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Book Conversation: The Political Trials and Times of Fethullah Gulen

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Peace Islands Institute hosted Dr. James Harrington at Ant Bookstore in Clifton on March 1st 2012. Journalist/Writer Aydogan Vatandas interviewed Dr. James Harrington on his book titled "Wrestling with Free Speech, Religious Freedom, and Democracy in Turkey: The Political Trials and Times of Fethullah Gulen". Following the interview, Dr. James Harrington did a book signing of his book. We thank him for his presence.

Aydogan Vatandas: Mr. Harrington thank you so much for coming all the way from Texas, you are a law professor and how did you happen to find such a topic to write about?

James Harrington: Let me thank you for the invitation to come and talk with you all. I got into it and eventually interested in doing this book because of the interfaith trip that was organized from Austin, Texas with judges and lawyers. We were in Turkey for maybe eight days or so.

When I came back, I was invited to write about the trial that I had no knowledge. I was interested in doing it because I’m very interested in Human Rights Law. I never had much of a chance to do anything in International Human Rights Law because all my work is concentrated in Texas.

I actually said okay and then I did a lot of struggling research and did two weeks of interviews in Turkey and maybe another week of interviews in the United States, and it took me about a year to go to.

Aydogan Vatandas: How many people did you interview?

James Harrington: I wouldn’t estimate, probably about 50 altogether.

Aydogan Vatandas: Including the prosecutors?

James Harrington: The prosecutors were not talking, which is not surprising because their case was very weak and it was kind of absurd so I wasn’t surprised. But, there was also a parallel trial going on here in the Immigration Court, I was able to talk to the US attorney, the attorney representing the district and then there was also a deposition that was taken as we land here as part of the trial on Turkey so I talked to that attorney.

Aydogan Vatandas: How did you choose your interviewees in Turkey?

James Harrington: I did it pretty at random I would say. There was the list of journalists that were suggested to me, so I talked to a number of journalists. I talked to law professors, I talked to a person from the World Bank.

I tried to be as varied as possible and in the interfaith trip, we talked to a lot of people. So I had a lot of perspective from the people that were involved in the Gulen (Hizmet) movement. It took me a long time to understand the movement because, being a lawyer, we’re looking for a hierarchy and structure and I understand that the movement doesn’t have that kind of structures. More coordinated, I would say. So, it took me a while to understand that. By the end of the first trip I had an idea of how the movement worked at least from my perspective. So, then I would interview other people.

Aydogan Vatandas: What was the accusation against Mr. Gulen?

James Harrington: When you read it, it’s really absurd. A year before the indictment, a ferocious media campaign began and the entire indictment was gathered from this media campaign.

It was so absurd that it was summarized in the opinion by the judges. I think that you have to respect the words of the judges, because they pulled in all of the accusations that have fallen around. These were the accusations that were in the media, part of media campaign and the prosecutors listed all of them. Back to what the judges did, they evaluated all of the evidence, so it was really pretty interesting.

The stuff that was out there was pretty bad. Mr. Gulen was named as a CIA agent to Turkey, an agent of China and my favorite of course was the secret cardinal of the Pope. And being a Catholic I know that’s not very probable.

When he was charged, two things were going on. One of course “the sub-text” is to get him out of the picture because he’s a threat to the establishment, he’s a threat to the deep-state, he’s a threat to the emerging middle class in Anatolia side of Turkey and then second, education is never something you want to promote if you want to keep power. So, that’s what was going on.

They had charged him under the anti-terrorist act, which at that time in Turkey was a crime to change the essential nature of the Turkish state. So they said there were two things going on. The first thing is that he wanted to implement Sharia law, and the second is he was the leader and making himself the leader of the Muslims in Turkey. Thereby replacing the religious minister and therefore change in the essential nature of the state. That was the charge.

The interesting thing about the indictment that in Turkish law: when you indict someone, you can also indict the property. I think part of this was to get a hold of the property that they could ascribe to the movement. I mean get a hold of the schools, get a hold of the foundations etc. Ironically, under Turkish law, the government can take the property once they have indicted somebody, even they’ve been acquitted but they didn’t in this case. It is very clear to me that there was a whole civil attack on the movement. They were not going to get Mr. Gulen out of commission but they were going to get all the assets they could. He had been indicted after the ’70 coup and that was eventually dismissed because of amnesty. But you go back and look at that indictment was also an indictment of property of the movement. So it is pretty clear that this was almost a similar attack to get him out of the picture, and the movement.

I’ll tell you something interesting, part of this was just to demoralize the movement. I have talked to different communities, this is the 19th talk I’ve done about the book and people tell me about the things they remember happening.

Aydogan Vatandas: How long did it take to write the book?

James Harrington: I think the actual writing took me about a year. A few months before that I did a lot of interviewing and taping of the interviews.

Aydogan Vatandas: You call it a political trial. Would you please tell us what is a political trial and what is not a political trial?

James Harrington: Well, a political trial is a trial that person basically put on trial because of their politics. In American history we have of course the women at Salem they were accused of being witches, that was a political trial. We’ve had the Scopes Monkey Trial in which that they were trying to teach evolution, the government was trying to impose the teaching the Biblical creation. Socrates was a political trial and you could make an argument that trial of Jesus was a political trial by the establishment to get him out of the picture. The trial has geared because of the person’s politics; it has nothing in reality to do with whether the crime was committed.

The good thing for Mister Gulen is that he won. Usually people loose political trials and get executed in the history of humankind. But he won and it was pretty remarkable and part of the reason he won is because of the effort by Turkey to get into the European Union. And when Turkey wanted to become a member of European Union, European Union says “okay we’ll push around track” but you’ve got to change a lot of stuff. You’ve got to instill and basically institute the bill of rights in the constitution. You can’t have political trials, you have to change the anti terror law, the one that Gulen was on trial for, and you got to have a control over the military. So all this was going on at the time that Gulen was on trial and he benefited from it ultimately.

Aydogan Vatandas: Did you ever have any concerns to be called as Gulenist or something?

James Harrington: No, I’ve been a civil rights lawyer for 40 years so I’m pretty used to it, I have pretty thick skin. I’ve been called a lot of things. I even get compliment compared to some of the stuff that I’ve been called.

Aydogan Vatandas: What was your biggest challenge that you faced doing this rally, did you have any challenges?

James Harrington: I think my biggest challenge was I wanted to make sure I was fair and honest about what I was doing.

Aydogan Vatandas: Mr. Harrington, thank you so much for this wonderful program. From now on we can make it a self-motivating program. So we can get some questions from the audience.

Q&A part

Question 1 from the audience: Why has he remained in America?

James Harrington: Well what I understand in this is first, his health is not very good. It’s not very good at all.

Second, he really is more of a mystique and a teacher. I think his concern if he goes back to Turkey is that he’s going to have throngs of people around him and pulling on him all the time. You go back and look at some of the videos when he was preaching before he came here. You could see that’s the case. I mean there’s enormous crowds and people all around him.

There’s a third thing I think that’s going on with him as he understands that he’s not going to be around forever and you don’t want a movement that’s identifying uniquely with one person because when that person dies then there’s a chance the movement will die. So you want to make sure that that movement gets strengthened while you’re alive, that you can do what you can do to strengthen it, as not being in Turkey helps facilitate that.

Question 2 from the audience: What is the situation in Turkey now in regard to the judiciary and freedom of the press?

James Harrington: Great question. I thought it was fascinating. I mean both institutions have been corrupt in the past. The media was just very, very party-lined. So then I would say that there really wasn’t good independent journalism at all. And not only that, but historically the journalists did the bidding of the military and the deep state, they played into that.

Now we come back to what’s going on right now on both institutions, right? What strike me about my meetings with the judges and the prosecutors is that they were young. They had a whole different attitude about being fair and independent. It was interesting to talk, they didn’t know much about the movement. We talked about freedom of religion and what we put on cost civil liberties. The European Union is actually investing a lot of money into training judges for Turkey, a lot of money and I think that they’re helping them professionalize the judiciary.

They did constitution referendum in 2010 and adopted judicial reform. Part of it was that it was a self-perpetuating institution; the judges picked their successors. So there was never darn any democratic input into the process. So you had judges that reflected the military regime mentality. I think there’ll be changes coming about as a result of all of that.

Now journalism, and this is a big issue in the American press right now and the European press. Because some of the journalists are in prison and when that happens, then here of course the journalists raised the specter of freedom of the press. Is Turkey really committed to freedom of the press? Why are they putting journalists in prison? This actually goes back to “Ergenekon”, which is a conspiracy trial and a lot of these journalists are actually involved in conspiracy. It’s very hard to get that fix in the American mind. That part of the problem is the Prime Minister has a very short fuse and when he gets criticized, as he often does about Turkey and freedom of the press, he snaps back instead of explaining it. And of course that makes and exacerbates the problem.

Turkey has got to solidify freedom of the press in the constitutional terms and it isn’t in the constitution. But it is got to become part of that culture, the legal culture of Turkey.

Question 3 from the audience: Are there any Gulenists who are in the government, who were looking to get into the government or could possibly be there?

James Harrington: The second part of indictment or another one of the charges is this infiltrating in the government. I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer the question. I’ll just tell you what I think and what I observed. What I see in the movement as I see people are committed to this spirituality in civil society and why would they not be in the government. Maybe that’s exactly where you would want them. You would want good people committed to civic civil society of the spirituality in the government. Whether there is subversive or not it’s just I can’t imagine that happening. I mean I just can’t from what I know or who I know and I can’t say I just don’t see that happening.

Question 4 from the audience: Being a social scientist that not only I was curious of thinking in terms of its structure leadership and loyalty and commitment, I was also looking into more of it on a social basis of it. I was impressed first by the movement in terms of not only creating kind of moral cohesiveness among large number of people, but also in terms of engaging in all kind of activities that we needed this one to be considered civil activity or so. Now you being a lawyer and being a kind of detach observer, tell me how that experience of observing and writing the book, sitting back now, what do you think of the movement is not just any more confined to Turkey. It is expanding in terms of institutions and activities and so what do you see based on your American experience of social movement in this country, where do you see the future of this movement?

I don’t know I mean I really don’t know. For me the interesting question, the big question is what happens with the next generation of the movement in the United States.

Why? Because everybody from the movement here in United States are from Turkey. What happens with their kids, as they meet the American Culturation experience? I think the really terrific thing about the movement is the spirituality and civil society. Right now is a contradistinction to what’s going on in the United States. We do not have a civil society movement. We are not community oriented right now, we are very individualistic.

Now in the movement there is not a legitimate concept that you can make as much as you want and not think about anybody else in the movement. It’s still very communitarian. What happens when those values run into our current American values? Hopefully American values will change, hopefully the movement will help change the American values.

I think the large influx that we have in the Hispanic community particularly in my area in the country is going to help that change, too. So I don’t know how to answer that question frankly. I mean I have thought about it and those are basically my observations, I think it will be fascinating watching that.

One thing I wanted to add, I have to say is that my involvement has really increased my respect for Islam, much greater understanding of Islam and working together with major any religious groups. I think at the end of the day, my experience now has been all religious groups want me to get, try to get to the same place; like unity, relationship with God.