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Turkey: Gulen Movement Taking PR Beating in Arrest Row

Turkey's most powerful religious group, the Fethullah Gulen Movement, has been feted at home and abroad as a model of moderate Islam. These days, however, the group’s reputation appears to be taking a hit in a controversy involving the arrest of a popular senior police officer.

Prosecutors in Istanbul have charged the former police intelligence officer, Hanefi Avci, with aiding and abetting a left-wing terror group. Arrested in Ankara in late September, Avci denies the charges. He also insists that his arrest is the result of a Gulen Movement plot against him. "This is a [Fethullah Gulen] Movement operation," he told the daily Radikal in a telephone interview as he was being taken to Istanbul. His arrest was intended “to camouflage [the Movement's] crimes," he added.

Avci believes the Gulen Movement’s motive is a desire to gain revenge for the publication of a book this August in which he alleged that the movement’s followers had infiltrated state bodies, including the police and the judicial system. The book, titled Simons on the Golden Horn, has been a publishing sensation, selling 600,000 copies in the first month.

Gulen supporters, meanwhile, deny any involvement, and say it would be stupid of them to engineer an arrest of a known opponent.

Allegations against the Gulen Movement, which denounces Turkey’s political Islam, are not particularly new. A decade ago, amid a military-led clampdown on Islamic movements, secular media outlets in Turkey carried out a comprehensive attack against the Movement, using information that many suspect was provided by military intelligence. For years, critics have also condemned the Movement's conservative-leaning schools, of which there are hundreds, and its methods of dealing with adversaries, including in movement-controlled media outlets.

"Character assassination, sexual and racial innuendo aimed at destroying people's reputation in the eyes of conservatives, invented news stories, transcripts from illegal police wiretaps …," said Hakan Yavuz, a political scientist who has written extensively and, until recently, sympathetically about the movement. "In its fight to be the hegemonic power, the movement stops at nothing. It is terrorizing people."

With secularists and Islamists locked recently in a heated struggle for control of Turkey’s political and social agenda, Avci's arrest has proven to be particularly divisive, and, this being Turkey, time may never reveal which side is right. In the short term, however, it is the reputation of the Movement that has taken the biggest beating.

This is due, in large part, to Avci’s reputation for integrity. In 1997, the self-confessed former torturer of left-wingers stood up in front of a parliamentary commission and gave evidence of the state's involvement with the mafia and murder. Almost everything he said was later substantiated.

A year later, around the time when the Gulen Movement was coming under attack from media outlets, Avci publicly defended police investigations into military operations against Islamic groups, cementing his truth-teller status. He was then promptly demoted.

The Movement's recent response to Avci's arrest has added to its woes, including among the party faithful. Writing in the pro-Gulen daily Star on October 2, the columnist Elif Cakir described watching a news story on the Movement-owned TV channel STV about how "Avci's forbidden relationship [with a terrorist group] had disappointed colleagues. A man who cheats on his wife cheats on everybody, they said."

Quite who "they" were was unclear, Cakir goes on to say: the news item contained no hint of an interview with any of Avci's colleagues. The news item "smelled of rage to me," Cakir asserted.

A columnist for the daily Haberturk, Soli Ozel thinks the Gulen Movement may have gotten carried away with its recent success. "Those in power have a shared weakness - they do not know where to draw the line," he commented. "Sooner or later, they make a move which undermines their power. Increasingly, the Hanefi Avci affair looks like being [that sort of move]."

Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.

Turkey: Gulen Movement Taking PR Beating in Arrest Row

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