Gülen and his Hizmet movement are portrayed as a direct antithesis and perfect antidote to Erdoğan's "radical political Islam" and "authoritarianism"
With great regularity, whenever the U.S. is embarrassed by a foreign government that is too nationalist and independent for its taste and stubbornly insists on putting the interests of its own people ahead of the American agenda, the same predictable things start happening.
With remarkable groupthink, the Western media launches campaigns to discredit the foreign government no matter how popular and democratically elected it may be. The head of state, including Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and Vladimir Putin, is relentlessly demonized and accused of all evils, from corruption to authoritarianism and worse. "Scandals" make the headlines of all newspapers and websites, mere accusations are taken at face value as facts, and the U.S. media and government side with whatever opposition movement exists.
If by chance there happens to be anti-government protests, they are guaranteed Western support and the most uncritical, 24/7 media glorification as happened with the Iranian "Greens," the anti-Morsi "liberal secularists" and the Gezi Park protestors. To complete the cycle, some miraculous providential man emerges like a savior from the opposition and soon the U.S. media-government complex endorses him as an antidote and alternative to the resented foreign head of state.
Although that process does not amount to a coup, it certainly constitutes a destabilization operation as well as a direct intervention in the domestic political affairs of a nation meant to undermine the strength and credibility of the regime one wants to see replaced.
Recently, Iraq's Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, Iran's (momentary) Green leader Mir Hossein Musavi, and Egypt's Mohamed ElBaradei were all perfect examples of this tactic consisting of hand-picking then hyping some supposedly better, providential opposition figure in the hope he will become our (the West's) man once the foreign government turned American bête noire has been toppled, ousted, or voted out.
It does not seem to matter that this way of trying to achieve foreign policy goals not only regularly fails, as is the case for all three figures above, but actually often leads to disasters, more often than not backfiring in a series of blowbacks against those who use it, as when Chalabi convinced the U.S. to invade Iraq by feeding them lies about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction with the consequences we now know.
Regardless, the U.S. will try. And when it comes to Turkey, the time has come to seriously ask ourselves whether Fethullah Gülen and the Hizmet movement are not playing this same function in U.S. foreign policy, no matter whether they know and want it or not.
Let me be clear here. I am not claiming as some do that our "wise Islamic old man of Pennsylvania," much less Hizmet, is the willing double agent of the U.S. or the figure with which the Americans would like to replace Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Gülen is too old and his health too fragile for that role. He is not running in any elections anyway. Furthermore, the nature of his grassroots Hizmet movement, which is more of a loose informal transnational network or a cluster of religious, educational and social organizations inspired by him rather than a classic structured organization such as a political party, would also make it very difficult to control, especially by a foreign power as it has no official membership, no visible hierarchy of cadres, no formal structure, and no headquarters.
For that reason, the movement is extremely elusive, contributing to making it a formidable adversary as one can never pinpoint or nail it. In interviews, Gülen even denies he is the leader.
However, that does not in any way mean that Gülen and Hizmet are not informally instrumentalized, possibly even against their will, by the U.S. foreign policy establishment on Capitol Hill and its affiliated networks in think tanks, media, consultants and lobbies.
My previous article documented the scathing indictment of Erdoğan's foreign and domestic policy by the quasi-totality of the U.S. mainstream and specialized press from the center left to the far right, from the New York Times to Foreign Affairs, foreign policy think tanks and a significant segment of Capitol Hill's elected officials. In the U.S. and increasingly the rest of the Western world, the perception has consolidated that Erdoğan's Turkey is increasingly not just a bad, unreliable and untrustworthy ally, but instead a treacherous false friend, a threat to both U.S. foreign policy goals, its national security, and its major allies from Israel to Iraq to NATO countries. I also exposed how it has now become common to accuse Turkey of being a sponsor of anti-Western terrorism and for some, a terror state itself, however outrageous and ridiculous those claims might sound to Turkish ears. Whatever source you take these days, it is clear that Erdoğan has become the proverbial wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time and that according to many leaders in the West, he needs to go, as Foreign Affairs concluded in its important piece, "By Something Different."
It was therefore not mere coincidence that on the same day in the same Foreign Affairs issue, a second piece appeared on Gülen entitled, "The Muslim Martin Luther," in which the former imam and his Hizmet movement are portrayed as the direct antithesis and perfect antidote to Erdoğan's "radical political Islam" and "authoritarianism."
The article reads like pure hagiographic propaganda from beginning to end. Tellingly, it immediately found itself front page of the Hizmet official web sites as Pick of the Week. Gulen is presented as "an Islamic intellectual [who] develops a genuinely modern school of Islam that reconciles the religion with liberal democracy, scientific rationalism, ecumenism, and free enterprise", in direct contradistinction to Erdogan's "bellicose foreign policy and undemocratic domestic maneuvers". In the typical "good guy/bad guy" binary mechanism, Erdoğan's alleged brand of "undemocratic political Islam" is trashed, while the Hizmet's "Islamic theology that puts social [and civic] engagement, not political engagement, at its center" is presented as the desirable alternative to the prime minister's alleged nefarious brand of National View/ Millî Görüş ideology, as well as the redemption of the Muslim Brotherhood's equally undesirable "attempts to control the state."
Also notable is how the piece purges the Gülenists' record of anything that may be embarrassing or simply elicit some skepticism in its (mostly American) audience.
Not a trace, not a mention of, say, the smear and defamation campaigns launched by the Gülenist press against their critics, the massive and often crude disinformation from the Hizmet press, the now proven planting of evidence and fake documents by Gülenists , the mock trials against opponents, and the hijacking of the police and justice system to target critics and have them locked up. Reading these stealth propaganda pieces disseminated across the U.S. mediascape as serious, objective articles, you would not be able to tell any of those happened.
Let me be clear again. I am not claiming the whole Hizmet network is rotten. Actually, the vast majority of Gülenists, at least in my experience, are honest, deeply and sincerely pious good people whose dedication, hope, and energy invested in the greater good of this world is simply admirable. But every movement, especially one as large and powerful as this one, contains rotten apples and denying so would be dishonest. Similarly, denying the notion that the U.S. government, like many other governments but maybe to a higher and more aggressive degree and with far more resources, is often engaged in interventionist operations and schemes in other countries' domestic politics, dismissing criticism as "conspiracism," the catchword of people who have no arguments. This reveals a grave ignorance of the now well-known and amply documented historical track record of schemes, plots and coups by the American government, a record no one denies, not even the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) itself. Just read William Blum, Michael Parenti, Noam Chomsky or some other American dissenter. Or short of that, remember Iran 1953, Operation Ajax or the Ronald Reagan record of atrocities across Central and Latin America for hard evidence that the "conspiracism" is often below the actual truth.
Thanks to the current affair of the Ukraine tapes for which the White House is now getting a lot of heat, we have yet another typical example of how the U.S. government routinely considers it its right and duty to meddle in the domestic politics of foreign nations, hand-pick the leaders of other nations, and broker behind- the-scene plans to midwife future governments.
But again, none of that is happening, right, and this is just all "conspiracism."
Until the late 2000s, the American state authorities, who in 2007 denied Gülen permanent-resident status, may have been ambivalent and nervous about him and the Hizmet. But this no longer seems to be the case, as abundantly evidenced by the praise and endorsement the former imam has been receiving lately from the near totality of the foreign policy establishment past and present including major figures like James Baker, Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton, and members of the Council on Foreign Relations. Much of the Western mediascape basically recites word-for-word all the accusations thrown at Erdoğan by the Hizmet press, contributing to the mud-throwing against the Turkish prime minister. No need to read the Western press on Turkey these days, just save time and read Zaman. By contrast, our Pennsylvania recluse seems to have been anointed by the American leadership. At any rate, he is regularly presented as the cure to Erdoğan who is cast in the role of the disease, the villain of the story, the bad guy.
Let us always remember that despite its diplomatic rhetoric, the U.S. actually does not want strong, independent, sovereign, genuinely nationalist and patriotic governments out there. Especially not in this part of the world. What the U.S. favors are pliable, docile, flexible regimes, and whenever possible, the proverbial Western puppets. The Mohammad Reza Pahlavis, the Hamid Karzais, the Nouri al-Malikis, the Hosni Mubaraks, the Augusto Pinochets, the House of Saud, et cetera. Although lately those too seem harder to control than expected. That is the type of regime the U.S. wants.
Always have, always will. There should not be any naivety or misplaced complacency about this.
Now, in the obedience-to-foreign-powers-andopenness- to-their-arms-twisting department, Erdoğan does not fare too well. Too stubbornly sovereign, too independent, too patriotic. Hard to control, cannot be intimidated. Not the right guy for the U.S., need something better, a new government that will fall in line more easily.
It is in that perspective that the twin demonization of Erdoğan and the anointment of Gülen currently going on in the U.S. should be understood. Have Gülen and the Hizmet become pawns in the U.S. (and through the U.S., Israel's) geopolitical chess games?
No matter what, they do objectively fulfill a useful function. Since it has become clear that the foreign policy establishment lost faith and confidence in Erdoğan and wants him replaced and since elections are on the horizon are a golden opportunity for that, Gülen and the Hizmet may just be a part of D.C.'s classic brand of wedge politics. The parallel state police and judicial operations, which these days not even Erdoğan's critics deny come from Gülenists, harass and undermine Erdoğan's government right before the elections. The relentless smear and defamation campaigns in the Hizmet press laminate his popularity. The accusations of corruption treated as facts, though Erdoğan himself has not even been accused of anything, seek to drive a wedge between the prime minister and segments of the electorate, especially when most Gülenists so far have voted for the AK Party. It also seeks to drive a wedge between the prime minister and some of his cadres and government members, or between Erdoğan and the AK Party, all things most useful to anyone who wants to see him lose the next election cycle.
The Hizmet and Gülen may not be the Trojan horse of the U.S. establishment for direct intervention in Turkish domestic and electoral politics, but they may still very well be its useful idiots.
* Associate Professor, Virginia Wesleyan College
This article was originally published on TurkeyAgenda.com.
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