Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Guardian Has a New Friend: Fethullah Gulen

The Guardian, for long the standard bearer of the British left, has an incongruous new friend: Fethullah Gulen, leader of a cult-like network of schools, companies and media organisations that is under investigation for "brainwashing" in the USA. He has been called "the most dangerous Islamist on planet Earth". Perhaps not such an incongruous companion for the Guardian after all then, which in recent years has abandoned many principles traditionally cherished by the left, the better to embrace Islam.

Today the Guardian announced the Guardian Comment Network, which will feature articles from newspapers and blogs around the world. One of its partners in this is the Turkish newspaper 'Today's Zaman', which is part of the Gulen network. So Gulen network articles will now be featuring on the Guardian website. Today's Zaman, liked the AKP party it supports, pretends to support enlightened liberal, reform-oriented politics. This is exactly the spiel that was offered by the editor to the western journalist Andrew Finkel when he was recruited a few years ago:

It was a bit over three years ago that I was recruited to write this column for this newspaper (Today’s Zaman). I remember the conversation well. The editor-in-chief anticipated that I might be hesitant to associate myself with a press group whose prejudices and principles might not always coincide with my own. He explained what I knew already, that the Zaman Group supported and was supported by the Fetullah Gülen Community and that I would have to take that on board. However, he explained the paper's mission was to fight for the democratization of Turkish society – that Turkey was no longer a country which should be ruled by military fiat. He also impressed upon me that he was committed to liberal values and to free discussion.

That article was published in April this year. Not in Today's Zaman however, whose editor refused to publish it and immediately sacked Finkel for having written it. It instead saw the light of day in rival newspaper Hurriyet. The thrust of the article was a gentle rebuke of journalists for tolerating the authoritarian excesses of the AKP party. Police had just mounted raids to confiscate copies of the book "The Imam's Army" by Ahmet Şık. The book had not yet been published and the clear intent of the authorities was to ensure that it never would be. However, it eventually leaked out on the internet. The book alleged that the Turkish national police was virtually controlled by the Gulen network. One of the movement's cardinal principles is to avoid overt confrontation and take control by infiltrating state institutions from within. If the book is to be believed, that approach has worked extraordinarily well in Turkey.

I have already expressed my concern that the fight against anti-democratic forces in Turkey has resorted to self-defeating anti-democratic methods. This in turn has led to a polarization in Turkey. If your side loses power then the natural fear is that they will use your methods against you. In case this sounds like I am speaking in riddles, I am referring to the aggressive prosecution of people who write books. These may be bad books, they may be books which are written with ulterior motives, they may be books which contain assertions which are not true. But at the end of the day, they are books – and there are libel courts – not criminal courts – designed to protect individuals from malicious falsehood. In short, writing a book offensive to the Gülen community is not a crime.

It may be in bad taste, it might be off beam. It might every bit as nonsensical as the conspiracy theories that fill the shelves of Turkish book stores. But it might not. And until we actually read it we cannot know. More to the point, we can only question the motives of those who don’t want us to read it. It blackens the names of the censors, increases the credibility of a book which no one has even read.

Today's Zaman, however, supported the raids on the journalists who had tried to expose the Gulen network. Several of them were subsequently charged with being a part of the largely mythical Ergenekon plot, as have others who tried to reveal the truth about the Gulen network in Turkey. The investigation into the alleged Ergenekon plot, which alleges that the military planned to overthrow the civilian government, has resulted in vast numbers of AKP opponents, including many members of the military, facing criminal charges. Today's Zaman has supported the Ergenekon investigations throughout. Hardly surprising as the AKP and the Gulen network are closely linked. On the evidence of the Wikileaks cables, even the US government accepts this.

Like the ruling AKP, Today's Zaman also sided with the Iranian regime when it faced fierce anti-government protests last year. The Guardian was sympathetic in its coverage of the protesters, however. How can the Guardian editors possibly justify allying with a newspaper that had supported the imprisonment of journalists in Turkey and the repression of pro-democracy protesters in Iran?

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