Erdoğan launches another war
Last week I wrote a piece in this column titled, “Behind the war over prep schools.” In fact, it was not a full-scale culture war then, but rather a growing tension. But Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan made it obvious to everyone this week by announcing on a TV show that he is determined to close all prep schools and he, as usual, will “not take a step back.”
Prep schools, or “dershaneler” in Turkish, are private weekend courses to prepare high school students for the national university exam. Since this annual exam is the key determinant in getting into Turkey’s centralized university system, getting high scores in it has become the most crucial goal of students. And prep schools emerged as specialized courses to prepare students for this “test of your life.”
But there is more than what meets the eye. A quarter of the prep schools are operated by the Fethullah Gülen Movement, a moderate Islamic community whose main focus is education - both in Turkey and abroad. That is why Erdoğan’s plans to close all prep schools have been opposed by the Gülen Movement, besides other advocates of limited government and free enterprise.
At this point one can wonder why Erdoğan, a conservative Muslim politician, would be at odds with a civil society group that also consists of conservative, practicing Muslims. The answer is that Turkey’s Islamic camp is more diverse than one would think. In fact, the traditions that Erdoğan and Gülen come from have almost always been distinct and different from each. The former has been more explicitly Islamist, at times anti-Western, and at times anti-Semitic. The latter, the line of Gülen, which goes back to scholar Said Nursi (1878-1960), has rather stayed closer to center-right parties and have been more friendly to the West and also other “Abrahamic” faiths.
Yet still, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gülen Movement formed an alliance in the first decade of this century against the old guard - the military and its ultra-secularist allies. Once the old guard was defeated and subdued, however, in a controversial and partly troublesome process, the winners began to have their disputes. “The party” and “the community,” in other words, have parted ways.
According to the Gülen Movement, the problem was that Erdoğan was corrupted by power and wanted to impose his authority over everyone, including his former supporters. According to pro-Erdoğan camp, the problem was that the movement had too many members in the bureaucracy, which acted like a “parallel state.”
Erdoğan’s recent decision to close down all prep schools must be seen this light. Although the prime minister denies any dispute with “our brothers,” everybody, including the Gülen Movement itself, perceives the move as a maneuver against his former allies.
For me, this is flatly wrong. Erdoğan, as an elected prime minister, certainly has the right to design his bureaucracy in the way he deems fit. But he has no right to design society by curbing free enterprise and monopolizing the education market.
The political consequences of this move will be interesting to see. Erdoğan has now openly defined the Gülen Movement as “the other side,” and thus he should not expect their votes in the upcoming local and presidential elections. The amount of the risk he has taken will be revealed by the ballots.