Dr. Ömer Taşpınar and Worldfocus producer Gizem Yarbil discuss the role of several important conservative religious groups in Turkey, including the Gulen movement, which is the largest, and the Mustazaflar-Der, which is influential in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast.
Gizem Yarbil: How influential are Islamic groups like the Gulen movement and Mustazaflar-Der in Turkey politically and socially?
Ömer Taşpınar: Particularly, the Gulen movement is very influential in the social, economic and cultural (particularly education) field. The members of this brotherhood are probably in the millions. I think of this movement as a pious Muslim version of freemasons.
It’s essentially a solidarity network and a civil society organization with religious proclivities. Some analyst are bothered by the movement’s cultish attachment to its leader but this is not uncommon in Turkish/Anatolian political culture.
The movement is also getting stronger politically, mainly because of a self-defense instinct. The staunchly secularist Kemalist military considers the Gulen movement as a very dangerous network infiltrating the civilian bureaucracy in order to slowly Islamize the country.
Gizem Yarbil: The Gulen movement is the most mainstream of all the Islamist groups in Turkey and the one with the most influential network of supporters. Do you think they pose a threat to the secular foundations of Turkish politics and society as some Turks fear?
Ömer Taşpınar: I personally think that the Gulen movement is not willing to confront the secular tradition of the Turkish Republic. The last thing the movement wants is to clash with the state tradition of Turkey. In that sense, the movement is very nationalist and not willing to become anti-secular or anti-Kemalist.
It is still a mainly education, culture, social life oriented movement. But it has a potential to turn political and support anti-military coup investigations such as the currently unfolding “Ergenekon case.” The movement feels very much threatened by the radical secularism displayed in some segments of the Turkish military.
Gizem Yarbil: Do you think Islamist groups will become a bigger force in Turkish politics and society?
Ömer Taşpınar: I think the movement is fueled by urbanization, the weakness of social and economic services provided by the state, and a new Muslim bourgeoisie. It will continue to grow as long as Turkey maintains a democratic, free-market oriented system.
Gizem Yarbil: In general, do you see Turkey in the future looking more to the East or to the West? And what will the implications be on the strategic relationship between Turkey, the U.S. and the E.U.?
Ömer Taşpınar: I think rather than going towards the East or West, Turkey is becoming more like itself. It is rediscovering its Ottoman past and coming to terms with its history and multiple identities. As long as Turkey remains democratic it will be Janus-faced, looking both to the Islamic world and Europe, just like the Ottoman Empire did for centuries.
For more Worldfocus coverage of Turkey, visit our extended coverage page: Turkey between East and West.