The AKP-Gulen Tug of War for Turkey’s Heart and Soul


Turkish political life has a fondness for turbulence, which is perhaps inevitable given the dynamics and mechanisms at play in a country as large and as polarized as Turkey. While most international attention to Turkey this year focused on the Gezi Park protests, with some going so far as to depict them as evidence of some sort of “Turkish Spring,” the real game-changing political event of the year has come towards the end with the dramatic breakup of an uneasy alliance within Turkey’s conservative movement. The recent high-profile spat between the Gülen movement and Prime Minister Erdoğan is unprecedented, pitting a powerful civil society-based religious movement against a one-party government that has not been so centralized since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The movement of Fetullah Gülen, one of Turkey’s most influential contemporary religious scholars who has lived in the US since the 1990s, played a key role in the birth of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) when Erdoğan and others split from the Islamist Millî Görüş movement. It played an equally important role defending the AKP when the military and secular establishment tried to shut it down. And Gülen and his followers were crucial to the counter-offensive that saw the Turkish military finally subordinated to civilian control. More recently, the Gülenists publicly lent credibility to the notion that Gezi Park was an aberration within the narrative of the Turkish miracle decade, through their staunch defense of government action in their media and international outreach.

Now, with local elections approaching in March and Turkey’s first popular presidential elections approaching in the summer (Turkish presidents have normally been elected by parliament), the unity of the AKP is being challenged from within, to a degree beyond anything in its history. Born in the aftermath of Turkey’s first Islamic party rule, which ended with a military ultimatum known as a “postmodern coup,” the AKP combined conservative Muslim values with pragmatic pro-business and European rhetoric that resonated across a wide spectrum of Turkish politics. This strategy resulted in winning coalitions across three national elections and 11 years in power. The AKP didn’t simply harness the power of the grassroots – it became the grassroots, with the help of various individuals and institutions like those sympathetic to Fetullah Gülen.

Turkish analysts are more used to watching low-grade fighting between conservative Muslims, which until recently included the AKP government and Gülen-inspired police forces, and their traditional secular adversaries in the opposition parties and military. However, when Erdoğan’s education minister, and then Erdoğan himself, threatened to shut down prep-schools (dershane) known to be a major source of the Gülen movement’s financial resources, everything changed. Gülen himself sounded the charge with a speech in which he compared the government’s decision to Turkey’s military coups:

We have been seeing these [situations] since the 1960 coup. We saw the 1971 coup and we got its kick. We saw the 1980 coup and we got its horse kick. We got something from all of them.

Corruption charges were filed against 16 figures close to Erdoğan, including key ministers’ sons, by Gülenist police officials who were then in turn fired.  The speed and ferocity of the high-stakes civil war being waged between the AKP and Gülenists has caught even the most experienced Turkey-watchers by surprise. Conventional wisdom held that the Gülen movement did not engage in overt politics and had no other credible political movement to support, other than its long-time allies, the AKP. Yet the gloves have come off with a Prime Minister who is known to never back down from a street fight.  The AKP has since linked the Gülenists to a myriad of Turkey’s tried-and-true conspiracy favorites including, but not limited to, Jews, gays, and outside traitors, which strikes a distinct contrast with Western fears about the movement as a Caliphate-in-waiting.

As secular opponents of both the AKP and the Gülen movement marvel at the spectacle of this ongoing fratricide, Turkey’s true friends must be sad, given that in the short-term there will be no winners. Both sides will lose and be weakened, much to the detriment of the country that has grown economically on the back of a strong and stable consensus of the “national will.” The vaunted “Anatolian tigers” who have been the driving economic force behind the rise of both the AKP and Gülen movement will now be forced to pick sides, which makes neither business nor common sense.

Unfortunately, domestic politics will directly affect Turkish foreign policy as Ankara becomes more internally focused. The Gülen movement is widely regarded as having become the most effective advocate on behalf of the Turkish government not just in DC but globally; therefore the fallout will go far beyond Ankara to Africa, Central Asia, and beyond.  Whether Washington likes it or not, U.S.-Turkish relations will sustain collateral damage from Ankara’s civil war given that Fetullah Gülen himself resides in America and is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as being close to the American government. Over the weekend, Erdoğan launched a not-so-veiled attack on the American ambassador, accusing him of getting involved in the scandal.  “We do not have to keep you in our country,” Erdoğan warned.

Washington, and the State Department in particular, should learn the recent lessons of Egypt, where even supportive statements about the Egyptian political process by the U.S. embassy in Cairo were interpreted by all sides as unacceptable and conspiratorial American interference in Egypt’s internal affairs. Given the extremely dynamic and fluid nature of Turkish politics, rather than being baited into, or even attempting to fully understand, what is undoubtedly going to be a long and messy struggle for the heart and soul of Turkey, Washington would do well to focus on broad-based support for the Turkish people in the short-term and pragmatic dealings with the government over the long-term.

Ankara also has some lessons to learn. Erdoğan’s attacks against the U.S. ambassador and, more broadly, his rhetoric against his imagined enemies, is compounding Turkey’s international problems. Rather than focusing on the inclusion of Turkey into the most significant Transatlantic free trade zone in history, Ankara will be focused on what Washington has to say about the latest distractions, which will only continue to hurt the Turkish economy and investor confidence.

Turkish foreign policy had already suffered numerous setbacks before the recent in-fighting, due to the Gezi Park protests and Erdoğan’s nasty falling out with previous ally Syrian President Assad, with whom Erdoğan once vacationed and held up as the crown jewel of his “no problems with neighbors” foreign policy. The ousting of Erdoğan’s under-study, Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, less than a year after he keynoted the AKP’s political convention, along with increasing competition from Russia, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia for regional leadership, has only heightened Ankara’s sense of isolation. Turkey’s predicament in its neighborhood is not entirely its own fault, since Washington has grappled with similar challenges. Yet self-inflicted Turkish wounds caused by emotional rhetoric, unrealistic ambitions, and miscalculation of the AKP’s own capabilities are now overshadowing previous foreign policy successes in Africa and Central Asia led by the Turkish private sector and championed by the Gülen movement. Ramifications of continuing leaks and corruption charges mean that Ankara’s much vaunted proactive foreign policy will become necessarily reactive, and will always only be one domestic crisis or grandstanding away from success or failure.

Turkey has become interdependent and interlinked with its neighborhood over the last decade in both the economic domain as well as the geopolitical. Like Washington, Ankara faces a new world in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” and “Eurozone crisis” in its neighborhood. However, unlike American institutions that have been shaped over 237 years of imperfect functioning, Turkish institutions do not enjoy the same longevity, or the accompanying processes of checks and balances and bureaucratic deliberation. Ankara’s role regionally and globally will likely be sustained and continue to grow precisely because it is supported by a broad base of domestic interest groups that are growing beyond the AKP – which once brought them together. Even if Erdoğan loses his grip or the AKP disintegrates in future elections, the growing domestic economic interests will assure that any other party that takes charge will preserve the initial foreign policy successes while seeking to unleash rather than leash the potential of Turkey’s civil society.

Turkey has always been greater than the sum of its parts and is a perpetual work in progress. Therefore, while true friends of Turkey will mourn the damage done by this conflict, it may, perhaps, result in a new, more stable dispensation that will leave Turkey stronger for it. Precisely because of its imperfections Ankara is a beacon of light for a region that struggles with striking the right balance between centralized government power and civil society’s national will. Turkey, as the region’s oldest and one of the most complicated democracies, will hopefully emerge stronger in the long-term as a result of the current tug of war.


Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project and previously served as a Senior Adviser to the U.S. Department of State. He is a contributor to War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Diyar se