by Umar Farooq
For more than thirteen years, Turkey has made a slow but steady transition towards a free and democratic society, despite the occasional pang of apprehension among some about where that road might lead. The men at the helm of that transition, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen, began as allies, perhaps the most powerful post-modernist Islamists in world. But now the two are estranged, locked in a downward spiral of distrust that may undo the progress made. At the heart of this estrangement lies a difference over how Turkey should assert its power in the Islamic world.
On December 18, a judge in Istanbul issued an arrest warrant for Gulen, following a week that saw the detention and questioning of dozens of journalists and police officers allegedly linked to the 73- year-old cleric. Gulen lives in Pennsylvania but is thought to lead a movement of millions in Turkey, popularly referred to as the “Hizmet,” or “the Service.” Erdogan has called for Gulen’s extradition, charging that he heads a “parallel state” within the country’s judiciary and bureaucracy.
Turkey has a history of violent crackdowns, but Erdogan claims this one will be clean: “Nobody is being lynched before the process is over,” he said December 20, before launching into a tirade against a statement by European Union that called the recent detentions “incompatible with the freedom of media, which is a core principle of democracy.” But the carrot of EU membership no longer seems important to Erdogan (or to most Turks).
Erdogan now sees the West’s support for Gulen, combined with an apparent indifference towards the military coup in Egypt last year and its reluctance to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as indicators it is not interested in seeing a democratically elected Islamist government in Turkey, or anywhere else.
While tensions between Erdogan and the Gulenists have been mounting for several years, the current crisis heated up last December, when prosecutors announced they would open corruption cases against 53 AK Party allies, including members of Erdogan’s cabinet. Police officers who, according to Erdogan supporters, were loyal to Gulen, had wiretapped hundreds of people’s phones; as well as Erdogan’s own offices. Turkish media had leaked incriminating recordings, providing right-wing and secular opposition parties with powerful ammunition in advance of this year’s presidential elections. The government responded by transferring or sacking hundreds of judges and police, and, in some cases, opening cases of abuse of power against them.
Since then, Turkish media outlets closely tied to the Hizmet have taken an increasingly confrontational stance against Erdogan. Boosted by his victory in August’s presidential election, Erdogan struck back this month, reactivating a three-year-old complaint of slander by Mehmet Do?an, a former Gulen ally who spent 17 months in prison before being exonerated on charges of being a part of al-Qaeda. Dozens of journalists, two top counter-terrorism police officials, and even the writer of a soap opera were hauled to police stations across the country for questioning, not just on the Do?an complaint, but on the wider aims of Hizmet and Gulen as well.
Erdogan and Gulen may both be Islamists, but they have different visions of how and whether Turkey should assert its historical Islamic identity. Erdogan’s popularity stems from his bluntness: “Our minarets are our bayonets, our domes are our helmets, our mosques are our barracks,” recited the then-mayor of Istanbul in 1997, who was successfully prosecuted for “inciting hatred” with those words and soon found himself shuttled off to prison, accompanied by a 2,000 vehicle-convoy of fans.
A self-educated Islamic scholar, Gulen spent much of his youth as a state-appointed imam at mosques in western Turkey. He set up dorms and study centers for pious students from the Turkish countryside who had arrived in cities for study or work. As his popularity increased, Gulen travelled the country, dishing out sermons and advice to crowds of thousands of young Muslims on how their faith could fit into a secular Turkey. During the 1971 military coup, Gulen spent six months in prison for his movement.
In 1999, Gulen found himself unable to return to Turkey after he issued a characteristically guarded statement, directing his followers in public offices to learn the workings of legislative and administrative bodies, but “wait until the conditions become more favorable” to show their Islamist intentions. Gulen’s movement only grew stronger in his absence.
A quarter of private schools in Turkey, as well as hundreds of others across the world, including at least 16 in the United States, are run by the Hizmet movement. Gulen’s political and religious commentary, often distributed by the media outlets currently under scrutiny, is widely read throughout the Muslim world. Hizmet also includes one of Turkey’s most powerful business groups, the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialist (TUSKON), and its own Sharia-compliant bank, Bank Asya.
Under the Justice and Development (AK Party) government, which took power in 2002, the 1999 case against Gulen was tossed out, but the cleric preferred to stay in Pennsylvania, watching Erdogan chart a path towards democracy, built on a wide mandate that probably would not have been possible without his movement’s support.
Buoyed by his success at transforming Istanbul into a cosmopolitan city with infrastructure on par with Europe, Erdogan’s party was swept into power twice with mandates never seen in the country’s history. Opposition parties issued statements lamenting the victory, and a Turkish court even heard a petition to ban the AK Party on grounds that it threatened the country’s secular foundation, but none of that panned out. In 2007, Erdogan stood firm against an implicit coup threat by the military command, sometimes referred to as the “e-coup” or “virtual coup.”
Erdogan and his allies pushed ahead with reforms widely praised as groundbreaking for Turkey and for the Islamic world, putting the country on firm footing towards meeting conditions for accession to the European Union. In 2007, the Israeli President addressed the Turkish Parliament, heaping praise on Erdogan’s reforms and his peace-making efforts between Tel Aviv and its neighbors. A referendum that year and another in 2010 pushed through constitutional revisions that, among other measures, enhanced labor rights, gender equality, and civilian oversight of a military that had a history of toppling democratic governments. In 2008, the government launched the prosecution of nearly three hundred military officers, journalists, and lawmakers accused of plotting to topple the government and spark a military takeover in what became known as the Ergenekon case.
Throughout these years, Gulen and Erdogan were allies, particularly with respect to efforts to subordinate the military.
But by 2010, each showed signs of growing uncomfortable with his partner.
Having broken with Israel over the 2008 Gaza war and re-oriented Turkish foreign policy toward the Arab Middle East with his “zero problems with neighbours” program, Erdogan was making a name for himself in the Islamic world to the growing annoyance of the more cautious and reserved Gulen.
After Erdogan stood behind the Mavi Marmara and its failed attempt to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, Gulen openly criticized him, insisting that aid should have gone through only with the approval of Israeli authorities. As part of a confidence-building measure with Iran, Hakan Fidan, Erdogan’s head of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), also reportedly leaked the identities of ten Mossad agents operating in Turkey to Iran, prompting additional murmurs of disapproval from Gulen.
According to Erdogan supporters, Gulen directed his network of followers in the media, judiciary, and police to work together to undermine the prime minister and his hold on the AKP.
An allegedly Gulen-linked prosecutor summoned MIT head Fidan to explain 2009-2010 meetings with Kurdish rebels in Oslo, widely believed to be part of the government’s peace process with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which is still listed as a terrorist organization in Turkey.
The AK Party, which enjoys an absolute majority in Parliament, responded by changing the law to bar future such oversight of the intelligence agency and floating the idea of shutting down hundreds of Gulen’s private tutoring centers, a move that would decimate the cleric’s grassroots network in Turkey.
When Erdogan took a divisive stand on the civil war in neighboring Syria, calling for the removal of Assad, by force if necessary, prominent Gulenists publicly dissented.
This January, police allegedly loyal to Gulen raided the offices of an AK Party linked aid agency, ?nsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri (IHH), in Kilis, near the Syrian border, and told journalists they had arrested 28 suspected members of al-Qaeda. The next month, police stopped a convoy of seven trucks belonging to the MIT near the Syrian border and claimed to have found a cache of weapons intended to supply the Islamic State.
These moves mirrored rhetoric from the cleric himself warning of Erdogan’s stance against Assad. When the Turkish parliament passed legislation authorizing military intervention against ISIS in Syria and Iraq in October, Gulen warned it could drag the country into “a new World War I.” Ali Bulac, writing in the Zaman newspaper, which regularly features Gulen’s views on Turkish politics, called the idea of Turkish intervention in Syria “an ambitious and imperialist project.”
To Erdogan, the Hizmet’s actions—warning against intervention in Syria, linking the AK Party to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, or to Iran, and branding it as a troublemaker in the Middle East—was seen as a betrayal by a former ally in the face of mounting pressure and frustration with the Turkish leaders by western leaders, some of whom have long been skeptical of the Turkish leader’s ultimate aims.
At home, opposition groups have adopted the narrative. When tens of thousands protested against Erdogan in Taksim Square in June 2013, Gulen issued a gentle reminder to Erdogan not to let things get out of hand by ignoring the protesters’ demands. A year later, Erdogan decried the opposition’s embrace of the demonstrators who he accused of being “terrorists who smash things up.”
Those kinds of remarks and the willingness to crack down on civil society seen this month have lost Erdogan a large number of secular allies in Turkey and may just isolate him from his remaining friends in the West. While Erdogan became the country’s first directly elected president with 52 percent of the votes in August, his mandate is built on the lowest turnout rate in Turkey’s history, partly due to millions of secular voters who saw no credible alternative.
Parliamentary elections are due in June of next year. If a viable opposition party springs up, one that can cater to seculars, minorities like Kurds, as well as Hizmet members, it could become a serious challenge to the AK Party. Any opposition would have to draw votes from millions of Turks who do not support the traditional nationalist parties, as well as AK Party voters who see no other Islamist alternative.
For now, however, Erdogan appears convinced that he has popular support for his actions, which he describes as a final purging necessary to save Turkey from an international conspiracy. His crackdown has effectively crippled the Gulen network in Turkey: graduates from the Gulen-inspired Fatih University can’t find jobs; newspapers like Zaman have lost advertisers and hundreds of thousands of readers; and Bank Asya, which caters to his TUKSON business network, lost a third of its worth this year.
For more than a decade, Erdogan has worked to establish what he regards as a stable democratic system to Turkey, and now he wants to reap the rewards of his labor by extending influence far beyond its borders. In his mind, Gulen stands in the way.
Umar Farooq is a freelance journalist based in Turkey whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, and a number of other outlets. He tweets @UmarFarooq_