The December 26 trial of arrested Turkish journalists Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener has pushed a shadowy organization known as the Gülen movement to the forefront of public attention in Turkey. The group’s influence has long been an open secret. Now, its weight is being felt at a time when the country’s democratic credentials are increasingly being called into question.
Şık and Şener were investigating the Gülen movement when they were arrested this past March for alleged membership in a group of supposed pro-military conspirators, known as Ergenekon. Alleged group members are charged with plotting to overthrow the government. Many Turkish journalists and analysts believe that the real reason for the detention of Şık and Şener was their investigation of the Gülen movement, led by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who espouses a moderate form of Islam.
Gülen, who has lived in the United States for the past decade for alleged health reasons, claims that his group combines the “religious motive” with “social action” in pursuit of “education, interfaith dialogue [and] non-violent community services” that aims at “developing social and cultural potential.” The group’s “Gülen schools” in some 140 countries are the group’s highest profile endeavor, though it has established a presence in media and business circles, as well.
Little concrete is known about the movement’s goals in Turkey. Some critics charge that it has a long-term goal of establishing an Islamic republic. Many also claim the group collaborates with the Islamist-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to stifle political opposition, pointing to the Ergenekon case and the crackdown on the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), a group criticized by Gülenists. The KCK is believed to be associated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
The December 20 arrests of some 38 journalists for alleged ties to the KCK has been widely condemned by international media and human rights groups as an assault on freedom of speech in Turkey.
High-profile arrests such as that of former intelligence official Hanefi Avcı, author of a book about the movement’s organization, and Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü, an Islamic preacher widely seen as a rival of Fethullah Gülen, have helped fuel an image of a movement with scant patience for public scrutiny or competition. “A lot of Turks are under the perception that they are being constantly watched by Big Brother,” commented Atilla Yeşilada, the co-founder of Istanbul Analytics, an independent economics and political consulting firm, and a critic of the movement. “If your name is mentioned, the Gülen order or AKP is going to retaliate.”
Citing personal safety concerns, several Turkish reporters, professors and columnists who have investigated the movement in Turkey declined to be interviewed by EurasiaNet.org.
AKP parliamentarian Galip Ensarioğlu from Diyarbakır concedes that links exist between the AKP and Gülen movement, but dismisses the notion that the party sees the Gülenists as a parallel power.
Although few specific names are known, Gülenists allegedly hold key posts in the interior and education ministries, judiciary system, and police. One journalist, Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, who has covered the movement for the daily Radikal, a government critic, contends that such a government presence allowed the AKP to gain control over the military.
The movement, he claims, has replaced the military as Turkey’s “deep state.”
“Erdoğan is successful because he is in government and Fethullah has a lot of people in the government,” Mavioğlu said, in reference to Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdoğan. “The state is Fethullah and the government is Erdoğan.”
Gülen and his followers only rarely comment on the extent of their influence.
However, Hüseyin Gülerce, a columnist for the daily Zaman newspaper, which regularly features Gülen’s writings, dismisses the notion that the movement has any direct influence on politics. Gülenists have worked in Turkey’s bureaucracy for decades, he claimed.
“People who were educated in [Gülen schools] are also part of this country,” said Gülerce, who is often described as a top figure within the movement’s Turkey branch, though denies being a spokesperson. “They have a right to work in the military, as a doctor, or as a bureaucrat, or a lawyer.”
For analyst Yeşilada, the movement’s connection with the AKP is less a concern than what he describes as its lack of transparency and supposed impatience with dissenting views. “[S]ince it doesn’t officially exist, doesn’t file tax records, we don’t know how many disciples [the Gülen movement] has, [or] what kind of activities it is engaged in,” he said. “So, it remains in the shadows, but its impact on the society is felt as if it was a legitimate NGO and I think this is wrong.”
Gülerce stressed that the movement is committed to providing a “service” to Turkey and the rest of the world through “education” and “dialogue,” and wants “all Muslims to integrate with the international world.”
In an apparent move to further such outreach, the Gülen-affiliated Samanyolu Broadcasting Group recently released a 3-D animated movie, called Allah’s Devoted Servant, about the life of 20th century Islamic philosopher Said Nursi, a source for Gülen’s teachings. Gülerce described Nursi as important for Turks as “the first religious leader in Turkey who advised people not to struggle with the state; instead of this, read the Quran and be faithful.”
Unlike some critics, journalist Mavioğlu rejects the notion that such precepts indicate that the group seeks to establish an Islamic republic in Turkey. Rather, he claims, it wants to increase its influence via its schools and to secure business contracts for its Turkish followers. Yeşilada pointed to the high-profile Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists, which openly uses Gülen schools to establish overseas contacts, as an example of this influence.
Columnist Gülerce did not address such activities, but emphasized that Turkish politics are not the group’s raison d’être. “Politics is not in our interest,” he said. “But people don’t believe this reality.”
“[M]aybe some people from the movement will enter politics,” Gülerce continued. “How can you stop them? If they think they are good at politics, you cannot say anything.”
For now, it looks like few Turks, ever looking over their shoulder, are likely to do so.
Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.