The Gulen movement: a self-exiled imam challenges Turkey's Erdogan

Turkey's power struggle is again shining the spotlight on an enigmatic ally-turned-adversary of Prime Minister Erdogan.

Selahattin Sevi/Zaman Daily via Cihan News Agency/Reuters/File
Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen sits in his Pennsylvania home in this 2004 file photo. The enigmatic US-based Islamic preacher, whose quiet influence in the police, secret services, and judiciary looms large over the Turkish state, threatens to shake Prime Minister Erdogan's hold on power ahead of elections next year.

The man some see as the architect of a political storm threatening to topple Turkey’s government lives 5,000 miles away in rural Pennsylvania.

Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim preacher born in 1941 near the eastern Turkish city of Erzurum, heads one of the world’s most influential and enigmatic Islamic movements. Since 1999, he has lived in self-imposed exile in a rural Pennsylvania town after fleeing Turkey over charges of seeking to topple the country's secular government.

Now, however, analysts believe Mr. Gulen’s sympathizers in the judiciary and police are behind a series of corruption investigations threatening to overwhelm Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The power struggle playing out within the Turkish bureaucracy represents the breakdown of a decade-long alliance between Mr. Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, and the transnational movement loyal to Gulen that helped made the Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, Turkey's dominant political force by assisting its struggle against the old secular elite. 

After the Dec. 17 detention of some 50 people on charges of graft, including figures close to Erdogan, the government has hit back by purging several hundred officers from the police and replacing prosecutors overseeing the case. Three of Erdogan's ministers implicated in alleged corruption have resigned. Four other AKP members of parliament have also resigned from the party, including two former ministers, in protest of the curtailment of the investigation.

In an apparent reference to Gulen’s followers, Erdogan has denounced those he says are seeking to create “a state within a state." In turn, Gulen released a furious sermon posted online cursing those whom he accused of obstructing the graft investigation – a reference to Erdogan – and asking God to “bring fire to their houses, ruin their homes, break their unities....”

The falling out comes 10 years after the two men found common ground ahead of the AKP’s first election victory in 2002. Both Gulen and Erdogan had been targeted by the staunchly secularist regime that dominated Turkey at the time. Gulen was tried in absentia in 2000 on thinly supported charges of seeking to overthrow the country's secular government. Erdogan was imprisoned for four months in 1999 for reciting a poem that was deemed an incitement to religious hatred. After the AKP swept to power in 2002, the two sides worked together to bring down Turkey’s old secular ruling model.

Gulen now lives in the rural eastern Pennsylvania town of Saylorsburg. His movement has no roll of members, and those who acknowledge being followers of the imam normally refer to the organization as "Hizmet," meaning "service." Its critics call it by a name that has come to acquire more sinister overtones:  "Cemaat," meaning the "congregation."

Drawn from the teachings of the reformist Sufi thinker Said Nursi, who died in 1960, Gulen's followers espouse engagement with the West, interfaith dialogue, self-advancement, and a dash of Turkish nationalism, and emphasize the importance of education in the sciences. It is believed to have between 3 million and 6 million followers worldwide, and runs a network of schools in more than 130 countries.

In the United States, it runs one of the largest networks of charter schools – purportedly secular – with links to more than 100 schools. In Turkey, it controls a media and business empire that includes the newspaper Zaman, the country’s highest-selling daily.

Gulen's followers, who were often clean-shaven, Western-educated, and English-speaking, defied the stereotypes of Islamists in Turkey during the 1990s and early 2000s, which some analysts believe allowed them to enter the judiciary and police without attracting the attention of the secularist establishment.

Leaked video footage of one of Gulen’s sermons from 1999 laid out this strategy explicitly:

“You must move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers,” he said. “You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey.”

Gulen-allied prosecutors – in some cases the same individuals who launched the current corruption probe – were widely believed to be the driving force behind two mass trials that effectively broke the power of the military, which historically has seen itself as the protector of Turkey's secular governing model. The trials concluded this year with the imprisonment of several hundred military officers.

In both of those trials, forged evidence and legal abuses heightened critics' fears about the organization’s apparently unscrupulous pursuit of its opponents. 

With their common enemy defeated, mistrust between Erdogan and the Gulenists has grown, with each fearing the other’s power as a threat to itself. 

"They come from two different traditions of the Islamist movement in this country," says Soli Ozel, a political scientist at Istanbul's Kadir Has University. "There was always tension between them, but when they had a common enemy, they continued to work together."

In February 2012, a prosecutor believed to be close to the movement tried to summon the head of the National Intelligence Agency – a close Erdogan confidant – as a suspect in a terrorism trial, a move the prime minister angrily blocked. In December 2012, it emerged that a listening device had been found in Erdogan's office, which many observers linked to Gulen sympathizers in the police.

Those tensions erupted into the open after the government announced plans to outlaw extra-tuition schools, most of which are run by the Gulen movement, where they represent an important source of both revenue and new disciples.

Mr. Özel fears the new conflict between the two – in which they are vying for control of state institutions – could end up seriously harming the very institutions they are fighting over. The government recently passed new regulations banning prosecutors and police from investigating without permission from the executive, effectively placing those in government above legal scrutiny.

Turkey's highest court today annulled that rule, but it is still unclear how the government will respond to the judgment.

"What I see is the erosion of the institutions of the state, and this is very dangerous," Özel says.

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