Dr. James Harrington. Journalist/Writer.
March 1st 2012, Ant Bookstore in Clifton hosted Dr. James Harrington. 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: Well, 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 didn’t even know that there had been a trial. And after a while they talked me into doing it. 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. And so, I said okay.
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: You know, 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: And 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 of course in the interfaith trip, we talked to a lot of people. So I had a lot of perspective, I think, from the people that were involved in the movement and to try to understand it. 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. I think by the end of the first trip I had an idea of how the movement worked at least from my perspective. And so, then I would interview other people.
Aydogan Vatandas: So, what was the accusation against Mr. Gulen?
James Harrington: Well, when you read it, it’s really absurd. A year before the indictment, there was a ferocious media campaign that began. And 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 there as a CIA agent to Turkey, agent of China or you know Reverend Boone, my favorite of course was the secret cardinal of the pope. And being a Catholic I know that that’s not very probable.
When he was charged, two things I think that 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. Then education is never something you want to promote if you want to keep power. So that was what was going on.
What they had charged him with was under the anti-terrorist act. Which at that time in Turkey, basically said that it was a crime to change the essential nature of the Turkish state. So what they said was there were two things going on. One, that he wanted to implement Sharia law, and the second thing is that he was the leader, 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. And then there was all these other stuff you know, the northern movement and the houses of light and all of that to show that’s what his secret agenda was.
The interesting thing about the indictment there, I think a lot of people don’t see, is 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 foundation etc. And under Turkish law, ironically, even being acquitted, the government can still take the property once they have indicted somebody, but they didn’t in this case. But is very clear to me that there was a whole civil attack on the movement. I mean they were not even going to Mr. Gulen out of commission but they were going to get all the assets that they could. He had been indicted back 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 that was pretty clear this was almost a similar attack to get him out of the picture, and the movement; just to question movement.
This is interesting. I talked to a lot of people that I interviewed. When I’ve gone around, this is the 19th talk I’ve done about the book, I have talked to different communities. People from Turkey will talk to me about the things that they remember happening; like the media campaign against Mr. Gulen. Part of that was just to demoralize the movement. I remember one young guy coming on to me at the University of Wisconsin and saying “You know I remember it happening. And that’s exactly what I did, I didn’t know what to believe because I was hearing all this stuff going on in the press, so you know instead of being really a part of the movement I like, I wanted to; I just kind of backed away which was the agenda of it.”
Aydogan Vatandas: And 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 human kind. 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 did you know about Turkey before writing that book?
James Harrington: Nothing. I think it’s just all I knew about Turkey. And there was what I had learned at catholic school and that was a Christian’s one. That’s actually not true. It was sort of a stalemate, but that’s all. I have been hearing about the human rights, and bias in Turkey, but also that’s not true.
Aydogan Vatandas: Did you also read about some other books to try to understand Turkish culture in general, and what is your favorite?
James Harrington: I have stacks of books that I read while I was writing this book to make sure I have a good understanding of the politics. I really came to appreciate though, and I think it’s a bias that we have as Americans is that, amazing changes are going on in Turkey in terms of democracy. It’s just astonishing, the changes. And the role of the movement has had in bringing that change.
I’ve really come to appreciate the spirituality in the movement. I think it’s actually been a benefit to my own spirituality and it was for me an amazing learning experience. I really loved it. It was really great.
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. Because I had come into this from having spent a week in Turkey, with going round with people that the movement had arranged for us to have dinner with and that kind of thing. I wanted to make sure that I was not being biased in what I was doing, so I think that was always in front of me just to make sure I was being 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.
Guest1 from Audience: Thank you very much. I have a couple of questions. After Mr. Gulen was acquitted he came to America at some point.
James Harrington: He was already in America. He had come here in ’99. Indictment was in 2000.
So he was never in Turkey during trial.
Guest1 from Audience: Okay, why has he remained in America has nothing to do with the political situation in Turkey, I don’t know?
James Harrington: Well what I understand in this.
One, his health is not very good, right? It’s not very good at all.
And 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.
Guest1 from Audience: Second question, what you understand to be the situation in Turkey now in regard to the judiciary and to 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 would be like having Fox news all the time, 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, adopted judicial reform. Part of it was it’s 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, right? 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.
Now the movement has been really strong in criticizing him for doing that and telling him that it’s got you. Turkey has got to solidify freedom of the press in the constitutional terms and it isn’t in constitution. But it is got to become part of that culture, the legal culture of Turkey. In the paper; “Zaman” has been really good about tearing after him on this and telling him sometimes you just need to close your mouth, when you hear something you don’t like. Because that’s the stuff in the western press, in the American press that we picked up on, the sound bites and we don’t give a lot of explanation about what’s going on. Does that help?
Guest1 from Audience: Yeah it helps very much thank you.
James Harrington: Yeah okay thanks.
Guest2 from Audience: I have a couple of questions. First of all I’ve also been on that trip so I know what an experience it was for you. You said that the property was not taken,
can you explain that? And what is the order in Gulen Movement?
James Harrington: Way of doing things, right? There’s so much more Egalitarian Democratic Greek Society in doing stuff. Sometimes it drives you crazy, you know trying to figure out who’s making decisions, or how they are made.
I think that’s part of it but the other part of it is self-defense. If there was an organizational structure, with that indictment that would have been easy for the state to take the property. But the movement had their properties diffused in a way.
I’ll tell you how many times the questions came up about the schools. “We got to get the schools”, “Gulen is running the school”, “he’s teaching the schools”, “he’s training with some verses in the schools.” I mean they wanted the schools really bad. But they are not legally related and I think it’s part of that Sufi and self-defense.
Guest2 from Audience: Well then the second question is; I know that originally but, within the constitution that the military had the right, if religion were forward back into the government, that the military had the right and responsibility to knock out that government, so I don’t know what the constitutional changes whether that’s been impacted number one, and number two. Are there any Gulenists who are in the government, who were looking to get into the government or could possibly be there?
James Harrington: Well, I mean the second part of indictment or another one of the chargers 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. I mean my understanding of the movement, 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.
Guest2 from Audience: Alright.
James Harrington: Right? I mean why would they be in there. 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.
The question about the military retaining control to enforce the constitution, this on the secular states is going to be debated in the re-write of the constitutions going on now. It’s going to go away, because you cannot have a civil government in which the military has ultimate authority. The European Union has already said that.
That’s the civil government; you got to get rid of military interference. I think if you look at what’s happened in Turkey in the last five ten years it is absolutely phenomenal; the expansion of civil liberty, the rise and level and the integrity of the judicial system, and the domination losing of the military losing of their power. You know it’s not gone and it’s still very powerful. And all of that, the change that has happened.
You have to give credit to this people in the military too. I mean they are not all bad. There are people in the military who believe on a democratic secular civil society. I think you see their hands behind the scenes some of the time; point backward some of the other folks want to go.Nothing is ever black and white in our lives right. Nothing is ever black and white.
It’s amazing that at one time I was talking on the book. I sat down to eat afterwards with some people there and one of them said “Oh my God it’s this awful Turkey. I mean it’s taken us 15 years.” I said 15 years. It has taken us 225 and you guys are moving at light years compared to the way the United States moved. It’s just astonishing to me to see the progress has happened.
Guest3 from Audience: Pretty curious to know more about your experience lawyer in Texas, have you ever worked with the innocence project?
James Harrington: Innocence project is the people who are wrongly convicted and use DNA to get them out. And of course Texas we have capital punishment and you don’t want to be wrong on this one. But we have a new district attorney in Dallas, the guy before him Henry Wayne was really bad. The new guy has come in and there have been 26 people taken off death row from Dallas because of the innocence project.
Guest3 from Audience: There is a second part of my question that I read somewhere that Texas leads in rewarding people who are exhilarated from old mistakes.
James Harrington: Probably. Texas pays $80,000 a year for the time that you were in jail. And then there is a lifelong pension that comes up in this, the benefits are pretty good. But on the other hand, you know the Texas prison is probably the worst prison in the country to be in.
Guest3 from Audience: And is that the reason why they award so much or?
James Harrington: I don’t know what the reason could be. But you know living in prison $80,000 is probably not very much compared we have to suffer in the Texas prison.
Guest4 from Audience: I also have made it three pair, that 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?
James Harrington: Wow. He is a social scientist. I don’t know I mean I really don’t know. I think that for me that the interesting question, the big question, is what happens with the next generation of the movement in the United States.
Why because everybody here right now from the movement 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.
I think what Regan started were in part of our philosophy is now legitimize its selfishness, right? Yeah it is okay to talk about taxes in terms of what benefits you. Not what it does from their community, what it does for your education or is okay for you to make as much money as possible without having to give it back to the community or some part of it back to the community. Of course there’s always been our life in the United States but it was never legitimized in a way that it is now legitimized. I think that began with Regan. 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. Now 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. 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. I think it will be fascinating watching what happens in the next generation here’s our movement.
One of the things that I learned is I was always very involved in what we call movement stuff in the United States. Anti war, civil rights and all that and I think that one of the failure that we make my generation made is that we never communicated it well to the next generation. Those kids, the minority kids are in college now. Aren’t there those positions didn’t open up because of their own merits, right? It’s because of the struggle of the civil rights movements that opened those opportunities and what has happened now those kids don’t understand that the generation in front of them opened the door for them. And so they are not committed to open the door for the next generation. You know and I have talked to people in my age group, my generation and I think that’s a common assessment there’s one of the things that we didn’t do a good job of communicating. You are where you are because of people before you and you owe it to the next generation who comes first.
One thing I wanted to add I have to say 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, in my experience now has been, all religious groups want me to get, try to get to the same place; like unity, relationship with God.
There’s so much we have added so much stuff along the way. Along the way we have religious wars like at 21, I learned in Catholic school.
It’s always been a great eye opener for me and I now read Rumi every morning for meditation that I’ve learned that I’ve picked from the movement.
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