A temporary alliance? The AKP, Fethullah Gülen and religion in Turkish politics

With the Gülen movement emerging as a potential challenger for the governing AK Party, the future direction of Turkish politics will be determined by the outcome of the impending power struggle, argues William Armstrong.

With the ‘Turkish model ’ commonly cited as one of the inspirations for the revolts sweeping through the Arab region, and with much speculationabout the role of Islam in the newly emerging political systems in those countries, a closer look at religion’s potential future role in Turkish politics seems appropriate. Of course, it is perilous to look into the crystal ball and make predictions about the medium to long term political future of any country, and this is particularly so in a place with such a volatile political landscape as Turkey. However, at the risk of inviting egg on my face at some point in the future, I would fairly confidently suggest that Turkey will not simply ‘evolve away’ from politicised Islam any time soon – as many hailing the apparent civilianisation of Turkish politics and liberalisation of the country’s economy often tacitly assume. With roots deeply planted – most notably through the Gülen movement of reclusive religious preacher Fethullah Gülen  – it seems clear that religion will continue to play a significant role in Turkish political life, as in social life, for the foreseeable future. Whether its vehicle will remain the current ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), however, is not quite so certain.

Much has been made of the role and importance of the Fethullah Gülen movement, or cemaat  (‘community’), both inside and outside Turkey. It emerged as a significant force in the 1980s, initially coalescing around the personality of religious preacher Fethullah Gülen in the western Turkish city of Izmir. The movement today aims to promote conservative social values, with a soft, public face emphasising ecumenism, tolerance and inter-faith dialogue. Gülen now resides on a ranch in Pennsylvania, his cemaat having evolved into a multi-million dollar global network, sustained by donations from members and numerous commercial enterprises. It has been at least passively supported by the U.S. since the 1990s as an apparently moderate, relatively liberal expression of Islam. The Gülen movement is now active in 140 countries, with interests including boarding schools, universities, banks, media companies, newspapers, charities, and think tanks. There is also much evidence that its sympathisers have advanced into higher positions of power within the Turkish police force. As a recently “wikileaked” Stratfor  report suggested in 2009, the Gülen brotherhood is “perhaps the best-organized grass roots movement in Turkey … [with] a vast social and economic organization, intelligence assets, a global network”. The cable goes on to give an idea of how it sustains and expands itself:

FGC [Fethullah Gülen Community] businesses advertise heavily on FGC media, while FGC-owned media runs human interest stories and profiles of FGC sympathisers, businesses and schools. FGC members and sympathisers take holidays in FGC-owned hotels and shop at FGC-owned stores, and invest in FGC financial institutions. Graduates of FGC cramming schools funded by FGC businesses often serve as teachers in FGC schools overseas. Finally, FGC media, funded by FGC businesses, reacts sharply to any criticism directed at Fethullah Gülen.

In a country in which conspiracy theories often find fertile ground, the growth of this far-from-transparent and apparently unaccountable religious movement is alarming for many secular Turks. It would be wrong, however, to automatically equate the Gülen movement with the current Islamist government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), as many observers tend to do. In fact, the two have significantly different origins. The AKP, which was established in 2001 and has been in government since 2002, evolved out of the Sunni orthodox Milli Görüş/Nakshibendi school, which found primary expression in the various political parties established over the years by the late Islamist leader Necmettin Erbakan. The Gülenists, on the other hand, stem from the ‘Nurcu’ movement, whose origins go back to the late-Ottoman/early-Republican-era Islamic theologian Bediuzzaman Said Nursî. In contrast with the Nakshibendis, the Nurcus have always emphasised their refraining from direct involvement in politics, and stayed largely non-partisan, their main aim being the rather more vague imana hizmet or ‘service to the faith’. Thus, the Gülen movement has only ever lent passive support to political parties over time, and it is significant that this support was never extended to Erbakan’s Refah (Welfare) Party in the 1980s and 90s, out of the ashes of which the AKP emerged.

Both the Gülen movement and the AKP share socially conservative values based on Sunni Islam, and have thus experienced a kind of alliance of convenience or symbiotic coexistence during the AKP’s term in power. The 2007 “e-memorandum” affair  (in which the Turkish military attempted a “post-modern” coup similar to that of 1997), as well as the 2008 closure case at the Constitutional Court against the AKP for alleged anti-secular activities, brought the two even closer together. However, there are increasing signs of a growing divergence of interests. The din surrounding recent reforms to compulsory education generally portrayed the developments as simply another round in the familiar secular-religious tug-of-war in Turkey. However, a more subtle interpretation was outlined in a recent piece  by M. Kemal Kaya and Halil M. Karaveli in Turkey Analyst, suggesting that the reforms were in fact – at least partly – the latest episode in the ongoing covert power struggle between the AKP and the Gülenists. Marked differences of opinion have also been apparent on such contentious topics as the recent Turkish football match-fixing investigation, the Kurdish question, and the continuing frictions with Israel.

It would thus be wrong to consider the Sunni religious community in Turkey a homogenous whole. Inevitably, there are fissures and power struggles contained within it, and it seems reasonable to suggest that the outcome of these shifting allegiances will be the dynamic that determines the future direction of Turkish politics, rather than the divided and ineffectual secular opposition. The Gülen brotherhood now has roots deeply planted in many of the institutions of public life in Turkey, and its sensitivities must be taken into account by any political group hoping for electoral success. In a largely pious and conservative country, it seems clear that religion will continue to play a significant role in the political sphere for a while yet. However, with recent indications of high-level schisms, far less clear is whether the AKP, or some other party that understands and is comfortable with this reality, will be the leading political force to harvest its energies.

About the author

William Armstrong is a freelance journalist and editor in Instanbul. He also writes in his personal blog