Islamists at War in Turkey

by Graham E. Fuller 

Last week witnessed what may be the last act of an unfolding struggle between two major Islamic movements in Turkey. Turkish president and leader of the AKP party Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused exiled Islamic leader Fethullah Gülen of plotting the failed coup against the government. Immediately thereafter Erdogan has unleashed massive Stalin-style purges and arrests across the country  of anyone suspected of any connection with Gülen, or indeed of anyone of any ideology who opposes Erdogan.

First of all, when we talk about Islamic leaders in Turkey, we’re talking about a very different scene than in most of the rest of the Muslim world. In Turkey it’s basically about a struggle among Islamic moderates. Neither Erdogan nor Gülen call for any kind of Islamic State, or Shari’a law, or Caliphate, or jihad against the West. They both operate fairly comfortably within a primarily secular state structure established a century ago by the country’s modernizing secularist founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. We’re not really talking about Islam or theology but power and influence.  (And politics in Turkey has always been a fairly rough game, even within a basically democratic order.)

But there are important differences between the two groups. Erdogan runs a political party, Gülen operates a civil movement called Hizmet (Service). Erdogan comes out of a more traditional Sunni Turkish Islamist movement; Gülen comes out of an a-political, more Sufi, mystical and social tradition. Gülen is interested in slow, deep social change including secular higher education; Erdogan as a party leader is first and foremost interested in preserving his party’s power that operates in a populist manner trying to raise the general welfare.

But looking at the dramatically failed coup attempt against Erdogan last week, I believe it is unlikely that Gülen was the mastermind behind it. Of course in the absence of evidence so far no one can speak with certainty. Gulen’s social movement probably has well over a million followers or sympathizers who are not under centralized control. With the arrests of tens of thousands this week and the use of torture already evident, there is no telling what kind of “confessions” will be generated. Erdogan demands the US extradite Gülen (resident in the US) to Turkey, but Washington does not usually extradite political figures unless the evidence is highly persuasive in a US court.

More importantly,  Erdogan’s sensational and sweeping charges against Gülen seem to fly in the face of most logic. Consider the following:

-Erdogan had already largely crushed Hizmet before the coup. Erdogan was enraged in 2013 at the publication—by Gülen followers— of police wiretap evidence of widespread corruption within Erdogan’s own circles. He undertook a massive and ongoing purge against Hizmet’s members, activists, supporters, officials, financial institutions, television stations, newspapers, educational and social institutions. He conducted widespread purges within the police and judiciary. Hizmet institutions were devastated. Its members knew their base had been crippled and understood the need to regroup as a movement, perhaps working more closely with liberal and even secular forces to maintain democracy, to protect against a return of military power, and to prevent Erdogan’s widening abuses of authority.

-Gülen has always supported the concept of the importance and dignity of the state, in the best Ottoman tradition. He has supported the state against earlier Islamist movements that raised Islam over the state.  He even felt compelled to support the military takeover of the state in 1980  in order to preserve the state in the face of left-wing right-wing guerrilla warfare raging in the streets. Basically, however, he supports democracy over military rule as the surest guarantee for the freedom of Hizmet to exist and conduct its social mission.

Gülen immediately denounced last week’s coup as well. Was he merely dissembling? Unlikely, since it is consistent with Gülen’s discomfort with military rule over long years. Furthermore, Hizmet has never been involved in terrorist activities at any time so support for violence in this case is extremely unlikely. The charge that Hizmet is a “terrrorist organization” is absurd to anyone with the least knowledge of the movement which emphasizes peace and dialog.

-Gülen arguably lacked even the capability to organize a serious coup in an army that over decades has rigorously weeded Hizmet followers out—indeed any officers showing any religious beliefs. Turkish intelligence has also been all over the movement for years, amassing massive dossiers. Why would Gülen choose to attempt a coup, contrary to all his views, and at a time of maximum weakness vis-a-vis Erdogan?

-The coup leaders called themselves “Peace at Home Council.” Peace at Home (yurtta sulh) is part of a famous slogan of Atatürk, not associated with Gülen.

-It beggars the imagination to believe that the now tens of thousand of purged and arrestees in all walks of life—police, army, judiciary, universities, banks, schools, media— are all terrorist enemies of the state. Clearly Erdogan is seizing the occasion to eliminate any and all opposition to his plans to create a new super-powerful presidency for himself. Erdogan will find many even within his own party who are dismayed at his reach for total power—but are cowed into silence. Once objective journalists now watch their words.

(Full disclosure: It is on public record that I wrote a letter as a private citizen in connection with Gülen’s US green card application in 2006 stating that I did not believe that Gülen constituted a security threat to the US. This came shortly after I had finished a book (The Future of Political Islam) that involved extensive travel and interviews with Islamists around the world. In that context I found Hizmet to be remarkably moderate, tolerant, non-violent, open to dialog, a strong proponent of education as the means to empower Muslims in a globalizing future, and a social rather than political movement. But in the years of Bush’s Global War on Terrorism many neoconservatives in Washington were agitating to deport Gülen—among many hundreds of other Muslim clerics—as a security risk to the US. I found the charge baseless. Indeed, I still believe that HIzmet as a movement represents one of the most encouraging faces of contemporary Islam in the world. I wanted the FBI to at least be aware of my considered personal opinion as they considered his case. Since then enemies of Gülen and many conspiratorial-minded Turks decided to connect the dots: the fact that I was a CIA official (I had retired from CIA 18 years before), and that I had spoken out in defense of Gülen, constituted clear “proof” that that Gülen is a CIA agent.)

Gülen’s own movement is hardly without its faults. Gülen is an old-school figure, 75 years old, reclusive, often not in touch with daily aspects of the organization. HIzmet has not been a transparent organization—hence viewed as “shadowy.”  But in past decades when membership in Hizmet (or any Islamic movement in Turkey) constituted grounds for possible prosecution in Turkey, its members kept a low profile, often hiding their affiliation. That changed after the AKP came to power in 2002. Many members of Hizmet then became free to seek positions in government (if qualified). In particular they sought jobs in the police and judiciary, to a large measure to ensure that police powers would never be wielded against them (or the AKP) again as in the past. The tide has now turned and the full powers of Erdogan-controlled police are being used against Hizmet members. Sadly the police have regularly been a political football in Turkish politics over the years.

But in the end this is not just politics. We are talking about a critical issue: what kind of movements will represent Islam’s future? ISIS? Al-Qaeda? The Muslim Brotherhood? As Islamic movements go, I would rank Hizmet high on the list of rational, moderate, socially constructive and open-minded organizations. It is not a “cult”; it sits squarely in mainstream modernizing Islam.

Erdogan’s own AKP had once been a remarkable model. Indeed, if Erdogan had retired from politics in 2011 with all the party’s accomplishments he would certainly go down in history as the greatest prime minister in the history of democratic Turkey. But, as with so many leaders, after a decade in power corruption sets in, leaders lose their touch, grow isolated, even power-hungry. Erdogan is now in the process of destroying virtually everything his party created in the first decade of governance.  His sweeping purges and the pall of fear and uncertainty is destroying Turkey itself.

How will it end? Erdogan has beaten Hizmet decisively. But Erdogan is planting the seeds for his own destruction. How and when he will fall remains unclear. Meanwhile on the international scene Turkey is rapidly becoming a pariah. The country itself is now his primary victim.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). Reprinted, with permission, from Photo: Fethullah Gulen

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One Comment

  1. Excellent article. Gulen is been accused of Islamist extremism, of being a CIA agent, of being behind the coup etc….
    Erdogan is desperately looking for an external scapegoat but the worm is in the fruit. Erdogan has been presiding on a successful economy but on a rotten politics with a creeping Islamist component internally and eternally. He may have to pay the price now.

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