After Turkey's foiled coup attempt in 2016, many supporters of exiled Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen were driven out of the country. But in Germany, the movement is increasingly gaining influence, writes Gunnar Köhne.
When the Turkish government crushed an attempted coup on July 15, 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric in self-imposed exile in the United States. There were plenty of rumors about Gulen's involvement in the incident, yet the authorities in Ankara have so far failed to present conclusive evidence to prove this.
It is undisputed, however, that Gulen supporters previously held many positions in the Turkish state apparatus, which they used to their own advantage, and which Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) tolerated. That is, until Erdogan and Gulen had a falling out.
After Turkey's foiled coup, Erdogan ordered an unprecedented purge of the state apparatus. Some 100,000 civil servants were fired and 40,000 jailed. Most of these individuals are suspected members or sympathizers of the Gulen movement, or Hizmet. Tens of thousands were forced to flee the country. Many of the 800 Gulen-affiliated schools in Turkey and across the world were forced to close. Turkish authorities pressured Muslim countries in particular, such as Kosovo and Malaysia, to shut down these schools and expel Turkish teachers.
German authorities indifferent
In Germany, meanwhile, the situation is much more hospitable for Gulen supporters. They enjoy wide-ranging support from German media, political figures and even the country's Christian churches, as DW research reveals. Above all, Gulen supporters are seen as victims of Erdogan's relentless purge — even though Gulen himself espouses a rather conservative version of Islam that champions "an islamization of life and all its institutions," as he writes in one of his books.
The German government has admitted that "the organizational structure of the Gulen movement is nontransparent." Even so, Bruno Kahl, who heads the country's foreign intelligence service, the BND, deems the movement an innocuous "civil association for the purpose of religious and secular education."
Germany's foreign intelligence service has deemed the Gulen movement an innocuous 'civil association'
In 2014, Rhineland-Palatinate's then-state interior minister, Roger Lewentz, initiated the creation of a working group linking various state-level intelligence services to look into the Gulen movement. It found "a lack of evidence to suggest the movement poses a threat to Germany's political order." Nevertheless, Lewentz underlined that Gulen's publications contained controversial passages regarding "religious freedom, what role religion should play in public life, and the treatment of atheists."
Read more: A dark time for democracy in Turkey
That same year, Baden-Württemberg's state intelligence service published a comprehensive and critical report about the Gulen movement on its website. Following Turkey's foiled coup, the report was taken down. Asked for an explanation for this, the agency told DW the report had never been intended for the public. It is hard to believe, however, that nobody noticed a supposedly confidential report with politically sensitive information had mistakenly been put online for two years. A more plausible explanation is provided by the Baden-Württemberg state parliamentary party of the conservative Christian Democratic Union. It claims that following the Turkish coup attempt, Turkish authorities had used the intelligence report to pressure their German counterparts to crack down on the Gulen movement.
In hiding in Germany?
Ulla Jelpke, a member of the Left Party who holds a seat in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, accuses the government of protecting the Gulen movement, even those members suspected of having committed crimes in Turkey. Jelpke belongs to the Bundestag's Committee on Internal Affairs and Community and has filed numerous inquiries into the government's handling of the Gulen movement. While critical of the movement, she opposes extraditing its members to Turkey because they would not be guaranteed a fair trial. "But we could take them to court here," she said.
Turkey claims large numbers of those responsible for the coup attempt fled to Germany in the summer of 2016. In June, Turkish newspapers published the Berlin address of Adil Oksuz, an alleged mastermind of the coup. He is accused of having commanded officers loyal to Gulen. Photographs prove he was present on an Ankara air force base during the night prior to the coup attempt. Turkish authorities have demanded he be extradited, but the German government says that while it has launched an investigation of its own, it is unaware of Oksuz's whereabouts. According to German daily Frankfurter Rundschau, Berlin's authorities have moved Oksuz to safety.
Back on the rise
The Gulen movement denies any involvement in acts of violence and stresses its only aim is to foster dialogue and education. It has seen its German support base shrink since the Turkish coup attempt. Three of 30 Gulen-affiliated schools across the country had to close because Turkish parents in particular opted to remove their children. And about half of all 170 German Gulen-affiliated private tuition institutions were shut. But a gradual reversal of this trend can now be observed. Wilhelmstadt high school, in Berlin's Spandau district, has reported that numbers of registered pupils are on the rise. Irfan Kumru, who heads the association running the school, also told DW that several new child care centers are planned. "They are in great demand," he said.
That is because, among other things, the 14,000 Gulen sympathizers who fled to Germany will welcome schools and child care centers run by fellow Hizmet supporters. Not only that, a Berlin-based association of Gulen sympathizers called Refugee Support Action (Aktion für Flüchtlingshilfe) assists the new arrivals in legal matters, in finding language courses, jobs and places to live. Apparently, most of their asylum applications filed in Germany are successful.
The Turkish government has jailed thousands of suspected Gulen supporters in the wake of the failed coup
'Secret dual structure'
A former Gulen functionary, meanwhile, told German public broadcaster ARD the country's authorities should not be deceived by the movement, which he likened to a "sect." He claimed the Gulen movement is characterized by a "secret dual structure" with a facade that hides its true nature. "The real power lies with the imams, not those who head the associations," the former Gulen figure explained. "The imams are brought in from Turkey using a variety of pretexts; pretending they are journalists or accountants."
Hizmet intends to counter these accusations by making its inner workings more transparent. Ercan Karakoyun, who heads the Foundation for Dialogue and Education (Stiftung Dialog und Bildung), has been working tirelessly to portray the Gulen movement to German media as a democratic alternative to Erdogan's authoritarian state system.
Not even Germany's churches seem concerned about the Gulen movement. The Protestant Church, for instance, enlisted Gulen members to join Berlin's planned "House of One" project, where Jews, Christians and Muslims will be able to worship side by side under one roof. And Germany's Catholic Herder publishing house has been selling books by Gulen and his followers for many years. The publisher told DW that Gulen "organizes and guarantees a certain number of books are printed and sold." In other worlds: Gulen pays for Herder to publish the books. Unsurprising really, because, as Karakoyun explained: "Germany is becoming our new hub."