Turkey’s Biggest Export
The many problems of Fethullah Gulen
One wonders what Rumi would have made of modern Turkey’s most powerful religious group, the neo-Sufi Fethullah Gulen Movement, set up in the early 1970s by a former state-employed imam, in control today of a media empire and a network of schools and businesses that stretches across the world.
Outside Turkey, among the few who know of it, the Movement has long had a positive reputation.
Playing on simplistic western ideas of Sufism as ‘tolerant’ Islam, its leaders have proved adept at marketing it as a moderate alternative to Al-Qaeda and its offshoots. A day after the Twin Tower attacks, Gulen placed a full page advert in the New York Times saying that “a terrorist cannot be a Muslim, nor can a true Muslim be a terrorist.”
The advert was very much on message. Based in the USA since 1999, Gulen has been unswervingly critical of efforts to turn Islam into what he calls “a means to control people.” In reality, he says, it is a “religion of belief, prayer and good morals” which is perfectly in line with Western democratic norms.
Gulen was an early exponent of inter-faith dialogue, meeting Pope John Paul II in 1998. He has met Jewish community leaders on numerous occasions since. Across Europe and the US foundations set up by his followers organize conferences on ‘moderate Islam’ and the importance of civilizational dialogue.
Schools funded and staffed by his sympathizers offer English-language education—modeled on Turkey’s state curriculum—to the children of elites from Mongolia to South America.Turkey’s media have stopped applauding the Movement and timidly begun to question its motives.
Every year, in the second half of May, hundreds of children from the schools come to Turkey to participate in what the Movement calls the Turkish Olympiads, competing to sing the best Turkish song, to recite the best Turkish poem, to dance the best Turkish folk dance. The finals are broadcast on prime-time TV and reported assiduously by newspapers of all ideological stripes.
“This organization will transform Turkey from a regional power to a world power”, Ali Agaoglu, the CEO of one of Turkey’s biggest construction companies, enthused after last year’s finals.
Even Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, known to be no great fan of the Movement, if only because its power risks encroaching on his, was unstinting in his praise. “When I go abroad, I see our flag flying not just in our embassies,” he told the gala audience last year. “I see it in the schools too, and that makes me proud.”
Yet, despite the public displays of enthusiasm that greet the Olympiads every year, attitudes towards the Gulen Movement inside Turkey have long been mixed.
In part, the suspicion can be put down to the Republic’s deep suspicion of what it calls irtica (reaction), a convenient shorthand for any expression of Islam that is not in line with interpretations backed by the state.
In 2000, three years into an army-backed campaign to crush political Islam, a prosecutor charged Gulen with attempting to undermine Turkish secularism. Gulen has always denied the charges, and in 2006 a court dismissed the case.
Since then, the power of the Movement has grown exponentially. Sales of its flagship newspaper, Zaman, have grown in five years from around 300,000 to just under a million. When a non-Turk boards a Turkish Airlines flight today, it is Zaman‘s English-language version they are offered to read, not the more secular Turkish Daily News, as was once the case.
Analysts put its rapid rise down to its success at capturing the newly-confident zeitgeist of Anatolia’s new entrepreneurs.
In Gaziantep, Konya, Kayseri and Denizli, socially conservative Anatolian cities that have risen from small trading towns to major industrial exporters in the last twenty years, pro-Gulen business associations regroup the strongest businesses.
Everywhere you go in these cities, you meet businessmen who echo the sentiments Gulen has expressed in his sermons for years: pride in Turkey, the descendant of the great Ottoman Empire, the conviction that after years of weakness and shame the country is on the way up again, the conviction that strength lies in strong faith, an emphasis on moral conservatism rather than radical Islam.
But the Movement’s growth has increased suspicions, and skepticism about its intentions is no longer limited to secularist die-hards.
At the heart of suspicions lies the sprawling investigation into a group that Turks know as Ergenekon, the name of a Romulus and Remus-style myth of Turkish origins.
The investigation began in 2007, when police found a stash of explosives at a retired military petty-officer’s house in Istanbul. Within months, scores of people had been arrested on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the self-styled ‘Muslim democrat’ government in power since 2002: mafiosi, hired killers the state had used to gun down Kurdish dissidents in the 1990s, ultra-nationalist lawyers and—shockingly—several four-star generals.
Secular politicians reacted from the start with horror. But for many Turks, liberal or conservative, the investigations were welcome. Evidence of plotting was clear. There was a history too: the army had intervened in politics four times since 1960. Finally, the unelected ‘guardians’ of the Turkish Republic were being brought to account. It was a victory for democracy.
Then things began to go wrong. It wasn’t just the abysmal quality of the three Ergenekon indictments, or their length (5000 pages). Nor was it the fact some suspects have been held in custody for over two years either: Turks are used to that. It was the way investigations seemed to turn into a witch-hunt of critics of both the government and the Movement.
In 2009, there was a police raid on the house of a terminally-ill 73-year old woman well-known for her advocacy of girls’ education. In 2010, a senior police officer who had spent his life fighting left-wing terror was arrested on charges of membership of an extreme left-wing terror group. In 2011, two journalists who had done more than any to shed light on Ergenekon were arrested on suspicion of being members.
Many blamed the Movement for the arrests. Long accused of being a missionary by conservatives (her mother was Swiss), the woman had set up schools that were a competitor of Movement schools. The police officer had just published a book alleging that Movement supporters controlled senior positions in the police. The journalists had both written books critical of the Movement. “Anybody who touches [the Movement] burns,” one of them shouted as police led him away.
Sympathizers of Fethullah Gulen point out that Turkey is full of critics of the Movement who have not been arrested.
But the reactions of the Movement’s media to the arrests did nothing for its reputation. A news presenter on Samanyolu television, the Movement’s TV flagship, smiled as he announced the woman’s death from cancer shortly after the raid. When the police officer was arrested, Zaman columnists made much of allegations that he was having an affair with a schoolteacher.
“If he had not had an affair, would [he] be in prison today,” asked Huseyin Gulerce, a leading columnist for Zaman. “God protect us all from our moral frailties. For it is these that the Deep State uses.” (The Deep State is the shadowy nexus of civilians and military men Turks believe have controlled Turkey from behind the scenes for decades.)
Gulerce then went on to quote the alleged founder of a military police unit blamed for scores of murders during the 1990s. “Before we recruit people for JITEM, we dirty them thoroughly: they are no good to us if they are clean.” The implication was clear: the police officer was a member of JITEM, a group he was among the first officials publicly to give evidence against in the 1990s.
As international concern grew over the fate of the arrested journalists, meanwhile, it was the pro-Gulen media which led lobbying to keep the vaguely-worded anti-terror laws and ‘Special Authority Courts’ which enabled judges to keep the men in custody for over a year without even informing them of the case against them.
Get rid of the courts, Zaman chief editor Ekrem Dumanli wrote, and “all the trials against deep structures will fail. That is what Ergenekon supporters have been demanding for a long time.”
It is a rhetorical trope that has become wearingly familiar in recent years. In the past, the secular regime smeared its opponents as irticaci (reactionaries). Today, Ergenekon has replaced irtica. Only the media’s fondness for unattributed sources and ad hominem attacks remains unchanged.
The irony, analysts say, is that Zaman was among the most outspoken supporters, back in 2004, of the government’s European Union-backed plans to dispense with the State Security Courts which had been used for decades to lock up opponents of the regime.
Why oppose one court and defend another which is almost a carbon-copy of the first? That, critics of the Gulen Movement say, is the nub of the issue.
“What we have seen over the past six or seven years is a veiled war for control between two judicial cliques,” secularists backed by the military and Gulen sympathizers, says Orhan Gazi Ertekin, a judge and political analyst.
The State Security Courts were controlled by military judges, and secularists controlled other courts. Today, secularists are still strong in higher courts, the Court of Appeals and the Constitutional Court. The new Special Authority Courts, responsible for running the investigations into allegations of coup plots and terrorism, are controlled by Gulen sympathisers.
“The Movement has won the power struggle,” Ertekin says. “They are the new Kemalists. The mind-set is the same. Expecting them to be any more ‘Islamic’ than the secularists is as meaningless as expecting them to be any more democratic.”
Ertekin sees the signs of a growing rift within the judiciary between Gulen supporters and Islamists, allied until recently by a shared desire to combat authoritarian secular ideas. Politically too, old allies appear to be drifting apart: the government recently rushed to pass laws protecting Turkey’s intelligence chief after the same prosecutors who have spearheaded Ergenekon investigations tried to take him in for questioning.
“The alliance between the Justice and Development Party government and the Gulen Movement is finished”, says Ali Bayramoglu, a columnist for the pro-government and Gulen-neutral daily Yeni Safak.
Smelling blood, Turkey’s media have stopped applauding the Movement and timidly begun to question its motives. The international media too, which played such an important role in burnishing the Movement’s image as a standard-bearer for ‘liberal Islam’, have begun to rethink.
The New York Times, until recently a fairly unreflective cheerleader of Fethullah Gulen and his educational activities, has recently published two articles criticizing the Movement.
The second in particular, published in April, stung the Movement to respond. Gulen’s lawyer Orhan Erdemli accused “some marginal circles” of generating what Today’s Zaman called “imaginary scenarios to besmirch Gulen’s reputation.”
“[T]hey set about campaigns of lynching through the media in order to destroy this great interest, love, and high respect for Gulen held by the public opinion”, Today’s Zaman reported Erdemli as saying.
Fighting words. But Rusen Cakir, a liberal columnist who has watched the Movement for decades, nonetheless senses that many in the Movement are increasingly anxious at the turn events are taking.
“The Movement wants to leave behind the ‘extraordinary’ events of recent years and return to civil society activities,” he says.
Political scientist Dogu Ergil agrees. “The Gulen Movement is Turkey’s biggest export”, he says. “And when you internationalize yourself, you have to… balance things.”
As it works to re-brand itself, the Movement would do well to consider Rumi’s words: “Either appear as you are, or be as you appear.”