September 26, 2016
In this startling essay on the attempted coup in Turkey, FPRI senior fellow and prize-wining Princeton historian Michael Reynolds shakes up the way we think about Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Fethullah Gülen, and the United States. He tells a tale of intra-Islamist intrigue in which a Turkish imam based in the Poconos allied himself with Erdoğan as part of a decades-long effort to capture the Turkish state from within. After having first neutralized their common opponents in the secular establishment through sham trials, the imam took on Erdoğan in a struggle that perhaps reached its denouement in the attempted coup of 15 July. With the rule of law in shambles and social trust in tatters, Turkish democracy and stability are in grave condition. By obliging Gülen and permitting him to reside in America, not only did Washington fail to promote democracy, Reynolds concludes, it may have actually helped to subvert and weaken—however inadvertently—the most important democracy in the Middle East.
On July 15, 2016, elements of the Turkish Armed Forces attempted to overthrow the elected government of Turkey and to capture or kill its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Calling themselves the “Council for Peace at Home” (Yurtta Sulh Konseyi), the mutineers moved into action just after 10:00 pm. They deployed tanks and infantry on key bridges in Istanbul; seized the state television channel TRT; took the chief of the Turkish General Staff, General Hulusi Akar, hostage in Ankara; dispatched a unit to hunt down Turkey’s president in the resort town of Marmaris; and employed fighter jets and attack helicopters to strike government targets, including the Turkish Parliament, the Special Operations Command, the General Security Directorate, and the headquarters of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization, among others.
The rebels failed, however, to paralyze the government or Turkish society, and opposition swiftly emerged. Just a little over an hour after the operation began, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım appeared on television to inform the Turkish public that some sort of illegal intervention was underway and would be resisted. General Akar’s steadfast refusal to go along with the mutiny blocked the rebels from securing the passive support of the armed forces, and some loyal units in the armed forces and the police resisted outright. At roughly half past midnight, a visibly shaken but coherent President Erdoğan spoke through a smart phone on live television as he flew to Istanbul and called on the Turkish people to pour into the streets in protest against the putsch. The state Directorate of Religion played a notable role in this effort to rally support for the government by instructing Turkey’s 110,000 imams to use their minarets to broadcast a rarely used prayer to galvanize resistance to the putsch. Indeed, the notion of defending Islam motivated many, probably most, of those in the streets although it should be noted that opposition to the coup attempt spanned virtually the entirety of Turkey’s otherwise fractious political spectrum.
Anti-putsch protesters in Istanbul (Maurice Flesier)
Loyal units ultimately suppressed the coup attempt, but not before much blood had been shed. Fighting lasted over the course of several hours and resulted in the deaths of 272 people, including 171 civilians, 63 police officers, 4 soldiers, and 34 rebels. Government authorities arrested or detained 17,184 military personnel, 6,066 police officers, 4,757 prosecutors, and 782 civilians.
That this failed putsch amounted to a critical episode in Turkish history goes without saying. At the same time, by reflexively framing the mutiny within the Turkish Republic’s long history of military interventions—the country witnessed four successful military interventions between 1960 and 1997—analysts in the United States and elsewhere have greatly underestimated its significance for Turkey, its neighbors, and the U.S. The defeat of the putsch gives cause for only modest relief. Contrary to what many early accounts in the West intimated, the plotters mobilized over ten thousand armed men and demonstrated a chilling willingness to kill for their cause by opening fire on crowds, executing resisters, and mounting air strikes with jet fighters and attack helicopters on multiple targets. They were nothing like the feeble-hearted Communists who mounted a putsch against Gorbachev twenty-five years ago. Nor, however, was the Turkish population willing this time to sit passively. Tens of thousands took to the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. They were predominantly men, and, as noted above, they more often than not steeled themselves with a vision of religious struggle. Thus, had the mutineers succeeded in capturing or killing Erdoğan, winning over the Turkish military, and toppling the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or AKP), the result would not have followed in the pattern of earlier coups in Turkey where a quick consolidation of military rule inaugurates a brief period of military governance followed by a voluntary transition back to democratic civilian governance. Instead, a successful putsch would almost certainly have triggered a civil war, and one that would have likely acquired a religious dimension. Turkey is already embroiled in a chronic and increasingly bitter struggle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê or PKK) and another escalating fight against the Islamic State. Civil war would have converted Turkey from a buffer against refugee flows—Turkey is host to nearly 3 million refugees from Syria alone—to an exporter of refugees, which would have dire consequences for the political stability of a Europe already grappling with a dissolving European Union and surging populism.
Most significantly, the July 15 putsch did not represent a routine attempt by a secular Turkish officer corps to forcibly reset their country’s politics to a previous status quo. The putschists’ assumed name notwithstanding—“Peace at Home” comes from one of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s signature aphorisms—their bid for power represented, in fact, the latest battle in what has emerged as a fierce struggle for dominance between two rival wings of Turkey’s Islamists. The Turkish government calls the organization behind the failed mutiny the Fethullah Terror Organization (Fethullah Terür Örgütü or FETÖ). This label is unfortunate for two reasons. First, FETÖ bears no resemblance to any conventional terrorist organization insofar as up until July 15, it had not, to the best of my knowledge, employed violence as a means to affect or to sway public opinion along the lines of a typical terrorist organization like al Qaeda or the Islamic State. It has not conducted bombings, public assassinations, or hostage-takings. Second, FETÖ, arguably, threatens the integrity of the Turkish state and the health of Turkish democracy more insidiously than any terrorist group could hope. Whereas terrorists strike at the state from the outside in the hopes of disorienting and delegitimizing it, FETÖ penetrated the state from the inside and managed to take control of law enforcement agencies, the judiciary branch, and revenue agencies, among others. With total contempt for the law, they abused their positions and power in the state to destroy their enemies and any who would stand in their way.
FETÖ is named after Fethullah Gülen, a Turk and religious figure who presides over a network of schools, test centers, media outlets, banks, and businesses that spans five continents. Gülen has resided in the U.S. for the past 17 years. Here, his followers run, among other enterprises, approximately 140 charter schools that bring in an estimated annual income of $500 million from American taxpayers. As The New York Times and other newspapers have documented, Gülen’s schools in the U.S. have been the subjects of repeated scandal and of FBI investigations into immigration visa abuse, kickback schemes, test fraud, and other alleged crimes and violations in numerous states including Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Virginia, and Ohio. Indeed, these schools had grown so notorious for deceit and wrongdoing that the agenda-setting national television news program 60 Minutes aired an exposé on them in May 2012.
Turkish officials accuse Gülen of far more than systemic deception. They contend that FETÖ is nothing short of a “parallel state” that has been subverting the Turkish Republic from within towards the goal of overthrowing the country’s elected government. The attempted putsch of July 15, 2016 was only its most recent and violent effort. For nearly the past three years, Ankara has made crushing FETÖ its top priority, even above defeating the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or the Islamic State. Toward that end, it has dismissed, detained, and arrested many tens of thousands of individuals; shut down Gülen-affiliated schools, businesses, and organizations; and seized their property. It has undoubtedly crippled the Gülen network, but Ankara has yet to achieve a decisive victory, primarily because the leader and center of the movement, Mr. Gülen, resides safely in the U.S. beyond the reach of Turkish law. Belief that Gülen stands behind the July 15 putsch is by no means a personal obsession of a paranoid President Erdoğan. It is a conviction shared across the political spectrum in Turkey, even by many of Erdoğan’s critics, some of whom have been warning for years that Gülen and his movement constitute an imminent threat to Turkish democracy. It is surely a great irony—or tragedy—that the United States, a country that had made the promotion of democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere the focus of its foreign policy, may not merely have failed to spread democratic rule in the greater Middle East, but may actually have helped to subvert and to weaken the most important democracy in the Middle East.
The Religious-Secular Divide and the Rise of the Parallel State
In the spring of 1999, I was in Istanbul conversing with a Chechen friend, whom I’ll call Hamza. He was a student at Istanbul University and had been living in Turkey for five years. We were discussing Turkey and its future, and I was unusually interested in his opinions. In addition to being of high intelligence and a speaker of flawless Turkish, Hamza was a devout Muslim. The question of religion in Turkey was especially fraught in those years, and Turks on both sides of the divide found it difficult to discuss the issue with detachment. Tensions were rising between the secular Kemalist elites, who had dominated the republic since its inception in 1923, and the self-described religious. Unlike the American understanding of secularism, the Turkish understanding of secularism laid down by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk holds not that religion should be free of the state, but instead, that it should be tightly supervised by the state.
Many Turks believed that it should be Islam guiding the state rather than the state corralling Islam. These Turks, the Islamists, had been gaining in strength over the decades despite efforts by the ruling elites to block them at the ballot box and even keep them out of politics altogether. Just three years earlier, in 1996, an Islamist Party, the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), had managed to enter the ruling government through a coalition in what was an unprecedented achievement for them. Shortly thereafter, in 1997, however, the Turkish General Staff, the watchdogs of Kemalist secularism and nationalism, warned that if the Welfare Party was not ejected from the government, they might intervene. It was no idle threat: Turkish military officers had overthrown the government on three earlier occasions. The warning proved sufficient to bring down the government and trigger the banishment of the Welfare Party and its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, from politics. Banishment had become a routine experience for Turkey’s Islamists, and so a number of Erbakan’s followers, including the promising former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, opted to try another strategy and established a political party—the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or AKP)—in 2001 that formally disowned any programmatic Islamism.
Hamza believed that unless there was a change in Turkey’s politics, a civil war between the Islamists and Kemalists within the next decade was likely. To forestall such a possibility and to maintain the unity of the armed forces, the Turkish officer corps rigorously scrutinizes their own for any hints of ideological deviance from Kemalism. The process starts with extensive screening of school-age officer candidates. Those from overtly religious or Kurdish families, for example, are excluded. The scrutiny continues throughout an officer’s career. The behavior of officers and even their family members’ is monitored. An officer’s scrupulous avoidance of alcohol would raise suspicions. A wife who took to wearing a headscarf would end her husband’s career. At its annual review every August, the Supreme Military Council (Yüksek Askeri Şura or YAŞ) promotes trustworthy officers and expels those who have given cause for doubt. Hamza had heard that with the officer corps closed off to them, Turkish Islamists had instead begun joining the ranks of the national police.
Since Hamza moved among religious Turks, I asked him how he saw the religious-political divide in the country. The divide was real, he explained, and it was widening. Even in the army, the fortress of Kemalist power and discipline, the divide could be felt. Pious conscripts went off to the army determined to assert their religiosity. For example, he said, in an act of defiance against their officers, they would shout “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) on training exercises. As a foreigner, of course, Hamza had not witnessed such disobedience, and what he heard may have been exaggerated. Even as staunch secularists, many Turkish military officers identified proudly as Muslims. The Turkish Armed Forces formally always regarded their country’s Islamic heritage as a positive resource for cultivating a martial spirit among their soldiers. In the right context, they would heartily approve a shout of “God is great” from their soldiers, but Hamza’s interlocutors were describing something different: a creeping and conscious insubordination among the ranks.
“So by taking over the police, the Muslims,”—for Hamza, Muslim and Islamist were synonyms—“will at least have some weapons and organized units on their side in case it comes to war?” “Yes, apparently that is the idea,” Hamza answered. “That is better than nothing, I suppose, but the police will be no match for the army in pitched battles,” I said. “But don’t forget the conscripts. They won’t all obey their officers,” Hamza parried.
I never forgot that conversation with Hamza and particularly the claim about Islamist penetration of the police. Lightly armed police are no match for an army in pitched battle, but what neither Hamza nor I grasped at the time was that outside of war an army is no match for police. Armies are unsurpassed in employing mass violence, but, in peacetime, the police hold the monopoly on detainments and arrests and so are the decisive force.
There is perhaps no better illustration of the superiority of the police than the wave of investigations, arrests, trials, and convictions that struck the officer corps of the Turkish Armed Forces and other Kemalist cadres beginning in 2007. A stunned population looked on in a mix of horror and fascination, exhilaration and confusion as police officers and detectives took into custody and prosecutors put behind bars over three hundred senior military officers, opposition lawmakers, journalists, prominent academics, and others on charges that they were involved in a massive conspiracy to destabilize Turkey and to overthrow the ruling government.
The notion that some conspiratorial network, or, as the Turks call it, “deep state” (derin devlet), made up of select senior military officers, police chiefs, intelligence operatives, and crime bosses might be influencing Turkish politics was familiar. The Susurluk Scandal of 1996 in which a parliamentarian and Kurdish militia head, a police chief, an ultranationalist crime boss, and a beauty queen were riding together in a car until it crashed and killed the latter three had been haunting Turkish politics ever since. It had demonstrated conclusively that elements of the police, politicians, and organized crime were in fact collaborating. Many Turks wondered how much more was going on.
Still, no one in 2007 could have imagined that a network as large and as diabolical as what police and prosecutors then were claiming. Breaking many of the news stories about the investigations was a newly founded newspaper, Taraf. It had cloudy financing, but its journalistic staff had impeccable liberal credentials. The allegations were fantastical. The network, known as “Ergenekon,” allegedly was preparing to agitate and to manipulate the Turkish public through bombing mosques, assassinating politicians and celebrities, and even downing Turkish air force jets—all for the purposes of creating a climate of panic and fear to justify the overthrow of the government. Moreover, officials asserted, Ergenekon had, for years, already been orchestrating terror campaigns on all sides of the political spectrum, from the Kurdish left to the ultra-nationalist right and everywhere in between. Prosecutors placed over 274 individuals on trial for alleged ties to the network. In 2010, Turkish officials opened a similar trial that charged over 300 people with involvement in another related anti-government plot code-named “Sledgehammer” (Balyoz).
The reason why the Turkish public in 2007 could not have anticipated the existence of a network quite so large and so complex, however, was not their lack of imagination. Rather, it was the reality that the investigations were shams. The impossibly gargantuan scale of the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy alone should have provoked skepticism, but those prosecuting the investigation and sympathetic media outlets played on the suspicions, hostility, and prejudices that Turkey’s Islamists shared with Turkish liberals, leftists, and human rights activists against their country’s nationalist secular establishment, thereby managing to deceive much of the public for a time. Western journalists were only slightly less credulous. Following the cues of their liberal interlocutors in Turkey, those journalists refrained from sharply questioning the narrative of an out-of-control ultranationalist and secularist establishment illegally undermining the elected AKP government.
Not everyone, however, was taken in. One of the first to raise fundamental questions about the trials was the Harvard academic Dani Rodrik. Although not a student of Turkish politics by profession but an economist and scholar of global investment and trade, Rodrik took an interest in the trials because his father-in-law, General Çetin Doğan, had become one of their major suspects. Casting a critical eye on the trial proceedings, Rodrik together with his wife Pınar Doğan recognized that multiple pieces of evidence presented at the trial were bogus. Independent forensic experts later established that, indeed, many were blatant—and sloppy—forgeries. Documents that prosecutors claimed had been created by members of the Ergenekon network were riddled with anachronisms that conclusively betrayed their fraudulent nature. For example, they named organizations that had not yet even come into existence, were written in fonts that Microsoft invented only several years after the documents’ purported composition, or had been prepared using software that had not yet been released.
Such barefaced falsification notwithstanding, the trials concluded in the conviction and sentencing of over five hundred individuals. Since virtually all those charged and later convicted had been life-long opponents of Islamism, they found little to no sympathy among AKP members, many of whom had throughout their political careers chafed under laws that restricted the use of religion in politics and any challenge to secularism. Erdoğan himself had served time in prison for reciting poetry with religious imagery to mobilize his followers, an act that authorities judged to be inflammatory. The failure of the AKP government and its liberal allies to step outside their prejudices and question the egregious abuses of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations dealt a severe blow to the rule of law in Turkey.
Matters changed radically, however, when investigators began to turn against Erdoğan and those around him. In February 2012, a special prosecutor summoned the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı), Hakan Fidan, for questioning about his participation in peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Rumors of Fidan’s impending arrest began to fly. The summons was a bold challenge to Erdoğan, who had handpicked Fidan for this sensitive post and had subsequently tasked him to lead secret and highly delicate talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in the hopes of ending that organization’s nearly four-decade long insurrection and resolving Turkey’s gnawing Kurdish Question.
At this point, Erdoğan and his circle began to fear that what they described as a “parallel state” was moving to bring them down just as it had brought down the senior military leadership and other prominent Kemalists in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. By a “parallel state,” what they meant was a network of officials inside the state who were loyal to themselves and their leader and were abusing their positions to pursue their own agenda. Indeed, through blatantly unethical and illegal stratagems, such as manipulating duty assignments and promotion rosters and leaking the answers to entrance and qualifying examinations to the favored applicants, that parallel state organization was packing state institutions with its own loyalists and pushing aside and keeping out those who were not their own. This parallel state was not merely subverting the control of the elected government, it was taking over the state itself.
The Rise of the Gülen Movement
The locus of this parallel state group’s loyalty was a soft-spoken spiritual figure who, since 1999, has lived in the Poconos Mountains of Pennsylvania.
To foreigners, the charge rings outlandish, even delusional. Americans, in particular, find the mere notion of something nefarious in a place like the Poconos almost laughable. It is, by no means, however, the product of Erdoğan’s imagination. That spiritual leader, Fethullah Gülen, left Turkey in 1999 in order to avoid arrest. Turkey’s General Staff strongly suspected Gülen of seeking to undermine Turkey’s secular order by, among other things, insinuating his followers into the officer corps. That charge, at the time, sounded exaggerated to many and the product of an intolerant, even paranoid, mindset among Turkey’s secular elites.
Gülen was born in 1941 in the province of Erzurum, a region with a culture distinctive even in Turkey for its masculinity and sober piety. He followed in his father’s footsteps to become an imam. In 1966, he took a position at a mosque in the Aegean port city of Izmir. Early in his career, he demonstrated ambitions beyond the conventional role of imam. He acquired renown as an
effective and charismatic imam and began to build a following.
Gülen’s public persona was not the Islamic equivalent of a fire and brimstone preacher, but quite the opposite: a soft-spoken and somewhat emotional, occasionally mawkish, cleric who would start crying during his sermons. Turks who preferred their Islam a bit sterner ridiculed Gülen—and often his followers—as effete and even effeminate.
Not content with preaching to his congregants merely to observe the ritual laws and moral strictures of Islam, Gülen urged them to pursue collaborative projects in fields outside the narrowly religious. He placed a special emphasis on education. Turkey, he argued, was in greater need of schools than mosques. He called upon his businessmen followers to pool their resources and to build schools, and he encouraged his young male followers to become teachers to staff the schools and to teach the new generations.
Over the course of the next four decades, Gülen and his followers would build up a network of well over 1,000 schools from preschools to universities in over 150 countries, together with countless test preparation centers, charitable organizations, and businesses ranging from schools and stationery supplies through major media companies to large financial houses. From interviews with Gülen’s followers in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and several other locations in Turkey in 2004, I came away especially impressed by the way his organizations tied together Turks of all classes from the most impoverished and defenseless, such as orphans and abandoned children, all the way up to some of Turkey’s wealthiest individuals.
During the course of the interviews, it became clear that the center or heart of the movement was Gülen himself. Members spoke of him with reverence and affection calling him “Master Teacher” (Hocaefendi). It was his personality much more than simply his ideas that had attracted and motivated so many. Given the central role of Gülen, the movement has often been described as a “cult.” Some of Gülen’s followers believe that the Hocaefendi is also the Mahdi, or messiah-like figure in Islam who will come at the end of times.
The movement, which, at that time already controlled many hundreds of schools, universities, newspapers, journals, radio and television stations, and much else besides in Turkey and around the globe, had two pillars. One was legions of businessmen—small, middling, and large-scale. These were men—and they were virtually all men although the movement in other fields did mobilize women—who were pragmatic and successful, but also well meaning and eager to do works to benefit their communities and others. Private philanthropy was not well developed in Turkey, where the idea of the state as an all-powerful guardian and provider was strong. Gülen provided an outlet for their philanthropic instincts (as well as connections and more opportunities for business). Gülen’s stress upon modern education resonated with them. By making regular donations and tying their businesses to the movement’s projects, businessmen provided tremendous financial power.
The other pillar was the teachers; these were educated and talented young men. The Gülen schools placed a large emphasis on teaching English and the sciences. With their skills, these men could easily have embarked on remunerative careers in the rapidly growing Turkish economy. Instead, motivated by their belief in Islam and inspired by Gülen, they willingly worked long hours for miserly salaries.
Gülen’s enthusiasm for education was not original. An emphasis on the need for Muslims to engage with modern education and master the natural sciences, in particular, has been a hallmark of modernist Islamist movements from the 19thcentury onward. The most influential Islamic thinker in Turkey in the 20th century, Bediüzzaman Said Nursî (1877-1960), was an ardent advocate of combining modern scientific education with religious instruction. Only by recovering their lost tradition of scholarship and scientific inquiry, Nursî argued, could Muslims regain the prosperity and security they had enjoyed earlier in history. Nursî’s teachings helped shape Gülen’s worldview.
A Golden Generation to Save Turks from the Turkish Republic
Gülen, however, placed a far greater emphasis than Nursî on action and on changing the public sphere Thus, he had another, more instrumental, interest in schooling. A fundamental and consistent goal of Gülen’s has been to raise a “Golden Generation” (Altın Nesil), a generation of ethically pure and devout youth who would restore the spiritual values that Turkish society has lost. Like many religious Turks, Gülen attaches a special significance to the Ottoman Empire because he sees it as a major chapter in both Islamic history and the history of the Turks. Indeed, he believes that Turkish civilization peaked with the Ottomans in the 16th century. As he told his followers, in the four centuries since that time, “we [Turks] have left nothing but rot.” He casts a skeptical eye on the achievements of Mustafa Kemal and the founders of the Turkish Republic. Although these men may have salvaged a sovereign Turkish state from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and avoided direct colonization by Europe, they adopted too much from the West: “We saved our material [possessions], we saved our bodies, but our hearts remained in someone else’s hand.”
To reverse this course of events, Gülen wants his followers to become a “savior generation” (kurtarıcı nesil). They are not to wait for passive redemption, but are to go forth to “conquer” both what is inside and what is outside of them. To create that generation, Gülen, early on, decided to invest in education. Schools, of course, are perhaps the most powerful institutions that shape individuals outside of the family. They are also ideal venues for recruiting talented youth and for reaching the families of those youth. Beyond that, and not least important, in modern society, schools, tests, and examinations act as critical gateways and sorting mechanisms by defining who can enter given careers, bureaucracies, and circles of influence. If, as Stalin proclaimed, “Cadres decide everything!” then schools and exams decide the cadres.
In order to comply with Turkish laws and regulations on secularism, Gülen’s schools disavowed proselytization in the classroom. When I asked whether a movement so fired by the message of an imam could be so indifferent to the religious and moral formation of the students in its schools, Gülen’s followers explained that the examples set by the teachers—upright and clean-living men dedicated to their students—served as the primary means of moral instruction to students and parents alike. I have no doubt that this is very true. Conversations with former students, however, revealed that the process of religious formation was not quite so hands-off. Outside of the classroom, after hours, or in the quarters where students stayed, teachers or more senior students would organize prayer circles and monitor the activities and preferences of students, discouraging them from reading harmful books or wasting time on idle pursuits. Gülen-run dormitories, known as “Lighthouses” (Işık Evleri) around Turkish universities, operated similarly. This regulation of behavior was not unusual. Other religious organizations in Turkey also offer what is effectively subsidized housing in exchange for extramural religious study and adopting approved patterns of behavior.
Indeed, this phenomenon is by no means exclusive to religious organizations, either inside Turkey or outside. The movement does seek to inculcate in its more core members a profound reverence for Gülen, a belief in the sacred nature of the movement, and an intense in-group loyalty. One former high-ranking member explained in 2009, well before its break with the AKP, that the movement’s ethos of internal obedience and sacred purpose bred in its members a powerful self-righteousness and a habit of distrusting and dismissing external criticism as the product or either ignorance or malevolence. “And amid this detachment” from outside views and opinions, he warned, “the movement justifies any conduct to achieve its ends at any cost.”
For most of its existence, the Gülen movement eschewed referring to itself as a collective entity for much the same reason as Gülen would routinely disavow any active leadership: to put outsiders at ease. Members would describe their entrance into the movement as the time when they entered “service” (hizmet). Several years ago, when the extent of their network became impossible to deny, they began referring to themselves as the “Hizmet Movement” or simply “Hizmet.”
But it was Gülen’s leadership and his followers’ boundless energy and devotion that brought the movement astounding success in managing its schools, its media operation, and its business interests—all on a global scale. The movement’s structure has been described as “a graduated network of affiliation” with a hierarchical core community, an “expansive loose network of ‘friends,’” and an outer ring of sympathizers.Given the variation in degrees of association, estimates of membership are inherently inexact, but the figure of 5 million is a fair one. The movement has built a worldwide network of schools from pre-kindergarten to universities and a business empire that is worth between 20 and 50 billion U.S. dollars.
When Gülen and his followers embarked on expansion inside Turkey, they sought to allay the anxieties of Kemalists by explaining that their version of Islam was a peculiarly “Turkic” form of Islam rooted in mysticism and Turkic traditions. They presented it as both alien to “Arab” Islam and as a natural buttress to Turkish nationalism and anti-Communism. Fortuitously, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 allowed the Gülen movement to conduct its first major expansion abroad in the Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union. As the movement expanded beyond Turkic countries and restrictions on Islamic activism at home disappeared, it dropped its pretense that its fundamental goal was to promote a uniquely Turkic understanding of Islam.
Wherever the movement established schools, it established business ties as well. Where the teachers were to make sacrifices, businessmen affiliated with the movement were to make profits and to plow some of them right back into the movement. Taking advantage of the economic liberalization begun under Turkish prime minister and later president Turgut Özal, Gülen’s organization began to grow rapidly in the 1980s. It did not ignore the media and acquired a full spectrum media presence with radio and television stations alongside print media inside Turkey and outside. The flagship of its media effort was the newspaper Zaman. Established in 1986, Zaman became Turkey’s largest circulating daily within twenty years. It had a formidable presence on the web and was published in 11 different countries.
The Gülen movement strives to project an anodyne and nonthreatening image. As part of its public relations campaign, the organization makes heavy, saccharine use of inoffensive buzzwords such as harmony, coexistence, peace, and dialogue. This public image both helped to deflect critics and to attract allies, particularly liberals for whom such words and concepts were like catnip. The movement eagerly brought Turkish liberals aboard its media operation. By giving those liberals platforms from which they could criticize Turkey’s military and the secular establishment for faults real and imagined. This was highly unusual for an Islamist movement. In exchange for associating itself with liberals, the movement secured significant levels of credibility and trust from observers inside Turkey and the West.
A decade ago, the movement was justifiably proud of its achievements. It was also eager to show them off to researchers, like me, or to others who might one day wield influence in society in Turkey or abroad. The dedication, intelligence, and energy of the movement’s members and fellow travelers at all levels were palpably genuine. The willingness to share information, however, had definite limits. Questions about decision-making, the movement’s internal structure, or financing were met with defensive silence. That did not entirely surprise me. I expected that any independent, faith-based organization in Turkey would have cultivated a preference for some secrecy and discretion toward outsiders given the history of antagonistic relations between the state and religious groups. But with the electoral triumphs of the AKP in 2002 and 2007, the pious no longer needed to fear the scrutiny of secularists. Moreover, with the Gülen movement having grown into a global educational, media, and business empire, an embrace of greater transparency could have been expected.
Concerns about the movement’s secrecy were not unique to academic researchers. In 2009, while conversing with a member of Azerbaijan’s State Committee on Relations with Religious Organizations, I asked for his thoughts on the Gülen movement. Azerbaijan faces unique challenges in the sphere of religion. It is a secular republic recovering from the Soviet suppression of religion, and a Eurasian country with a mixed Sunni and Shia population sandwiched between the Islamic Republic of Iran to the south and Dagestan, the epicenter of Sunni extremism in Russia, to the north. Azerbaijan is a virtual neighbor of Turkey and shares close linguistic and cultural ties. Hizmet began operating there right after the fall of the U.S.S.R. and was quite active there having its own university and a local edition of Zaman. After first explaining that he believed the Gülen personnel, their emphasis on personal morality and social harmony, and their activities in the fields of education and philanthropy were exemplary, he confessed that he found their penchant for secrecy worrying.
The Azerbaijani official was hardly alone. Inside Turkey, officials had been sounding alarms. The Gülen movement’s efforts to infiltrate the state since at least 1986 when the military expelled 66 cadets from three military high schools under suspicion that they were followers of a religious brotherhood: Gülen’s. The cadets, between the age of 14 and 16, had been instructed by their spiritual mentors, “Until you become a staff officer, keep your mouth closed and do not reveal yourself. Pray with your eyes [i.e. not with the full body as normally required by Islam]. We will take Turkey in the 2000s.” The incident revealed key characteristics of the Gülenists’ modus operandi. Using their network of test preparation centers and schools as recruitment nodes, they would identify promising young students. They would proceed to cultivate these students by assigning to each an “elder brother” (or “sister” in the case of girls) who would look after their spiritual development outside of class. Free tutoring for university entrance exams and free tuition were among the incentives they offered. To the families of talented but impoverished students, they could supply more direct material assistance. They were careful, however, to leaven their religious lessons and indoctrination with activities like picnics and screenings of karate films and other activities that would appeal to young boys. After university, the movement would provide its recent graduates with jobs in the private sector or in government bureaucracy.
The Turkish military watched the growth of Gülen’s movement with unease and began to suspect a link between Gülen and the United States. According to one American, a private citizen who was advising the Turkish military on financial matters during the mid-1990s, Turkish generals repeatedly and indignantly complained to him that Gülen was “America’s Frankenstein.” Whereas the military maintained a wary eye on Gülen and blocked most of his efforts to penetrate their ranks, Turkish police formations proved easier targets. Already by the late 1980s and early 1990s the movement was successfully placing its members into the police.
It seems likely that Turkish authorities did not watch passively but made their own efforts to penetrate the movement in turn. In 1999, a video recording of Gülen openly explaining to his followers how they must infiltrate the state surfaced. In the now infamous video, Gülen instructed his followers to move unnoticed throughout the state until the right time. If they acted prematurely, he warned, they risked repeating the mistake of the Muslims in Algeria in the 1990s, in Syria in 1982, and in Egypt every year. By coming out and challenging the state before they were ready, these Muslims were met with defeat and tragedy:
You must move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the centers of power . . . until the conditions are ripe, they [Gülen’s followers] must continue like this. If they do something prematurely, the world will crush their heads, and the Muslims will suffer an experience like that in Algeria. They will bring about a calamity like Syria in 1982. They will bring about a disaster and calamity like the disasters and calamities that happen in Egypt every year. The time is not yet right. You must wait for the time when you are complete and conditions are ripe, until we can shoulder the entire world and carry it . . . 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 . . . Until that time, any step taken would be too early—like breaking an egg without waiting the full forty days for it to hatch. It would be like killing the chick inside. The work to be done is [in] confronting the world on a small scale. . . . Now, I have expressed my feelings and thoughts to you all—in confidence . . . trusting your loyalty and secrecy. I know that when you leave here—[just] as you discard your empty juice boxes, you will discard the thoughts that I expressed here.
Gülen’s supporters protested that the video had been doctored although they offered no evidence about how they knew this. Since the failed putsch, two more highly compromising videos of Gülen have come to light. Both are of uncertain provenance. In one, he boasts haughtily that he had begun planning to overcome the Turkish state at age 20 and that such a task is child’s play for someone like him. In the second, apparently shot shortly after the putsch, he mocks those Turks who took to the streets to oppose the putsch as a “herd of jackasses” and vows that Erdoğan “will pass into the sewers like the others.”
Gülen Flees to America
Fearing that the military was determined to get him and that his arrest was imminent, Gülen fled Turkey for the United States in 1999. America, it might seem, would be an unlikely place for a Muslim revivalist with a global presence, but Gülen was no typical revivalist. The brand of Islam that he advertised to outsiders—with its emphasis on morality over ritual, harmony, and tolerance over doctrinal purity, knowledge of the English language and natural sciences over rote recitation of the Quran—and his ostensibly pro-democratic stance was all too seductive for some American policymakers and analysts. It was like something out of their dreams: an interpretation of Islam that was evolving on its own to become “moderate,” pro-Western, and pro-democratic.
During the Cold War, Americans had enjoyed some success in mobilizing Islam against Soviet-backed socialist movements—most famously in Afghanistan, but also in Turkey and elsewhere. As the former CIA officer and one of Gülen’s most enthused backers, Graham Fuller, wrote, “The policy of guiding the evolution of Islam and helping them against our adversaries worked marvelously well in Afghanistan against [the Russians] [sic]. The same doctrines can still be used to destabilize what remains of Russian power, and especially to counter the Chinese influence in Central Asia.”
The American success with Islamism in Afghanistan was, in fact, modest—a tactical alliance dependent on a shared antagonism to materialist communism more than a mutual commitment to any values. Upon the evaporation of the communist threat, the Americans found their influence on Muslim movements fading. Gülen stood out as a major exception. He desired to come to the U.S. and had not only a huge following in the geopolitical linchpin that is Turkey, but also a growing global presence. Thus, Fuller, joined by another former CIA officer, George Fidas, and a former American ambassador to Turkey, Morton Abramowitz, lent their backing to Gülen’s application for residency. Although the courts rejected Gülen’s application in 2006 and 2008, he managed nonetheless to obtain permission to continue residing in the United States.
Following the rise of the AKP in 2002, the Gülen movement’s room for maneuver inside Turkey widened enormously. Most of the AKP leadership, including Erdoğan, got their start in the so-called “National Vision” movement under Erbakan and thus espoused a more conventional Islamist program with a greater stress on the desirability of applying Islamic law and greater suspicion of the West. Yet in the context of Turkish politics, Hizmet and the AKP were ideological allies joined by a common commitment to the restoration of Islamic values to Turkish society. Moreover, they complemented each other functionally. The Gülenists provided the cadres of nominally reliable technocrats and educated personnel that a new outsider party like the AKP needed to staff the state bureaucracies, and the AKP gave political cover to the Gülenists. Although they are now loath to admit it, Erdoğan and the AKP leadership eagerly staffed the government with Gülenists.
With the AKP in power, Gülen’s people no longer had to infiltrate the state through stealth. They were now in control of the gates. They wasted little time in asserting their grip. Inside the police and other bureaucracies, they worked to fast-track the rise of their own by manipulating assignments and appointment rosters while also recruiting ambitious colleagues. Serving police officers quickly came to understand that their careers depended on their willingness to observe communal religious obligations, such as ritual prayer and fasting, and to collaborate with Hizmet. To stack future cohorts with their loyalists, Gülenists rigged civil service examinations and language tests, including TOEFL tests by feeding the answer-keys to fellow Hizmet members.
That the victory of the AKP in 2002 deeply worried Turkey’s hardcore secularists is no secret. But even the more paranoid among the officer corps and Kemalist civil servants probably never knew what hit them when the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations were launched in 2008 and 2010. Although Gülen had regarded the 1980 military coup with favor, he and his followers saw the staunchly secularist General Staff as an opponent and were determined to neutralize it as a political actor. The so-called “soft” or “post-modern” coup of 1997, when a warning from the General Staff forced the Islamist Welfare Party out from the government and set in motion the party’s closure, had a catalyzing effect on Turkey’s Islamists. As noted above, it propelled a so-called “reformist wing” of former Welfare Party members under Erdoğan to break ranks and found the AKP. Gülen’s followers used the soft coup as a touchstone for a popular television drama series that depicted Turkey as a country in the grip of a nefarious conspiratorial alliance of unprincipled military officers, Kemalist bureaucrats, crime figures, and others—the Turkish “Deep State.” In retrospect, one cannot but help to think that they were using the series to prime the Turkish public for the impending scandals. Life imitates art, or, as now seems likely, life was being made to imitate art.
As mentioned above, Dani Rodrik was one of the earliest to sound the alarm about the Gülenists’ subversion of the law, but he was not a lone voice. An especially powerful exposé of Gülenist activities came from a career police chief named Hanefi Avcı. Notably, Avcı was not a Kemalist, but a conservative Muslim. His 2010 book, The Simons Who Live Along the Golden Horn (Haliçte Yaşayan Simonlar), provided an insider’s account of how the Gülenists were organizing inside the police to secure their control and engaging in unauthorized wiretapping and surveillance, among other illegal activities. The reaction was swift. If Avcı thought his whistleblowing would win him a hero’s welcome, he was woefully mistaken. The Gülen machine turned on him, and he found himself arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced in 2013 for 15 years.
Avcı’s fate was not unique. In 2010, two journalists, Ahmet Şık and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, were indicted for publishing a two-volume work that was critical of the Ergenekon investigation. Prosecutors charged Şık and Mavioğlu with “breaching confidentiality” and asked for jail terms of four and a half years despite the fact that the material in the book was already publicly available. In March 2011, police again arrested Şık. They charged him with being a member of Ergenekon, but made sure to confiscate a draft manuscript that he was writing for a book to be entitled The Imam’s Army (İmamım Ordusu). The manuscript sought to explain how Gülen’s followers had come to dominate the Turkish Directorate of Security and was slated for publication within a month. In order to make sure that his findings reached the public, Şık released the manuscript in digital format on the Internet under the title 000Book – The One Who Touches, Burns (000Kitap – Dokunan Yanar). One hundred twenty-five other journalists, academics, and activists attached their names as editors of the book in an act of solidarity with Şık. The first part of the title underscored the book’s status as an unfinished draft; the second part referred to Gülen and the implicit threat of Hizmet—who ever dared touch the subject of Gülen would get burned. Şık uttered those words as the police took him away.
Although the courts eventually cleared Şık and Mavioğlu in May 2011 of the charges levied against them regarding their first book, the authorities continued to hold Şık in jail until March 2012. Upon his release, he fielded questions from the press, and in the course of speaking, offered the prediction that, “the police, prosecutors and judges who plotted and executed this conspiracy will enter this prison.” Construing those words as defamation and threat of civil servants, prosecutors in July of that year yet again indicted Şık. Şık in response castigated the Gülenist police officıals for abusing their offıcial powers and the AKP for remaining silent in the face of such abuse.
The trials and travails of Avcı and Şık aroused substantial interest among the Turkish public. The Imam’s Army was downloaded over 100,000 times and was later published in hard copy. Notably, however, Gülen media outlets offered not a single word in the defense of either. When the sociologist Binnaz Toprak published research that called into question the way the Gülen movement regulates the daily lives of its followers, Gülenist media made no attempt to spar intellectually with her, but instead mounted a sustained campaign to discredit her. As the respected journalist Ruşen Çakır has noted, the experiences of Avcı, Şık, and Toprak revealed that behind its rhetoric of tolerance, dialogue, and harmony, the Gülen movement operated as a fearsome organization that answered to no one and could and would bully, intimidate, and crush its critics and opponents, dispatching them to jail on trumped up or manufactured charges. As The New York Times put it, it had created a “climate of fear” around it in Turkey.
The Gülen movement did indeed appear unstoppable, and perhaps, its members felt that way. For reasons that remain unknown, tensions between them and Erdoğan grew, and they turned against Erdoğan. The aforementioned summons issued to Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan was one harbinger. Initially Erdoğan’s team ridiculed rumors that Gülenists were taking control of the state. However, in 2013, when Erdoğan proposed outlawing university test preparation centers and cram schools, it was clear that the battled had been joined. Such centers were both a critical vehicle for recruitment of talented youths and lucrative sources of revenue, and closing them would cripple the Gülen movement. Gülen’s followers struck back hard. In December 2013, police arrested 24 men for involvement in a major corruption ring. Among those arrested were the sons of three of Erdoğan’s cabinet ministers. The ministers resigned, but Erdoğan and other AKP figures accused “dark forces” and “an illegal organization formed within the state” of waging “deliberate psychological warfare” against the government and vowed to fight back. Erdoğan fired and reassigned hundreds of judges, prosecutors, and police officers. Although no one doubted that Gülenists were again behind the investigations, some AKP supporters still found it difficult to believe that their former ally could have turned against the government, and they surmised that rogue elements inside the movement were at work. Rüşen Çakır, however, concluded at the time that it was quite clear that Gülen was in firm control of the anti-government campaign.
With Erdoğan unfazed and still determined to uproot the movement, Gülen’s people wheeled in their heavy artillery to attack the prime minister himself. In February 2014, someone using the name “Chief Thief” (Başçalan) uploaded to YouTube recordings of telephone conversations wherein Erdoğan warns his son that the police are about to raid their home and that he should move the stored cash immediately. The son, in turn, complains that there is too much money—tens of millions of Euros—to move so quickly. The incident did tremendous damage to Erdoğan’s already tarnished image, but it failed to topple him. Erdoğan stood firmly unrepentant, dismissing the recording as a montage. Although he presented no real evidence to indicate that it was a fabrication, his electoral base remained solidly behind him.
Gülen’s Residence in the U.S.
With the conflict now direct and personal, Erdoğan was determined more than ever to uproot and destroy the “parallel state.” An infuriated but clever Erdoğan turned the conflict to his advantage. On the campaign trail, he pointed to the specter of a conspiracy inside the state run by foreigners. In stump speeches, he repeated the exotic sounding word “Pen-seel-van-ya,” drawing out its pronunciation and using it as shorthand to underscore both the nefarious essence and foreign ties of Gülen. For American ears, the Poconos calls up images of hokey vacation fun, but to Turkish ears, “Pennsylvania” rings something more like “Transylvania”—dark, foreign, and foreboding.
The question of why Gülen is in America has been confounding Turks since well before July 15, 2016. Although Gülen’s arrival in the US shortly preceded his indictment in Turkey in 1999, Gülen and his followers insisted that the fragile state of his health necessitated his relocation to the United States. They further depicted his exile as unfortunate and undesired. Just five years into that exile, Gülen was already describing those years as the most “bitter” of his life. Yet in an interview in 2005, Gülen acknowledged that politics, not medicine, kept him out of Turkey and that his exile was not compulsory: his return to his homeland might be politically destabilizing and so he believed he should wait. Even after a Turkish court in 2006 acquitted him of all charges, he continued to pursue permanent residence status in the US.
Gülen’s application was controversial. He based his claim to residency on his status as an “alien of extraordinary ability” in the field of education. This was despite the fact that he had earlier repeatedly disavowed playing any direct role in the establishment or management of schools, slyly averring that he may only have “inspired” certain people to establish schools. The U.S. Center for Immigration Services found this wholly unpersuasive and categorically rejected it. As lawyers representing the Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff observed, Gülen has no degree or training in education and had authored no scholarly works. To the contrary, they argued, “the evidence submitted by plaintiff [Gülen] indicates that, far from being an academic, plaintiff seeks to cloak himself with academic status by commissioning academics to write about him and paying for conferences at which his work is studied.” It was an accurate assessment. Gülen, however, had influential backers. Among those who endorsed Gülen’s petition were, as previously mentioned, two former CIA officers and a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey. His application ultimately won approval.
Journalists routinely describe Gülen’s compound in the Poconos as “secluded.” An equally accurate but more informative description might be “conveniently located.” Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania is close to the New York-Washington, DC corridor. By placing his compound there, Gülen has put himself in a location that both shields him from Turkish authorities and that is well-suited to managing his global network of schools, businesses, and faith organizations.
The allure of Gülen to U.S. policymakers is easy to understand. In spite of maintaining a close—and mutually beneficial—relationship since the end of the Second World War, America and Turkey have never enjoyed warm relations. The reasons for this are manifold and are found on both sides, but among those reasons is the persistence of anti-Americanism across the Turkish political spectrum from the revolutionary left to radical Islamist right, including the secular nationalist establishment and the military in between. As heirs to Mustafa Kemal, these have been zealous defenders of Turkey’s sovereignty and have habitually regarded the U.S., like other great powers, with wariness and even suspicion. Gülen, who combined an authentic Turkish Muslim identity with ostensibly pro-Western credentials, offered a beguiling alternative. Assisting him to facilitate the ascendance of a more pliable and pro-American elite in Turkey likely appeared as an attractive policy option, even a no-brainer. Moreover, at a time when the United States is bogged down in armed conflicts throughout the Muslim world, the idea that America could host the leader of a dynamic and growing global network of ostensibly pro-Western, pro-democracy Islamists verges on the fantastic in its appeal. If Gülen could succeed in convincing his fellow Islamists in his own country of his reliability and utility, how difficult could it have been to do the same to Americans?
Gülen and the Crisis in Turkish-American Relations
To what extent Gülen’s presence in the U.S. reflects a clear policy preference or just a general sympathy for “moderate” Muslims cannot be known outside the offices that authorized Gülen’s relocation to the U.S. What can be said with certainty is that his presence in the U.S. massively complicates American relations with Turkey. Ankara is demanding his extradition and threatening a rupture in relations if the U.S. does not follow through. This insistence is not a matter of Erdoğan’s or anyone else’s personal pique. A stunning 81.5% of Turks want him to be returned, and nearly as many—77.7%— regard Gülen and his sympathizers as a threat to the present order and future of Turkey. Gülen is in disfavor not because he is a dissident, but because the great majority of Turks believe that he has been subverting their state, played a key role in a violent attempt to overthrow their government, and is a tool of foreign interests. In the face of such an overwhelming public consensus on a matter of such magnitude, it will be very difficult for Washington over the long term to sustain the status quo in its relationship with its fellow NATO ally. Moreover, it is worth remembering that Turkish-American tensions are not limited to the case of Gülen. American military cooperation in Syria with a subsidiary militia of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel or YPG)—an existential threat to Turkey, constitutes another combustible issue.
Erdoğan, for numerous reasons, is unpopular in Washington, where he is seen as an ungrateful and unhelpful ally and as an overbearing authoritarian. Indeed, so low is Erdoğan’s favor in Washington that some Americans in the immediate wake of the coup suggested that Erdoğan might have engineered the coup himself to justify eliminating his rivals. The idea that Erdoğan or anyone else could stage-manage an armed uprising that included pitched gun battles and the deaths of a few hundred individuals reveals a faith in human capacity beyond that of all but the most dedicated conspiracy theorists. Similarly, the suggestion that the rapidity with which the government sacked so many people must reveal prior planning rests on unfamiliarity with recent Turkish politics. For the past three years, the government has been locked in battle with Gülen and his followers. Officials were already working to identify and expel Gülenists from state offices before the coup. Indeed, credible rumors that the General Staff was preparing to dismiss a large cohort of Gülenist officers at the upcoming annual meeting of the Supreme Military Council likely prompted the July 15 putsch as a desperate last ditch effort to preserve the Gülenists’ remaining presence in the security apparatus.
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford tours the now damaged Turkish Grand National Assembly
after the failed putsch.
The rhetoric of U.S. and European officials and observers in the wake of the coup was, at best, inept. The plea that American President Barak Obama uttered during the putsch for “all sides to act within the rule of law” did not merely sound hopelessly silly—imploring violent mutineers to obey the law!—but its neutrality and implicit recognition of the mutineers as a party no less legitimate than the elected government they were seeking to overthrow came across as mischievously sly, even sinister.
Protests by U.S. Central Command Chief General Joe Votel and U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper that key American interlocutors in the Turkish military were among those purged or arrested were no less softheaded than Obama’s gaffe. They implicitly suggested that the preferences of American military and intelligence officials should take precedence over the physical security of the Turkish government and population. Their words not only projected heedless arrogance, but, unfortunately, also bolstered suspicions that indeed Washington did harbor sympathies for the putschists.
The mix of adjurations and warnings from Americans and Europeans to President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım to restrain the purges of suspected Gülenists were worse than useless. Aside from their poor timing and careless phrasing, they were based on two false premises. The first is that the post-putsch crackdown amounts to a “witch hunt”—a search for something that exists only in the imagination. If there is one thing that the putsch made clear, it is that organized underground forces really do exist and are ready and willing to use violence and illegal means to overthrow the government. The most immediate lesson Erdoğan and others in the government can take from the failed coup attempt is not that they should ease up and err on the side of leniency and grant suspects the benefit of the doubt, but precisely the opposite: they have been too gentle with the Gülenists, and it nearly cost them their lives.
It should be emphasized that this is not the sole lesson that the government can or should take from the putsch. Perhaps the prime lesson the AKP (as well as their quondam liberal and other allies) should take is that their past collusion with Hizmet in subverting the law and the legal processes weakened and fractured the Turkish state and thereby left all exposed and vulnerable. Former Chief of the General Staff İlker Başbuğ had warned Erdoğan that Hizmet would come after him, but Erdoğan brushed off his warnings.
In its current crackdown, the government stands a good chance of replicating and compounding its earlier errors. Gülen’s movement is a large and sprawling network built up over the course of four decades with a major presence in multiple fields, including, but not limited to, education and media. Nonetheless, the stunning scale of the crackdown, with close to 100,000 people affected, is excessive. Only the inner circles of the movement and select followers could have had knowledge of the putsch. The majority of Gülen affiliates, such as the teachers and students, are likely guilty of nothing more than having had the desire to improve their personal spiritual and/or material conditions. Indeed, the revelations of the movement’s subversive and malevolently duplicitous behavior have, according to one long-time observer of the movement, disillusioned many of Gülen’s close followers and provoked internal dissension and turmoil. To be sure, there is always the possibility that the movement could in the future tap into the residual loyalties of members in influential or critical positions. But with the movement now crippled, albeit not vanquished, the greater danger in any effort to root out Gülen affiliates entirely is to entrench alienation. As Hanefi Avcı, one of the Gülenists’ most vigilant critics, now warns, punishing people on the margins of the movement will breed unnecessary bitterness and resentment and, still worse, further sunder what little trust remains in a fractured and polarized Turkish society.
Among these are journalists like Şahin Alpay, Ali Bulaç, and Nazlı Ilıcak, who wrote for Gülen-funded publications, but are not Gülenists. Even less defensible have been the warrants and dismissals issued for others who have no association with Hizmet, but are sharply critical of the AKP. These include journalists Yavuz Baydar and Can Dündar, and academic Candan Badem. Although it is politically expedient for Erdoğan and the AKP to blame the U.S. for the rise of Gülen, no amount of deflection can erase the truth that they themselves played the largest role in elevating Hizmet within the Turkish state. A recent report issued by the opposition Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi or CHP) in September on the crackdown makes precisely these points: the AKP helped bring on its own fate and now risks repeating some of its previous mistakes.
American policymakers are hardly in a position to lecture Ankara. At a minimum, they are guilty of negligence for not investigating and monitoring the activities of Gülen more thoroughly before and during his residence in the U.S. That Gülen was a man of immense influence and that Turks for decades had been sounding alarms about him and his agenda were facts known to all; indeed, they were precisely why the U.S. government granted Gülen residence.
Ankara has formally requested the extradition of Gülen. Before U.S. officials will hand him over, there are a number of conditions that American law requires to be fulfilled. Ultimately, the decision will lie with the American judiciary. Nonetheless, the President and State Department play critical roles in the process. The Americans involved in the process should take the following points into account. Although it is not yet clear how exactly the coup was planned or who led it, there is virtually no doubt that Gülenists were involved. Ankara will do a great deal to strengthen its case for Gülen’s extradition the sooner it presents precise evidence of his role, but as former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey has contended, the putsch attempt was a sophisticated plot requiring “a very well organized, disciplined, ideologically-based group in the military. The only group that meets those criteria that I can think of would be Gülenists.” It is certainly possible that Gülenists might have acted without Gülen’s knowledge or direction, but in such a grave matter as a coup, it is highly improbable.
An experienced British observer of Turkey recently described the Gülen movement as a “movement defined, if such is possible, by obfuscation.” Its colossal obfuscation notwithstanding, the Gülen movement has left behind a documented track record of subterfuge and criminality in both Turkey and the U.S., among other locations. The damage Gülen’s followers did to Turkish democracy and rule of law in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations alone is staggering and incalculable. Never did Gülen chastise his followers for their deception or attacks on their critics, nor did he or his followers apologize for their wrongdoing. As his surreptitious remarks on video reveal, Gülen has, for decades, cultivated a mindset and modus operandi that is contemptuous of the law and people alike. Finally, and not least important, Gülen and his many of his followers shamefully repaid the hospitality shown to them by breaking U.S. laws and regulations not once or twice, but systematically in one state after another. The American people owe nothing to Gülen.
Fears that extraditing Gülen will strengthen Erdoğan, promote authoritarianism, and thereby undermine what remains of Turkish democracy are among the reasons for a notable lack of enthusiasm in Washington for extradition. American officials would do well to reflect on the fact that by harboring Gülen with the goal of supporting “moderate Muslim democrats” and promoting the proliferation of democracy, America has already inflicted substantial, albeit inadvertent, damage to the leading democracy in the Muslim world and a former, rare pillar of stability in the Middle East. In the meantime, it has entangled itself to an unnecessary degree in a muddy intra-Islamist conflict in which it will always be at a severe disadvantage to understand and operate effectively. The sooner it drops the pretense that it understands the real interests of Turkey better than the Turkish citizens themselves, the better off we will all be.
Michael A. Reynolds is a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East and is an Associate Professor in Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies where he teaches courses on modern Middle Eastern and Eurasian history, comparative empire, military and ethnic conflict, and secularism.