Search for a New Social Contract in Turkey: Fethullah Gulen, the Virtue Party and the Kurds
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Search for a New Social Contract in Turkey:
Fethullah Gülen, the Virtue Party and the Kurds

In an incident that has since become known as the Turkish equivalent of Watergate, Susurluk, a small village between Istanbul and Ankara, was witness to some of the uglier aspects of the Turkish state. This incident epitomizes the destruction of the rule of law in Turkey and exposes the naked character of the Turkish state. On November 3, 1996, a Mercedes sedan travelling at approximately 125 mph, and transporting a provincial police chief, a mafia assassin, a Kurdish warlord parliamentarian, and his girlfriend, crashed into the back of a truck. All were killed with the exception of the Kurdish parliamentarian. 1 Arms, ammunition, and passports registered by the former chief of police Mehmet Agar, then-minister of interior, were found in the back of the sedan. This mix of gangs, politicians, and security officials forced the state to produce a report in which the government admitted that during the recent war against the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK), it had officially sanctioned and sponsored death squads to kill Kurdish personalities. 2 These terror gangs expanded their links with drug traffickers and were involved in botched secret operations abroad as well, such as in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Such gangs, according to the latest report of the Ministry of Interior, are dominating the state’s political, economic, and security spheres. 3 [End Page 114]

A state that fails to open up new political spaces, and lacks domestic legitimacy and moral hegemony, risks becoming a coercive machine that uses the force of state-contracted gangs. The conflict between the “old Turkey,” represented by the Kemalist establishment, and the “new Turkey,” represented by civil society, will not be solved through elections alone but rather, through the establishment of a new and more inclusive “social contract” that addresses the cultural diversity of Turkish society. The “soft-military” coup in 1997 that removed the Islamist-led government of Necmettin Erbakan delayed the negotiation of this social contract. However, the traditional elite can no longer impose the old Kemalist project given that most of the secular political parties are dependent on the military for their survival in office. 4

Although the ruling elite (i.e., the Kemalists) presents the problem as a conflict between the forces of modernization and those of backwardness (i.e., Islamic activism), the source of the conflict is deeper. It requires not only the rethinking of the state-imposed Kemalist project, but also the reinvention of state institutions to accommodate the cultural diversity of Turkey. The gap between the hegemonic Kemalist ideology and the experienced reality of a large segment of society is getting wider. This provides fertile ground for counterhegemonic ideas and movements in Turkish society. 5 Successful hegemonic ideologies are expected to absorb counterhegemonic ideas and prevent them from turning into radical thoughts or charters for action. The 1980 military coup introduced the “Turkish-Islamist synthesis,” a program led by the military junta to incorporate Islamist elements of society into the political system. The “synthesis” managed to temporarily absorb diverse societal groups and ideas into the government. 6 The radical elements within the Kemalist establishment, however, halted this absorbing process and imposed a “purified” Kemalist ideology after the rise of the Welfare Party (WP) government in 1995. By disseminating the Kemalist message of economic development through statism and rigid nationalism, the state has tried to legitimize its rule and distance itself from the realities of the 1980s and early 1990s. However, the hegemonic ideology of Kemalism has lost its consensual nature and, once again, is increasingly based on coercion and exclusion.

As the ruling elite loses its ability to persuade large sectors of society to accept and internalize Kemalist precepts, the conception of social reality in Turkey is increasingly informed and molded by counterhegemonic ideologies, specifically Islam and Kurdish nationalism. However, these religious and ethnonationalist [End Page 115] challenges are diverse in nature and lack the organizational and ideological coherence to impose their will on the state or to create a shared political charter between Islamism and Kurdish nationalism. After a discussion of the Kemalist legacies, this paper examines the different...