BACKGROUND: The Gülen Movement is notoriously opaque. Over the last 20 years, Gülen’s followers have built up a vast global network of NGOs, educational establishments, media outlets and businesses. But the manner in which the movement’s activities are organized remains obscure. Indeed, until relatively recently, even the most active of Gülen’s followers would routinely deny membership of the movement. Over the last two years, some have become less reticent, although they now refer to what they call “Hizmet”, the Turkish word for “service”, rather than the “Gülen Movement”. Yet there is no legal entity called Hizmet. As a result, rather than clarifying how the movement operates, the use of the term merely adds another layer of obfuscation.
Moreover, members of the movement employed by the Turkish state remain reluctant to admit their allegiance. It is an open secret – albeit one that has always been denied by the movement -- that, starting in the late 1990s, Gülen’s followers began to penetrate the police and the lower echelons of the judiciary. The process accelerated after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in November 2002. Relations between Erdoğan and the Gülen Movement have always been strained, not least since they belong to different factions of the Turkish Islamist movement. But initially they formed an alliance of convenience, joining forces to initiate judicial investigations against their perceived shared enemies, particularly Turkey’s once overbearing secular establishment led by the Turkish military.
In late 2007, pro-Gülen prosecutors launched the first in a series of court cases against the movement’s perceived enemies, accusing 275 secularists of belonging to a clandestine terrorist organization called Ergenekon. No convincing evidence was produced to prove that Ergenekon had ever existed. But more prosecutions followed. The targets ranged from Turkish military personnel, to journalists, politicians and secular NGOs, particularly those which provide scholarships to students – and were thus rivals to the Gülen Movement, which has long used educational scholarships as a means of recruitment.
Strikingly, not only were all of the cases initiated by the same prosecutors but all exhibited the same distinctive characteristics. These included claims of anonymous tipoffs, mass detentions in dawn raids, the publication by pro-Gülen journalists of vivid accusations against the suspects and reports of the discovery of allegedly damning evidence of wrongdoing.(See April 10, 2013 issue of the Turkey Analyst)
However, the subsequent indictments were riddled with absurdities, contradictions and inconsistencies. The evidence consisted almost exclusively of digital documents and edited transcripts of tapped telephoned conversations. Significantly, there were frequently glaring discrepancies between the claims initially published by pro-Gülen journalists and what actually appeared in the indictments. Although the transcripts of the telephone taps ran to thousands of pages, the only indication of any wrongdoing lay in the interpretation the prosecutors had put on conversations, not in the content of the conversations themselves. Disturbingly, much of the digital evidence included patent and sometimes clumsy fabrications. There were also numerous instances where evidence had clearly been planted in suspects’ houses.(See August 17, 2013 issue of the Turkey Analyst)
Nevertheless, by December 2013, nearly 600 perceived opponents of Islamic conservatism had already been convicted. Cases against another 500 are still continuing. The Gülen Movement has repeatedly denied being behind the cases. And it is indeed likely that many of Gülen’s admirers are genuinely unaware of what has been happening. But the evidence that activists within the Gülen Movement have been driving the cases – including fabricating and planting evidence – is now so vast as to be irrefutable.
IMPLICATIONS: In the continued absence of a credible political opposition, starting in late 2011, Gülen Movement gradually began to emerge as Erdoğan’s main rival for power.(See March 5, 2012 issue of the Turkey Analyst) Both sides began positioning themselves for an eventual confrontation. The breaking point came in November 2013, when Erdoğan announced plans to close down the dershane school system that prepares students for the nationwide university entrance examination.(See December 4, 2013 issue of the Turkey Analyst) Gülen’s followers control an estimated 40 per cent of the approximately 4,000 dershane schools in Turkey, which provide the movement with both funding and a steady stream of recruits.
On December 17, 2013, police detained 51 suspects in dawn raids as part of an investigation into alleged corruption amongst some of Erdoğan’s close associates, including the sons of three Cabinet ministers. The prosecutors and the methods were the same as those used in politicized cases such as Ergenekon. In the hours following the raids, pro-Gülen journalists published accounts of the alleged discovery of damning evidence in premises associated with the accused. But there were also mistakes. For example, prosecutors claimed that the investigations had been triggered by an anonymous tipoff in 2012. But one of the surveillance photographs supplied to the media had a date stamp of 2009.
Erdoğan reacted furiously, removing the prosecutors from the case and instigating a purge of suspected Gülen sympathizers from the police. On December 25, 2013, another of the prosecutors involved in the Ergenekon case issued arrest warrants for 41 businesspeople – all of them close to Erdoğan – on charges of involvement in fixing state contracts. Erdoğan immediately ordered the removal of the prosecutor, blocked the arrests and intensified the purge of suspected Gülen sympathizers from the police. It later emerged that prosecutors had also tried to issue a summons to Erdoğan’s son Bilal on suspicion of involvement in corruption.
On January 8, 2014, Erdoğan ordered the dismissal of 15 of Turkey’s 81 provincial police chiefs on suspicion of being members of the Gülen Movement. The total number of police who have been purged so far is estimated at over 500. When the resultant bureaucratic reshuffle is included, more than 2,500 police officers have been reassigned since December 17, 2013. Erdoğan is currently preparing legislative changes to tighten political control over judicial appointments, such as judges and prosecutors.
However, the purge is still far from complete. On January 14, 2014, the police raided six offices belonging to the hardline Islamic Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) on suspicion of links to al Qaeda. The police chief who had overseen the raids was immediately dismissed. The IHH currently works closely with the Turkish government in the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria, and was the leader of the 2010 Gaza flotilla.(See June 7, 2010 issue of the Turkey Analyst) There have long been rumors – denied by the IHH – that it has also been used as a conduit for the supply of military equipment to jihadist groups. However, it is also probably not a coincidence that, amongst Islamic NGOs, the IHH has long been the main rival to the Gülen Movement’s own organizations.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Erdoğan’s purges have weakened the Gülen Movement’s organized presence in the apparatus of state. Since the beginning of 2014, allegedly incriminating material against Erdoğan’s close associates has begun to appear on the internet rather than being fed to journalists after police raids. But the material itself – such as the imputation of sinister motives to innocuous telephone conversations and the use of surveillance photographs with conflicting date stamps – bears all the hallmarks of the judicial investigations initiated by Gülen’s followers.
However, unlike in previous cases, the movement’s media outlets have made little attempt to deny that its members are behind the corruption investigations, opting instead to try to focus attention on the specific allegations. On December 20, 2013, shortly after Erdoğan had initiated his first purge of the police, Gülen himself issued a video statement publicly cursing those he accused of blocking the corruption investigations and calling on God to “burn down their houses”. Though Gülen supporters are quick to point out that he technically brought down the wrath of God on whoever had been engaged in wrongdoing, it was an extraordinarily vituperative statement for someone who claims to be a man of peace committed to resolving differences through dialogue. Gülen’s outburst was also in marked contrast to his silence about often flagrant government corruption during the years when the movement was allied with Erdoğan.
Past experience of distortions and fabrications in other cases brought by pro-Gülen prosecutors suggests that caution should be exercised before taking the bulk of recent allegations of corruption at face value. Nevertheless, corruption has long been widespread in Turkey. Privately, even AKP officials estimate that an average of five per cent of the value of state contracts returns to the party in the form of donations. As a result, even if all of the recent allegations are true, the sudden appearance of a unprecedented barrage of corruption investigations at a time when the Gülen Movement is engaged in a power struggle with Erdoğan leaves little doubt that they are motivated by self-interest rather than only by a principled commitment to clean government.
CONCLUSIONS: When the AKP was first established, it presented itself as a moderate conservative party and attracted voters who had previously supported center-right parties, which subsequently faded into obscurity. Although Erdoğan has since moved the AKP towards the Islamist right, no new party has emerged to fill the gap on the center-right of the political spectrum. Erdoğan’s heavy-handed response to the corruption cases has reinforced already growing doubts about his professed commitment to democratic values. But the damage to his reputation may not necessarily result in a hemorrhaging of AKP votes at the ballot box. Put simply, the AKP’s “borrowed” center-right votes still have nowhere else to go.
However, there is no indication that the power struggle between Erdoğan and the Gülen Movement is likely to abate. Any possibility of a compromise disappeared when prosecutors tried to issue Bilal Erdoğan with a summons – something that his father will never forgive. More tensions and turbulence appear inevitable, although what form they take and what the long-term consequences will be for Erdoğan and the AKP are currently both very difficult to predict.
Gülen’s followers appear to have hoped to damage Erdoğan in the run-up to the local elections of March 30, 2014, which would then have had a knock-on effect on his prospects in the presidential elections in August 2014. Even if Erdoğan was still elected to the largely titular office of the presidency, his informal political influence within the AKP would be severely weakened – making it easier for President Abdullah Gül, with whom the Gülen Movement has always enjoyed a good relationship, to return to active politics when his term expires in August 2014, take over the AKP and exercise real political power as prime minister.
However, first the Gülen Movement needs to survive what Erdoğan has vowed will be a concerted campaign to eradicate its political influence. Over the last five years, all three of the opposition parties have at one time or another been targeted by pro-Gülen prosecutors; and each has at least one member of parliament who has been imprisoned by them. Although there is a possibility of some short-term tactical alliances in selected cities in the run-up to the local elections, there is still too much resentment for any longer term relationship.
After a decade operating in the shadow of the AKP, the Gülen Movement has now been forced out into open, undermining its long-held claims to be nothing more than a loose, apolitical agglomeration of pious Muslims inspired by Gülen’s teachings. It is also on its own.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.