Behind Turkey’s failed July coup lies a power struggle between Erdogan and the shadowy network of his former ally. The intra-Islamic and nationalist power struggle is shaping the future of the country.
In self-imposed exile in the US state of Pennsylvania since 1999, Fethullah Gulen runs a vast global enterprise of schools, businesses, media outlets and charities encompassing millions of followers.
While most active in Turkey, Gulen-affiliated institutions operate from Africa and Central Asia, to the United States and Europe – most notably through thousands of schools operating in more than 140 other countries.
The movement presents itself as a voice of Sufi Islamic moderation and tolerance in a world with competing ideologies from the likes of the so-called “Islamic State” and al-Qaeda. It stands for democracy, rights and inclusiveness, its followers say.
“The Gulen movement is a loose network of individuals and institutions seeking to seize opportunities to promote their ideals through education and dialogue,” Mahir Zeynalov, a Gulenist journalist who used to write for “Zaman” before being kicked out of Turkey, told DW. “They believe it is good for co-existence of nations, ethnic and religious groups and it is their life mission to promote their culture to others, no matter in what parts of the world they live.”
Referred to by his followers as “Hoca Efendi,” the now 75-year-old Gulen was heavily influenced by Said Nursi, a Sufi Kurdish Islamic scholar who built up a large following in Turkey before his death in 1960. Nursi advocated a melding of modern education, science and Islam.
Building on Nursi’s teachings, Gulen advocated a more Turkish nationalist, state-centered and pro-business approach. The movement was centered on the concept of “Hizmet,” or service. It is also known as the Hizmet Movement.
Through its network of affiliated schools, prep-centers and universities in Turkey, the movement has been able to pump out scientists, business people, civil servants, lawyers and journalists – in effect an entire loyalist class replete with vast resources. Followers in turn provide money to the movement, volunteer and do charity work.
Supporting the vast organization and its activities are also Gulen affiliated businesses and donations from so-called “sympathizers.” The opaqueness of its funding and infiltration of the state has for years made it the target of secular suspicion about its motives to establish an Islamic-inspired state.
“No one has managed to reveal the financial and administrative backbone of the organization that organizes their activities and money flows, and that ties the foundations to each other,” said Jenny White, a Professor at Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies author of “Muslim Nationalists and the New Turks.”
Starting in the 1970s, Gulenists began to infiltrate the police, judiciary, media and education sectors — all areas traditionally dominated by the Kemalist elites, or followers of the secularists principles of Turkey’s founder, Ataturk.
After the 1980 military coup, Gulenists also started to join the military academies. Though many Gulenists faced discrimination and expulsions from the secularist military establishment, others were able to sneak their way through and move up the chain of command.
Alliance of convenience
A turning point for the Gulen movement came in the early 2000s, when then prime minister Erdogan and his AKP rose to power. The Gulenists and AKP shared many traits: they were Islamists, pro-business and at the time pro-EU.
It was a natural alliance that suited both — or at least up to a certain point. For one, the young AKP found cadres of Gulenists in positions of power within the state, media and business that it could tap into.
Both also highlighted providing services as a matter of policy. The AKP built roads, schools, hospitals and vast housing and commercial projects. In a decade, not only had the face of Istanbul changed but also that of small towns and villages where the AKP derived votes and political support. The economy grew, citizens benefited.
Meanwhile, construction contracts were good for businesses and contractors close to the AKP and Gulen.
The Gulen-AKP alliance formed against the Kemalist military establishment was able to cut the general’s wings. From roughly 2008-11, a series of coup trials and purges against the Kemalist military brass based on fabricated evidence was launched by Gulenist prosecutors and police with the backing of Erdogan.
As Dani Rodrik, a top economist at Harvard and an expert on Gulen and the coup trials has noted, “it should be clear to any objective observer that the Gulen movement also has a dark underbelly engaged in covert activities such as evidence fabrication, wiretapping, disinformation, blackmail, and judicial manipulation.”
The trials in front of AKP and Gulenist judges and the arrest or dismissal of hundreds of officers created an opportunity for Gulenist officers and Erdogan loyalists in the lower and middle ranks to move into the Kemalist positions.
The verdicts in the coup trials from 2008-11 were eventually overturned. But the damage to the military’s cohesiveness had already been done.
Sedat Ergin, a journalist for Hurriyet newspaper in Turkey, has observed that many of the officers and generals involved in the failed July 15 coup attempt took the place of Kemalists who had been arrested or dismissed in relation to previous Gulenist-led purges.
The failed July 15 coup attempt came weeks ahead of a meeting the High Military Council, in which Erdogan was expected to dismiss several hundred top officers suspected of Gulenist ties.
By 2012, with the Kemalist military severely weakened, a rupture between Gulenists and Erdogan began to emerge.
A major event that hinted to the public a deterioration of Gulen-AKP relations occurred in 2012, when Gulenist police and prosecutors went after the powerful head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan, one of Erdogan’s closest men.
The investigation was related to Fidan’s meetings with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on the orders of Erdogan. The meetings were part of exploratory talks to end more than three decades of conflict with Kurdish rebels.
The Gulen movement, which competes with the PKK in the Kurdish southeast and is Turkish nationalist, was opposed to the peace process and had targeted Kurdish politicians and journalists though a series of trails.
Erdogan was ultimately able to swat away the Gulenist investigation into Fidan through a legal maneuver. But the episode was followed by Erdogan moving to close down Gulen affiliated university prep-schools, known as dershane, which were a major source of income to the movement.
Then in December 2013 the gloves came off. Turkey was rocked when Gulenist police and prosecutors arrested four AKP ministers in a corruption scandal that threatened to take down Erdogan and his family.
As Erik Meyersson, an expert on Turkey and economist at Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics has suggested, a conflict emerged between Erdogan and Gulen over “the division of the spoils” tied to lucrative contracts.
Labeling the investigation a “coup” attempt, Erdogan and the AKP followed with a major crackdown on what it described as a Gulenist terror organization, purging judges, prosecutors, police and media believed to have Gulenists ties.
Turkey watchers suspect the impending Gulenist purge in the military triggered a last ditch effort by officers to overthrow Erdogan.
As the investigation into the coup continues, one key piece of evidence that will need to be proven is whether Gulen himself gave the order for a coup attempt or if rogue sympathizers within the military hatched the plot.