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Turkey's coup attempt: real and imagined threats

Chase WinterJuly 27, 2016

Behind Turkey's failed July coup lies a power struggle between Erdogan and the shadowy network of his former ally. The intra-Islamic and nationalist power struggle is shaping the future of the country.

Bildkombo Fethullah Gülen / Tayyip Erdogan
Image: picture-alliance/Zaman/AA/B. Ozkan

In the wake of the July 15 failed coup attempt, the Turkish government has embarked on an unprecedented purge of thousands of real and imagined plotters in a bid to cleanse the country of followers of a murky global Islamist movement led by preacher Fethullah Gulen.

The government has put forward both concrete and circumstantial evidence of a Gulenist plot -- much evidence and claims are put into doubt due to questions over due process. Yet, in a rare show of unity all parties in parliament have lined up against the Gulen movementand the coup attempt. Gulen has disavowed any role in the coup attempt.

To Western ears, especially those accustomed to media attacks on Erdogan's authoritarianism, the Gulenist plot may sound like a fabrication and conspiracy. In Turkey, nearly two-thirds believe Gulen was behind the coup, according to a survey by pollster Andy-Ar.

In self-imposed exile in the US state of Pennsylvania since 1999, Gulen runs a vast global enterprise of schools, businesses, media apparatuses and charities encompassing millions of followers.

While most active in Turkey, Gulen-affiliated institutions operate from Africa and Central Asia to the United States and Europe -- most notably through thousands of schools.

The Gulen movement presents itself as a voice of Sufi Islamic moderation and tolerance in a world with competing ideologies from the likes of the so-called "Islamic State" and al-Qaeda.

"The Gulen movement is a loose network of individuals and institutions seeking to seize opportunities to promote their ideals through education and dialogue," Mahir Zeynalov, a journalist who used to write for the Gulenist "Zaman" before being kicked out of Turkey, told DW. "They believe it is good for co-existence of nations, ethnic and religious groups and it is their life mission to promote their culture to others, no matter in what parts of the world they live."

Those claims run up against many skeptics who point to major contradictions between what the movement says and what how it has behaved in the past. Its growth from a small group of followers to a global movement with vast resources and power has spawn concern it has far greater ambitions.

Referred to by his followers as "Hoca Efendi," the 75-year-old Gulen was heavily influenced by Said Nursi, a Sufi Kurdish Islamic scholar who built up a large following in Turkey before his death in 1960. Nursi advocated a melding of modern education, science and Islam.

Building on Nursi's teachings, Gulen advocated a more Turkish nationalist, state-centered and pro-business approach. The movement was centered on the concept of "Hizmet," or service.

Through its educational wing the movement has been able to pump out scientists, business people, civil servants, lawyers and journalists - in effect an entire loyalist class.

Gulen affiliated businesses and donations from so-called "sympathizers" help support its activities. However, the opaqueness of its funding and infiltration of the state has for years made it the target of secular suspicion about its motives to establish an Islamic-inspired state.

"No one has managed to reveal the financial and administrative backbone of the organization that organizes their activities and money flow and that ties the foundations to each other," said Jenny White, a Professor at Stockholm University's Institute for Turkish Studies author of "Muslim Nationalists and the New Turks."

Starting in the 1970s, Gulenists began to infiltrate the police, judiciary, media and education sectors -- all areas traditionally dominated by the Kemalist elites, or followers of the secularists principles of Turkey's founder, Ataturk. After the 1980 military coup, Gulenists also started to join the military academies.

"The movement is very good at career planning and have been promoting their sympathizers to take up positions that they deserve," said Zeynalov, adding there was nothing illegal about Gulenist sympathizers taking up positions within the state.

Alliance of convenience

A turning point for the Gulen movement came in the early 2000s, when then prime minister Erdogan and his AKP rose to power. The Gulenists and AKP shared many traits: they were Islamists, nationalists, pro-business and at the time pro-EU.

It was natural alliance that suited both. For one, the young AKP found cadres of Gulenists in positions of power within the state, media and business that it could tap into.

Both also highlighted providing services as a matter of policy. The AKP built roads, schools, hospitals and vast housing and commercial projects. In a decade, not only had the face of Istanbul changed but also that of small towns and villages where the AKP derived votes and political support.

Meanwhile, construction contracts were good for businesses and contractors close to the AKP and Gulen. The economy grew, citizens benefited -- and everybody including Gulenists looked away at any corruption.

More than just schools

Türkei Istanbul AKP Anhänger Anti Gülen Plakat
AKP supporters have held rallies around the country condemning Gulen.Image: picture-alliance/AA/B. Ozkan

The Gulen-AKP alliance formed against the Kemalist military establishment was able to cut the general's wings. From roughly 2008-11, a series of coup trials and purges against the Kemalist military brass based on fabricated evidence was launched by Gulenist prosecutors and police with the backing of Erdogan. The coup trails were championed by the Gulenist media.

As Dani Rodrik, a top economist at Harvard and an expert on Gulen and the coup trials has noted, "it should be clear to any objective observer that the Gulen movement goes much beyond the schools, charities, and inter-faith activities with which it presents itself to the world: it also has a dark underbelly engaged in covert activities such as evidence fabrication, wiretapping, disinformation, blackmail, and judicial manipulation."

The trials led to the arrest or dismissal of hundreds of officers. This created an opportunity for Gulenist officers and Erdogan loyalists in the lower and middle ranks to move into the Kemalist positions.

Sedat Ergin, a journalist for Hurriyet newspaper in Turkey, has observed that many of the officers and generals involved in the failed July 15 coup attempt took the place of Kemalists who had been arrested or dismissed in relation to previous Gulenist-led purges.

The split

By 2012, with the Kemalist military severely weakened, an intra-Islamic and nationalist power struggle

between Gulenists and Erdogan began to emerge.

A major event that hinted to the public a deterioration of Gulen-AKP relations occurred in 2012, when Gulenist police and prosecutors went after the powerful head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan, one of Erdogan's closest men.

The investigation was related to Fidan's exploratory talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) on the orders of Erdogan to end more than three decades of conflict.

The Gulen movement, which competes with the PKK in the Kurdish southeast and is Turkish nationalist, was opposed to the peace process. Gulenist prosecutors had targeted Kurdish politicians and journalists though a series of trails.

Gulenists opposition to the Kurdish peace process and their prosecutors' cases against Kurdish politicians raises serious questions about their claims of supporting pluralism and democracy.

Erdogan was ultimately able to swat away the Gulenist investigation into Fidan through a legal maneuver, "but it was evidence of a power struggle within the state between the Hizmet Movement and AKP," White said.

The episode was followed by Erdogan moving to close down Gulen affiliated university prep-schools, which were a major source of income to the movement, a way to increase its following, and employ Gulenist teachers.

The gloves come off

In December 2013, Turkey was rocked by a corruption scandal when Gulenist police and prosecutors arrested four AKP ministers in a corruption scandal that threatened to take down Erdogan.

Türkei nach Putschversuch Bosphorus Brücke Istanbul Menschenmenge
People climbed on tanks after the failed coup attemptImage: picture-alliance/dpa/E.Ozturk

As Erik Meyersson, an expert on Turkey and economist at Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics has suggested, a conflict emerged between Erdogan and Gulen over "the division of the spoils" brought on by corruption tied to contracting as well as in the provision of lucrative contracts. This contrasts with the "sole moral concerns over the practice itself" as Gulenist media would later argue. They were quiet on corruption when allied with Erdogan.

Labeling the investigation a "coup" attempt, Erdogan and the AKP followed with a major crackdown on what it described as a Gulenist terror organization. What followed was a purging of judges, prosecutors, police and media believed to have Gulenists ties.

"Hizmet became enemy number one, right after PKK. The so-called Islamic State is way down the list," White said. Erdogan, normally not one to admit faults, said he had been duped by Gulenists in the coup trials against the military and the court verdicts were eventually overturned.

Coup and counter-coup

The failed July 15 coup attempt came weeks ahead of an August meeting the High Military Council, in which Erdogan was expected to dismiss several hundred top officers suspected of Gulenist ties.

Turkey's watchers suspect the impending Gulenist purge in the military triggered a last ditch effort by officers to overthrow Erdogan. Once the coup was underway, the putschist were likely joined by some other anti-government commanders and other units who thought they were following orders.

Much remains uncertain about the coup and more details will roll out as the investigation continues. One key piece of evidence that will need to be proven is whether Gulen himself gave the order for a coup attempt or if rogue sympathizers within the military hatch the plot.

No doubt, the coup attempt's failure was a victory for Turkish democracy. But it may be a Pyrrhic victory if the coup attempt is turned into a witch hunt against opponents of Erdogan with no direct ties to the coup, Gulenist or not. Erdogan's turn toward authoritarianism over the past couple years inspires little confidence he will not use the coup attempt to consolidate further control over state and society.