If the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan falls, a
large portion of the blame -- or credit, depending on your perspective -- will
lie with a little-known Muslim cleric named Fethullah Gulen and his shadowy,
globe-spanning empire. Over the past decade, Erdogan and his Justice and
Development Party (AKP) have been in a quiet struggle with Gulen's followers
for control of the country's Islamist politics. That's a battle that's mostly taken place behind closed doors -- but not anymore.
As a central player in Turkish politics, Gulen has frequently gained the
attention of U.S. officials, both in Washington and Turkey. As detailed in the
155 diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks which mention him, U.S.
officials have struggled to make sense of the man, but their collected writings
on Gulen provide a snapshot of how deeply he and his followers have penetrated
the Turkish state and illustrate what a severe threat he poses to the Erdogan
Here are five takeaways from Gulen's appearances in the WikiLeaks cables.
This isn't the first
time the Gulen Movement has taken on Erdogan and the AKP.
The Gulen movement frequently claims it is not a political organization, but
it's generally acknowledged that Gulen's followers are disproportionately
represented in Turkey's National Police. One U.S. embassy cable from 2009 states
that "the assertion that the [Turkish National Police, TNP] is controlled
by Gulenists is impossible to confirm but we have found no one who disputes it,
and we have heard accounts that TNP applicants who stay at Gulenist pensions
are provided the answers in advance to the TNP entrance exam." In 2005, two years into Erdogan's term and during an early spate of Gulenist
disillusionment with the AKP, a TNP corruption investigation began honing in on
AKP officials. The Erdogan government intervened, transferring
the head of the TNP's organized crime office to a regional outpost -- and off
the case. According to a June 2005 U.S. embassy cable,
the transfer was arranged by Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu, whose
"Kurdish favoritism, reported ties to the heroin trade, well-known
predilection for teenage girls, and his son's open Mafia links make him a weak
link in the cabinet."
As corruption investigations are again targeting AKP leaders, Erdogan
has once again gone back to his 2005 playbook and begun transferring
and outright firing corruption investigators in the Turkish National
The Gulen Movement and
the AKP had a common enemy ... but not anymore.
After the 2005 corruption investigation, the Gulenist pressure on the AKP
seems to have slackened, and before long they found a common enemy again: the
deep state, a concept which in Turkey typically
refers to a cabal of powerful secular nationalists, predominantly in the
military, who have periodically ousted Islamist-leaning governments in Ankara. Both the AKP and the Gulen Movement were once targets of Turkey's
secularist establishment. The
Gulenists in the TNP turned their attentions to anti-democratic forces within
the military and, as detailed in U.S. embassy cables, in 2008 began
the deep state with indictments. Documents detailing an alleged planned coup to
oust the AKP and undermine the Gulen Movement were leaked
to Gulenist newspapers, which ran with the story. That led to the country's
landmark Ergenekon trials and the conviction of about 330 military officers.
The Gulen Movement is
a quiet-but-powerful business, media, and education empire.
At the heart of the Gulenist Movement is Gulen himself, a cleric and a
former member of Turkey's state-backed professional religious establishment,
the Diyanet, who ran afoul of the government in the 1980s for sermons that
secularist officials felt went too far. He was brought up on charges under
Turkey's extremely broad anti-terrorism law for comments
that "our friends, who have positions in legislative and administrative
bodies, should learn its details and be vigilant all the time so they can
transform [the bureaucracy] and be more fruitful on behalf of Islam in order to carry out a
nationwide restoration." (Turkish secularists feared such sermons came a
little too close to suggesting infiltrating and undermining Turkey's secular
U.S. embassy cables, citing Turkish sources knowledgeable about the movement,
estimate the movement may have anywhere from 2
million to 5
million adherents. Many of them are well-placed, holding public office or working
in the police or judiciary. The organization supports a number of
entrepreneurial ventures, and much of the movement's wealth -- which is thought to be a considerable fortune, the size of which is masked by the variety of
charitable interests through which it filters -- stems from convoluted business
conglomerations and trade associations. Gulenist businessmen have paid forward
this noblesse by establishing a network of science-focused schools around the
world, particularly in Central Asia and Africa,
but also in the United States.
Gulenist school advocates have said that they are based on Gulen's
teachings. Teachers at a Gulen school in Ankara stressed
to embassy officials that "this is not a political movement."
Instead, they said, schools are based on the vague, mystic adages of Gulen that
"whomever is not everywhere is nowhere" and that "you must be
globalized to be localized." That's hard to square with admissions that
Gulenists have made in less guarded moments, though -- like when the head of a
Gulenist-affiliated journalist association, the Journalists and Writers
credited Fethullah Gulen with the vision to open schools in Central Asian
countries just after the fall of the USSR. The reason was straightforward: beat
the Iranians to Central Asia with the 'smiling face of Islam' Turkish
style." Statements like that have worried Central Asian governments and
the spread of schools has been a consistent
with the region.
The AKP and Gulenists
are in an ideological battle over what the future of political Islam in Turkey
As the AKP was elected to office in 2002 and 2003, it did so with the
support of the Gulen Movement, and several prominent Gulenists were given key
posts in the new government. Around the same time, in March 2003, Gulen was acquitted
of terrorism charges, though he has chosen to remain in the United States since first arriving for medical treatment in
1999. Initially, their cooperation seemed strong: In the early months of
the AKP government, politicians began discussing
a voucher program to make Gulenist private schools accessible to more students.
But then Gulenist politicians in the party reportedly pressed
the government to move forward with morality reforms, like a controversial law
to ban adultery, before the AKP leadership felt it was ready. By the end of
2004, Gulenist politicians began telling
U.S. officials that they were "ambivalent" about Erdogan and the AKP.
A leading Gulenist, "said to have influence over 60 or more AKP"
members of parliament, "expressed
to [to embassy officials] the Gulenists' sense that Erdogan cannot hack
it." Then came the TNP's 2005 aborted corruption probe of the AKP. The
Gulenists and AKP leadership managed to patch things up while they tackled the
country's secularist military, but now that alliance of convenience has come to
Though both the AKP and Gulenists profess to be moderate political Islamist movements,
they draw their inspiration from different ideological traditions. The AKP's
leadership adheres to a different core belief, Milli Gorus or "the
National View," an ideology descended from ousted Turkish Prime Minister
Necmettin Erbakan which has been described
as "Turkey's version of political Islam with anti-Western and pan-Islamic
overtones." Gulen's following is founded
on the work of turn-of-the-century Kurdish Sufi scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi
and places more emphasis on cultural outreach with the world. While the
difference is a nuance to outsiders, the ideological split has been a wedge in
the AKP from the start, and the Milli Gorus leadership of the party has
consistently rankled the Gulenists in the government.
No one can get a
straight answer out of the Gulen Movement, and that's left many worried about
Despite living in the United States for more than a decade, the cables from
the U.S. embassy in Ankara exposed by WikiLeaks show that the U.S. government
is still struggling to understand the motives and interests of the Gulen
movement, and even Gulen himself. He "was born between 1938-1942" one
noting that "varying dates have been given." In another, embassy
that they couldn't get a straight answer on information as simple as
Gulen's marital status.
Some of the organization's secrecy can be explained by the caution it
learned while being persecuted by secularist Turkish authorities in the 1990s,
but that hasn't put U.S. officials at ease. In May 2006, the U.S. consulate in
Ankara filed a lengthy cable
detailing the strange dissembling and obfuscation that characterized
Gulenists's visa applications and trends that suggested that they had been
coached both to hide their Gulen affiliation and on how to make their
applications more successful.
The secrecy with which Gulen operates has been fodder for
conspiracy theories. Some of his Islamist detractors believe
Gulen is a U.S.-funded mole in the religious establishment, trying to disrupt
the ranks of political Islam from within; secularists fear he is a
"scheming crypto-Mullah, plotting to turn Turkey into a sharia-based Islamic
state little different than Iran." Not even the Gulen Movement's friends
completely trust its intentions. In public, Gulen has professed a belief in an
open, inclusive, democratic society, and the movement maintains close ties with
the Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities in Turkey, but when Gulen
approached Istanbul's chief rabbi in 2005 for a letter of support to help Gulen
extend his stay in the United States, the rabbi told U.S. officials in private
that he was wary
of the movement's ultimate intentions.
*Disclosure: The Alliance for
Shared Values, a non-profit organization associated with the Gulen
movement, has sponsored several events hosted by Foreign Policy.
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