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Turkey Goes Out of Control

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Selahattin Sevi/Zaman Daily/Cihan New Agency/Reuters
Fethullah Gülen at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, September 2013

Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World is by an American sociologist, Joshua Hendrick, who worked for seven months as a volunteer editor at a Gülen-affiliated publishing house in Istanbul. As someone who recently spent a couple of days in the company of Gülenists, and who found their beaming, radiant, unswervingly solicitous manner perplexing at first, and then somewhat wearing, I can only admire Hendrick’s longevity. It has paid off, for this is a helpful and detailed account of a movement that is defined, if such a thing is possible, by obfuscation.

Fethullah Gülen denies that he heads a movement or that he has any institutional link to the organizations that revere him. His followers—as many as five million, according to some estimates—say that they do not form a network but are united by their respect for the Hocaefendi, or “esteemed teacher,” and moved by his vision of a modern, tolerant Islam that values knowledge and material progress as well as piety and charity. Companies owned or supported by Gülenists do not identify themselves as such, even if there is an association, the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists, whose members confess their admiration for him. Consequently it is hard to know how many billions of dollars they are worth. Gülen’s picture does not beam from the walls of the more than one thousand private schools, in more than 120 countries, that have been set up by his adherents, or from the masthead of the Gülen-affiliated Zaman newspaper, Turkey’s biggest.

As Hendrick points out, many people do not even realize that they are in Gülen’s orbit—a parent sending his daughter to a Gülen-affiliated charter school in South Africa, for instance, or a subcontractor working with a Gülenist construction company in Russia. Deniability and ambiguity have been “crucial to the [movement’s] uninterrupted growth for three decades.”

The other factor is Gülen himself. His personal magnetism has been winning followers since the 1960s, when as a young mosque imam he was known for his emotional preaching style, breaking down in tears and even throwing himself onto the floor. A follower who had just returned from visiting the Hocaefendi in the US described him to Hendricks as having “powers that an average educated person…could not possibly imagine. It is God-given.” In some ways Gülen is revered in the same way as a Sufi “pole,” a human being who has been singled out by God to diffuse divine truth, but the Gülen movement is too worldly to be considered a Sufi movement. “Action” is the Gülenists’ declared guiding principle, not detachment and introspection.

Drawing on the teaching of a twentieth-century Turkish divine, Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, Gülen believes that humanity needs to be saved from sin and shown the path of Koranic revelation and prophetic example. From the same starting point, other Muslim revivalists in the twentieth century, notably Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb, justified violence and a harsh application of holy law. Gülen leans the other way. He calls for “embracing people regardless of difference of opinion, worldview, ideology, ethnicity, or belief,” and for “democracy, universal human rights and freedoms”—anathema to Qutb.

Gülen’s worldview goes some way to explain his movement’s internationalism, the emphasis on language-learning at its schools, and its pursuit of inter-faith dialogue through conferences and university endowments. Unlike many other Islamic organizations, the Gülen movement does not raise money solely for fellow Muslims, but for non-Muslims too (the victims of Haiti’s earthquake, for instance). Gülen and his lieutenants go to immense pains to distance themselves from anti-Semitism, and even from criticism of Israel. This has eased the movement’s efforts to establish itself in the United States, where it has around 135 charter schools, and where it has cultivated powerful allies in politics, education, and the arts. Even so, the Gülenists are nowadays the object of increased scrutiny by the American parents who send their children to his charter schools, and who are concerned by the opacity of their aims and methods, and, more generally, by observers who are uncertain what Gülen stands for.

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, education has been the preoccupation of the Muslim reformers—with particular emphasis on the sciences—and the Gülen movement is no different. In Turkey it controls eight universities, dozens of private secondary schools, and some 350 crammers that prepare children for university entrance exams. The state education system in Turkey is poorly regarded, so parents scrimp and save in order to send their child to a crammer.

At one such institution, immaculate, well equipped, and Gülenist, a senior educator told me that Gülen-affiliated crammers send pupils to the country’s best universities, and that they offer 15 percent of their places to poor pupils on a scholarship basis. He broke off our conversation to go to the mosque across the road to say his prayers, before returning with two nice, polite male students (the girls’ section is separate). They told me about the “big brother” system, whereby moral and practical support is provided to pupils far from home who are billetted in the crammer’s dorms. One of the boys remarked that the teachers treat him “like their own son.” The Gülen movement is fond of family analogies. It does not like nine-to-fivers; dedication is prized in both students and teachers.

Wealth, success, the thrill of being party to a sublime truth—the Gülen movement energetically proselytizes, and these are its inducements. It is easy to imagine the debt of obligation felt by the poorer Gülenists after they are lifted into this shiny, cosmopolitan, and above all close-knit world. As much as through the books and speeches of the Hocaefendi, it is through friendship that they are drawn in, and if their families will not accompany them then a choice must be made—between the old family and the new one.

Cults and closed organizations the world over have used similar methods, and the results are not always happy. A psychologist in Istanbul told me about a poor boy, the son of a concierge in the city’s most expensive district, who had visited her after an experience with a group of Gülenists. They had befriended him, inviting him into the home they shared, introducing to him to the Hocaefendi’s ideas, and making him feel clever, accomplished, and accepted. Then one day when the others were out, he was idly flicking through some DVDs and put one on. It was a guide to ensnaring recruits, explaining tactics that he recognized as having been used on him. This is how he ended up visiting my psychologist friend.

Near the beginning of his book, Hendrick reproduces part of a leaked video transcript that was part of the prosecution’s case against Gülen in 2000, when he was being tried in absentia—he had already fled Turkey for the US—for conspiracy against the secular state. In this famous excerpt, Gülen tells his supporters:

You must move in the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers…. You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power.

But Hendrick does not go deeply into the various accusations that have been leveled at Gülen over the years; as a sociologist, he may not feel it is his job to do so.

Claims that Gülen has been trying to take over the organs of the state, particularly the judiciary and the police, date back at least to 1971, when he served a seven-month jail sentence for undermining secularism. These claims rest on an important distinction between the Gülen movement and Turkey’s other Islamist traditions. While the latter reacted in an orthodox way to the legal and political obstacles placed before them, contesting elections and fighting charge sheets, the Gülenists tried to remain on the right side of the secular institutions (not always successfully, as Gülen’s imprisonment shows), while gradually infiltrating them. In 2011, a journalist called Ahmet Şık brought out a book, The Imam’s Army, that shows how the Gülenists took control of the police force over a period of two decades.

The Imam’s Army is full of fascinating details. It contains a directive that was allegedly issued to Gülenist policemen in the late 1990s, at the height of a campaign by the secular authorities against Turkish Islamists. In this directive, Gülen’s followers in the force are ordered to remove his books from their homes, leave empty beer cans around the place, and tell their wives to remove their headscarves so as to give a secular impression. Şık also writes about the transfers and demotions that are the fate of any senior policeman or prosecutor who tries to take on the Gülenists, and the campaigns of vilification waged against them by the Gülen-affiliated media, the newspaper Zaman in particular.

Şık drew some of his material from an earlier book by a former chief of police, Hanefi Avcı. In September 2010, two days before he was due to substantiate his claims in a press conference, and despite his right-wing sympathies, Avcı was arrested and charged with membership in a leftist organization. Şık was arrested the following year, shortly before the planned publication of The Imam’s Army. (Despite the efforts of the police to destroy every digital copy of the book, it was posted on the Internet and was downloaded 100,000 times in two days.) More journalists were arrested, on various pretexts, and the cases of all were folded into a huge investigation into an alleged conspiracy against the government by the old secular establishment. The conspiracy was named Ergenekon, the name of the the mythical Central Asian homeland of the Turkish nation.

When it was launched in 2007, the Ergenekon investigation was welcomed by many Turks as a chance for the country to draw a line under the abuses that had been committed by the armed forces and their allies. But long before the investigation reached its climax last August, with the jailing of 242 people, including a former chief of the general staff, for belonging to the “Ergenekon terrorist organization,” blatant irregularities in the case had caused some to change their minds. Convictions were secured on the basis of illegal wiretaps; there were numerous instances of incompetently planted evidence. Perhaps most egregious of all, in a related case, 330 serving and retired members of the armed forces were jailed for plotting a coup in 2003—even though the prosecution’s case rested on a single CD whose formatting showed it used the 2007 version of Microsoft Office.

Ergenekon was to have been the final vindication of Turkey’s long-suppressed Islamists and Erdoğan as their leader; but there is good reason to argue that there never was an organization called Ergenekon and that the legal process was motivated by malice and revenge. According to Gareth Jenkins, a British scholar who has penetratingly analyzed the case, it was put into operation not by Erdoğan but by a “cabal of Gülen’s followers in the police and lower echelons of the judiciary.” As it went on, Jenkins maintains, the Gülenists’ misuse of it to victimize their enemies increased. Jenkins believes that Ahmet Şık, Hanefi Avcı, and the other arrested journalists—some of whom still await sentencing—have been punished because they are “critics, opponents or rivals of the Gülen movement.”

Back in 2006, Fethullah Gülen was acquitted of trying to take over the Turkish state, but Erdoğan, his former ally, has revived the idea. Having been a supporter of the Ergenekon investigation, Erdoğan is now keen for the files to be reopened, no doubt with a view to exposing judicial abuses by the Gülenists. Last month Erdoğan responded with an abuse of his own, steering legislation through parliament that gives the government increased control over judges and prosecutors. The two men’s dispute marks the end of a partnership that brought Islamism to power in Turkey, and it challenges the belief, once entertained even by some liberals, that if Turkey was more responsive to its pious majority it would also be more just.

—March 6, 2014

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