By Abdullah Bozkurt
There was no love lost between Turkey’s political Islamists led by autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the civic movement Hizmet, which is inspired by Muslim intellectual Fethullah Gülen, when the two had a falling out over a vast array of differences including but not limited to the president’s involvement in massive corruption and arming radical rebels in Syria.
Even before the exposé on Erdoğan’s complicity in unlawful businesses in December 2013 and January 2014, Gülen’s critical approach to Erdoğan’s abuse of Islamic teachings for political gain and personal enrichment had already created a lingering uneasiness between the two for years. The cracks and ruptures were always there, albeit not visible publicly, for some time. Unlike most clerics in Turkey who have yielded to the rule of Erdoğan with blind allegiance and an absence of any kind of critical stance, Gülen has always been careful in maintaining his distance from him and has spoken up against his policies when he felt warranted.
Erdoğan knew he could not convince Gülen to sign on to his political Islamist project but was hoping to peel away his support base. He has always harbored both animosity and enmity towards the Gülen movement but shied away from showing open hostility towards him until he felt he had consolidated sufficient power. When he won a third term in 2011 with 50 percent of the recorded vote, he put his hostility into action. The vindictive Erdoğan started looking for an excuse to railroad this Muslim scholar simply because he was standing in the way of his obscure Islamist project in Turkey and the region. In a secret meeting in Ankara with senior officials, Erdoğan blurted out his plan against this 76-year-old scholar, who has never wanted to take part in a political life. “I will declare him a terrorist with one prosecutor and two police investigators if he does not behave,” he reportedly said at the meeting in 2012 while lashing out in anger at him.
That is exactly what happened when Erdoğan was caught with his hand in a cookie jar worth billions of dollars in bribes in the December 2013 graft investigations. He immediately accused Gülen of orchestrating the probes even though many involved in the investigations had nothing to do with the Gülen movement. The investigators and members of the judiciary were simply doing what they were supposed to do by following leads that ended up in uncovering Erdoğan’s footprints. Erdoğan did what he intended to do all along by scapegoating Gülen for his troubles and declaring him a “terrorist.” The problem, however, was to find any evidence of violence and a terror act that might be associated with Gülen, who has been staunchly opposed to any violence, let alone terrorism, throughout his life.
Erdoğan’s associates had manufactured evidence against Gülen, but that fell apart and was found not to be credible at all despite his control of the judiciary, with no shortage of partisan prosecutors who drafted all kinds of crazy indictments full of conspiracy theories that blamed the Vatican, the US, the EU and Israel. With laughable charges, he even tried to associate Gülen with known terrorist organizations such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Nobody bought that idea, leaving Erdoğan frustrated in his failed attempts to portray the peaceful Gülen movement as standing next to PKK militancy and radical religious terror networks.
Then came the last straw in the form of an orchestrated failed coup on July 15 when Erdoğan immediately blamed the cleric as the culprit. It was astonishing that he knew who was behind it when he admitted he could not even reach his intelligence chief or the chief of general staff for hours. Erdoğan has given four conflicting accounts of his televised interviews when he first learned about the attempt. He created an official narrative, supported by his propaganda machine, that Gülen was responsible. To kill the counter-narrative, he obtained a gag order on reporting about the coup investigation, thwarted a parliamentary investigation which did not even bother to hear intelligence and military chiefs as well as putschists who were allegedly involved in the attempt. Using the attempt as a pretext, Erdoğan escalated the persecution of the Gülen movement with a new and unprecedented wave of dismissals of 110,000 public servants and the jailing of close to 50,000 people in four months.
Behind this charade lies Erdoğan’s plans to depict the Gülen movement as not so peaceful, pacifist or non-violent as claimed but rather as a violent network with government-issued weapons in the hands of soldiers who were ready to use them against civilians. Although Gülen denied any link to the coup and the fact that there was no evidence tying the cleric to the attempt other than discredited confessions obtained under severe torture, Erdoğan kept pointing finger at him. His caretaker prime minister Binali Yildirim even declared there was no need for evidence to indict and convict Gülen. This was the second time Erdoğan tried to discredit Gülen as a violent figure. He did the same in the aftermath of corruption probes when Erdoğan claimed the Gülen movement was prone to violence because graft investigators in the police force who he claimed were linked to Gülen had carried government-issued guns.
This is hardly surprising given the fact that Gülen has been targeted by neo-nationalists before. A rogue faction with the intelligence, military and judiciary plotted to frame Gülen in 2009 by planting weapons in offices and houses that were affiliated with his movement in order to launch a criminal probe and declare the Gülen movement an armed terrorist group. The plans also included sparking violent clashes between Sunni and Alevi groups in the rural areas of Erzincan. The plan fell apart when witnesses came forward stating that they were pressured to orchestrate the plot, leading to charges against military officers, intelligence operatives and a prosecutor involved in the false flag scheme in the eastern province of Erzincan. However, in the aftermath of the corruption probe that implicated Erdoğan in 2013, neo-nationalists led by racist politician Doğu Perinçek made a secret pact with Erdoğan in turning this critical case around. Instead, the plotters were acquitted, witnesses who blew the whistle on rogue officials were punished and the Gülen movement was declared an armed terror group as originally planned.
It appears Erdoğan had set his eyes on stigmatizing the Gülen movement from the start when his party first was swept to power in late 2002 but did not find an environment conducive enough to proceed with his secret plans. A leaked 2004 National Security Council document revealed that his government had signed on to the policy of cracking down on the Gülen movement from the beginning. A year later, his government proposed an anti-terror bill in Parliament that redefined the criminal code with an obscure definition of terror groups without arms or violence. The bill specifically targeted Gülen because of his non-violent and pacifist teachings. After an outcry in the media and reaction from civic groups, Erdoğan had to drop the bill from the agenda. But he continued to dismiss people who were believed to be sympathetic to Gülen’s teachings from state institutions, although incrementally and without attracting much attention. In the meantime the intelligence agency has continued to profile members of the Gülen movement.
Gülen’s continued criticism of the Erdoğan government’s policies in failing to fulfill legitimate Kurdish demands such as education in the mother tongue left a bitter taste in Erdoğan’s mouth. Gülen wrote several letters to Erdoğan, listing his recommendations on how the Kurdish problem should be addressed and grievances resolved. For example, he urged boosting science education to lift the predominantly Kurdish southeastern region up from poverty, reaching out to local leaders and granting their rights and freedoms without any political favors. Erdoğan was not happy about this at all. Then came the confrontation between Erdoğan and Israel during the Mavi Marmara incident, which left nine Turkish and one Turkish-American citizens dead in May 2010. Gülen criticized the Erdoğan government for allowing the ship to sail, knowing full well that there would be a violent clash when the ship carrying militant activists challenged the military blockade. He said the aid could have been delivered to Gaza without the bloodshed and violence after first obtaining the consent of authorities.
He was also critical of Erdoğan government’s cozying up to Iran starting in the early years of his rule, which resulted in a surprising “no” vote in the UN Security Council against a new round of Iran sanctions when Turkey was a non-permanent member in 2010. He cautioned the government on threats posed by the pervasive infiltration of Iranian clandestine activities into Turkey and attempts to export the Iranian mullahs’ hateful and xenophobic Islamist discourse to Turkish society. Erdoğan balked at these recommendations. When the Arab revolutions started in 2011, Gülen urged caution and opposed the arming and funding of militant rebels from Libya to Syria, saying it would bring more bloodshed to these countries. At the request of prominent Damascus-based Sunni scholar Ramadan Al-Bouti, who was later killed, Gülen lobbied for negotiations and dialogue to resolve differences between Ankara and Damascus at the outset of the conflict in Syria but was bluntly rebuffed by Erdoğan.
Gülen was also opposed to the brutal police crackdown on Gezi Park protesters in the summer of 2013 and criticized Erdoğan’s hateful narrative that stigmatized the protestors and deepened the fault lines in Turkish society. Most importantly, Gülen’s unwavering stand against Erdoğan’s wishes to tap into Turkish schools abroad to pursue his clandestine Islamist projects was the breaking point between the two men. Gülen had groomed these schools as bridges among cultures and faiths, called them “islands of peace,” and did not allow Erdoğan to use these best-performing schools as political pawns in the hands of a hate-mongering politician.
As a result, Erdoğan saw Gülen as the ultimate threat to his favorite weapon of hateful narrative to create a false reality that is quite far-fetched but has meaning for the average man on the street, especially among less-educated groups. Gülen’s philosophy, which is centered on three main pillars of science education, the eradication of poverty and social reconciliation, represents a threat to what Erdoğan is hoping to accomplish. This is the reason why over 1,000 top-performing science schools affiliated with the movement in Turkey were seized by Erdoğan, who later turned them into religious schools, IHLs, that are now a breeding ground for a new generation of Islamists. He shut down Kimse Yok Mu, the UN-accredited and largest charitable group in Turkey, which has been offering help to not only Turks but many abroad. He also declared Gülen’s interfaith dialogue activities to be un-Islamic and bashed him for meeting with the pope for that purpose. What is more, Erdoğan is now exporting this hateful message all over the world as shown in his speech delivered in the Pakistani parliament, where he stated that there cannot be dialogue between Islam and Christianity.
Erdoğan has been successful in playing on divisions, fueling anxiety and deepening fissures in Turkish society by employing a relentless hate speech campaign targeting his critics and opponents. He constantly invokes lingering fears and conspiracies about the West in particular and foreigners in general. With daily appearances and fiery speeches that take place several times on the same day, Erdoğan’s goal is to keep the public agitated and make them hate his enemies, both domestic and foreign. He has full control of the broadcast media, a near total grip in the print media and a paid troll army in social media to transmit this hate-sowing narrative to the masses. The intimidation campaign by jailing his opponents in large numbers, seizing their assets and stripping them of social security benefits discourages most critics from raising their voices against this rapid backslide in Turkish democracy. In the end, Turkish society has unfortunately become paralyzed and institutions destroyed, leaving the government unable to resolve even basic problems in this 80-million-strong nation.
When even the political opposition has been crumbling under the intense pressure and scare tactics of Erdoğan that decapitated all the leading political parties with imprisonments, threats, blackmail and outright buying-off, this courageous Muslim intellectual is among the few left standing up to this tyrant despite facing personal death threats, a demonizing hate campaign and vicious persecution. For that, he must be applauded and supported.