The Gulen Movement: From Forceful to Fragile

Events in Turkey dominated the news this past weekend, as the country experienced its first  military coup in 19 years. Tanks  rolled into the streets, a military helicopter  was shot down by fighter jets, and gunfire echoed throughout the country as the armed forces attempted and failed to wrest power from the government. At least 265 people died in a conflict that appeared to represent a struggle between the secular military and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party. While representing a struggle over the broader role of religion in Turkish government, the coup also demonstrated tension between two Turkish leaders: Erdogan and exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen. The coup and the government’s response severely weaken the Gulen movement in Turkey and bolster Erdogan and his supporters.

Gulen is a former imam from Turkey who now lives in the United States and promotes  a socially conservative but moderate form of Sufi Islam, focusing on interfaith dialogue, education, and peace. He has an international network of followers, referred to as the Gulen movement, which has created myriad think tanks, schools, and businesses. Overall, the movement attempts to focus on culture, in contrast to Erdogan, who prefers political Islam.

Soon after the coup in Turkey began, it was framed as a struggle between Erdogan and Gulen. Erdogan blamed Gulen for the coup, repeating his past accusations that Gulen was trying to overthrow the Turkish government. Soon afterwards, Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag confirmed that the members of the military involved in the coup followed Gulen’s teachings. Gulen, however, denied any involvement in the coup and even accused Erdogan of staging the coup. Though the coup seemed sudden and dramatic, it was just one piece of a long and complicated relationship between the two.

Erdogan and Gulen were initially allies, as Gulen supported Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in the early 2000s. They were united against “the leftists and the Kemalists and the liberals,” according to Al Jazeera’s Abderrahim Foukara’s statements in an NPR interview. Erdogan won the elections by promoting Gulen’s supporters. Soon, however, Gulen’s own views began to diverge from Erdogan’s policies, and they started disagreeing on how to respond to events like protests and scandals.

Gulen started publicly criticizing Erdogan’s handling of human rights and public administration, which was called into question most notably during a corruption scandal in December 2013. Zekeriya Oz, a Gulen supporter, led an investigation into many prominent public figures, including businessmen and the sons of cabinet ministers. Police raids found evidence of bribery, money laundering, and gold smuggling, and many were jailed. The scandal was a turning point in Erdogan and Gulen’s relationship, and Erdogan launched attacks on Gulen supporters in retaliation.

Erdogan began arresting Gulen supporters in the government and continues to do so. In September 2014, 20 police officers were detained and 34 received arrest warrants for offenses ranging from eavesdropping to attempting to usurp the government. More recently, at least 10,000 people were arrested and 40,000 suspended from their jobs in response to the attempted coup; Erdogan described these arrests as cleaning the “virus.” These arrests are a significant attack on the Gulenists because their movement derives much of its influence from supporters in the government. Erdogan will likely continue his purge, depleting Gulen’s movement of power that helped it expose and shed light on problems like corruption.

The blow to the Gulen movement was two-fold, as the coup reinforced Erdogan’s popularity. As the uprising began, Erdogan asked his supporters to resist the dissidents. Not only did people pour into the streets, but mosque loudspeakers also spread the president’s call. This outward display of support demonstrated that while Erdogan’s policies are controversial, he still has the loyalty of much of the public.

The events in Turkey have severely damaged the Gulen movement. Erdogan has purged Gulenists from the government and has received bolstered support. If the Obama Administration agrees to extradite Gulen, Erdogan may be able to defeat one of his most influential critics and give himself even more power in all realms of the Turkish state.

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