A Turkish War of Religion

Diyarbakir, Turkey - In a widely reported speech last month, Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke about Turkey's seemingly perpetual problem with its largest ethnic minority, the Kurds. He insisted on the indivisibility of the country, describing it as "one nation, one state, one flag and one religion." Erdogan, whose Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ruled Turkey since 2002, would later insist that the religion reference was a slip of the tongue, that he did not mean to bring up religion. Many Kurdish activists drew a different conclusion. To them, the misstatement spoke clearly to the AKP's unspoken policy of using Islam to lure the Kurds into abandoning their struggle for additional rights and a measure of political autonomy. (Like most Turks, including Erdogan himself, the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims.)

Recently, the lightning rod for such suspicions has been the Gulen movement, the controversial religious group suspected of wielding considerable sway over the Turkish government, business community, and the media. (The movement takes its name from Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Islamic preacher.) The group, many Kurdish nationalists suspect, has been part and parcel of a new government strategy to pacify and assimilate the Kurds. "Someone comes here and tries to teach our people religion," Ahmet Turk, a prominent Kurdish politician, said back in 2010. "And they say in the name of Islam, 'Yes, let us help you improve your belief but forget about your identity.'" Says Vahap Coskun, an assistant professor at Diyarbakir's Dicle University, "Together, the [Gulenists] and the government have been using religion to attain the objective they have in mind — to build the unity of the state."

The Gulen movement publicly eschews politics. Its main objective in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast, key Gulenists insist, is to focus on a long-neglected issue: education. For the region's Kurds, access to quality schooling has always been scarce. A raging 30-year conflict between Kurdish militants and the Turkish army has made things even worse. The Gulenists — who run some of the best university preparatory schools in the country — have gone a considerable way to address governmental neglect. As a Kurdish columnist at one of Turkey's largest papers — himself a graduate of a Gulen school — told me in Istanbul, "Most of the people from the southeast, if they're here [in Istanbul] and if they're successful, chances are that at some point they went through the Gulen system."

In Diyarbakir, the biggest city in the Kurdish-majority southeast, I visited with Ali Pehlivan, the principal of Nil Elementary, one of 57 private schools operated by the Gulen movement in the region. Pehlivan was beaming with pride. His school, he told me, had recently placed 73rd nationwide out of 18,000 primary schools — the first time that a school from Diyarbakir had cracked the country's top 100.

For all their success, schools like Pehlivan's appear to have outworn their welcome among some Kurds. On May 14, the day I arrived in Diyarbakir, a homemade bomb exploded at a Gulen dormitory. At one of the Gulen prep schools I visited the following day, the headmaster, Bulent Ince, reported about 15 attacks against his school — ranging from Molotov cocktails to broken windows — over the past three years, the most recent having occurred in early May. In late April, another prep school in Cizre, a town near the Iraqi border, was sprayed with gunfire. Though no casualties were reported in any of these attacks — most took place at night — there have been allegations of targeted killings. Two years ago, an imam close to the Gulen movement was killed in Hakkari, about 250 miles east of Diyarbakir.

Most observers are certain the attacks are the work of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a militant group, or of its sympathizers. The PKK sees itself as a champion of Kurdish rights and has waged war against the Turkish army since 1984. To date, the conflict has claimed 40,000 lives. The U.S. and the E.U. have labeled the PKK a terrorist organization.

Contacted by phone, PKK spokesperson Roj Welat denied his group's responsibility for the attacks. He did insinuate, however, that the Gulen movement and its institutions were legitimate targets. "As long as there is a denial and annihilation policy against the Kurdish people," he said, "every human being has a right to defend themself whenever they are under attack."

Fethullah Gulen's statements on the PKK have done little to allay tensions between his group and the Kurdish militants. In a speech last October, Gulen lambasted the Turkish army for being "unable to finish off a group of bandits in the mountains over the last 30 years." The timing was less than fortunate. Two months later, the military killed 34 Kurdish smugglers in a botched airstrike against what it believed was a column of PKK fighters.

The biggest charge leveled against the Gulenists, however, has little to do with their leader's rhetoric. Since 2009, a series of police operations against the so-called Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), alleged to be the PKK's urban arm, has led to the arrest of several thousand Kurds. Many in the Kurdish movement allege that Gulenists inside the police and judiciary have been a driving force behind the crackdown. The movement's aim, Vahap Coskun suspects, is to imprison and intimidate as many Kurdish activists and politicians as possible — to the extent that even those opposed to the PKK have landed behind bars. The Gulenists, he says, "want to criminalize and marginalize the Kurdish political movement as a whole."

To Emre Uslu, a columnist and terrorism expert, the recent attacks are directly related the Gulen movement's unprecedented expansion in the southeast. Aside from schools, Gulenists now run popular prep courses, business associations, and okuma saloni (reading halls), which cater to underprivileged students. These alone, says Uslu, attract approximately 30,000 children each year. The PKK, he says, "feels threatened by these numbers." The Gulen movement, he adds, has become the PKK's "number one enemy."

Ironically, individual Gulenists appear to have a more accommodating approach toward the Kurdish issue than successive Turkish governments. Cemal Usak, a longtime associate of Gulen and the Vice President of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, told me in Istanbul that Turkish public opinion has failed to distinguish between PKK violence and the Kurds' legitimate struggle for social and cultural rights. "Even if the terror comes to an end, the Kurdish problem will remain because 80-90% of it has to do with language and identity." In remarks that would place him closer to the Kurdish movement than to the Turkish political mainstream, Usak argued in favor of introducing Kurdish courses at schools across all of Turkey (the majority of the country's 12 million to 15 million Kurds, having escaped poverty and war, now live outside the southeast), restoring orginal names of Kurdish towns and villages, and even, if necessary, negotiating with the PKK.

At an informal meeting of local Gulenists in Diyarbakir, Celal, a physiotherapist, struck an apologetic tone when asked about the recent attacks against the schools. "The attacks are not their fault but ours," he said, referring to the perpetrators. "Because we haven't explained ourselves in the right way."