Prospects for Democracy in Turkey

H22 A contribution to the SIPCATS Discussion Forum

Patrick Hällzon, MA, Research Assistant, SIPCATS

Editorial remark
The number of questions about the future development of Turkey as a democratic state keeps growing after the failed military coup last month. The SIPCATS Research Assistant Patrick Hällzon reminds us of previous support for the Gülen movement across a broad section of Turkish political and professional elites, which has now been replaced by much confusion and doubts as to the sincerity behind the ongoing purges and declarations of an allegedly “national unity”.

Prospects for Democracy in Turkey

Soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Turkey profiled itself in its relations with the newly independent Central Asian states as a role model: a modern Muslim country – Turkic-speaking like most of the Central Asians – with a secular system of government and market economy.

Diplomatic relations were established and interstate organizations such as the Turkic Summits, the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization, and the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency were formed, as reported by Igor Torbakov in one of the books under revision for the present SIPCATS discussion forum, Prospects for Democray in Central Asia.[1] Turkish TV started transmitting programs in Turkish and students from Central Asia were given special scholarships for university studies in Turkey for the sake of creating and strengthening cultural bonds between the countries.

In addition, a large number of schools were set up in all of the Central Asian states by individuals inspired by the so-called Hizmet movement, also known as the Gülen movement, which was active in non-Muslim countries as well, outside of Turkey and Central Asia. This movement worked hand in hand with local authorities and with strong economic support from networks in Turkey.

Barış köprüleri – Bridges of Peace
Keeping the current state-of-affairs in Turkey in mind it is hard to imagine that just a decade ago the establishment of Gülen-inspired schools was cherished by leading figures in Turkish society, not only members within the ruling AKP party but also influential persons from other walks of life and political backgrounds. By contrast, the Gülen movement was looked upon with great suspicion by a great majority of the Turkish army and the “secular elite”, who did not trust the movement’s intentions to educate the poor and to advocate secular strategies in terms of modern education.[2]

In the book Barış Köprüleri: Dünyaya Açılan Türk Okulları [Bridges of peace: Turkish schools opening across the world], which was published in the same year (2005) as the above-mentioned Prospects for Democracy in Central Asia,[3] influential people from the whole political spectrum in Turkey expressed their common support for the schools’ activities. While some supported the movement for religious reasons, others favored the Gülen movement’s educational enterprises as vehicles for spreading Turkish culture and language to the world. One supporter was, for example, the well-known politician Bülent Ecevit (1925-2006), leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and subsequently the Democratic Left Party (DSP). Although he was not in favor of the religious motivation behind the educational activities of the Gülen movement, he supported the idea of teaching Turkish at these institutions.[4]

Recent events in Turkey
As of today, it would be impossible to publish a book like Barış Köprüleri: Dünyaya Açılan Türk Okulları in Turkey, where Gülen supporters have now been pointed out as the masterminds behind the failed military coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Although the founder, Fethullah Gülen, has condemned the coup attempt, the Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has demanded his extradition from the USA, where he has been residing since 1999. There have even been insinuations from Turkish government circles that the USA would be behind the coup attempt. However unlikely this may seem, there are many who support this idea.

After the declaration of a state of emergency in Turkey, more than one thousand schools, 15 universities, various businesses, media outlets, schools and medical establishments believed to have links with the movement have been shut down. Furthermore, tens of thousands of people associated with or merely suspected of having contacts with the movement have lost their jobs and several thousands have been detained. It is unclear how many of these people arrested were actually involved in the attempted coup. In the current turmoil it is extremely difficult to get a clear picture of what is “really” going on in Turkey.

The recent developments raise many questions about democracy and freedom of speech in Turkey. Even before the failed military coup last month, Turkey was already one of the countries with the highest number of journalists jailed in the world. The recent closure of universities and newspapers and the increasing number of imprisoned academics and other people critical of the government will be another great blow against political pluralism in this country.

The European Union is concerned but remains surprisingly modest in its reactions to Turkish policies, while at the same time President Erdoğan is signaling that he might change his mind as regards the agreement on the readmission of refugees to Turkey, if the EU fails to meet Turkey’s demands on visa-free travel to EU countries for Turkish citizens.

The political chessboard keeps changing. What is Erdoğan’s ultimate goal? He has been quoted saying that democracy is a like a tram; “You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.”[5] What does this signify for the future prospects for democracy in Turkey?

To the Central Eurasia discussion forum

[1] Torbakov 2005:120
[2] Yılmaz 2005:397
[3] See e.g. Şen 2005 in this volume.
[4] Ecevit 2005:17-26
[5] Cook 2013.


Balcı, B., 2003, “Fethullah Gülen’s Missionary Schools in Central Asia and their Role in the Spreading of Turkism and Islam”, in Religion, State & Society 31: 2, Carfax Publishing.

Cook, S., 2013, “Keep Calm, Erdoğan: Why the Prime Minister has Nothing to Fear”, in: Foreign Affairs, June 3, 2013, (retrieved 02/08/2016).

Ecevit, B., 2005, “Türk Okullarının Türk Dili ve Türkiye’ye Katkısı” [The Turkish schools’ contribution to the Turkish language and Turkey], in T. Ateş, E. Karakaş, & I. B. Ortaylı (eds), Barış Köprüleri: Dünyaya Açılan Türk Okulları [Bridges of peace: Turkish schools opening across the world], İstanbul: Ufuk Kitapları, pp. 17-26.

Kramer, H., 1996, Will Central Asia Become Turkey’s Sphere of Influence?, (05/04/2011).

Levinskaya, V., 2007, “Resemblance of Fethullah Gülen’s Ideas and Current Political Developments in Uzbekistan”, in İ. Yılmaz et al. (eds), Peaceful Coexistence: Fethullah Gülen’s Initiatives in the Contemporary World, London: Leeds Metropolitan University Press, pp. 331-344.

Şen, M., 2005, “Turkish Islamist Entrepreneurs in Central Asia”, in B. Schlyter (ed.), Prospects for Democracy in Central Asia, Transactions 15, Stockholm: Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, pp. 253-264.

Torbakov, I., 2005, “Turkey and Post-Soviet Eurasia: Seeking a Regional Power Status”, in B. Schlyter (ed.), Prospects for Democracy in Central Asia, Transactions 15, Stockholm: Swedish Research Institute, pp. 117-128. 

Yılmaz, İ., 2005, “State, Law, Civil Society and Islam in Contemporary Turkey”, in The Muslim World. Special issue. Islam in contemporary Turkey. 95: 3, Hartford & Connecticut, pp. 385-412.


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