BACKGROUND: Hanefi Avcı is a 54 year-old chief of police in the central Anatolian province of Eskişehir. Avcı has acquired a reputation for combining personal piety with a fierce opposition to the military’s meddling in politics. Amongst hard-line secularists, there were even those who used to claim that he was a follower of Fethullah Gülen, the controversial former preacher currently living in exile in the U.S.
As a result, the contents of Avcı’s book came as a shock. Entitled “Haliçte Yaşayan Simonlar: Dün Devlet, Bugün Cemaat” (“The Simons Living On The Golden Horn: Yesterday The State, Today The Community”), presents evidence that a network of Gülen’s followers now effectively control the Turkish police force: fixing appointments and promotions, conducting illegal wiretaps, running black propaganda campaigns, blackmailing, laying spurious charges, fabricating evidence and forging documents in an attempt to intimidate and neutralize perceived opponents of the Gülen movement both inside the police and in Turkey as a whole.
The title of the book evokes Avcı’s posting to Istanbul in the early 1990s. His journey home from work used to take him across the inlet of the Golden Horn, which was then so heavily polluted that it could be smelled long before it was visible. Even so, says Avcı, every evening he would see people picnicking on its banks as if oblivious to the stifling stench; in the same way that Turks would pretend to be unaware of their own corrupt political and judicial system.
The “Simon” in the title appears to be a reference to the codename of a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant who reputedly sentenced his sister to death despite knowing that she was innocent; an attitude which Avcı claims has now been adopted by Gülen’s followers in the police force, judiciary and media with regard to a string of high profile politically motivated court cases against the movement’s perceived opponents – such as the notorious Ergenekon investigation.
Hanefi Avcı first came to public attention in early 1997 when, almost alone of the state officials called before a parliamentary inquiry in the so-called “Susurluk affair”, he advocated a full investigation of evidence that the security forces had been running death squads to assassinate PKK militants and sympathizers. Avcı also made it clear that he opposed the military-led campaign that forced Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister, from office in June 1997.
In June 2003, Avcı was appointed head of the police Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime Unit. When he discovered that some people were fixing Energy Ministry contracts, Avcı put them under surveillance, collected evidence and had them arrested. In his book, Avcı relates how he then discovered that some the suspects were close to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. He complains that, instead of offering their congratulations, his colleagues berated him for not “making political calculations”. Shortly afterwards, Avcı was transferred to the relative obscurity of Edirne in Thrace.
Avcı says that he now believes that he was forced into bureaucratic exile by members of the Gülen movement, who had been alarmed by his independence of mind. He relates how, under the AKP, Gülen sympathizers began to tighten their control of the police organization, particularly the intelligence branches responsible for surveillance. He recounts, in often devastating detail, how they eliminated not only police officers regarded as being unsympathetic to their cause but also perceived political opponents, particularly members of the military and hard-line secularists.
The book relates how internal logs were altered, telephones tapped without permission or as the result of misleading information (such as false names), documents forged, evidence fabricated, blackmail material (such as incriminating photographs) gathered or manufactured and anonymous “tipoff” letters written to provide a pretext for an investigation and criminal charges. Avcı maintains that he has numerous documents to substantiate his claims, although only a few are included in his book.
For example, he includes a copy of a written statement he made to support a colleague against charges, based on a “tipoff” letter, of criminal misconduct. Avcı then produces the version of his statement as it appeared in the indictment against Aslan, noting where his words had been altered, where passages had been removed and where completely new material had been inserted. He also publishes a decision by a court in Ankara on September 8, 2009, ruling that the case – together with seven folders of documents and CDs and nine other boxes of other evidence – should be transferred to a court in Istanbul, where the offence is alleged to have occurred. The ruling and evidence were dispatched by courier, a journey of around 220 miles (350 kilometers), registered and handed over to a public prosecutor, who had theoretically been chosen at random. Avcı notes that reading all of the evidence should have taken at least one week. Nevertheless, on the evening of September 8, 2009, based on his reading of the evidence, the public prosecutor asked for arrest and search warrants for 20 suspects, five times as many named in the Ankara court ruling. Details are also provided of other misconduct cases against police officers suspected of being opposed to the Gülen movement; noting the similarities in the “evidence” (such as anonymous “tipoff” letters) and even the personnel involved (such as the public prosecutor).
Avcı is particularly scathing about the cases such as the Ergenekon investigation, which he dismisses as a transparent attempt by a clique of Gülen sympathizers in the state apparatus to eliminate their perceived political opponents. He lists some of the numerous absurdities and contradictions in the Ergenekon indictments, noting that proving that the claims are false is “as easy as proving to a person who is sane and rational that two and two equals four”. More disturbingly, he also cites examples of how the Ergenekon investigators have attempted to suppress evidence that contradicts their claims and manufacture material to support them.
IMPLICATIONS: Over the last 30 years, Fethullah Gülen’s supporters have built up a vast network of schools, dormitories, businesses, charities, foundations, media outlets, NGOs and lobby groups. No reliable figures are available for number of people who regard themselves as Gülen’s followers, although it is conservatively estimated to run into several million. Inside Turkey the movement is now the most powerful non-state actor in the country. Indeed at grassroots level in some areas it is arguably even stronger than the state.
There is no reason to doubt that many of Gülen’s followers sincerely try to live by his teachings of tolerance, non-violence and interfaith dialogue. However, in recent years, there is increasing evidence that elements within the movement – who probably represent only a very small proportion of its total membership – are engaged in something more sinister.
In apparent contradiction to the essence of Gülen’s teachings, publications in Turkey or abroad which run anything deemed to be critical of Gülen or the movement are routinely subjected to a blizzard of complaints, insults and threats of legal action. Similarly, individuals who criticize the actions of members or the movement immediately become the target of vitriolic defamation campaigns in the movement’s media outlets. Attempts to apply Gülen’s teachings, to engage in dialogue and build bridges do occur, but they are as rare as they are laudable.
It is no secret that politically-motivated judicial cases such as the Ergenekon investigation are primarily driven by members of the Gülen movement, both in the police and the judicial system and in the media. In his book, Avcı notes the regularity with which transcripts of police wiretaps of opponents of the movement and other incriminating information – some genuine, some fabricated – appears in media outlets and on websites which are themselves run by Gülen sympathizers; but nowhere else. Avcı also relates how, in January 2010, he presented evidence of illegal wiretaps to Interior Minister Beşir Atalay and the private secretary to Prime Minister Erdoğan; and yet no action was taken.
CONCLUSIONS: Throughout most of the Turkish Republic’s history, politics was conducted in the shadow of the country’s military. This mostly involved the military as an institution setting parameters for government policy in meeting with politicians. However, elements in the military were also able to influence political and judicial processes – including by instigating violence – through a clandestine system of networks and contacts known in Turkey as the “deep state”.
Although a handful of gangs and individuals remain active – mostly in organized crime rather than politics – in the sense of being able to apply coordinated pressure to political and judicial processes, the military “deep state” has now almost disappeared. But Avcı’s book suggests that it has been replaced by another – albeit to date consistently non-violent – system of networks able to influence and control political and judicial processes from inside the apparatus of state.
Although the book provides overwhelming evidence that such a network exists, it fails to provide any conclusive proof of who in the movement is directing it. In an interview Avcı said that he was sure that Gülen was aware of the existence of the network, but he stopped short of accusing Gülen of having any knowledge of – much less actually orchestrating – its activities.
In fact the Gülen movement is now so vast that it would be physically impossible for a single individual to micromanage the activities of each of its components. Indeed, there are clearly at least some occasions when members of the movement act in direct contradiction of Gülen’s own wishes.
For example, the Israeli raid on the Turkish, Gaza-bound ship Mavi Marmara triggered a storm of protest inside Turkey, led by the Gülen media which vigorously condemned the Israeli raid and extolled the Turkish activists in the flotilla. Two days later, an interview was published in which Gülen harshly criticized the organizers of the flotilla, noting that if their real intention was to deliver aid to the Palestinians they should have sought permission from the Israelis rather than try to confront them. The vilification of Israel in the Gülen movement’s media outlets disappeared almost immediately.
Nevertheless, even if Fethullah Gülen was previously ignorant of some of the activities of elements in the movement, the publicity given to Hanefi Avcı’s book means that he should now be at least aware of them. But whether this will result in any changes to the way in which the network operates currently remains unclear.
Gareth Jenkins, a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the CACI & SRSP Joint Center, is an Istanbul-based writer and specialist of Turkish Affairs.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".