Wrestling with Free Speech, Religious Freedom, and Democracy in Turkey: The Political Trials and Times of Fethullah Gulen – Fethullah Gulen

Review of James C. Harrington’s Wrestling with Free Speech, Religious Freedom, and Democracy in Turkey: The Political Trials and Times of Fethullah Gulen. 2011. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 185pp. ISBN 978 0 7618 5461 6.

Free speech, human rights, and religious freedom are thought of as key elements in democracy. They are central to the entire scholarly literature on legal and moral philosophy and are at the heart of our understanding of an ideal democratic regime. Not surprisingly, today they continue to dominate the field as the relationship between religion and the state is reviewed through the prism of “twin tolerations” and secularism.

Many observers have noted that recent developments in the Middle East heightened the need for a better understanding of democracy and secularism. Researchers have shown a particular interest in a so-called “Turkish model” of state-religion relations. Nevertheless, many students of Turkish politics have discussed the “model” having no adequate understanding of the struggle among secular and religious elements in the country.

James Harrington’s book came at the time when explaining the struggles within Islamic societies has become needed more than ever. Wrestling with free speech, religious freedom, and democracy in Turkey focuses on the political trial of Fethullah Gulen, which helped to greatly expand civil liberties and strengthen democracy in Turkey. The trial of a moderate Turkish religious leader has been paid little attention but it provides a valuable perspective on the situation in many societies.

The main issues addressed in Harrington’s work are: human rights, religious freedom, and a story about political prosecution in Turkey. The author critically examines the process, which began in 2000 and ended in 2008 in Gulen’s favor. This book has been divided into twelve chapters. The first chapter sets the stage for a deeper analysis of a trial of an influential thinker in Turkey. Harrington argues that it was a prosecution with amazing behind-the-scenes maneuvering and intrigue. The trial, according to the author, has great ramifications both in and outside Turkey because it “involves the rise of a moderate, democratic movement in the Sufi Islamic tradition and the effort to suppress it” (p.1).

Chapter two explores the backdrop of the trial, which, Harrington believes, has ultimately strengthened democracy in Turkey. First, the author introduces Fethullah Gulen to the reader and then focuses on the civil society movement that was inspired by Gulen’s life and work. Harrington explores numerous sources of the appeal of Fethullah Gulen’s ideas. He argues Gulen “powerfully and profoundly articulated an Ottoman cultural tradition deeply rooted in Turkey and, in many respects, the soul of the Turkish people.”

Chapters three to six place the trial in a larger context, currently and historically. Chapter three briefly comments on Turkish history, culture, and the historical relationship between religion and politics in the country. These contexts help to understand the importance of the Gulen trial in a country’s dynamic struggle to democratize. Harrington appreciates Turkey’s deep, unique, and rich place in history. For him, Gulen has realized the unique potential of Turkey to create a global civilization of love and tolerance. Chapter four puts the discussion about the Gulen trial into the context of Turkey’s progress toward EU accession. Harrington observes that legal codes substantially affected the Gulen trial as it unfolded. The EU accession process, he argues, “has been a catalyst for significant reforms to Turkey’s legal and political system.” These reforms affected the outcome of the Gulen trial, and the trial vindicated those changes. Chapter five gets deeper into the analysis of the Turkish court system. Harrington notes that Turkey’s desire to join the EU pushed Turkey to create drastic changes in its legal system, expand its protection of civil rights, and maintain the independence of the judicial system. Chapter six discusses the Gulen trial in the context of changes in the Turkish press, media, and the law of defamation. Harrington accepts that Turkey has a lively press, but is much more skeptical about the tradition of independent journalism in the country. He notes that Fethulah Gulen had to face a politicized judicial system, an undisciplined press, and an unprincipled prosecutor.

Chapter seven of Harrington’s books examines the origins and timing of the media inquisition and criminal prosecution of Fethullah Gulen. The author notes that an objective evaluation of the collection of Gulen’s spoken and written work shows that Fethullah Gulen has consistently promoted democracy and did not espouse an Islamic state. However, in 1999 Turkish prosecutors required commencing a legal inquiry. According to Harrington, allegations against Gulen were false and initiated investigations were eventually dismissed.

In Chapter eight the author delves deeper into the details about prosecution and trial of Fethullah Gulen. Step by step he discusses the changes in the trial’s dynamic. The author describes the first two legal cases, the indictment, the six-year trial, the defense, the first verdict, and re-opening of the case. He deduces that at the time, being “religious” in Turkey had clear political connotations for a secularist regime. Chapter nine discusses a decision of the judges. On May 5th 2006 the three judges of the 11th High Criminal Court issued their judgment and acquitted Gulen. The judges systematically “discredited and discounted all of the prosecution’s evidence in detail.” According to Harrington, this was an objective assessment of the evidence by judges. Nevertheless, opponents of the verdict challenged the acquittal decision. In Chapter 10 the author seeks to address those appeals. Harrington describes how both sides presented their arguments before the appellate panel. Judges were unanimous in favor of Gulen and upheld the trial court’s ruling to acquit him. Harrington argues that the trial of Fethullah Gulen ended up becoming a very significant step forward for Turkey on its bumpy road to greater democracy. In the last analytical chapter, the author discusses some of the difficulties that Mr. Gulen had to face in obtaining a rather routine immigrant status in the United States as a religious scholar.

In his final remarks Harrington notes that in Mr. Gulen’s case justice and the law have coalesced and aligned. He elaborates on the link between the Gulen trial and a struggle for free speech, religious freedom, and democracy, which eventually became a title of the book.

Nevertheless, despite its sophisticated method of research, Harrington’s analysis would have been far more interesting and useful if it included a broader context of state-religion relations in Turkish history. Indeed, as Harrington argues, Turkey has a great potential of becoming a true democracy, keeping religion and state separate, but how the issue of religious toleration is going to be inscribed into the law needs to be further investigated. This may be a key issue that can offer important lessons for other countries.

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