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From Friend to Foe: Fethullah Gülen

Fethullah Gülen
Fethullah Gülen. Photo Selahattin Sevi

“Et tu, Brute?” (“You too, Brutus?”) were purportedly the last words of the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, when he was assassinated with a knife by his friend Marcus Brutus. This famous quotation from one of the most infamous assassinations in history is often used for unexpected betrayals.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey didn’t use these words but perhaps had them in mind when he talked about betrayal and being “stabbed you in the back” by his former ally and one-time friend, Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has lived, since 1999, in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, ahead of a first court case involving a charge of treason.

Erdoğan refused to utter the influential Muslim cleric’s name during his speech in December 2014 at “The Great Turkey Symposium” in Ankara, the capital, but it was clear whom he meant when he said: “You deem him a friend, but you may not know and notice that the person you deemed a friend has been marketing his will, comprehension, homeland, and nation to dark circles.”

Now, the leader of the Gülen Movement faces criminal charges in many cases, including those seeking life sentences for his alleged attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government of then Prime Minister Erdoğan by plotting a coup and forming a terrorist organization.

Turkish authorities included Gülen in its list of most-wanted terrorists, alongside the leaders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Gülen Movement is officially deemed a national security threat in Turkey’s Red Book, which lists the country’s security threats. Four arrest warrants have been issued against Gülen, and the Turkish authorities have demanded that Interpol issue a Red Notice against him.

On 6 January 2016 the first trial against him began in Istanbul’s Çağlayan court house. Prosecutors claim that many members of what they now call the “Gülenist Terror Organization—Parallel State Structure” infiltrated key posts in the judiciary and police and established a “parallel state.” Gülenist prosecutors had filed graft charges in December 2013 against several ministers of the Justice and Development party (AKP) government, members of their family, and the son of Erdoğan, Bilal. Erdoğan said at the time that it was not a corruption investigation but part of a coup plot to overthrow the government.

He dismissed the accused ministers from the government and immediately began a counter-offensive against everybody suspected of supporting Gülen in the justice system and security services, in the media, and in the business world. AKP ministers, pro-AKP media, and Erdoğan himself use demagoguery and often unsubstantiated or exaggerated accusations, as well as public attacks on the character and patriotism of supporters of Fethullah Gülen. Epithets such as “traitor,” “assassins,” “viruses,” “parallel structure,” and “mafia” became the new normal in the hate speech of the government and its supporters.

Many Turks, as well as Western observers and diplomats, were confused and surprised at the turn of events. The same police officers and prosecutors who had been lauded by Erdoğan when they helped him sideline and criminalize the military with earlier controversial coup cases against the AKP (such as the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases) were now portrayed as enemies of their own country. Now, the same advisers to the prime minister and pro-AKP media argue that those Gülenist prosecutors had set a trap for the military. Since December 2014, approximately 1,800 suspects, including 750 police officers and 80 soldiers, have been detained as part of the ongoing investigations against sympathizers of Fethullah Gülen. Their common enemy, the generals, having been removed from their positions of political influence, Erdoğan and Gülen turned against each other in a classical power struggle: “Revolutions devour their own children.”

So who is this Islamic preacher who turned from friend to foe?

Followers of Muhammed Fethullah Gülen (b. 1941) call him the Teacher, because he has been teaching, since the age of 14, in various parts of Turkey and, since 1999, in the United States.

He was born in the village of Korucuk, near the eastern city of Erzurum, where he attended primary school for a couple of years. His father Ramiz, who was the village imam, gave him Quran lessons, and he studied Islam in madrasas (religious schools).

As a teenager, he began to share his knowledge about Turkish folk Islam. He developed ideas about how Turkish society should be, emphasizing the importance of study, dialogue with Christians and Jews, Turkish nationalism, and a free-market economy. Entrepreneurship is important, says Gülen, but he also stresses conservative religious values: the family is the fundamental cornerstone of society, women are subordinate to men, and the greatest virtues are hard work, discipline, and hizmet, altruistic service to the common good. That’s why his movement is also called the Hizmet movement in Turkey.

His supporters established numerous day schools and boarding schools in Turkey and in more than a hundred other countries. These modern Turkish facilities are some of the best in the country. Students are groomed for the highest possible positions in society. The many pious entrepreneurs in Turkey, who support the movement financially, are called Anatolian Tigers or Muslim Calvinists. They established Tuskon, a business confederation of some 120,000 companies.

The movement is said to have considerable influence in Turkey, although the number of supporters is difficult to determine, because there is no membership registration. Until the witch-hunt began, many said they were inspired by Gülen, if they disclosed their sympathy at all. Most concealed their affiliation, for fear of being discriminated against in the labour market if they openly declared their sympathy for Gülen. Some six million Turks may have links to the scholar’s movement.

The Zaman newspaper, the mouthpiece of the movement, is one of the largest newspapers in Turkey, with a daily circulation of about one million. Just ahead of the general elections of November 2015 a Turkish court seized control of the Gülen-linked Koza İpek holding company, an industry and media group that owns two daily newspapers, Bugün and Millet, and two television stations, Bugün TV and Kanaltürk. The Ankara court said that it was “necessary to assign managers with full control to prevent crime and to protect evidence in a case in which reports have revealed that this company has helped and been involved in the activities of an organization titled the ‘Gülenist Terror Organization—Parallel State Structure,’ which is said to have attempted to topple the government.”

In a similar move intended to break the power of the Gülenists, Turkish authorities in February 2015 took over Bank Asya, the Islamic lender that was set up in 1996 by Gülen supporters. The AKP government had earlier banned all prep schools, in an obvious attempt to weaken the Gülen movement, which owned one-third of these schools.

It is clear that President Erdoğan, who was elected with 52 per cent of the vote, and his governing AKP, which was re-elected in November 2015 with 49.5 per cent of the vote, have the upper hand in the power struggle with the Gülen movement. There is hardly any separation of powers in Turkey. Police, prosecutors, and many judges simply do what is expected of them by the government. In the meantime, the power struggle has damaged democracy, press freedom, transparency, and the rule of law. Turkey under Erdoğan is no longer hailed as a “model of Islamic democracy” in the West. In its latest Progress Report on Turkey the European Commission emphasizes “an overall negative trend in the respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights. Significant shortcomings affected the judiciary as well as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”