Turkey’s top security council has declared the Gulen Movement, once the government’s most powerful political ally, a “threat to national security,” raising concerns of a wide-ranging “witch hunt” against the religious group, whose leader resides in the United States.
After cooperating closely for a decade to break the power of Turkey’s old secularist elite, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the movement inspired by Fethullah Gulen fell out dramatically last December when an open power struggle erupted between them.
The former allies, who espouse different strains of political Islam, had grown increasingly suspicious of each other as both jockeyed for control of Turkey’s state apparatus.
On Thursday Turkey’s National Security Council, which comprises top military and government chiefs and was chaired by President Erdogan for the first time since he assumed office in August, vowed to fight “parallel structures that conduct illegal activities ... that threaten our national security and disrupt public order.”
The term “parallel structure” has become the government's preferred shorthand for the Gulen Movement since last December. That's when simmering tensions between the two erupted into the open over corruption probes launched against Erdogan’s inner circle by prosecutors and police widely believed to be sympathetic to the movement.
Four ministers were forced to resign as a result of the graft allegations, and dozens of state and AKP officials were arrested.
In retaliation, the government purged hundreds of police officers and prosecutors, and passed laws that handed the government tighter control over the judiciary.
Turks are deeply divided over the corruption probes. Erdogan and his supporters have characterized them as a “coup attempt” by the Gulenists.
While most observers agree Mr. Gulen’s followers were behind the probes, some believe evidence of serious government misdoing was nonetheless swept under the carpet in the AKP’s drive to purge the Pennsylvania-based imam’s movement.
Now many observers fear the ultimate fallout of the battle will be a further weakening of Turkey's democracy, as the government arms itself with the authoritarian tools necessary to eradicate Gulen's extensive business, education, and media empire.
Evidence of a Gulen network
“There’s strong evidence that Gulen has established a network within the state and the bureaucracy that serves his own purposes and not the wider national interest of Turkey,” says Atilla Yesilada, a Turkey analyst with political and economic risk consultancy Global Source Partners.
However, he adds, this is not so unusual in a country whose political movements have a long tradition of seeking to populate the state apparatus with their own followers.
“To suggest he constitutes a terrorist threat to the state is taking us back to the 1970s, when even peaceful advocacy, or membership of certain institutions could be punishable by prison or the confiscation of assets.”
After winning local elections in March, Erdogan – then prime minister – vowed that he would “enter the lair” of the Gulenists and “root them out.”
Since then, a bank linked to the movement has been harried with mass withdrawals, a trading ban, and financial investigations; a Gulen-affiliated gold mining company has seen its operations periodically suspended; and a Gulenist charity has recently been forbidden from collecting donations.
Now, the drafting of a law broadening police powers to seize assets has led many observers to suspect a more far-reaching crackdown on the movement is on the way.
'Threat to the rule of law'
“There’s a real worry of a witch hunt starting up,” says Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch.
The bill, drawn up by the AKP and a draft of which was published Oct. 14, would broaden police powers to seize assets of suspects under investigation for various crimes, including those “threatening the constitutional order.”
“It looks like they are relaxing the laws so they can go after people more easily, including political opponents, and that’s a threat to the rule of law and the criminal justice system,” says Ms. Sinclair-Webb.
During the first decade after the AKP came to power in 2002, Gulen’s movement, which places an emphasis on science education and interfaith dialogue, served as the Erdogan government’s most powerful ally.
In addition to a business empire including a major private bank, Bank Asya, and one of Turkey’s largest mining companies, Koza Altin, it controls a substantial media empire and worldwide network of schools.
Breaking power of the secularists
His followers also infiltrated Turkey’s police and judiciary, and were the driving force behind two controversial mass trials, dubbed “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer” in the Turkish media, which helped break the power of the secularist military that posed the main threat to the Islamist-rooted AKP in its early years.
However in the past three years, trust between the former allies broke down dramatically, as each became increasingly wary of the other’s influence.
Ironically, a crackdown on the Gulen Movement may mirror those mass trials, in which more than 400 defendants were imprisoned on evidence that was often flimsy or later turned out to be fabricated.
In July and August, more than 130 police officers, believed to be linked to the movement, were detained on accusations of taking part in an illegal surveillance operation targeting the government. At least 31 were remanded in custody.
Earlier this month, prosecutors opted to drop the original corruption investigations.
The prosecutors and police investigators who first brought the case were all reassigned in the days and weeks after it became public last December.
Gulen-affiliated companies targeted
Other prominent Gulen-affiliated companies have also been targeted. Bank Asya, a private bank linked to the movement, has suffered a mass withdrawal of deposits spearheaded by state-linked companies including Turkish Airlines.
Its share price has plummeted 60 percent since mid-December last year, and it was hit with a five-week trading ban by Istanbul’s stock exchange that the bank’s management complained was politically motivated.
Koza Altin, a Gulen-linked goldmining company, has faced multiple financial investigations and in March saw operations at one of its facilities suspended by the local governorate.
Most recently, on Oct. 1, Turkey’s cabinet decided to rescind the permission of Kimse Yok Mu (Is Anybody There), a charity connected to the movement, to collect donations.
“Designating the movement as a threat to the state will allow the new legislation to be used against them,” says Mr. Yesilada, the Global Source Partners analyst, “and a court would need only limited evidence to seize their assets.”