan. The predictable occurs, and the prospective Shahidi become actual corpses. And Erdogan threatens Israel with terrible things, in emulation of Mozart’s Osmin, who sings:
“First you’ll be beheaded!
Then spitted on hot stakes!
Then bound, and burned, and drowned, and finally skinned!”
This, one supposes, is supposed to frighten the children in the audience, who then will smile and clap when the Wise Old Man enters to urge moderation, caution and respect for authority, in the person of Gulen.
The Islamic shift in Turkey has been underway for years. As Rachel Sharon-Krespin wrote in the Middle East Quarterly (Winter 2009):
As Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) begins its seventh year in leadership, Turkey is no longer the secular and democratic country that it was when the party took over. The AKP has conquered the bureaucracy and changed Turkey’s fundamental identity. Prior to the AKP’s rise, Ankara oriented itself toward the United States and Europe. Today, despite the rhetoric of European Union accession, Prime Minister Erdogan has turned Turkey away from Europe and toward Russia and Iran and reoriented Turkish policy in the Middle East away from sympathy toward Israel and much more toward friendship with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria.
We are now in a post-American world, at least where the Barack Obama administration is concerned, and Turkey like its neighbors is scrambling for position. What does Turkey want in a post-American world?
The question itself seems stupid, for the obvious answer is: “Whatever it can get.” It wants to become the dominant regional power rather than Iran, casting a wolfish glance at Iran’s Azeri population, who speak Turkish rather than Persian. It wants to “mediate” the Israeli-Palestinian issue and is not squeamish about its prospective partners. It wants Palestine to be an Ottoman province once again. It wants to be the energy hub for the Middle East and the outlet for Russian and Azerbaijani pipelines.
But it is a bit more complex than that. Modern Turkey is an artificial construct, rather than a nation-state in the Western sense. Since the Turks completed the conquest of Byzantine Anatolia in the middle of the 14th century, a relatively thin crust of ethnic Turks has ruled over subject peoples. The Ottoman Empire at various points in its history had a Christian majority; its civil service at different points was more Venetian, Armenian and Jewish then Turkish; its self-understanding was global and religious, that is, as the caliphate of Islam, rather than as a national entity.
When World War I reduced Turkey to an Anatolian rump, Kemal Ataturk attempted to impose “Turkishness” as a secular, national ideology on the European model. To make the country “Turkish,” several million Orthodox Christians were estimated to have been killed. The hollowness of Ataturk’s secular construct, modeled on the nastier European national movements, made it vulnerable from the beginning. The army was the only institution that could hold Turkish society together.
What will replace Ataturk’s secularism? I wrote two years ago:
If political Islam prevails in Turkey, what will emerge is not the same country in different coloration, but a changeling, an entirely different nation. In a 1997 speech that earned him a prison term, Erdogan warned of two fundamentally different camps, the secularists who followed Kemal, and Muslims who followed sharia. These are not simply different camps, however, but different configurations of Turkish society at the molecular level. Like a hologram, Turkey offers two radically different images when viewed from different angles. Turkish Islam, the ordering of the Anatolian villages and the Istanbul slums, represents a nation radically different than the secularism of the army, the civil service, the universities and the Western-leaning elite of Istanbul. If the Islamic side of Turkey rises, the result will be unrecognizable. Turkey in the throes of Islamic revolution? Asia Times Online, July 22, 2008.
Gulen’s pan-Turkic mysticism views Turkey as the center of a new caliphate uniting the Muslim world. He preaches a “Turkish renaissance” with a modern spin “to ensure that religion and science go together and that science penetrates not only individual lives, but also social life.” His schools educate the elite of the Turkic world across Asia. Gulen’s interest, to be sure, focuses on the Turkish state, whose bureaucracy is now filled with his acolytes. But unlike Ataturk’s secular nationalism, which tried to redefine Turkey on a European model, Gulen’s Islamism is inherently expansionist.
What Gulen means by science is of an entirely different order than the Western understanding. This “imam from rural Anatolia,” as his website describes him, inhabits the magical world of jinns and sorcery. Science is just a powerful form of magic of which Turks should avail themselves to enhance their power, as he writes in his 2005 book, The Essentials of the Islamic Faith:
Jinn are conscious beings charged with divine obligations. Recent discoveries in biology make it clear that God created beings particular to each realm. They were created before Adam and Eve, and were responsible for cultivating and improving the world. Although God superseded them with us, he did not exempt them from religious obligations.
As nothing is difficult for God almighty, he has provided human beings, angels and jinns with the strength appropriate for their functions and duties. As he uses angels to supervise the movements of celestial bodies, he allows to humans to rule the Earth, dominate matter, build civilizations and produce technology.
Power and strength are not limited to the physical world, nor are they proportional to bodily size … Our eyes can travel long distances in an instant. Our imagination can transcend time and space all at once … winds can uproot trees and demolish large buildings. A young, thin plant shoot can split rocks and reach the sunlight. The power of energy, whose existence is known through its effect, is apparent to everybody. All of this shows that something’s power is not proportional to its physical size; rather the immaterial world dominates the physical world, and immaterial entities are far more powerful than material ones.
He goes on to warn about sorcery and the danger of spells; he allows that it is meritorious to break spells (for evil witches are everywhere casting spells), although a good Muslim should not make a profession of this, for then he might be mistaken for a sorcerer himself. The notion that “wind” and “energy” are “immaterial” forces exudes the magical world view of an Anatolian peasant; the miracles of technology are the secret actions of jinn, just as the planetary movements are the actions of angels. When Gulen talks about the union of religion and science, what he means quite concretely is that the magical view of jinns in the Koran aids the believer in enlisting these “immaterial” forces to enhance the power of Islam. Science for Gulen means the management of jinn.
Gulen, in short, is a shaman, a relic of pre-history preserved in the cultural amber of eastern Anatolia. Kemalism was sterile, brutal, secular and rational; the “moderate Islam” of Gulen is magical, a mystic’s vision of Ottoman restoration and a pan-Turkic caliphate.
The Erdogan government crafted the Mavi Marmara affair as a piece of theater, preparing the deus ex machina (god from the machine) entrance of Gulen himself, more Pagliaccio than Apollo, to be sure. The trouble is that the Turkish Islamists live in a world of magical realism in which theater and reality, human and jinn, desire and achievement blend into a mystical blur. Gulen explains in his The Essentials of the Islamic Faith that Allah created the jinn out of fire. And that is what the apologists for Turkish Islamism are playing with.