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The Uses and Abuses of Uncertainty: The Case of Turkey

Fethullah Gulen

Webs of Uncertainty

One of the paradoxes of the digital age with its real time awareness is the degree to which information overloads clouds our imagination with cheaply achieved and false clarity, which in political contexts is often the Mad Men work of selective interpretation or deliberate manipulation. There are two types of uncertainty that complicate our perceptions of reality.

There is, first of all, the ontological problem associated with a variety of uncertainties embedded in the unresolvable complexities of our experience in such ways that we make important decisions in the face of serious doubts. And secondly, there are often predispositional problems associated with the sources we choose to rely upon, the intrusion of our opinions, and under the influence of the worldview we adopt that biases understanding, sometimes intentionally, but usually, unwittingly.

A fundamental aspect of the human condition, philosophized brilliantly by Jacques Derrida, is a pervasive good faith uncertainty and undecidability that confusingly overlaps with the almost continuous need to act in the lifeworld, and then, despite this, assume responsibility for whatever decisions are taken. In effect, this makes the human condition ‘impossible’ because of this rooted unintelligibility of our experience, depriving the most momentous decisions of our daily life of any firm foundation in decidable fact. This realization is so deeply unsettling as to make its denial a sign of normalcy. Most of us arrange our lives so that this liminal uncertainty can be overlooked most of the time.

What is equally disturbing is the degree to which the technicians of public order are shaping our collective future from behind such a dark veil. Of course, this has long been true, but in the past the wider social consequences of disastrous choices tended to be relatively local and the leaders depended on special powers. Now leaders are expected to be ‘certain,’ as well as ‘objective,’ which means the job description includes a willingness to wear a mask of certainty that covers a face that is lined with tensions caused by acute doubt. Such expectations produce dishonesty in the political arena, but like our effort to minimize private uncertainty, many politicians are opportunistically able to treat the uncertain as certain, and by so doing, we drift as a species toward the abyss.

In modern times, the magnitude of technological capabilities have been continuously generative of unprecedented catastrophic dangers at the unfamiliarly grand scale of the species as well as habitual human threats and pitfalls experienced at various sub-species levels (nation, family, community). The warnings about climate change have raised this issue to a heightened level of global awareness, accompanied by a fatalistic denialism, as well as a set of politicized responses that up to this point fall well below what is required for a reasonable assurance of species sustainability.

The Turkish Internal Consensus

The experience of political rupture is another circumstance that exposes claims of certainty as pompous posturing, but also can bring forth distinctive forms of denialism that pretends that what is rather certain is mired in the swamps of uncertainty, and what is clear beyond a reasonable doubt, is to be treated as uncertain. Behind this manipulation of uncertainty is a political agenda, usually unacknowledged.

These reflections have been prompted by the various reactions to the failed July 15th coup attempt in Turkey. Within Turkey there is a strong consensus (estimated at between 80 and 90%) embracing most of the opposition forces in the country, but with exceptions. The consensus includes even many embittered secular opponents of Erdoğan’s leadership, believing that the attempted coup was the work of the Fethullah Gülen movement and that its leader in residence in the United States should be turned over to the Turkish government to face criminal prosecution for involvement in crimes of terror, murder, treason.  Above all, the consensus proudly regards the defeat of the coup attempt as a great patriotic moment of mass support for Turkish democracy.

The second element in this consensus is that the United States is somehow involved, and hence is almost certain to find an excuse to avoid extradition or deportation, and distract attention by harping on the importance of protecting the human rights of all Turks. The third element is that it is essential that the Turkish government, to restore a sense of security about the future, eliminate from various sectors of society adherents and operatives of the movement led by Fethullah Gülen.

I became personally suspicious of the ties with the CIA initially in 2010 when Fethullah Gülen personally and organizationally sided with Israel in the dispute with Turkey arising from Israeli commando attack on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish passenger vessel that was part of ‘a freedom flotilla’ seeking to break the blockade of Gaza and deliver humanitarian assistance to the entrapped Palestinians.
The fourth element is that the attempted coup was carried out in a bloody manner, killing and wounding many innocent civilians, and failed only because initiated ahead of schedule and poorly executed:  Erdoğan escaped assassination by a mere 15 minutes and was then able to mobilize quickly the citizenry to take over public spaces in a bold, massive, and brave manner unprecedented in the context of coup politics, and indicative of the depth of anti-coup sentiment among the Turkish people and the intense support bestowed on Erdoğan for defeating the attempt with polls showing his post-coup popularity to have surged to 70% or more. I would maintain that this consensus in Turkey should be treated until reliably refuted as a generally authoritative account of the relevant events, while admitting that there are many complications that emerge if we look more deeply into the full implication of each of these four elements. 

Erdoğan’s Critics: Governmental and Civil Society

In opposition to this consensus, the world press and Western governmental reaction basically ignores this consensus, and treats the coup events as if mired in uncertainty, an outlook coupled with antipathy toward Erdoğan and an overall ambivalence toward Turkey as a legitimate member of Western society despite its NATO membership and its support for the struggle against ISIS. I think there are important differences between the reasons underlying these attitudes that motivate overseas secular and Gülen Turks (and their influential friends around the world) and those that explain the somewhat convergent attitudes of Western governments.

To consider the prevailing attitudes of overseas Turks, it starts with hostility toward the Erdoğan leadership, contending corruption, authoritarianism, a hidden Islamic agenda, social conservatism, and a murderous war against Kurdish militants associated with the PKK, as well as against the Syrian Kurdish militia (YPG). This is enough to generate antipathy that expresses itself by either ignoring or rejecting the consensus depicted above as dominating public opinion in Turkey. In this sense, the role and effect of the Gülen movement is either downplayed or problematized, and basically treated as either irrelevant or unproven, and criticism is mounted against all efforts of the Turkish government to rid itself and Turkish society of a secretive religious sect that preaches a message of peace and moderation, while acting subversively and violently. As well, the apparent links between Gülen and the CIA are not even considered worthy of mention.

When it comes to Western governments the response also revolves around distrust of Erdoğan, claiming that he is a Putinesque autocrat, but seeming to have their deepest concerns because Turkey is an unreliable ally that no longer can be trusted to follow the diktats of Washington. In this regard, Turkey’s recent turn toward Russia and Iran, initiatives that preceded the coup attempt, are viewed by the United States and Europe as geopolitically unwelcome. Already by 2010 Turkey worried Washington by turning strongly against Israel and by trying in collaboration with Brazil to resolve tensions with Iran by working out an agreement to store Iran’s enriched uranium outside the country. Then, of course, there was the tie to Fethullah Gülen and his movement, the dispersion of influential Gülenists around the world that often impacted on public official perceptions, and the mutually reinforcing distinct viewpoints associated with Gülenists and secularists together have created an informal international media counter-consensus to what is believed within Turkey.

I became personally suspicious of the ties with the CIA initially in 2010 when Fethullah Gülen personally and organizationally sided with Israel in the dispute with Turkey arising from Israeli commando attack on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish passenger vessel that was part of ‘a freedom flotilla’ seeking to break the blockade of Gaza and deliver humanitarian assistance to the entrapped Palestinians. It seemed a peculiar stand to be taken by a movement that purported to be devoted to peace and the spread of Islamic values. Then a couple of years later when invited to meet with some Gülen people in Istanbul my suspicions rose to near certainty.

 We were shown a short documentary in which James Baker, Madeline Albright, and Bill Clinton, that is, the reigning luminaries of both political parties, made separate appearances in the film to heap praise on Fethullah Gülen and his movement. I have been around long enough to know that this kind of promotional documentary was not an innocent and spontaneous display of enthusiasm for a secretive cult movement led by a mysterious Islamic preacher by the most prominent members of the American political establishment. It could not have happened without a strong government push, and one can only wonder why.

I did not believe, at the time, which these signs of governmental engagement was a prelude to a coup, but rather in the nature of a Plan B option in the event that Erdoğan slipped further from favor, and maybe served other purposes as well. There was also the possibility that the Gülen schools all over the world were being used as an effective means to penetrate some societies, such as those in Central Asia, places where American intelligence was weak. It is reported that Graham Fuller, who effectively backed Fethullah Gülen’s controversial request for a green card over the opposition of the State Department and the FBI, believed that such an educational network could be useful in gaining access to and recruits in otherwise closed foreign societies. Fuller had been CIA station chief in Istanbul before his retirement. Fuller claims a purity of intentions, and I have seen no hard evidence to the contrary, but the strong personal connection with Gülen given other confirming circumstantial evidence makes it reasonable to be suspicious.

As with the Turkish critics, the Western governments ignore the context of the coup attempt, and devote most of their attention to the post-coup crackdown on all suspected of any Gülen affiliation. Also, during the coup, diplomatic support for Ankara was not forthcoming, and a wait and see attitude seemed to carry the day. It may be that the West supposed that the coup attempt was the work of discontented Kemalists in the army and elsewhere, and its success would have been welcomed (as with Egypt in 2013). This distancing angered the Turkish government and people, and confirmed for many Turks suspicions about an American involvement as well as its unwillingness to lend support to a popularly elected government.

These suspicions are further confirmed by the evident reluctance of the United States to cooperate fully in seeking to grant extradition, which it must be said, does face legal obstacles in the best of circumstances. At the same time, if the U.S. Government wanted to back Turkey in this post-coup attempt atmosphere it could at least put Fethullah Gülen under temporary arrest or consider deporting him.

One can only imagine the American reaction if Turkey was seeming to shield a person who was strongly believed by most Americans to be behind a coup attempt or major terrorist incident in the United States. Legalistic excuses would not begin to satisfy the American people in such a situation, and it will not satisfy, much less convince the Turkish people and their leadership given the near certainty, which has been attached to the allegation that Fethullah Gülen masterminded the events of July 15th. It should be recalled that the Russian grant of sanctuary to Edward Snowden was seen in the United States as an unfriendly act that harmed relations between the countries even though the nature of his alleged crime was distinctly ‘political’ in nature, and hence, non-extraditable.

An Uncertain Future

Among the uncertainties relevant to assessing the situation in Turkey is how the near future unfolds. Will the West live with a Turkey that claims the prerogative of a sovereign state to pursue independently its own interests? Will the anti- Erdoğan campaign carry the day in the struggle for the control of world public opinion and shape Western policy toward Turkey? And, of course, will the Turkish government conform formally and in good faith to due process and the rule of law in the course of identifying those who can be reasonably charged with direct and indirect complicity in the coup attempt? (It worth noting that of the 55,000 or so who were originally subject to suspension or detention more than half have been restored to employment or released, according to the Minister of Interior). It is also most important, if Turkey is to regain respect beyond its borders, that it not mingle its legitimate grievances against the Gülen militants, operatives, and financial backers with separate concerns it might have about the opinions and loyalty of pro-Kurdish activists and ardent Cembalists.

This unfolding future should gradually tell us which mix of certainties and uncertainties will govern the Turkish internal and international future, and on that may hinge Turkey’s security and overall regional and global orientation, including the future of its relations with the United States, Europe, Russia, Iran, and its own regional neighborhood. Perhaps, underneath the immediacies of the situation, there are deeper forces at work in Turkey and elsewhere that are seeking to find new alignments that befit the realities of the post-Cold War world order. If this possibility were at the core of what is taking place, then it would not be startling to witness Turkey pulling slowly away from NATO, and finding its own path between East and West. At present, this seems unlikely as there remains in Ankara a strong bonding with the West despite these recent strains, but surely international relations have witnessed far stranger realignments over the course of the past century.


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