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Fethullah Gulen: the man behind the myth

April 6, 2018

Turkey has purged and arrested tens of thousand of people all because of one man blamed for the July 2016 coup attempt: Fethullah Gulen. Who is Turkey's public enemy number one and what do we know about his organization?

Fethullah Gulen
Image: picture-alliance/AP

Turkey has arrested nearly 40,000 people and dismissed some 110,000 public servants since the failed July 2016 attempt, blamed by the government on US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. 

The vast majority of them are accused of having links to the so-called Gulen movement, which the Turkish government has branded a terrorist organization called "FETO."

Turkey claims that "FETO" is out to topple the government and prepared to step in and run the country once Gulen manages to rise to power using whatever means necessary. Is this an elaborate conspiracy theory or is there any evidence to support the Turkish government's crackdown on so-called Gulenists under the recently extended state-of-emergency measures?

What do we know about Gulen?

Born in 1941, Gulen was a simple imam for the first half of his life. In an online bio published by the Gulen movement, it says that after retiring from preaching in 1981, his focus shifted from religious to social activities, many of which involved launching new enterprises, particularly media ventures and educational projects - areas which at the time were opening up to privatization.

Gulen's influence in civil society grew steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s - as did his following: Many of those whom Gulen promoted in his organizations or whose education he funded with his schools have reportedly come to feel a personal debt to the divisive preacher.

In 1999, Gulen moved to the US state of Pennsylvania and has been living there ever since.

Saylorsburg  Pennsylvania
Fethullah Gulen lives on this compound in Saylorburg, Pennsylvania, and is rarely seen in public outside of his prayer circlesImage: DW/S.Sanderson

While his supporters cite health reasons for the septuagenarian's residence in the US, others would classify Gulen's decision to move there as self-imposed exile: Gulen left Turkey at a time when he was under investigation for undermining the government - which at that point was still firmly under control of Turkey's secular elite and backed up by the military. In 2000, he was found guilty, in absentia, of scheming to overthrow the government by embedding civil servants in various governmental offices - an indictment that would come back to haunt him against later.

Soon thereafter, the face of Turkey began to change. In 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister with his recently established Justice and Development Party (AKP) - despite only getting one-third of the overall vote. Secularists, in their many millions in Turkey, were unhappy with this development but still welcomed the exponential growth of the Turkish economy in the early 2000s, which perceivedly took place under the AKP leadership. Meanwhile, the AKP's Islamist ideas started to become increasingly commonplace in the country. Against that backdrop, Erdogan and Gulen decided they could embark on a strategic partnership.

What is Gulen's history with Erdogan?

After being re-elected in 2007 with a stronger mandate, the AKP under Erdogan's leadership grew more outspoken with its Islamist ideology. Within a year, it would reverse the charges against Gulen, signaling a willingness to cooperate with the cleric and his global movement:

Gulen had built up an impressive business empire in the years since his self-imposed exile. His network of media outlets in Turkey and abroad had become increasingly powerful; his schools were grooming the next generation of pious yet entrepreneurially minded followers in Turkey; and his banks facilitated the movement and transfer of funds between the Western world and the Middle East, where some countries' financial affairs are governed by Islamic principles.

Gulen's ties also extended to Central Asia, where former Soviet republics like Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan as well as other nations with Turkic languages welcomed any kind of aid, while feeling a particularly strong sense of kinship with Turkey. Anthropologist Kristina Dohrn, who has been studying the movement for almost ten years in Germany, told DW that the movement evolved into "a global, conservative network with a strong focus on education."

Journalist Ahmet Sik
Investigative journalist Ahmet Sik tried to warn the public about Gulen's influence in 2011 - and was promptly arrested and his publication bannedImage: picture alliance/abaca/Depo Photos

All the while, Gulen already had thousands of devout followers working in government positions in Turkey itself - and that network was only growing. His opponents viewed this as a growing underground army, while his supporters stated they were merely trying to increase democracy and dialogue between various social groups through government channels. Journalist Ahmet Sik tried to warn the public of what he saw as a dangerous influence, penning a book entitled "The Imam's Army" in 2011.

The government stopped the publication of the investigative work and imprisoned Sik for almost a year. Sik has been detained several times again since while trying to unearth the full extent of the collaboration between Erdogan and Gulen.

How could Gulen benefit the AKP?

Doing business with Gulen was not necessarily an optimal choice for Erdogan in his increasingly authoritarian ways, but in the face of the preacher's influence in Turkey and beyond, it was becoming an obvious marriage of convenience. Gulen had the right infrastructures in place for Erdogan's growing ambition. Meanwhile, many of Gulen's business dealings were seen as less than transparent, so a partnership to have the government protect his business interests likely seemed equally opportune to him.

Details of the extent of the collaboration between the two are somewhat imprecise; however, it has been noted that high-ranking Turkish government officials have visited the cleric at his compound in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, on multiple occasions after Gulen's official acquittal.

Gulen's publications and television stations were suddenly seen supporting Erdogan's 2011 election bid - despite the fact that his organization had always maintained that it didn't seek involvement in any political activities. With Gulen's support, the AKP managed to win yet again that year, with a result that was just shy of an absolute majority in terms of percentage.

Erdogan in Ankara
Erdogan initially saw Gulen as an ally in a bid to create a US-style executive presidencyImage: picture-alliance/AA/G. Yilmaz

The secular classes residing in Turkey's main cities stood by as the secular nation they knew morphed into a state that favored religion over "laicite" - the French brand of separation of religion and state, which the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, had enshrined in the constitution. Even the rest of the world seemed to welcome this development in hopes of Turkey rising to become a true bridge between Islam and the West - a new "Ottoman Empire," as Erdogan had started to propagate.

To realize this vision, Erdogan removed powers from the military, either by parliamentary mandate or by force, jailing many generals who were a thorn in his side. Those that took over the now-vacant military positions typically tended to be more lenient and welcoming toward Islam, with a good number of them having reportedly been influenced by Gulen's teachings. 

By 2013, however, the Erdogan-Gulen empire would begin to collapse, driving deep divisions through the entire country.

What brought about the split?

Despite winning the greatest mandate yet in the 2011 elections, Erdogan's AKP suffered several setbacks just over a year into its third consecutive government. Having stamped out corruption in old government structures, the AKP itself was suddenly embroiled in a corruption affair all the way to the top, including Erdogan's own family.

The government claimed that this scandal, however, had allegedly been masterminded by Gulen, following Erdogan's decision to curb the preacher's boundless influence. Erdogan's government also closed down Gulen's network of university prep schools in Turkey at the same time, wanting to limit whatever power he had all the way in Pennsylvania.

The 2013 corruption revelations, one of the biggest scandals in modern Turkish history, in turn inspired the Gezi Park protests, which Erdogan quelled with an iron fist. Not only did he fight protesters with violence, resulting 22 deaths, but he also turned on his erstwhile ally Gulen in absolute terms, accusing him for the second time of trying to infiltrate and overthrow the government by supporting the protests. The image of Gulen as a subversive Islamist was thus cemented - an enemy of the state, whom Erdogan accused of fashioning a "state within a state" or "parallel state."

Erdogan meanwhile kept himself from being touched by the corruption scandal by becoming president; once in power, he could pit himself against Gulen as part of a classic good-versus-evil narrative.

Why did things turn quiet around Gulen?

The civil war in Syria determined much of both domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey between the elections of 2011 and 2015. The huge influx of millions of refugees in Turkey and the war at its borders shifted attention away from many of Turkey's internal problems. The role of Kurdish fighters against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria also became a domestic worry, as Turkey showed its reluctance to the prospect of having a Kurdish state erected at its doorstep if they were to succeed:

By the first round of elections in 2015, Turkey had abandoned peace talks with the Kurdish minority within Turkey. As a result, the Kurdistan Workers' Party's (PKK's) insurgency, which since the mid-1980s had resulted in more than 40,000 deaths, was suddenly rekindled. The so-called "Islamic State" also started to launch attacks on Turkey due to its increasing intereference in Syria. At one point, the country suffered near-weekly attacks.

Turkey hit crisis point, barely able cope with its own day-to-day affairs; the country was suddenly more divided than ever. Nevertheless, Erdogan wanted to make sure that the government would flex its muscles against Gulen, whose news outlets had by now turned against the AKP government and were trying to undermine his leadership; several of Gulen's enterprises in Turkey were shut down at a rate that has exponentially increased in the last three years. Following the July 15 coup attempt, Erdogan closed down all of Gulen's media outlets and other businesses in Turkey.

How does Gulen factor in with regard to the failed coup?

On July 15, 2016, a group of about 10,000 renegade soldiers launched a coup attempt, claiming to fight the lack of leadership amid the ongoing state of crisis in Turkey. It was badly organized and executed, and failed within 12 hours. However, more than 250 people died that night, and many state infrastructures sustained considerable damage. The government claimed immediately that Gulen's movement was behind the failed putsch.

Some of the soldiers captured after the coup attempt have allegedly confessed to taking orders from Gulen, though it is unknown under what conditions those confessions may have taken place, with allegations of torture amassing since the events, as has been documented by Amnesty International, among others.

Erdogan blames Gülen for failed coup

The state-run Anadolu news agency quoted Lieutenant Colonel Levent Turkkan, for instance, as saying: "I am a member of the parallel state, or FETO. I have served this community for years voluntarily. I have obeyed the orders and instructions of the big brothers exactly."

Anadolu has also launched a major publicity campaign to spread the official government narrative on the coup attempt, which the vast majority of international news organization still reject.

In the ensuing days after the coup, Turkey declared a state of emergency, which has since been extended twice to "eradicate" any so-called FETO influence in the country. Ankara has also tried to have the cleric forcibly extradited from the US, and has asked a number of foreign governments to close down any Gulen organization active abroad. Some governments, like Pakistan, have complied with the latter request, while others, like Germany, have not.

Y. Alp Aslandogan, who runs the Gulen-affiliated "Alliance for Shared Values" in New York, says that in Turkey, the movement "is finished." 

"It only lives on in people's homes and people's hearts," he told DW.

Gulen meanwhile has staunchly denied any involvement in the coup attempt. His followers claim that he is being made a scapegoat so that President Erdogan can unite extraordinary powers in his position to clamp down on dissidents. Furthermore, they claim they are the victims of a government ploy against freedom of speech and religion. Erdogan maintains that any supporter of Gulen is a terrorist, and has been incarcerating alleged Gulen movement followers at a spiraling rate.

Military tank being stormed
The July 15 coup attempt led to a severe government crackdownImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Bozoglu

How do Gulen followers like to present themselves?

Gulen's followers meanwhile appear to think of themselves as reformers, revolutionaries even. A commentary in "Foreign Affairs" magazine, which is published by the "Council on Foreign Relations," said in February 2014 that Gulenists are to Islam what Martin Luther and the Reformation movement were to Christianity 500 years ago. The movement welcomed the comparison, reposting it on several of its own communication channels.

The movement also says that its members seek interreligious dialogue and that they are devoted to the principle of serving others, hence their self-styled name, "Hizmet" - which translates as "service." This is also how they explain their abundant presence in government positions.

They also claim that they value education above all else, pointing at their network of international schools and their initiative to spread literacy to all corners of the world. Aslandogan claims that all the movement wants is to create a better world through humanitarian work:

"It emerged as a small movement in the late 60s against the backdrop of a lot of economic dysfunction, poverty, a lot of politically and ideologically driven clashes and a lot of disenfranchisement among the people. Hizmet emerged out of the idea that through education a lot of these problems could be addressed," he told DW in an interview.

Estimates on the size of Gulen's fellowship vary, with conservative figures stating a following of 3 million people globally, while the international news website "Politico" assessed a support of 10 percent of Turkey's population alone, or roughly 7.5 million people.

What else is there to know about Hizmet and Gulen?

The majority of Turkish people indeed appear to believe that Gulen masterminded the coup attempt, and that his organzation is a religious sect with rather sinister undertones, as the "Economist" magazine reported shortly after failed coup. Many believe that there is a major personality cult focusing on the role of Gulen, and there are reports that the charismatic leader is apparently venerated in some bizarre ways:

An article in the New Yorker from October 2016 states that Gulen's followers have been seen fighting over getting to eat his leftover food, and that it is an honor to drink water from his shoe, according to accounts from a former member of the movement. The report also quotes the same ex-follower as saying that his followers came to believe that Gulen is the Messiah. In an opinion piece published in the New York Times in July 2016, Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol also states that he had been told by Gulenists in private that they believed their leader was the "awaited one."

Early attempts to establish Gulen's role in the narrative of Turkey's contemporary history have also included falsified documents to have his birthday coincide with the death of Ataturk. Rainer Hermann, a journalist with Germany's daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, explained in his book, "Where is Turkey headed," that this was a symbolic act to stress Gulen's political and spiritual significance among his followers - and to spite the secular elites.

A wave of Turkish flags held by hundreds of Erdogan followers
There were numerous anti-coup rallies in Turkey and even abroad after the failed putschImage: Reuters/O. Orsal

Beyond these internal practices, Gulen's involvement in various political spheres also seems to be full of dark secrets. Gulen's network of charter schools in the US has recently been accused of being part of an elaborate money-laundering and immigration fraud scheme, according to international law firm "Amsterdam & Partners," whom the Turkish government has hired to investigate Gulen.

There have also been allegations by a former Turkish intelligence official that some of the Gulen schools in Central Asia have served in the past as a cover for CIA operatives working in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. 

Is Gulen really after a government takeover?

The most damning piece of evidence usually presented against Gulen is a sermon he gave shortly after his arrival in the US in the late 1990s. Though nearly two decades old, the recording is often quoted - especially by his opponents in Turkey - as a supposed piece of evidence in exposing his actual aspirations. In the video, Gulen directs his followers to burrow into Turkey's state structures and to await the right moment to rise to power as part of an extended bottom-up process to get a hold of power in Turkey:

"We invite our friends who hold high positions in the legislative branch of government and state institutions to master the skills of administration, so they could, when the time comes, reform the Turkish state and make it more fruitful at all its levels in the name of Islam. We have to be patient and wait for the right moment and opportunity. (…) 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."

With such statements in the public domain, it is perhaps no surprise that Gulen has been accused of attempting to subvert the government not once or twice, but three times now. The speech continues to cast a long shadow over Gulen, discrediting any attempts by his powerful PR strategists to present the cleric as a genuine humanitarian. Gulen's supporters claim, it is taken out of context; Erdogan and his supporters, on the other hand, believe the sermon is sufficient proof to possibly have the cleric locked up for the rest of his life or even, if capital punishment were to be reintroduced in Turkey, to have him executed.

Whether Gulen ever really held genuine aspirations to overthrow the government in Turkey in such Machiavellian ways or whether Gulen's statements were, as he alleges, misunderstood, may be a secret that the ailing 77-year-old preacher will take to the grave; Gulen reportedly is rarely seen leaving his bedroom, let alone venturing out of his compound, and the US is thus far not cooperating with Turkish requests to have Gulen extradited, citing lack of evidence.

The thought of what Turkey might look like now if the coup had succeeded will continue to fuel the imagination of many, regardless of whether Gulen was indeed the mastermind behind the plot or not.