Hey Gidi Günler! : How ‘Hizmet’ became ‘FETÖ’


President Erdoğan’s archenemy, the Gülen Movement and its leader Pennsylvania- based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen (b. 1941) have been on the global agenda since the coup attempt of July 15th 2016. The reason for this is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s insistent claims that the Movement, a ‘terrorist network’, was behind the coup plot. Since then, Erdoğan has been calling for a purge against the Movement which he himself described as ‘a witch-hunt’.

Fethullah Gülen without doubt has been one of the most influential figures in the Islamicworld.  Themovementinspiredbyhim,  (whichwillbereferredtoasGülen Movement from this point on) is a transnational faith-based community that historically had complicated relations with both the Turkish State and its Islamist dissidents. The Movement, which addresses itself as Hizmet (‘The Service’) is globally known for its emphasis on education and interfaith dialogue, and presents itself as a ‘moderate’ and peaceful alternative to radicalism. It had been criticised in Turkey for having a ‘secret agenda’. A considerable numberofpeoplestartedtothinkmoreabouttherealityoftheGülenMovement,  as according to many, the coup attempt and the events that followed had revealed their ‘true- face’. However, Gülen denies all the allegations about him being the mastermind behind the coup.

Since the unsuccessful coup d’état attempt until this day,2138,168 people have been sacked and 101,127 have been detained. 2,099 schools, universities and dormitories have been shut down by government decrees as well as 149 media outlets. People detained for allegations of belonging to the Gülen Movement include teachers, academics, soldiers, police officers, prominent businessmen, ordinary citizens and civil servants from all government sectors (TurkeyPurge.com). Turkey comes in first when it comes to the number of jailed journalists: 162 of whom are imprisoned, most of which have been arrested due to alleged links with the Movement, which the Turkish government calls ‘FETÖ’, which literally means ‘pro-Fethullah Terrorist Network’ (De La Baume & Paravicini, 2016). As a result of the most extensive purge ever recorded in Turkish history and immense persecution, the movement which was once deemed the most successful civil society groups, is now non-existent inside the country’s borders.

In line with the new national narrative, there seems to be consensus within Turkish society that Gülen movement is indeed a terrorist network and must be purged. The secular main opposition CHP’s main focus has been criticising Erdoğan’s AKP for ‘letting FETÖ flourish’, thus subscribing to Erdoğan’s rhetoric against Gülen. The secularist base seems to benefit from the conjuncture as they refer to ‘FETÖ’ when generalising about the potential dangers posed by Islamic movements and thus promoting their laic agenda. Gülen’s proponents hold that Hizmet is simply a civil society network that believes in secularism, aimed at promoting values such as democracy, education, tolerance and interfaith dialogue. In light of all these ongoing speculations about the movement, this paper will seek to give an answer to the question, ’What is the Gülenist Reality?”

The argument of this paper will be the following: The dynamics of state-society relations in Turkey shaped the characteristics of the Gülen movement and forced it to have a secretive nature. It is not based on an Islamist agenda: the Movement blends many ideologies in its thinking and practices, and is centred around the cult leadership of Fethullah Gülen. Althoughallegationsofbeinga‘terroristorganisation’ areincorrect,  itistruethatthe movement sought to dominate the Turkish state — via both legitimate and illegitimate means. In the end, the encounter with Turkish president’s personal objectives eventually led to its subordination   by   the   Erdoğan   regime   and   the   rewriting   ofTurkish   history   by instrumentaliseing the narrative of ‘FETÖ’.3 In order to do so, we will observe the origins of the Gülen Movement followed by Gülen’s and the Movement’s ideology. Afterwards, we will scrutinise the inner dynamics of the Movement especially regarding the shift in its philosophy towards the end of 1990s. We will conclude by introducing a brief account of the relations between the Gülen Movement and the AKP, specifically about how Gülen Movement has become the greatest foe of the Turkish state.



The Origins of the Movement

When discovering the history of the Gülen Movement, we have to understand the legacy of Said Nursî (1887-1960), whom his adherents refer to as ‘Üstad’ (The Master). Originallya KurdfromthevillageofNurs,  Nursî  wasthefounderoftheNur(Light) movement, and had written an extensive commentary on the Quran which is known as Risale-i Nur (A Treatise of Light).

After Nursî’s death, his disciples gathered around some of his appointees and were divided into several factions. Although he never met Said Nursî in person, Fethullah Gülen was once close to the orthodox Nur. Gülen managed to found his own circle as a popular preacher and was eventually marginalised from the rest of Nurcus (a follower of Nursî is called a Nurcu). Although Gülen and his followers cannot be regarded as simply Nurcus as the some would claim to be, they are still heavily influenced by Nursî’s teachings. This is the reason why Yavuz (1999) describes Gülen as ‘neo-Nurcu’. It is important to see the 3 major reasons that caused a dichotomy between the contemporary Nurcus and the Gülenists alongside with the features taken from Nursî’s teachings in order to observe the distinct characteristics of the Gülen movement and better understand its ideology.

The first is that the Nur movement has always distanced itself from politics, in fact most Nurcus have emphasised on Nursî’s alleged apolitical heritage. They urged Gülenists not to engage in politics, especially against another Muslim contender, i.e the AKP. However, it is not true that Nursî had an apolitical career. Indeed, his life was marked by political activism. Hewasadissidentof AbdulHamidII,  thedespoticruleroftheOttomanEmpire.  He campaigned for parliamentary democracy and an Ottoman constitution and for this reason he was imprisoned by the Sultan’s regime. Nursî briefly joined the revolutionary Young Turks but left it after seeing their flaws. During the Russian invasion of Eastern Turkey in WWI, he led volunteer troops from the Kurdish territories. He was later captured and held captive in Russia. After the proclamation of the Republic, he became an opponent of state-imposed rigid secularism which resembles the French Laicité. Even its name comes from French: Laiklik.

In 1925 he started to write the Risale-i Nur, a work dealing with questions about notions like destiny, death, and the purpose and meaning of life. He did not seek to explain how one should live by the orders of divine revelation, as many Islamic jurists and preachers did before him, but he was more interested in the why questions. Risale-i Nur proved to be very influential for all mainstream Muslims in Turkey, not just for the Nur and the Gülenists.

One of the most striking details about Nursî’s teaching is his campaign for dialogue between different faiths. He believed that the struggle of the future was was not going to be between, say, Muslims, Christians and Jews. He warned against the tide of materialism and state-imposed atheism, and urged the faithful to deploy against the trends that promoted them: namely, communism. He even wrote a letter to the Pope Pius XII urging an alliance between Christians and Muslims against communism, which according to him threatened both faiths.

Nursî was later exiled by the single-party regime for countering Laiklik, and he spent his final years in various remote Anatolian villages with his disciples who made copies of the Risale and preached it. He died in 1960 in Urfa Province. After the burial, his grave was destroyed by the putschists of 1960 coup d’état and his remains were either destroyed or transferred to a secret location.

Along with the apolitical feature of the contemporary Nurcus, another reason of the Gülenist-Nurcu divide was the abbreviation of the Risale by the Gülenists. Nursî wrote the RisaleinOttomanTurkish,  thereforemuchthecontentremainsincomprehensiblefor ordinary Turks today. Gülenists hold that if its language was to be ‘purified’ i.e adjusted to Modern Turkish, more people would be able to understand it. As the Nurcus attributed a certain holiness to Nursî and his work, Gülenists’ attempts were condemned and the abbreviation was seen as an act of treason. Nurcus defend that some words and expressions in Arabic and Farsi have no equivalents in modern Turkish, and what the Gülenists did would reduce the Risale into a simple work.

Lastly, the divide sharpened after the commencement of the fight between the AKP and the Gülenists in 2013. Nurcus reminded Gülenists about Nursî’s warnings about insurrection against the state and the dangers of ‘anarchy’. Since the coup d’état attempt of July 2016, Nurcus wish to distance themselves from the Gülenists even more desperately, claiming that Gülenists have nothing to do with the Nurcu tradition.



Gülenist Ideology

If the Gülen Movement is distinct from the Nurcu tradition that it is oftenly associated with, then what remains ideologically to the Movement beyond the limited influence of Nursî? As mentioned by Bilici (2016), Gülen Movement has three main characteristics that are the cult leadership of Gülen, Turkish nationalism and a desire to take over the Turkish state. These three characteristics make the Movement distinct in the sense that it manages to blend different elements from different thoughts, all of which will be analysed in relation to their role in Gülenist ideology.

Gülen Movement is not an Islamic tariqa (order) but refers to itself as Cemaat (community) which is a notion that does not necessarily carry Islamic connotations. Sufis, who were popular in Anatolia, were much like the Christian hermits who isolated themselves from the society and dedicated their lives to worshipping God alone. According to those monastics, engaging in worldly matters was a distraction from the real mission of creation which is to constantly reminding oneself of God’s existence and getting closer to him. Although there are some Sufi elements in the ideology of Gülen Movement, in terms of their views on this world vis-a-vis the afterlife, there are profound differences. Gülen does not ignore the importance of spirituality, but insists that “serving God and serving the world are not two mutually exclusive duties” (Sunier, 2014: 2205). Spirituality is valuable only if it manages to coexist with an active social life, since the awayness from the sins of society will reinforce a spiritual way of life perforce. Gülen supports the idea that one must go through this world and tirelessly work to deserve a satisfactory afterlife and tries to instil his followers with this idea. With his insistence on engaging in economic and social matters, Gülen is usually seen as the commencer of some sort of Protestant revolution within Islam (Barton & Weller & Yilmaz, 2013: 103). He calls this effort ‘Hizmet’, which is a timeless mission of contributing actively for the good of the society and ultimately of humanity. Alongside Protestantism, Gülen Movement has been likened to many other teachings. The concept of Hizmet   is   also   likened   to   Tikkun   Olam   in   Judaism,   which   means   ‘repairing   the world’ (Firestone, 2017).

Although the Movement differs from Sufism in forenamed aspects, Gülen feeds from Sufi tradition to provide a spiritual aspect to Hizmet (Fuller, 2014: 154). Islam, according to Gülen, is not a series of rigid rules but a way of life that can be preached through love and tolerance (Koyuncu-Lorasdağı, 2010: 225). In Sufi Islam the loyalty to the sheikh is the most essential tenet. Sheikh is the guide (mürşit) and has absolute authority inside the tariqa. In order to become a disciple (mürid), one must submit himself to the authority of the Sheikh which inevitably produces a cult of personality. Even though Gülen is not a sheikh and his movement is far from a tariqa, the feature of cult personality present in tariqas is also central for the Gülen Movement: Fethullah Gülen is referred to as Hocaefendi (the master teacher) and openly criticising Gülen is a taboo since his personality is dear to many and his teachings are the basis of those people’s ideology. This is apparent from people attributing utmost value to his sermons that serve as a tool of communication between him and his followers all around the world. Although the organisation of the movement is multi-layer, i.e people who belong to the Movement do not necessarily know each other, the binding force is Gülen’s charismatic leadership. After all, the movement is referred to as “the Gülen Movement” in English and (Fethullah) Gülen Cemaati in Turkish.

Therefore his emphasis on Sufism stems from his view that an ‘open Islam’ can only emerge in Turkey which had the necessary cultural inputs, and not in ‘reactionary’ Arab world (Gözaydın, 2009: 1219). In this regard, Gülen’s thought can be described as Turkish nationalist (Sevindi, 1997). However, his nationalism should not be understood in conventional terms. As Kemalism, the ruling ideology in Turkey, was suspicious of each and every religious movement, Gülen had to accommodate the Turkish state by actively proving that he was not aspiring to undermine secularism by subscribing to a nationalist fervour as imposed by the Kemalist state. In other words, Gülen’s Turkish nationalism was a way for him to demonstrate that he was not a radical Islamist as these were seen as two conflicting ideologies. Therefore, especially in the beginning when the movement was nascenting as an organised network, the primary goal of Gülen and his followers was to carry out Hizmet based on their “primary loyalties to the nation” (Turam, 2007: 190).

Gülen’s hometown Erzurum has also deep influences on his (and thus the Movement’s) nationalistic thinking. Since the city has been a border town in the quatro-border region close to Russia, Armenia and Iran, Erzurum had been occupied by all those nations which pushed inhabitantsofthecity(whoarecalled‘Dadaş’)  tobesignificantlymorenationalistic compared to the rest of Turkey. As a term coined by Yavuz (1996), this Dadaş Soul gives priority to the state before Islam, as the city witnessed numerous invasions, namely in 1821 (by Iran); 1828 (by Russia); 1877 (again by Russia) and 1916 (by joint Russian-Armenian forces). It is no surprise that Gülen was a strong supporter of the Turkish state as he deemed Turkey as the potential foothold of a potential Islamic revival. Precisely because of this reason, Gülen had been in extremely good terms with the Turkish state until a brief break in late 1990s and again in 2013 for good. It is ironic that a figure like Gülen who held Turkey so central to his philosophy and mission is now the number one enemy of the Turkish state and is recognised as a terrorist by the government, with 64% of the people believing that Gülen is behind the coup d’état of July 2016 (Bianet, 2016).

The feature of Gülen’s ideology which deems Turkey as the center of an Islamic revival brings with it his will to render his country as powerful as it was in the Ottoman era. Since his childhood, he has envisioned Turkey as a global power. (Koyuncu-Lorasdağı, 2010: 229). This way of thinking of Gülen, brings us to the third essential feature of the Movement that is the desire to take over the Turkish state. This “take-over” is not the idea that Fethullah mandate. It is rather a projection to educate the Turkish youth in order to create a Golden Generation (Altın Nesil) which would eventually become the future leaders of the country and thus the engine of an Islamic renaissance (Sunier, 2014: 2205).



Gülen Movement and its Project for Turkey

This Golden Generation would become an intellectual carrier for an Islamic reform and also the future political, economic and cultural elite who have access to critical positions at state institutions. Although Gülen accepted the Kemalist status quo unlike Islamists   at   that time, he nevertheless found the Kemalist modernisation project unsatisfactory. In modern schools, religion was not a part of the curriculum and as a result of laic indoctrination the educated youth were becoming alien to religious concepts (Koyuncu-Lorasdağı, 2010 226). On the other hand, in traditional religious schools (medrese) only a dogmatic form of religion was being taught and there was no place for modern sciences, let alone philosophy and social studies. Gülen envisaged a modernisation project which would combine modern and religious teaching and offer a solution to the crisis Turkish education was experiencing. Said Nursî, too, had underlined the necessity of teaching religion and sciences together (Jamshed, 2016:641). When referring to the project of an “Islamic Renaissance”, Gülen asserts that it will be carried out by ‘powerful human beings’ whose “heads are equipped with science while their hearts are equipped with faith”. While doing so, Gülen refers to terms used by Nursî before him, that are Fünunu Medeniye (modern sciences) and Ulumi İslamiye (religious knowledge).

Gülen   founded   the   Erzurum   branch   of   ‘The   Foundation   for   Combatting Communism’ (Komünizmle Mücadele Derneği) and became its first director, but he gained nation-wide popularity when he was appointed as an imam to Izmir, a predominantly secular city. Gülen had continuously asserted the need for philanthropic activities in order to help create institutions that would educate the Turkish youth. Gülen urged that the objective of philanthropy must be directed towards the need of education, and not things like building mosques. Indeed, Gülen thought that Turkey had more than enough mosques and said “founding a school is better than a mosque” (Fuller, 2014: 159; Gözaydın 2009: 1219). Izmir eventually became the center of the movement with the first ‘Gülenist school’ being founded there.  It’snamewasYamanlar HighSchool.  Yamanlarprovedtobeoneofthemost successful high schools in Turkey in terms of the percentage of students gaining admission to top universities. Religion played no part in the curriculum, and teachers hoped to become models with their Islamic lifestyle rather than openly preaching any religious idea (Ibid: 160). Many other schools of similar success rates were to be found all around Turkey and then around the world from 1970s until 2016, when the Turkish government closed hundreds of Gülenist schools overnight with ‘state of emergency’ (Olağanüstü Hal) decrees after the failed coup of July 15.

As more and more schools and preparatory institutions (dershane) were opened, their Gülen-inspired graduates were guided by their mentors (known inside the movement as ‘Abi’- elder brother) to fields that were deemed more appropriate for them. Some graduates would end up holding critical posts in state institutions by becoming judges and prosecutors, elite police officers and even soldiers. As more and more Gülenists started to have access to ‘corridors of power’, they were subjected to increased criticism. Secularists claimed that Gülenists were aspiring to take over the Turkish state by situating their ‘militants’ in critical bureaucratic, judicial, and military positions. Gülenists highlighted the legality of these procedures and argued that Hizmet members have as much right as any citizen to hold public posts(Ibid.  177).  Itisalsotruethattherearemanyotherorganisednetworksbeing represented in state institutions such as the Alevis and Kemalists.

Another reason for being the target of criticisms was their alleged secret aspirations. According to sociologist Mücahit Bilici, who studied and observed the Gülen Movement, unlike in other Islamic movements secrecy became a defining feature of the Gülenists (2016). This ‘secret’ nature of the Movement has been subjected to immense criticism: both Islamists and Secularists utilised the term ‘Takiye’ (the belief and practice that it is permissible to lie about your religious affiliation) when describing the Gülenist modus operandi inside the state institutions. This allegation, which stems from the fact that Gülenists lack transparency in their conduct, is arguably one of the reasons why Gülenists are occasionally found to be suspicious and unreliable people who hide their true aspirations (Ibid; Fuller, 2014: 160). Bilici (2016) also claims that this is the precise reason why people are struggling to sympathise with Gülenists who are now being treated inhumanely and unjustly by the Turkish state.


As a result of the Kemalist heritage, Islamic tariqas and congregations were forced to either explicitly oppose the laic state or to remain somewhat closeted and seem apolitical. The latter stream brought with it the need to remain hidden and hold the beliefs and practices secret, as those who opposed to the Turkish laic state were subdued by the ‘Military Tutelage’ (Askeri Vesayet). The Gülen movement followed the second stream, and did not object to the so-called Vesayet that guaranteed Laiklik, thus endorsed the status quo. It is therefore not surprising that Fethullah Gülen had good relations with the State until the 1990s. As a result of Gülen Movement’s accommodation of the Turkish state, Fethullah Gülen had good relations with many political figures such as Bülent Ecevit (PM from the leftist ‘Democratic Left Party’), Süleyman Demirel5, and Turgut Özal (Centre-right PMs and later presidents of Turkey). During the period between 1970s and 1980s, Gülen movement expanded to a great extent, especially during the terms of Turgut Özal (1983-1993). In this period, Gülenists had the chance to ensconce in state institutions in relative ease, and were supported by the state in 1990s when establishing schools around Turkey’s “sphere of influence” i.e Balkans and Central Asia. Gülen’s nationalist fervour was in parallel with liberal Turgut Özal’s pan-Turanists foreign policy (El-Kazaz, 2015: 3). Gülen believed that Turkey must cooperate with the Turkic world as the country’s roots lied there and not increase ties with the Middle East, which was the agenda of Islamists (Sunier, 2014: 2202). This is also the reason why first Gülenist schools around Turkey’s cultural sphere were founded in Central Asian countries instead of Middle Eastern countries (Yavuz, 1999: 590).

Perhaps the most important reason for this support of the Turkish state was the Movement’s stance against global Islamists trend and their image as the bastion of “moderate Islam” (Ilımlı İslam) against the radical threats posed by the events of the era such as the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in 1990s (Gözaydın, 2009. 1218). Gülen was well aware of the global context in which he was playing a role: on the global level, the rise of radical Islam was worrying the West and the idea that there is a ‘clash of civilisations’ (Huntington, 1993) between the Islamic world and the West was circulating widely. By the educated liberal elite, Gülen was seen a figure whose teachings about dialogue and tolerance were compatible with modernity and secularism. He was (and remains) a supporter of Turkey’s bid for EU membership, and keeps sharing the idea that an antagonistic view of the West would alienate Muslims all around the world (El-Kazaz, 2015: 7). Gülen made his views on secularism clear by articulating that a secular state, which guarantees individual liberties with the rule of law, is preferable to an ‘Islamic state’ (Akyol, 2007: 31). Gülen Movement later asserted that “God’s ontological sovereignty is compatible with the political sovereignty of the people”, thus theologically justifying secular rule (Kuru, 2009: 177). As Gülen was openly against the politicisationofIslamandanyformofIslamistagenda,  hewasatoddswithpolitical Islamists in Turkey.

Indeed, the first confrontation between the State and Gülenists occurred during the brief mandate of Islamist Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) and its leader Necmettin Erbakan. Erbakan envisaged a radical and top-down transformation of the Turkish society by utilising state apparatuses. RP’s ideology was pan-Islamism: The party wished to have an economic union withother‘Muslimnations’  andturnawayfromWesternalliancessuchasNATO (Yeğenoğlu, 2012: 193). Perhaps the single most provoking policy was seeking to develop good relations between Iran and Turkey.

The reasons why Erbakan’s RP and Gülen Movement were at odds are obvious: Fethullah Gülen’s vision and the values he upheld were in direct contrast with those of Erbakan. Once Erbakan even said that those who did not vote for him “believed in potato religion” i.e they were disbelievers (Hürriyet, 2011). When a corruption scandal took place concerning Erbakan and his family, Gülen publicly criticised him and questioned him about the allegations. In 28th of February 1997, the laic military staged a coup d’état against Erbakan and toppled the RP. When a memorandum was issued by the military, forcing Erbakan to resign, Gülen made the headlines by urging Erbakan to comply: “You could not [succeed at] governing. Just leave it” (Hürriyet, 1997).

The concept of dialogue became a central feature of Gülen’s teachings as the Movement started to globalise in late 1990s. In 1998, Gülen met with Pope Jean-Paul II in Rome, and talked to him about the necessity of dialogue between faiths. To the utter shock of rivalling Islamists, he described Vatican as a holy city and said that “ [since my] age is quite old, I thought, what if I die in this holy land?” (Hürriyet, 1998). He later met with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel (Gözaydın, 2009: 1224). Perhaps most importantly, by conducting such visits he aspired to debunk what he referred to as “the so-called clash of civilisations”. When asked about the reason for his relations with other religions’ notables, Gülen told: “Islam has been a misunderstood religion. Muslims are to blame for this…  An effort might help reduce this misunderstanding to a great extent” (Hürriyet, 1998).

Although Gülen had welcomed the military intervention against Erbakan, he nevertheless moved to the US, in 1999, for political reasons. Although the ‘universalisation’ ofthemovementhadcommencedearlier,  hismovementtotheU.Ssymbolisedthis significant chapter of the Movement which became even more transnational both in thinking and practice. Moreover, the new generation that was educated in Gülenist institutions were arguably adapting to the modern world faster than the Movement itself, meaning that new and younger supporters had a more cosmopolitan worldview instead of a more nationalistic one. Cosmopolitan worldview of new supporters implied that, in the course of time, the Movement would shift it philosophy from conservatism and Turkish nationalism to individual liberties and democracy.

A part from Gülen’s departure to the US and the dynamics between old and new supporters, this shift in the Movement’s philosophy was in part due to the expansion of Gülenist institutions worldwide, as this implied that the Movement had to develop a message that included non-Turkish and non-Muslim followers as well. Fuller (2014) explains that Gülen has expanded his attention from Turkish-Islamic values to “appreciation of common values in human life”. Gülen started to preach that these values are not exclusive to Islam, but are shared between all religions. As a part of this ‘universalisation trend’, Islamic values that were the main source of inspiration for the members of the movement were re-framed as universal values. Fuller goes on to describe Gülenist philosophy as “non-Muslim Islam”, meaning that the values which the Movement upheld “exten[ded] beyond specific Muslim culture” and were focused on achiev[ing] common goals in education, community service, interfaith dialogue, and the advancement of general human welfare” (Ibid: 158). In light of the philosophical and modal transformation that Gülen Movement experienced, Fethullah Gülen’s own words about this are critical:

We all change, dont we? There is no escape from change. By visiting the United States and many European countries, I realised the virtues and the role of religion in these societies. Islam flourishes in America and Europe much better than in many Muslim countries. This means freedom and the rule of law are necessary for personal Islam. Moreover, Islam does not need the state to survive, but rather needs educated and financially rich communities to flourish …” (Akyol, 2007: 31)

The 2000s saw the network of schools growing rapidly with new institutions being founded around the world, including the Middle East, Europe and North America. These selective schools (that identified themselves as ‘Gülen-inspired’ institutions) offered quality education, and in underdeveloped and developing countries, their targeted audience was the countries’ elites. The Gülenist schools had completely secular curricula, and in line with Gülen’s teachings, the teachers were not openly inviting anyone to Islam but rather serving as role models by incorporating Islamic ethics to their daily lives. In that sense, they brought a similar model that they previously experimented in Turkey. Gülenists also founded schools in conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Somalia.6

The fact that Gülen had been living in the US attracted criticism from the Islamists and Kemalistsalike. AccordingtoKemalists,  forexample,  himresidingin Americawasa satisfactory evidence that the Movement was indeed controlled by the CIA and thus was detrimental to Turkey’s national interests. The role of Graham Fuller, the ex-chief of CIA’s

Middle East Bureau, in Gülen’s obtainment of a permanent residency permit was one such widely-circulated matter of controversy. In the meantime, Turkish liberal sand some adherents of the ‘new left’ supported the Gülen Movement as they saw it as a promising alternative to radicalism and indeed an engine that would carry Muslims to democracy. In Turkey, the movement continued to become more andmore influential and organised.



The Rise of AKP: How Did “Hizmet” become “FETÖ”?

The essential question that remains is: No matter how controversial it was, how did this civil society movement that was once some peoples hope for a reform in Islam came to labelled as a terrorist network, and became the greatest enemy of the Turkish state?

In 2002, the AKP won the elections and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the prime minister. Erdoğan came from an Islamist background: he was the mayor of Istanbul from Erbakan’s RP. Erdoğan was seen as Erbakan’s protégé, but he proved to be more successful than his mentor. He claimed to have abandoned the Islamist agenda, and promised greater freedoms for every section of society: religious Muslims, non-Muslim minorities, Kurds and even homosexuals. He vowed to liberalise the economy and started a campaign of privatisation. Perhapsmostimportantofallhispromises,  Erdoğan declared war on the “military tutelage” of the ancient laic elite which carried out coups against the popular will in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997.

Since 2014, Turkish government intensifies its efforts to force foreign nations to close down Gülen -affiliated institutions. Institutions in Somalia were closed down and like many other school, Afghan- Turk school in Afghanistan is going to be taken over by a government-friendly network.

As Erdoğan succeeded in publicising himself as being sympathetic towards each every group that experienced persecution at the hands of the Kemalist republic, he had the initial support of liberals, conservatives, and even some socialists who thought that Erdoğan’s efforts of democratisation would help Turkey. Erdoğan’s was also on good terms with Gülenists. In fact, Gülen had supported Erdoğan once he got convinced that Erdoğan abandoned Erbakan-style Islamism (Sunier, 2014: 2201). According to many, there was no ideological difference between the AKP and the Gülen Movement and many native and foreign observers described the situation as an ‘alliance’ between the two. Gülen has stated numerous times that the Movement should not be associated with any political party, and the formal activities of the Movement were conducted independently of the state (Fuller, 2014: 177). On the other hand, it would not be rightful to claim that the Gülenists were completely outside public affairs. As the Gülenist network continued to grow during AKP’s mandate, they became over-represented in state institutions, especially in the judiciary and the law enforcement branches (Ibid). Furthermore, many AKP officials (namely the mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek) made huge donations to Gülenist institutions, and many of them visited him. 

In 2009, Erdoğan decided to dismantle the Military Tutelage once and for all. The Kemalist military was seen in the public as an obstacle to the democratisation project as its mere existence was seen a threat to the government. In 2007, the military had issued a memorandumagainstthe AKP,  threateningthembecauseHayrunnisaGül,  the wife of presidential candidate Abdullah Gül from the AKP, was wearing a headscarf. Prosecutors who were allegedly linked to Gülen paved the way for the AKP’s subordination of the military by opening court cases against Kemalist soldiers with charges for attempting a coup d’état. Twocontroversialcourtcases,  ErgenekonandBalyoz,  wereessentiallyaimedat destroying the Kemalist presence in Turkish Armed Forces. Erdoğan called himself “the [main] prosecutor” of the cases against Kemalist generals. The Kemalist-secularist branch was purged   from the army and their now-empty posts were to a large extent filled with officers who had Gülenist backgrounds.

Ergenekon and Balyoz cases arguably marked the peak of Gülenist influence in state affairs. The controversy about these cases were stemming from the conception that they were not simply genuine attempts directed towards punishing the criminals inside the army, who allegedly plotted to carry out terror attacks to legitimise a coup d’état against Erdoğan. Needless to say, some of the indictees were indeed criminals. Veli Küçük, for example, was an infamous representative of the Kemalist “deep state” which carried out assassinations against Kurdish, Islamist and Socialist intellectuals in order to create an atmosphere of chaos (Metin, 2016: 49). However, the Gülenist network in the judiciary arguably went too far when regular dissidents of the AKP (and the Gülen Movement, of course) who were later proven to be innocent where punished due to alleged ties with Ergenekon and Balyoz coup plots. Perhaps the best example that can be given when explaining this presumption is the imprisonment   ofAhmet   Şık.   Şık   had   written   a   book   called   “TheArmy   of   the Imam” (İmam’ın Ordusu) in which he uncovered and criticised the Gülenist presence in the state institutions and their role in the agenda-setting processes. His book was banned before even being published, and along with numerous other journalists, Ahmet Şık was imprisoned (BBC Türkçe, 2016). Also, many documents that were presented as evidence in order to jail Kemalist military officials in Balyoz case were later proved to be forgeries. Although Gülen Movement was (and still is) rightfully criticised due to such injustices, one must notice that the of relations between the Movement and AKP deteriorated in parallel with AKP’s increasing authoritarianism and inclination towards political Islam.

Afterdisposingthesecularisttutelage,  Erdoğanrealisedthattheonlyremaining obstacle on the way for him to expand his control was the Gülenist presence in critical state positions. In 2010, the first public confrontation took place between Gülen and Erdoğan. A flotilla called Mavi Marmara, which carried aid for Gaza, was stopped by the Israeli security forces and the the consequent clashes resulted with the death of 9 Turkish civilians (Hürriyet,2010). After the incident Gülen heavily criticised the AKP for utilising this human tragedy for their Islamist agenda. According to Gülen, the Turkish authorities shared the blame because they provoked such a confrontation against Israel for their PR project which was to publicise themselves as the oppressed. Mavi Marmara incident helped AKP a lot in foreign policy, especially with their efforts to assert themselves as the ‘new leader of the Islamic world’. Erdoğan criticised Gülen heavily, and later said “[Remember] what [Gülen] said; ‘they had to ask the permission of authorities’. Who is the authority? Is the it us, or is it their lover in the south [Israel]? If the authority is us, then we gave the permission” (İHH, 2014).

According to Erdoğan, the Gülen Movement constituted a threat for his power due to two reasons: Firstly, the Movement remained as the only independent and powerful Islamic movementthatcouldpotentiallychallengeErdoğan’saspirationtobecomethesole representer of the religious masses. Secondly, apart from the fact that the Movement appealed to many mainstream Muslims in Turkey, it could also become a political danger in the long run as it continued to control critical public institutions.

It is very common to take the issue of dershanes as the starter of the conflict between AKP and Gülen. Erdoğan made his intentions to ban the dershanes, i.e preparatory schools, a significantproportionofwhichbelongedtoGülen-affiliatednetworks,  clearin2013. Dershane had always a significant meaning for the Movement, as it was firstly used by the early followers ofNursî and Gülen to identify places that people gathered to study the Risale-i Nur. The contemporary role of the dershanes was to prepare students for university exams and to provide the Movement with ‘new recruits’. Therefore the closure of dershanes would be a fatal blow to the future of the Movement. After the announcement of the decision, Gülenists started a massive campaign against it. Apart from making their discontent public on TVchannelsandnewspapers(mostnotablySamanyoluandZaman),  manyordinary Gülenists created Twitter accounts and shared their message on online platforms. It was possible to observe the shock in Gülenists as for the first time there was an open dispute with the AKP. 

In late 2013, a series of voice recordings of Erdoğan, his son Bilal and some AKP leaders were uploaded online and commenced the scandalous “Corruption and Bribery Case”. In those voice recordings which came to be known as tapeler (tapes), Erdoğan and his close circle were heard engaging in blatant corruption. Erdoğan’s most aggressive turn took place after the videos went viral and occupied the agenda for months. Erdoğan claimed that the voice recordings were forgeries, blamed Fethullah Gülen as the mastermind behind this ‘operation’,  and described him as“alyingprophet”  (yalancı  peygamber)  and“afake saint” (sahte veli) (CNN Turk, 2014). Erdoğan addressed to the Movement as “a gang of traitors” (ihanet şebekesi) and a “perverted sect outside of Islam” (İslam dışı sapık bir fırka). As a result of the “Bribery and Corruption Case”, 4 AKP ministers were forced to resign.

In 2014, a number of trucks that were carrying arms to Syria were stopped by the Turkish gendarmerie in the southern city of Adana. It was found out that these trucks in fact belonged to the Turkish intelligence agency, MİT. The common perception was that AKP was secretly sending those arms into Syria in order to aid jihadist groups. The prosecutor who ordered the gendarmeries’ operation against the MİT trucks was dismissed (and later arrested along with the gendarmerie commander) due to his alleged ties with Gülen. Erdoğan once again condemned the operation and blamed Gülen for creating a ‘parallel state’ within the Turkish state that aimed to carry out a coup attempt and overthrow the AKP.   A real coup attempt was on its way.

The Movement underwent an existential crisis as their aspirations to ‘take over’ had clashed with those of Erdoğan, who wanted to create an authoritarian, Islamist rule. The following years saw a gradual decline in Gülenist influence and power. Many judges and prosecutors sympathetic towards Gülen were dismissed, Gülenist television networks and newspapers (such as Samanyolu TV, Mehtap TV, Bugün TV, Zaman and Bugün Newspapers and Aksiyon magazine) were shut down via anti-terror laws. In 2015, the Gülen Movement was designated as a terrorist organisation under the name of ‘FETÖ/PDY’ (Pro-Fethullah Terrorist Network / Parallel State Structure) that ‘exploited the religious feelings of people’ in order to ‘take over the country’, which was led by Fethullah Gülen. (Cumhuriyet, 2015). In 2016, the government appointed trustees (kayyım) to many companies and privately-run institutions that were allegedly linked to the Gülen Movement in order to take them over (Rethink Brief, 2016). Gülenist schools were in a burdensome situation as well: since the commencement of the conflict with the AKP their student body dropped significantly, either because parents genuinely took a stand against the Movement or they were too afraid to get labelled. Many of the schools had to downsize as a result of financial difficulties and constant harassment by AKP’s education inspectors.



The Coup and the Purge

In regard to the repressions that the Movement was subjected to, one could argue that the Gülen Movement had all the reasons to try its last chance with such a badly organized and rushed coup-attempt to topple Erdoğan down. However, it can also be put forward that the Movement lacked all the necessities as it was in the most disadvantaged position, maybe ever,  incomparisontoErdoğan.  Eitherway,  thegovernmenthasfailedtoprovideany concrete proof that Gülen was behind this coup. German, Dutch and British intelligence reports assert that although sympathisers of Gülen might have taken part in the coup, it was highly unlikely that Fethullah Gülen has orchestrated the coup as Erdoğan claims (T24, 2017).

After the coup, the government has publicised the demise of the coup as a ‘second war of independence’. The police officers, soldiers and ordinary citizens that were killed by the coup-plotters were declared national heroes. On 20th of July, the government declared State of Emergency in the entire country. This allowed it to create the current situation that was touched upon in the introduction part of this article. Erdoğan infilled the Turkish population with such a hatred against the Gülenists and Gülen himself that people became outwardly violent against anyone who was suspected of feeling any bit of sympathy towards Gülen. Mock-ups of Gülen were hanged in public squares of big cities and people expressed their wishes for the death penalty to be reinstalled and to be executed against Gülenists. Erdoğan said that he was also a supporter of the reinstallation of death penalty and has been trying very hard to convince the American authorities to extradite Gülen back to Turkey.

Whereas many journalists, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, academics and businessmen were put in jail, those who only remained as sympathisers are being turned into what pro- government journalists call “socially dead” people (Medeni Ölü). With no prospect of finding jobs or leaving the country as their passports have been revoked, Gülenists (who now have to pose as ‘ex-Gülenists’) are literally left to perish with hunger. Not to mention that having studied at a Gülen-inspired school, having a bank account at Bank Asya (an affiliate bank) or possessing a book written by the cleric is enough evidence of being a terrorist as of July 15 2016 (The Atlantic, 2017). However, the government’s crackdown has extended well beyond the Gulenists. Leftist activists, Kurdish politicians, and dissenting academics have all been targeted. Under the ongoing emergency law declared immediately after the coup, almost

100,000 people were dismissed from their jobs without trial. More than 47,000 people were imprisonedinrelationwiththecoup.  ThewarextendedbeyondTurkey’sborders,  and Erdoğan is currently utilising all means of the Turkish state in order to force its disadvantaged partners such as Somalia, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan to shut down Gülenist institutions.

To conclude, Gülen Movement which has a rather controversial history in Turkey ended up being subdued by the Erdoğan regime. As a result of insistent attempts by the Turkish government, Gülen movement has been marginalised and alienated from the rest of the Turkish society. As a result of the continuous persecution, members of the Movement have found themselves either in jail or in extremely disadvantaged conditions abroad. This marginalisation can be observed by looking at how the Gülenist discourse against the AKP has transformed from a political one into a theological one. Members of the Movement who emigrated to foreign counties to escape persecution refer to themselves as ‘muhacirun’ and those who had been living abroad call themselves ‘ensar’ — as reference to the emigration the Islamic prophet Muhammed did in 622. Gülen refers to Erdoğan and his supporters as

‘Hypocrites’ (münafıklar) and within Gülenist circles Erdoğan and his supporters are referred to as Yezit ve Avanesi (Yazid and his gang), Tiran (Tyrant) and Zalimler (the Oppressors). Bilici (2016) suggests that the the degree of torture and persecution is so high that Movement might even be marginalised from mainstream Islam to the extent that it might eventually end up as a distinct sect or religion, like the Druze or the Ezidis. What will happen to the movement —both in material and theological sense— after Mr. Gülen is a matter of speculation and a separate study must be devoted to it. Realising the unfortunate turn the Turkish democratisation process took since 2010-11, and the current situation as outlined in the introduction, one might ask “who is the current real threat to Turkish democracy: Gülen or Erdoğan?”








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