How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In October of last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke at a gathering of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) about the steps that have been taken so far to eliminate the Islamic movement of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen whom he blames for organizing the July 15, 2016, coup attempt. After describing some of the domestic measures that he has pursued to stamp out the group, known officially as the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETO), Erdogan noted his desire to also take down its networks abroad.
“Neither in the East nor in the West is a single member of this organization comfortable as before, nor will they be,” he said. “If not today, then tomorrow, one day every member of the FETO traitors’ front will pay for his treason against the country and the nation.”
These were not idle words. Since before the coup attempt, but with frantic intensity since then, the Turkish state has been hunting its opponents abroad, especially those who belong to the Gulen movement. In at least 46 countries across four continents, Turkey has pursued an aggressive policy to silence its perceived enemies and has allegedly used Interpol as a political tool to target its opponents. Ankara has revoked thousands of passports, and achieved the arrest, deportation, or rendition of hundreds of Turkish citizens from at least 16 countries, including many who were under UN protection as asylum seekers. It has successfully pressured at least 20 countries to close or transfer to new owners dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Gulen movement schools.
Turkey is not unique in pursuing its opponents abroad, nor is it the first time it has done so. But this “global purge,” which mirrors the effort after the coup attempt to rid Turkey’s domestic institutions of anyone associated with Gulen, is remarkable in its speed, scale, and aggression. It demonstrates how normal what the political scientist Dana M. Moss calls “transnational repression” has become, and how its widespread application has demolished the hope that the globalization of a liberal order would result in democratic consolidation.
Turkey’s global purge cannot be understood without examining the Gulen movement, which is a part of Turkey’s diaspora and, until recently, a part of the state’s soft power. The movement grew in Turkey around its charismatic leader, Fetullah Gulen, during the 1970s, and survived the military coup of 1980 by aligning itself with successive juntas and secular governments. Its domestic promotion of a modernizing, nationalist Islam fit well within the doctrine of “Turkish-Islamic synthesis,” which flourished after the 1980 coup. It was used by the junta and successive Turkish governments to promote the idea of Islamic identity as a key plank of Turkish nationalism and to beat back the perceived threat of a leftist revolution.
The Gulen movement was thus aligned with the state at the end of the Cold War and during Turkey’s period of economic liberalization, both of which gave the country a new opportunity to project soft power abroad. First in the Balkans and in Central Asia, which were regions newly opened to outside influence and where Turkey held historical advantages, the state pursued and facilitated development and investment while also building cultural and educational ties as a means to extend Turkish influence and access new consumer markets. But Turkey lacked the financial and human resources to pursue a truly global foreign policy, and so the Gulen schools served as a beachhead.
The movement’s schools abroad also became the backbone of its international network. Focusing on the cultivation of elites to form a “golden generation,” the schools adapted themselves to local circumstances as needed, providing high-quality education in math and science and in local or international languages, with only a smattering of relatively anodyne Turkish nationalism, and with little or no religious overlay. For the Turkish state, the benefits were clear. Gulen schools portrayed Turkey as a mystical but adaptable and open-minded country, and became a place for building intimate connections with elites and their children in dozens of countries.
Starting in the early 2000s, the role of these schools expanded dramatically under successive AKP governments. In 1999, Gulen himself fled Turkey for the United States, fearing he would be caught in the military’s crackdown on those associated with the previous government led by the Islamist Welfare Party. He remained exiled even after the AKP won a majority in the 2002 parliamentary elections, and even as the alliance between the movement and the ruling party grew closer. The AKP was in that phase a big tent party, capturing various strands of Islamism and conservative businessmen, as well as liberals and minorities sick of nationalistic military interventions. The movement comprised only a small portion of the party’s base, but it played key roles in supplying well-educated cadres for the civil service and military and in promoting the government both domestically and abroad through its media and civil society arms.
The alliance did produce a “golden generation” for Turkey’s international profile, at least. With the movement as its proxy, the AKP embraced a soft power vision for Turkey that cast the country as modern, capitalist, and Islamic—a “model” for the Middle East at a time when the United States and Western Europe were desperately looking for good news from the region. It expanded its diplomatic efforts with new initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The movement’s media, especially the flagship English-language daily Today’s Zaman, were a major part of Turkey’s image overhaul in this period. And wherever the Turkish state went, Gulen schools were erected.
In late 2013, however, the movement and the AKP had a falling-out over increasingly divergent positions on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Israel, and government corruption. The tensions peaked between December 17 and December 25, 2013, when police arrested 52 people, including the sons of three cabinet ministers, the head of the state-owned HalkBank, and the gold trader Reza Zarrab, on accusations of engaging in grand corruption. The government denounced the arrests, claiming they were an attempt to illegally usurp power, and squelched the scandal over the next several months through a series of purges of the police and judiciary. In the Turkish government’s official narrative, the December 17–25 arrests were part of a string of “soft” efforts to overthrow the government engineered by its enemies, which culminated in the hard coup attempt of July 15, 2016.
Since the failed coup attempt, Turkey has exerted diplomatic pressure on various governments to arrest or deport hundreds of individuals from around the world. By my count, 15 countries have arrested or deported various representatives of the movement, ranging from supposed financiers to schoolteachers. Those countries include Angola, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bulgaria, Georgia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Morocco, Myanmar, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Turkmenistan. Their diversity gives a sense of how dispersed the Gulen movement is and how aggressively the Turkish government has behaved. In at least three cases—Kazakhstan, Myanmar, and Sudan—individuals appear to have been turned over to Turkey without judicial proceedings, perhaps through the operation of a special National Intelligence Organization unit that Turkey’s state news agency says was established to track down “high-value” Gulenists.
There have also been multiple cases in which those deported were apparently seeking asylum and thus had protected status at the time they were sent to Turkey: news reports say this was the case in Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bulgaria, Malaysia, and Pakistan. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov admitted that the August 2016 deportation of a software engineer who had applied for asylum before the coup attempt was “on the edge of the law.” In other cases, like in Angola, Pakistan, and Qatar, there were mass deportations following the closure of Gulen schools.
The global purge has also touched Interpol. In December, the AP reported that Interpol representatives were examining up to 40,000 extradition requests, some perhaps from Turkey, for possible political abuse. The report came after a number of high-profile cases involving Turks abroad, including Dogan Akhanli, a left-wing writer with dual German and Turkish citizenship who was arrested and forced to remain in Spain for two months while Spanish authorities assessed Turkey’s extradition request.
The movement’s schools are under extreme pressure in the global purge. Since its falling-out with the Gulenist movement in 2013, the government has been pressing other countries to shutter the schools. The Gambia closed its Gulen schools in April 2014. Turkey’s close ally Azerbaijan followed soon thereafter and Tajikistan shut down its Gulen schools in 2015. But elsewhere in the world, these schools largely remained open until the coup attempt of July 2016, after which Turkey increased the pressure. The results were quick. Schools were almost immediately closed in Jordan, Libya, and Somalia. Angola, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Morocco, and Tanzania followed suit in early 2017. Before the year was out, Afghanistan, Chad, Georgia, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan, and Tunisia had all closed or transferred schools. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in October 2017 that the government had forced the closure of schools in 15 countries, but news reports indicate that he is understating the results.
The arrests and deportations have spread fear throughout Turkey’s diaspora, which understands what Ankara’s intelligence service is capable of once a group is marked as the enemy. In the most dramatic example prior to the coup attempt, the assassination of three PKK–connected activists in 2013 in Paris was widely attributed to the National Intelligence Organization (MIT). (The intelligence agency denied responsibility.) German officials have discussed the issue of the MIT threatening the Turkish diaspora in their country and Dutch officials have raised concerns about Turkey’s religious affairs body, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, monitoring Turks abroad. Pro-government commentators, such as Cem Kucuk, have talked casually about how MIT should kill members of the Gulen movement abroad.
The fear extends beyond the Gulen movement. Erdogan’s reference to a “traitors’ front” in his October speech to the AKP is not just rhetoric. In the Turkish government’s official version of events, the Gulen movement entered into an alliance with the PKK, which Ankara considers a terrorist group, and its Syrian affiliate the PYD. Together with other leftist groups, this alliance supposedly engineered a series of coup attempts against the state that started with the Gezi Park protests in mid-2013. The latter was led by Turkish liberals, and thus, Turkey’s purge has also targeted leftist and pro-Kurdish voices. In fact, 31 percent of all those arrested in government operations under the state of emergency, which has been in place since October 2016, were associated with Kurdish or leftist groups, according to official figures compiled by iHop, a Turkish human rights monitoring group. Nearly 400 academics who signed a petition before the coup attempt calling for peace between the state and the PKK in January 2016 have also been fired, and some have left Turkey or remained abroad. Others who have been convicted or charged while outside the country now fear traveling because of the threat of detention due to Interpol notices.
What is so concerning about Turkey’s global purge is that transnational repression is increasingly woven into the fabric of the international order. Civil-society movements and non-state actors weren’t the only ones who gained from the globalization of finance, travel, and instantaneous communications. Nation-states did, too. Our globalized era affords nation-states new and cheaper opportunities to pursue exiles, dissidents, and regular citizens wherever they may be, through monitoring and surveillance, international law enforcement mechanisms such as Interpol, and collaboration between security services. Turkey’s abilities in this department may not match those of China, Russia, or the United States, but as the global purge shows, they can get results when applied bluntly.
The global purge matters for understanding where Turkey is headed in foreign policy and in its internal trajectory. Turkey’s much-vaunted soft power in the 2002–2013 period depended to a large degree on having the Gulen movement serve as a government proxy in the educational, media, and cultural spheres. There are some similarities between the more state-directed approach post-coup attempt and what the scholars Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig have described as “sharp power.” But achieving real “sharp power”—and not simply repression—will require a more sophisticated and less inward-looking frame than what Turkey currently uses.
In terms of Turkey’s domestic politics, the impact of the global purge on Turkish exile communities’ political organizing may determine the stability of the personalized authoritarian system Erdogan is creating in what he and the AKP call the “new Turkey.” Given the size of the country’s diaspora and the battered condition of democratic institutions at home, the capacity of Turkey to limit its population’s exercise of speech and associational rights outside its borders could determine whether viable democratic alternatives to authoritarian rule emerge.
Finally, the global purge further erodes hopes that the end of the Cold War and expansion of the liberal order would result in democratic consolidation. Rather than hemming authoritarian states in with a network of obligations and commitments that would eventually “socialize” them to rules-based democracy, authoritarian states are using the international system to accomplish a socialization of their own, turning the international order into a system of nation-states mutually committed to policing each others’ populations abroad while imposing domestic constraints on rights and liberties beyond their borders. The global purge is a threat not just to the Turkish diaspora but to the rule of law everywhere.