By David Walsh, BICOM
Ten years ago, the pragmatic Islamist leader of Turkey was given a medal of honour by the American Jewish Congress. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was seen then as not only a rising Muslim leader with democratic credentials, but a friend of the Jewish people and of Israel.
Last week, campaigning in municipal elections, it was once again painfully evident that he was now neither. Dogged by corruption scandals widely believed to have emanated from a rival religious movement, he ranted and raged to hundreds of thousands of supporters. His “brothers” were those in Gaza, in East Jerusalem and in Egypt, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood “who had their votes stolen”.
It was a speech laced with Islamic fervour and ended with his now oft-repeated declaration of war against the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose supporters – Gülenists – pervade the Turkish establishment. This has been called “a foreign plot” by Mr Erdogan. “Pennsylvania [Mr Gülen’s home] will be taught the most important lesson,” railed the PM in Istanbul, freshly confident from having taken on the country’s almighty military and won.
But Mr Gülen may be a fight too far. With millions of supporters in many top jobs, Mr Erdogan accuses Gülenists of constituting what he calls “a parallel state”. This power struggle is being watched from Jerusalem.
Once allies, the two men first came to blows last year, when the government closed down tutorial centres providing extra tuition, around one-third of which are run by Gülenists. The stakes were raised in December, when the Gülenists are believed to have hit back when Gülenist media outlets – once supportive of Erdogan – turned witheringly critical almost overnight Despite this, Erdogan cemented his powerbase after his AKP won 45 percent of the vote.
So who are these Gülenists, and why did their cosy relationship with Erdogan’s AK Party turn sour? The movement is known for its interfaith work (its UK group, the “Dialogue Society”, hosts speakers such as Cherie Blair and Shami Chakrabarti) and for the network of Turkish schools it operates globally.
Many believe the beginning of the end of a once cosy Gülen-AKP relationship goes back to Gülen’s criticism of the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, when Israeli commandos killed Turkish activists bound for Gaza. Gülen told the Wall Street Journal on 4 June 2010, that the organisationers “should have sought Israel’s permission” because they were trying to breach a security blockade.
Turkey’s fall out with Israel goes back further. In December 2008, when Israel launched a military offensive in the Gaza Strip. Erdogan cancelled New Year’s Eve celebrations, told his Education Ministry to run a school competition on the “drama in Palestine,” called Israel’s actions “state terrorism”.He also stormed out of a panel discussion with Shimon Peres at Davos in 2009. It all seemed part of a plan.
As relations with Israel crashed, they began thawing with others, notably Syria and Iran. Today, that policy is in tatters. Turkey turned on Assad. Equally, its hopes of a new dawn in Egypt were dashed when the ideological allies, the Muslim Brotherhood, were ousted from power by the army following massive protests. Good timing, it seemed, for Benjamin Netanyahu to apologise for the flotilla incident.
Israel was keen to mend fences with its one-time ally and Turkey was feeling increasingly isolated. A year later, a compensation deal is now in the offing, but ill feeling lingers over the way Bibi’s call was used to paint Israel as submissive to “world leader” Erdogan. Much, too, was made of Mr Erdogan’s insistence on “improved conditions in Gaza,” a condition he used to justify not implementing the deal .
Any post-election agreement may lead to a rapprochement. The Turkish government is a one-man show, and any final agreement needs Erdogan. Yet only last week he banned Twitter in an effort to kill rumours of government wrongdoing, and has resorted to blaming “external forces” and a “parallel state” for his every woe.
Where now, that pragmatic Islamist of 2004 on whom American Jews pinned a medal of courage? And what price his disappearance?