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The Irrepressible Charm of the State: Dershane Closures and the Domestic War for Power in Turkey

[A local dershane in Antakya celebrates the success of their students on the national OKS (now know as the LGS) exam. Image via Flickr.] [A local dershane in Antakya celebrates the success of their students on the national OKS (now know as the LGS) exam. Image via Flickr.]

The Turkish parliament's recent passing of a bill to shut down private prepatory schools (dershane) by 1 September 2015 is the last front in the all-out domestic war between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gülen community. Initially announced by the Turkish prime minister on 9 September 2012, the law's first draft was published by the movement's daily Zaman last November. This re-ignited a heated debate amongst intellectuals, politicians, and the broader public across the country, and drastically increased the tension that has characterized AKP-Gülen community relations since 2011.

A Marriage of Convenience

Although the AKP and the Gülen community are often depicted as two staunch allies that have started to diverge only very recently, they are two quite different expressions of Turkish Islamism. Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül came to the spotlight in the 1990s as the main exponents of the liberal and reformist wing of the Virtue Party, formerly the Welfare Party. This was the latest incarnation of a series of Islamic parties guided by the prominent politician Necmettin Erbakan and emerging from Sufi Naqshbandi circles in the 1960s under the guidance of Mehmet Zahid Kotku. This faction has traditionally had an anti-Western outlook that preferred to emphasize Turkey's ties with the Middle East rather than with Europe.

Fethullah Gülen is the most successful representative of the more conciliatory and modernist Nur network, a civic-oriented Islamic movement that was initiated by the Sufi-inspired but reform-minded scholar Said Nursi (1876-1960), an ethnic Kurd, at the sunset of the Ottoman Empire. However, while Nursi predicated an ecumenical form of Islam, Gülen has advocated a form of Islam with a more marked nationalist bent since the beginning of his independent preaching activity at Izmir Kestanepazarı Qur’anic school in the late 1960s..In this he had been influenced by intellectuals such as Necip Fazıl Kısakürek and Ahmet Topçu who during the 1940s had already elaborated the idea of Turkish Islam. Further refined in Islamic circles in the 1960s through the idea of a Turkish-Islamic synthesis, this political doctrine extolled the perfect symbiosis between Turkish culture and Islamic civilization, and became Turkey's official ideology in the 1980s.

This overlap with the nationalist project also led Gülen to support the military coup of 1980, and to form a tacit alliance with the military during the years of Turgut Özal's neoliberal economic reforms. As prime minister, Özal supported Gülen because he advocated a kind of Islamic-motivated entrepreneurialism, open to the market expansion that was in line with his reforms. Moreover, as the movement expanded in the 1990s, it developed close ties with state institutions. The best example of this synergy was the collaboration between the Gülen community and the state for the opening of Turkish schools in the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Balkans during the 1990s.

The honeymoon with institutional forces lasted until the media-orchestrated “soft” coup of 28 February 1997. Gülen initially backed the coup, something that has not been forgotten by the majority of the AKP’s constituency nor by Erdoğan, who spent four months in jail. However, following the broadcasting of some fragments of his old videotaped speeches where he advised his adherents to sneak into state institutions, in 1999 Gülen received an arrest warrant on charges of planning to overthrow the state and decided to take refuge in the US; the official reason was to undergo medical treatment.

Notwithstanding the ideological divergences, since the AKP's ascendancy to the national political scene in 2002, and particularly after its second victory in 2007, there has been a marriage of convenience between these two major forces of the Turkish Islamic camp. Their hidden common agenda was the undermining of the secularists' long hold on the bureaucracy and the judicial system. With its power in the police force power and, allegedly, the judiciary, the Gülen movement was a very promising ally for the AKP, which ever since 2002 reportedly favored the community's occupation of the hights echelons of the police forces. The alliance was also successful thanks to the possibility of relying on the support of a new liberal camp in the country that looked kindly upon the possibility of removing the secularists' grasp on institutions.

In 2008, to the bewilderment of the public, the Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations revealed the existence of a shadowy network, the so-called “deep state” (derin devlet), composed of dozens of people, including former army members, journalists, businessmen, drug lords, and academics. They were suspected of ruling a secret organization that was behind a number of politically motivated murders and that was plotting a coup to overthrow the AKP government. The arrests probably marked the peak of the alliance between the government and the Gülen movement. The two factions came together once again in 2010, when from his Pennsylvania retreat, Gülen publicly took the unprecedented step of calling upon his followers to vote "yes" in the 12 September 2010 referendum on the reform of the military-dictated constitution of 1982. The referendum victory was another strike against the military's control over institutions. This paved the way for the outstanding success of the AKP in the political elections of 2011, which it won with almost fifty percent of the vote.

Reciprocal Suspicions and Old Divergences

Despite these successes, the first divergences between the two sides started to emerge when the AKP made a shift in its international policy. Since the Davos World Economic Forum of 2009, the government assumed an attitude that was more anti-Israel and EU-suspicious, reinvigorating the party's tradition of solidarity with the Arab world. In this context, the Mavi Marmara incident and the subsequent squabble with Gülen—who awkwardly attempted to keep a balanced position that would not offend Israel's sensibilities—foreshadowed deeper divergences in the future.

After the 2011 victory, an increasingly self-confident AKP started to consider pursuing its project for democratic reform without the cumbersome presence of the Gülenists—who had traditionally been reluctant to come to compromises with the Kurdish guerrillas (PKK). On their side, the Gülenists allegedly felt unjustly accused of being the only ones responsible for the mass arrests of 2008, despite the AKP's own involvement in these operations.

What had started as a series of small recriminations and accusations turned into an all-out war on 7 February 2013, when prosecutors allegedly close to Gülen tried to summon Hakan Fidan, the head of the National Intelligence Organization, who was conducting secret talks with the PKK on behalf of the government. Erdoğan was able to stop the attack, but reciprocal attempts at undermining each other's credibility started. As some observed, after the 7 February incident the AKP came to the conclusion that it could no longer rely on the Gülenists and had to shrink their power in the police and the judiciary.

The more recent clashes of December 2013, with the corruption investigations against prominent ministers, was the natural, though unexpected, evolution of this fraternal conflict. For his part, Erdoğan initially went on the counterattack by reassigning thousands of alleged Gülen sympathizers in the police and the judiciary. Yet the fight continued to rage, with the leaking of secret telephone conversations revealing new particulars of the corruption case, and the threat that even more compromising materials, including some “sex tapes,” could be soon released. Some of the phone recordings directly involved the prime minister himself, whose alleged voice instructed his son Bilal to hide the last thirty million euros left at home. Declaring that the recordings have been "immorally" fabricated, in his political rallies for the imminent local elections Erdoğan continues to reassure his supporters that he will not budge a single step.

The Dershane Issue: Cause or Consequence?

Although apparently a marginal issue, the closure of the private preparatory schools (dershane) was a quite significant moment in the sudden acceleration in the clash between the AKP and the Gülen forces. The dershanes are cram schools that prepare students for the centralized university entrance examination (YGS-LYS) as well as other national examinations—such as the exam that regulates students' access to the best high schools (LGS). A huge educational industry, these schools have been growing exponentially in the last decade and a half, increasing from 1,730 firms and 174,496 students in 2000, to 4,055 firms and 1.2 million enrolled in 2012. Their popularity is related to the high competitiveness of the YGS-LYS exam, which nearly two million Turkish students take every year. Only one out of six, a total of around 300,000, will be awarded university spots.

Privately owned, the dershanes compete with each other to instruct the students who will score the highest, because this allows them to increase their popularity and, consequently, their incomes. The Gülen community has been a pioneer in this field, and thanks to the commitment of its teachers (generally community members), its schools have become renowned for the high results obtained by their students in the national examinations. Consequently, they attract not only students of conservative families, but also those from middle-to-high classes of both Muslim and secular backgrounds, who are ready to pay full fees in order to be prepared for national examinations.

For the community, these schools represent the face of its success and one of its major points of pride. Moreover, they function as an important recruitment channel. Dershane students are invited to the community members' houses, where they are progressively infused with Islamic habits and the community's ideals of service (hizmet). More importantly, the dershanes represent the community's main source of income, through which it finances its international network of “dialogue centers” and schools in more than fifty countries. Therefore, when Erdoğan reaffirmed at an AKP meeting last September that he intended to eliminate the private tutoring system, it was clear that the real target was the Gülen community. At the beginning, most observers thought this could be a bluff by the prime minister to encourage the community to consider its next moves more carefully. But when a draft of the law was published in the community's newspaper Zaman in November, this generated harsh reactions by the Gülenists as well as by Gülen himself, who compared the initiative to an attempted coup.

Members of the cabinet have repeatedly claimed that the reform had been in the AKP's program for a long time. They repeat that it is not aimed at hurting anybody; rather, the law is inspired by a genuine desire to remove any obstacle that would hinder equal access to education. Dershanes' average cost of two thousand Turkish lira per year may indeed represent a hurdle for the eighteen percent of the population that lives under the poverty line. Due to the importance of education for upward mobility, some families decide to take on debt to send their children to cram schools. Further, dershanes are a slap in the face to the public school system, as it is very common for high school students in their final year to limit their school attendance just to spend more time at these schools to prepare for YGS-LYS.

As argued by many observers both within and outside the community, however, the closure of the dershanes—or, as the last drafts of the law suggest, their partial integration within the public school system—would not solve some of the major problems that afflict public education. These include overcrowding (up to sixty students per class), inadequate teacher preparation and training, uneven application of the national curriculum, and large curricular gaps. When taking these limitations into account, the closure of dershanes seems an inadequate solution to the problem of equal access to education.

It is indeed evident that without serious reform of the entire educational system, it is unlikely that the structural hindrances that impede poor people from accessing fair and equal education in the country will be overcome. Richer families will still have the opportunity to send their children to private lessons, whereas only a very limited number of exceptional students will be successful if they can rely on the limited support provided by the state alone.

Paradoxically, the move could even increase rather than weaken the Gülen community's hold on the young. Without the dershanes, students from low-income families may be pushed to ask for help from university students affiliated with the community who reside in thousands of houses spread throughout all main urban centers in Turkey. This is an already fully-functioning system of informal peer-to-peer education that works in parallel to the community's dershanes and through which future community members are really educated.

Unfortunately, the debate in the media seems to be partially missing the structural dimension of the problem. Instead, the nuances of both sides are often trampled by the libertarian argument that it is each family's right to decide how to educate its children. Even more regrettable, however, is the fact that the important issue of the education of new generations of Turkish people has become the battleground of the clash for power between the AKP and the Gülen community.

Yearning for the State: Turkey's Long-Standing War for Institutional Power

Today the clash between the AKP and the Gülen community rages apace, with ongoing daily attacks in the press. Turkish people continue to watch, with a mixture of excitement and anxiety, the spectacle of these two antagonists tearing each other to pieces. While each camp continues to accuse the other of engaging in an illicit use of power to undermine the real prospects for Turkish democracy and manipulating the situation to its own advantage, neither of them seems to be interested in addressing the long-standing institutional and structural problems of the country. In fact, the opposite is true, as both seem to have been enticed by the irrepressible charm of the state.

As they fight for control of main institutional bodies by allocating their sympathizers to key positions in the bureaucracy and the judiciary, it is clear that both the AKP and the Gülen community have surrendered to an unwritten rule of Turkish politics according to which groups in power feel legitimized to demand sole control of institutions. As this was the way the secularist camp ruled the country for almost ninety years, it is quite ironic that the two forces that had joined to defeat it are now inclined to do the same. While some important steps have been taken by the AKP to acknowledge traditionally oppressed social groups—above all, the Kurdish people—these will prove ephemeral if they are not translated into a real strategy for establishing transparent rules that regulate people's access to basic services, rights, and opportunities for civic participation, both within and outside public institutions.

The AKP's attempt at further centering state power in the hands of the executive is what still hinders the possibility of constitutional reform in the country. However, institutional change will also depend on Turkish society's capacity to get to the bottom of its own inner fragmentations and reciprocal suspicions. Indeed, it is not a coincidence that apart from a tiny minority of progressive Muslims that have criticized both the AKP and Gülen, many prominent intellectuals of the Islamic front have not taken the allegations seriously. Rather, they have maligned them as a coup attempt by the Gülenists, and closed their ranks around Prime Minister Erdoğan.

While this certainly is an undeniable sign of the mistrust people in Turkey have toward their own institutions, it also clearly points to the fact that at this very moment, any debate would continue to unfold along consolidated oppositions, one above all that separates the Muslim and the secular fronts. Insofar as the Islamic front will keep closing its eyes to the AKP's misdeeds just to ward off the bogeyman of the secularists and, in turn, the secular front will continue to mistrust the Islamic camp, it is difficult to foresee the prospect of a real implementation of institutional reform. In this sense, the possibility of rewriting common rules might not depend only upon institutional will, but also on Turkish people's capacity to re-imagine social trust on a new basis and overcoming old divisions and fears.

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