The Committee

Last week, the Foreign Affairs Committee of House of Commons concluded its inquiry into UK-Turkey relations and published its findings and recommendations in the form of an 82-paged report. That report was the outcome of 8-months’ worth of research; written and oral evidence from a range of people including independent scholars, the Turkish Embassy, the FCO and even ‘Gülenists’; confidential evidence; numerous meetings and extensive internal deliberations. While the report’s focus was on UK-Turkey relations, Turkey’s recourse to explaining almost every negative development in Turkey by reference to the Gülen movement inevitably caused the Committee to look into the movement and its alleged role in last year’s failed coup.

The Committee concluded that there was no hard evidence to implicate Gülen or the Gülen movement. What there was, at most, was circumstantial evidence indicating that ‘some individual Gülenists’ were involved and that even then, the circumstantial evidence was ‘mostly anecdotal or circumstantial, sometimes premised on information from confessions or informants’ (para 97), i.e. highly unreliable given credible reports of torture and the prevalence and flippancy of malicious ‘informing’. The report also noted that Turkey’s human rights and democratic culture were in regression and that its purge, premised on the faintest association with the Gülen movement, was causing ‘catastrophic long term individual and family’ and ‘wide ranging and sustained injustice’ in Turkey (para 118).

The Foreign Office

The report’s conclusions reflect the view of the Foreign Affairs Committee, not that of the UK government. That said, the inquiry allowed us a rare opportunity to explore the UK government position on these matters. The Committee invited the government to present written and oral evidence and they obliged with the latter in the form of the Rt Hon Sir Alan Duncan MP, FCO Minister and Lindsay Appleby, Director Europe, FCO. During that hearing, Sir Duncan appeared to to take the Turkish government narrative ‘at face value’ as noted by the Committee (105) and that his oral evidence appeared ‘contradictory’ at times (para 102).

Sir Alan Duncan initially appeared to repeat the Turkish government’s position… When pressed about the extent of Gülenist involvement in the coup attempt, he said: This is a very complicated phenomenon in Turkish government and society; it will probably take years to analyse this and to get to the bottom of it. (para 103)

At one point, Sir Duncan exclaimed that he was ‘a Foreign Minister, not the world’s greatest expert on Fethullah Gülen’. When specifically asked on what ‘information’, ‘evidence’ and ‘intelligence’ (Question 176 from the hearing transcript) he was reaching his conclusions on the Gülen movement and the coup attempt, Sir Duncan turned to Appleby to provide the authoritative reply. Appleby said,

[w]e know quite a lot about the individuals who seem to have been involved in the coup, because that was quite evident by their actions; we know much less about the organisations to which those individuals belonged. Many of the key individuals, by the nature of an attempted coup, were from the military. It is not consistent with membership of the military to be a member of an alternative organisation, so it isn’t clear how many of the military people were Gülenists, nor is it clear the degree to which the organisation—or the multiple organisations that make up Gülenism—were themselves directing or driving any of the activity. (Q178)

Appleby’s later comments suggest that even the unchallenged information supplied by the Turkish government does not demonstrate that the Gülen movement, as an organisational entity, was behind the coup, ‘[t]hat is precisely the sort of evidence that we have been asking for from the Turkish government, when they bring to us individual allegations’ (para 104).

The Committee report, with this FCO admission on the matter of evidence and intelligence, comes on the heels of a number of other significant reports and comments. Take for example the leaked European Union intelligence centre Intcen report that appeared in the Times this January, ‘[i]t is unlikely that Gülen himself played a role in the attempt… It is unlikely Gülen really had the abilities and capacities to take such steps’, or the comments by Bruno Kahl, head of Germany’s BND foreign intelligence agency, who two weeks ago said he did not believe Gülen was behind the coup and that the Gülen movement was a ‘civil association that aims to provide further religious and secular education’ or the comments by Devin Nunes, head of the US House Intelligence Committees who last week said during a TV interview that he ‘hadn’t seen evidence that Gülen was involved.’ All reiterate the same points made by the recent Foreign Affairs Committee report. However, unlike the Committee, these are intelligence based reports and comments, predicated not just on public but also on classified information.

The Theory

At this juncture, it is fair to ask why some Turkish journalists and analysts are so rattled and baffled by this recent spate of reports and comments? Two terms help to explain the puzzlement: cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. Crudely put, cognitive dissonance occurs when our mind ignores ‘negative evidence’ that undermines our well-held beliefs and narratives. Confirmation bias occurs when our mind seeks out ‘positive evidence’ to support our well-held beliefs and narratives. Both operate at the subconscious and conscious level. Our mind wants to maintain internal consistency and tends to overlook that which spoils it. These cognitive biases effect the educated and un-educated, the lay and scholarly.

For cognitive dissonance and/or confirmation bias to work, we must first have come to internalise a particular view or narrative which causes us discomfort when contradicted by new information and evidence. Being rattled by new evidence is symptomatic of this state of mind. That this appears to be the case for some Turkish journalists and commentators in light of these recent reports is a great tragedy because that in return suggests that they have already come a firm conclusion on Gülen’s guilt. How have they arrived at such an unwavering conclusion? What do they know that these intelligence agencies don’t? Given the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials in Turkey, do they not have reason for a bit more suspicion and caution? Even if all the evidence pointed in one direction, are they not, by their very profession and professed independence required to think out-side the box to at least avoid the tunnel-vision of groupthink?

The Rattled Turk

Take Sedat Ergin for example, a veteran Turkish journalist and editor, for whom I have always had a somewhat soft spot. Ergin is surprised; he can’t correlate the report’s findings with that of his own. So, what does he do? He writes a column in which he criticises the report for being ‘weak’ and for attempting to ‘whitewash the case that the coup was a Gülenist initiative’. I won’t respond to these substantive points – for that see Yavuz Baydar’s blog. Instead, I want to focus on two symptomatic points in Ergin’s column.

In the first paragraph of his column, Ergin says (since deleted), that the Committee arrived at its conclusions without even sending a delegation to Turkey. The fact of the matter is that the Committee did visit Turkey with its Chairman, Crispin Blunt (uncle to Emily Blunt, hence the picture:) leading the way. The Committee saw ground zero, visited the bombed-out section of the Turkish parliament, and even met and put questions to President Erdoğan, Prime Minister Yıldırım, Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu, as well as representatives from all four of Turkey’s parliamentary parties. Their visit encompassed meetings in Ankara, Istanbul, and Adana. The report, which Ergin undermines, and from which he quotes, mentions this visit no less than eight times. The visit was also mentioned in the report press release and covered in Turkish press at the time. So how did Ergin, otherwise known as meticulous for detail, miss that?

He’s human, it happens. But that’s something he specifically criticises the Committee for not doing and why, in part at least, he feels justified in referring to the report as ‘weak’. Either Ergin read references to the visit but did not register it (cognitive dissonance), read it but knowingly and conveniently overlooked it (dishonesty and highly unlikely) or sparingly read the report missing all references to the visit and other signs of the Committee’s meticulous and thorough approach (luck!). It is also possible that Ergin picked up this false-news from another news report or columnist and latched onto it as it would explain the report’s ‘divergent’ conclusions (confirmation bias). My guess is that it is a mixture of the first and last factor. Now this may seem tedious, and it is a bit, but it’s on the basis of such cumulative misapprehensions that Ergin can come to conclude that a committee of British members of parliament set out to ‘whitewash Gülenists’, ignoring the ‘voluminous stack of evidence’ against them.

In his column, Ergin says the Committee failed to appreciate the role of the Gülen movement in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. A similar point was made on Rusen Cakir’s podcast programme. The implication being, had the Committee taken a broader view, it would have concluded that the Gülenists were behind the coup. What these commentators overlook is that, if anything, the Committee did take a broader view than is usually the case. During our hearing, we were asked a number of times about the 17/25 December 2013 corruption investigations; about the movement and the Kurdish issue; the movement in the US etc. Furthermore, the Committee took evidence from Turkey scholars, no doubt aware of the countries recent past. Moreover, the Committee clearly conducted its own research and took heed of the comments and findings of Turkey experts well-versed in those infamous aforementioned trials.

For example, the report quotes Gareth Jenkins, considered by many, including Bill Park and Dani Rodrick to be an expert on Turkey’s military and its inner workings. Jenkins was perhaps the first to offer a robust critique of the Ergenekon trials in 2009, far before many of those now criticising the Committee for taking a myopic view of Turkey’s recent coup. Yet here’s what Jenkins said, as quoted by the Committee in their report (para 87), on the coup-evidence ‘[r]emarkably, despite months of vigorous interrogation, no convincing evidence has yet been made public about how the coup was planned or coordinated. There can be no doubt that, if such evidence had emerged, the Turkish authorities would have ensured it was in the public domain.’ On the so-called confessions, Mr Jenkins states

In the weeks following the putsch, officers accused of participating were routinely denied access to lawyers and frequently physically abused. During this time, a handful of statements were leaked to the Turkish media in which alleged participants apparently confessed to being Gülenists. Several of these statements have since been disowned by those who were reported to have made them. Even if the remainders are taken at face value, no one has yet confessed to participating in the organisation of the putsch, merely to joining it when it was already underway. Not only is the number of these alleged confessed Gülenists very small but, in terms of the alleged statements leaked to the media, they are considerably outnumbered by those who have denied – often vehemently – ever having any connection with the Gülen Movement.

Proverbially put, where is Ergin’s ‘voluminous stack’, where is Jenkins’ ‘no convincing evidence’. Of course, one can say, that is his view and this is mine. I have no problem with that. But if you are seeking to explain the findings of a Committee by claiming that it did not know about Turkey’s recent past, you will run into trouble when faced with these well-researched opinions by the likes of Jenkins, whose views the Committee clearly did take into account. Disregarding this fact (cognitive dissonance) may be convenient, but it is not fair.

The Gülenist

If you’re finding it hard to be ‘lectured’ on cognitive bias by a self-professed ‘Gülenist’, try not to be as I’m neither lecturing (just observing) nor excluding myself from the risk of such bias (and, you’re almost at the end, so persevere). As Jürgen Habermas argues, no one can escape, what he describes as, ‘epistemic interest’. The most we can do is mitigate it and the first step to do that is to acknowledge it. That said, in the Turkey political paradigm, I am supposed to be the biased and brainwashed cult-member closed to reason and evidence, not you (unless, you’re another Gülenist, in which case, secret handshake;) In that paradigm, my insistence on seeing Gülen’s innocence in the face of his ‘palpable guilt’ is to be expected; what’s your excuse. The irony of course is that by acknowledging my insider-ness, I am more likely to mitigate against my biases compared to an outsider who refuses to concede any ground of inescapable bias whatsoever.

As I’ve said before, let’s allow critical investigation and reasoning to lead the way, even if that way makes us feel a little uncomfortable.