Gülen movement

Creating an elite to lead the state

The movement of Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen has relied on schools, educational institutions and clubs to expand to many countries, including in Africa. Many experts view the movement with scepticism, however. They claim that it has cult-like structures and is pursuing a secret agenda, only pretending to be an open-minded education initiative with a moderate take on Islam. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers Gülen public enemy number one.
Nationwide wave of arrests of alleged Gülen supporters on Turkey’s police force in April 2017. picture-alliance/AP Photo Nationwide wave of arrests of alleged Gülen supporters on Turkey’s police force in April 2017.

Seventy-six-year-old Fethullah Gülen became an imam at the young age of 18 and built a large following as an itinerant preacher in the 1980s. Operating under the motto “build schools, not mosques”, he enjoyed the active support of Turkey’s secular governments between 1986 and 1997. Tutoring centres, dormitories and universities sprang up like mushrooms, becoming the financial basis of the movement. The finances were managed by Kaynak Holding. Media companies, clinics and a bank – Bank Asya – were added as well.

At the same time, wealthy business people opened more than 1,000 schools in 160 countries in the former Soviet republics, particularly in the Caucasus and the new Balkan states, as well as in Africa and Central Asia. These institutions offer a modern, secular education. Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported their construction, and the degrees were recognised by the Ministry of National Education.

“Gülen was styled as a ‘model Muslim’ who offered a synthesis of Islamic values and the separation between Islam and politics prescribed by Kemalism,” explains Islam expert Bekim Agai of Goethe University Frankfurt. But a close examination of Gülen’s writings reveals that his version of Islam is oriented towards the conservative mainstream, according to Agai. His goal, the scholar says, is to educate a pious elite that is capable of leading and ultimately controlling the state.

Thus the Gülen supposedly philanthropic movement managed peu à peu to undermine Turkey’s state apparatus, writes Günter Seufert of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in a study: “Because the network refrains from ostentatious displays of religious identity, and because Gülen cooperated with the state in the past, supporters of the movement were able to survive a series of purges and build insider relationships within the state bureaucracy.” They are believed to be particularly strong within the police force, the justice system and the military since the early 1990s.

This situation took on a new dimension with the electoral victory of the conservative Islamic AKP in 2002. The party of then-Prime Minister Erdogan joined forces with Gülen’s supporters who were already civil servants. Both groups were pursuing the same goal: they wanted to turn Turkish society away from the hated Kemalist ideology and towards a religious identity. AKP politicians lauded Gülen as “honoured teacher”.

At the time, the imam was already living in exile in Pennsylvania, USA. He had left Turkey because his movement was accused of Islamising the military following a coup on 28 February 1997.

No connection to Turkey or Islam

Abroad, the Gülen movement functions as a global representative of conservative Islamic values and Turkishness. “Its goal is to spread the Turkish language and culture around the world,” says Bayram Balci, a political scientist from the French institute Sciences Po. Its foundations, educational and cultural institutions in other countries are not only concerned with reaching the Turkish diaspora, but also cater to members of the host community. These people often have no connection to Turkey or the Islamic religion.

In Western Europe and the USA, the movement focuses on the social advancement of disadvantaged people and interfaith dialogue with Christians and Jews, Balci reports. According to him, supporters often conceal their link to Gülen. In the Caucasus and in Africa, Gülen supporters have founded businesses and taken part in economic cooperation. The AKP has also made use of these contacts. Between 2002 and 2013, the number of Turkish embassies in Africa grew from 19 to 34. “Gülen supporters were the vanguard of Turkey’s soft-power offensive,” Balci explains.

The investigative journalist Ahmet Sik describes these activities as the “civil face” of the movement, which serves as a façade for its militaristic nature. This suspicion was borne out for the first time during the so-called Ergenekon trials. In 2007, Turkish prosecutors loyal to Gülen accused hundreds of former military officers, opposition lawmakers, journalists and attorneys of belonging to a secret organisation that supposedly wanted to overthrow the government. “With falsified evidence and false statements, they made life hell for thousands of people,” Sik says. He himself was arrested in 2011, shortly before the publication of his book, “The Imam’s Army”, which describes the infiltration of the security apparatus. “This is a mafia that is using religion as an instrument to gain power. It functions like a secret service,” Sik says of the movement’s cult-like structure.

In 2010, WikiLeaks released internal e-mails from Stratfor, a US-based security consultancy. The e-mails support this claim, quoting informants from the movement who describe clear hierarchies and chains of command as well as the “recruiting process” at Gülen schools. “The most loyal students were carefully placed in important positions in the government, while the most talented were sent to the military academy,” the e-mails reveal. Early on, Gülen himself had described his supporters as “recruits”. They came first and foremost from Turkey, of course, but also from the dormitories, called “houses of light”, that the movement established in the west, including in the USA and Germany.

The American magazine Foreign Policy reported as early as 2010 that although the Turkish government managed to curb the power of the military, a new “shadow state” had emerged. Erdogan recognised it as such and accused the special courts, which were full of Gülen’s cadre, of operating as a “state within a state”.

Fuelled by panic and the realisation that the Gülen movement – where 10 % to 15 % of Turkey’s population might belong to – gained too much power, Erdogan announced in November 2013 that he was closing the movement’s tutoring centres. Just one month later, on 17 December, the public prosecutor’s office, which had close ties to Gülen, started a comprehensive corruption investigation against Erdogan and his associates. Shortly after, President Erdogan renamed the movement the Fethullahist Terror Organisation and declared that Gülen was the public enemy number one. Tens of thousands of public prosecutors and police officers were fired or transferred. Gülen institutions and media companies were closed or taken over by the state.

Masterminds of the coup?

The conflict between President Erdogan and the Gülen movement ultimately escalated in the failed coup attempt of 15 July 2016, during which over 250 people died and 2,200 were wounded. Just hours later, the AKP government stated that Gülenists were behind it. Journalist Ahmet Sik sees things a little differently: “I think that there was a faction within the military and that the Gülenists were among the masterminds. Nevertheless, I believe that members of the faction betrayed each other the night before the attempted coup and during the aftermath.” The secret service knew of the plans by 3 pm and was able to take appropriate precautions and negotiate with parts of the faction.

Gareth Jenkins of the Swedish Institute for Security and Development Policy agrees. He thinks that Gülenist officers had probably gotten wind of the next purge of the security apparatus and wanted to head it off with a coup. Jenkins considers it unlikely that Gülen himself directed the entire operation. He does not believe there is any evidence for that theory and questions whether Gülen even knew about the coup in advance.

Erdogan called the coup “a gift from God” and declared a state of emergency. Because of their alleged ties to the Gülen movement, he ordered 150,000 persons suspended or fired from the military, the justice system and the education sector. More than 50,000 people were arrested. By as early as October 2016, around 4,500 companies and institutions had been nationalised. Over 300 companies – including Kaynak Holding – worth almost € 12 billion were taken over by Turkey’s banking supervisory authority and used to fill the state coffers. Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu from the Kemalist CHP called the government’s actions a “civil coup”.

The Turkish government also managed to exert pressure on the foreign countries in which the Gülen movement is active. In 19 of the 36 African countries where the movement has a presence, the Turkish government has succeeded in taking over Gülen schools through the state-funded Maarif Foundation, which was established in October 2016. Nevertheless, the US rebuffed Turkey’s request to extradite Gülen. Germany’s Federal Government also refuses to extradite Gülen supporters who fled to Germany after the attempted coup.

Timur Tinç is a reporter of the daily newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau.

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