From friend to foe: Fethullah Gülen
“Et tu, Brute?” “You too, Brutus?” These 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 maybe 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 lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.
He refused to utter the influential Muslim clerics name during his speech in December 2014 at “The Great Turkey Symposium” in the capital Ankara, but it was clear to all who 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 most-wanted terrorists’ list, next to leaders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Gülen Movement is officially deemed a national security threat in Turkey’s Red Book that lists the country’s security threats. There are four arrest warrants against Gülen and the Turkish authorities have demanded Interpol to issue a Red Notice against him.
On 6 January 2016 the first trial against him started in Istanbul’s Çağlayan court house. Prosecutors claim that many members of what they call now the ‘Gülenist Terror Organization – Parallel State Structure’ infiltrated key posts in the judiciary and police and established a “parallel state”. Gülenist prosecutors filed graft charges in December 2013 against several Ministers of the Justice and Development party (AKP) government, their family members, and the son of Erdoğan, Bilal. This was not a corruption investigation but part of a coup plot to overthrow the government, Erdoğan said at the time.
He dismissed the accused Ministers from the government and immediately started a counter offensive against everybody suspected of being a supporter of Gülen in the justice system and security services, in the media and in the business world. A witch hunt similar to the one U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy organized in the 1950s against suspected communists. Like McCarthy AKP Ministers, pro AKP media and Erdoğan himself use demagogic, and often unsubstantiated or exaggerated accusations, as well as public attacks on the character or patriotism of supporters of Fethullah Gülen. Epithets like traitors, assassins, viruses, parallel structure, and mafia became the new normal in the hate speech by the government and its supporters.
Many Turks, as well as western observers and diplomats, were confused, amazed and flabbergasted at the turn of events. The same police officers and prosecutors who were lauded by Erdoğan when they helped him to sideline and criminalize the military with earlier controversial coup cases against the AKP such as ‘Ergenekon’ and ‘Balyoz’ were now portrayed as enemies of their own country. Now the same advisors to the Prime Minister and pro AKP media argue that those Gülenist prosecutors had set a trap for the military. In the past two years around 1,800 suspects, including 750 police officers and 80 soldiers, have been detained as part of the ongoing investigations against sympathizers of Fethullah Gülen. Now that their common enemy – the generals – had been removed from their positions of political influence Erdoğan and Gülen turned against each other. In a classical power struggle that often erupts after successful revolutions and has become known as “Revolutions devour their own children”.
So who is this Islamic preacher who turned from friend to foe?
Followers of Muhammed Fethullah Gülen (1941) call him the Teacher, because all his life, from the young age of 14, he has been teaching in different parts of Turkey, and since 1999 in the U.S.
He was born in the village of Korucuk, near the eastern city of Erzurum, where he attended primary school for only a couple of years. His father Ramiz, who was the village imam, gave him Quran lessons. He also studied Islam in religious madrasa schools.
As a young teenager he began sharing his knowledge about Turkish folk Islam. He developed ideas about how the Turkish society should be, emphasizing the importance of study, dialogue with Christians and Jews, Turkish nationalism and 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 schools and boarding schools in Turkey and in more than a hundred other countries. These modern facilities are some of the best in Turkey. 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 set up Tuskon, a business confederation with some 120,000 companies.
The movement is said to have considerable influence in Turkey, although the number of supporters is hard to determine as there is no membership registration. Until the witch hunt started many said they were inspired by Gülen. If they disclosed their sympathy at all. Most concealed their affiliation because they could be discriminated against in the labor market when they openly declared their sympathy for Gülen. Possible some six million Turks have links with the movement of the scholar.
The Zaman newspaper, the mouthpiece of the movement, is one of the largest newspapers in Turkey with a daily circulation of around one million. Just ahead of the general elections of November 2015 a Turkish court seized control of the Gülen-linked Koza İpek holding, 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, with the aim of breaking 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. Earlier the AKP government banned all prep schools, an obvious attempt to weaken the Gülen movement that owned one third of these schools.
It is clear that President Erdoğan, who was elected with 52 percent of the vote, and his governing AKP, that was re-elected in November 2015 with 49.5 percent 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 just do what is expected of them by the government. But in the meantime, this 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 of 10 November 2015 the European Commission emphasises ‘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’.