Book Review: James C. Harrington, Wrestling with free speech, religious freedom, and democracy in Turkey

James C. Harrington, Wrestling with free speech, religious freedom, and democracy in Turkey: The political trials and time of Fethulah Gülen, Lanham, University Press of America, 2011.

James C. Harrington’s book sets out to explore the politics behind the trials of Fethullah Gülen, the religious and social leader whose reputation for encouraging inter-faith dialogue has achieved a global reach. From the late 1990s to recent times, Gülen was subjected to legal proceeding in Turkey and, later, unusual formalities during his attempt to gain permanent residence and the right to work in the USA. Harrington’s interviews with leading figures involved in Gülen’s trials reflect historic tensions between secularist and religious thought in Turkey, the most recent stimulus for which is the emerging socioeconomic world order.

Although Harrington’s book claims to focus on the Gülen trials, it is not until page 85 that we are offered any detailed examination of the proceedings. This reflects Harrington’s concern to provide a wider-ranging examination of the social, economic, religious and political milieu within which the trails took place. Although Gülen has always opposed political Islam, arguing that religion is about private piety not political ideology, secularists feared the growing movement that he inspired. Harrington points to accusations that the Gülen movement was attempting to infiltrate the military and the police, to take control of key economic institutions, and ultimately establish a religious government. That there was little evidence to support these accusations did not, however, act as a barrier for undertaking legal proceeding against Gülen for a number of crimes, including acts of terrorism.

Importantly, the eight year period during which the trails were conducted coincided with Turkey’s efforts to gain full membership of the European Union (EU). Harrington argues that the reforms demanded by the EU as a condition for considering Turkey’s application for membership, which included issues of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, the judicial system, and religious freedom, played a crucial role in influencing the outcome of the Gülen trials. While the book does look briefly at Turkey’s social, cultural and political history by way of providing context for the trials, the central focus is on legal issues concerned with constitutional and judicial issues. The importance of these issues cannot be underestimated, although a detailed examination of socioeconomic changes that precede legal and judicial reform might offer a more fruitful avenue for research.

Following Gülen’s acquittal, and subsequent success against appeals undertaken by prosecutors, he applied for immigration status as a religious scholar in the USA, where he had move in 1999 for medical reasons. Following the success of this application, he applied for permanent residence. This seems to have triggered a series of ‘unusual’ actions, including a recall for a second adjustment of status interview, requests for additional documentation, and a raid on Gülen’s home, led by the Supervisory Officer of the Fraud Prevention and National Security Division of the US Customs and Immigration Service. Although there is no suggestion that any of these actions were illegal, Harrington concludes that they were politically motivated, reflecting Turkey’s strategic importance to US foreign policy.

At the end of the book Harrington turns to Clarence Darrow to explain the political and legal web that surrounds the Gülen trials. Darrow was fond of distinguishing the law from justice, reminding us that “law is framed, and serves, those in power.” While the legal and technical details of the trials offered by Harrington are of significance, we would do well to remember Darrow’s warning.

*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society

Prof Tony Evans

Prof Tony Evans

Professor of Global Politics at the University of Southampton

Tony Evans is Professor of Global Politics at the University of Southampton. He has published widely in the field of human rights, global governance and law. His current research looks at opposition to human rights discourses. This research will be published by Lynne Rienner at the end of 2010.

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