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What is Fethullah Gülen’s real mission?

To what extent, wittingly or otherwise, is the leader of Hizmet – a worldwide religious, social, and political movement – part of a mechanism aimed at destabilizing and perhaps overthrowing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkish government? 

Although he earlier hinted at the responsibility of Fethullah Gülen and his supporters for trying to discredit his government, the Turkish Prime Minister has finally spoken out publicly.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan named Fethullah Gülen and his movement Hizmet (“Cemat”) the main culprits who plotted to overthrow his government in a silent coup, in order to undermine the impressive economic success Turkey has accomplished over the past decade, under the stewardship of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Who is Fethullah Gülen? What is the real mission of his movement? What role do his followers (whom Erdoğan accused of “setting up a state within state”) play in the political life of Turkey? How might this long-simmering conflict which has now erupted between Hizmet (which means “service” in Turkish) and the Erdoğan Government, end?

25 left-wing and kurdish activists demonstrate with banner and caricature of Gülen against a event about the Gülen Movement Lecture on Gülen movement and protest against it, Berlin, March 2012/Demotix/Theo Schneider/All rights reserved

The formation of the new Turkish elite

Muhammad Fethullah Gülen, an obscure and controversial imam, was born in 1941 in Korucuk, a small village in Anatolia. He served as Imam in Izmir until 1981 when he officially retired from active preaching. Although he has no formal Islamic educational credentials, he is often referred to in the west as one of the world's most influential Islamic personalities.

Gülen admits that Turkish Islamic reformer Said Nursi had the greatest intellectual influence on him. It is from Nursi that he also inherited a strong anti-Communist sentiment and propensity for entrepreneurial capitalism, important traits that later gained him great favour and friends at the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Gülen’s biographer Hakan Yavuz describes him as a Muslim thinker whose ideas resonate with Calvinism, because of his advocacy of neoliberal capitalism. However, due to Hizmet’s lack of transparency, secrecy and the disproportionate influence of his followers within state institutions in Turkey, a comparison of his movement with that of Opus Dei would be more appropriate.

Gülen has so far managed to recruit three million adherents in Turkey, America and the rest of the world. His idea was to ensure mass literacy of the Anatolian lower and middle classes, permeated with the moral values ​​of Islam and science, especially mathematics, chemistry and physics, enabling them to form a new Turkish elite capable of eradicating Kemalist secularism from Turkish society and state institutions, with the aim of replacing it with Islamic values.

Although there were no clear threats or fear that he might be imprisoned by the Turkish authorities of the time, Gülen immigrated to the United States in 1999 under the pretext of medical treatment. Afterwards he declared he was in a self-imposed exile.

For 15 years Gülen has managed his global empire of secondary schools, universities, business conglomerates, financial and media corporations, members of Hizmet in Turkey and worldwide, almost by remote control from his compound in Saylorsburg, a small town in Pennsylvania.

After leaving Turkey in 2000, Gülen was tried in absentia for plotting to overthrow the Turkish constitutional order and establish an Islamic state in Turkey. He was acquitted. The prosecutor appealed, but his trial acquittal was upheld by Turkey's highest court of appeal in 2008. Gülen has not returned to his native Turkey from the Unites States.

Pragmatic leader

Although Gülen is portrayed in the west as a protagonist of “moderate” Islam and a peacemaker who advances inter-religious dialogue, his movement somewhat resembles a sort of religious cult, dominated as it is by the Hoca Efendi (“respected teacher”) as Gülen is known among his followers.

His interpretation of Islam, apparently inspired by the Sufi tradition, is often suggested as the most acceptable and amenable Islamic model, from the vantage point of western interests. In some influential academic and powerful political centres of the west “Gülen’s Islam” is portrayed as worthy of emulation by Muslims in the Arab world, Muslim countries of Central Asia and by Muslim diaspora communities of Europe, America and Australia.

Hence, describing Gülen as a “dissident” would be somewhat dubious. It would be more fitting to describe him as a pragmatic leader of a religious movement who opportunistically chose a safe base from which to oversee his educational network of schools and multi-billion dollar business, media and financial global empire. 

Furthermore, in the past, Gülen cultivated friendly relations with former Prime Ministers Tansu Ciller and Bulent Ecevit, which also further undermines the notion of him being a dissident. However, Gülen has never had intimate contacts with leaders of Islamic parties in Turkey and neither has he publicly condemned the banning of the Islamic Refah Party, founded by Necmettin Erbakan, whose government was abruptly overthrown by the Kemalist regime in the past.

Since he advocated rehabilitation of conservative Islam and purging Turkish state institutions of rigid secularism, Gülen has advised his followers to vote for AKP candidates in past elections, given the fact that the supporters of both Hizmet and the AKP are Muslims from the lower and middle classes in Anatolia, who had been marginalized by the Turkish secular elites for decades. In addition, both Hizmet and the AKP argued for liberal capitalism as the most effective model for economic development.

Over the last decade Erdoğan’s government won several consecutive elections with an absolute majority. This was accomplished thanks largely to Hizmet. On the other hand, Hizmet enjoyed the resulting freedom of manouevre and its activities flourished under AKP rule.

While one can argue about a certain interdependence and complementarity between Hizmet and the AKP based on common interests and values, the fact remains that there have also always been real political and ideological differences between them. These differences have grown over time turning into an open conflict which has recently erupted.

Given that the Hizmet sympathizers skilfully infiltrated some of the most sensitive structures of the state such as the police, intelligence, judiciary and public prosecution, it is quite plausible that this movement may have served as a convenient mechanism for destabilization and even overthrow of the Erdoğan government, by much more powerful and sinister international actors.

Gülen himself may have become a convenient pawn in their attempt to destabilize Turkey, precisely when Turkey had achieved impressive economic success and introduced comprehensive reforms aimed at a real democratization and cultural emancipation. These include promising moves towards resolving the grievances of minority Kurdish population, at a time when Turkey was alos making important decisions concerning an independent foreign policy, that would break free from US tutelage on its way to Turkey becoming a strong, respectable and principled force with authentic moral values of its own – arguably the newest phenomenon in contemporary international relations.

Disappointed America

Erdoğan is right when he claims that the rapid rise of Turkey made its enemies uncomfortable. Therefore the Government’s accusations against Gülen and his supporters for offering invaluable service to the enemies of Turkey could be well founded.

At the very least, Erdoğan’s accusations levelled at Hizmet are not a mere conspiracy theory, as some Turkish and international media would want us to believe.

Michael Koplow, the program director at the Israel Institute in Washington argues that no country could replace the strategic role of Turkey for the US. America is concerned however, because it is not sure whether it can trust the Turkish leadership and whether Turkey can be considered a reliable ally any more. Questions do arise in Washington as to whether Turkey’s status as an ally to the west remains intact.

The US administration does not hide its dissatisfaction with the course of Turkish foreign policy in the recent past. The US has accused the AKP government of advancing its short-term foreign policy interests at the expense of long-term US objectives in the region. By this the US was referring to Turkey's policy toward Egypt and Syria, especially its uncritical support for the Syrian opposition and the worst bilateral relations with Israel ever.

What the US administration is not willing to forgive Turkey for is the latter government’s decision to award contracts for the procurement of an anti-missile defence system to China, a US rival, rather than to a country with NATO membership.

The United States considered such a policy immature and selfish. Turkey, of course, has the right to do as it pleases, but as Koplow has recently averred in an interview published by Strategic Outlook, a Turkish research think tank in Konya, the Obama administration cannot just ignore such behaviour.

The US does not accept the independence of Turkish foreign policy, fearing that it could endanger its long-term strategic objectives and global hegemony. It also criticized Turkey, in response to which Turkey used veiled threats to expel the US ambassador in Ankara. This has engendered great concerns and confusion in Washington about what Erdoğan thinks and plans and whether it is necessary for the US to change its approach towards Turkey.

It is quite possible that the US may try to take advantage of parallel state structures formed by Gülen supporters in order to destabilize the AKP government and perhaps force a change of leadership at the helm of the Turkish Government, hoping that the new AKP leader will be a more reliable partner.

Gülen’s mission

In 1953, the US clandestinely helped to overthrow the nationalist Mossadiq government in Iran. It had its hands in Sukarno’s downfall in Indonesia in 1965 and in 1973 it overthrew President Salvador Allende in Chile. Instead of those popular leaders, the US installed some of the cruellest dictators of the twentieth century: Shah Reza Pahlavi, Suharto and Pinochet.

In connection with this analogy it may be worth mentioning another set of allegations to the effect that some of the Gülen schools in Central Asia have served in the past as convenient cover for 130 CIA operatives in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, who spied for the US government while working as English teachers.

In his memoirs Osman Nuri Gundes, former head of the Istanbul branch of the Turkish Intelligence Service (MIT) even mentioned “Bridges of Friendship” as the code name of those operations. This particular case of alleged abuse of the Gülen schools by the CIA was later elaborated on by Cibel Edmonds in her memoirs Classified Woman: Sibel Edmonds Story. Edmonds is a former FBI translator who later became one of the most well-known American whistle blowers in the domain of national security.

Edmonds claimed that the key link between Fethullah Gülen and his movement with the CIA was Graham Fuller, a prominent intelligence analyst at the RAND Corporation, former CIA station chief in Kabul and Vice President of the National Intelligence Council.

Although he dismissed the allegations about the role of Gülen’s schools in hiding CIA operatives, Fuller admitted that he provided a reference to Gülen at the time the US immigration authorities planned to expel him in 2006. Fuller wrote a letter to the FBI and the US Department of Homeland Security in defence of Gülen. Fuller wrote that he believed Gülen was not a threat to America. Due to this support, Gülen was allowed to stay in the United States. Another person who also wrote a similar letter in defence of Gülen was Morton Abramowitz, former CIA operative in Turkey who later served as a US ambassador in that country.

Although Gülen argued all along that the mission of his movement was not political but educational, the latest events in Turkey show that his ultimate goal was to establish political control over the institutions of the Turkish state, but without the sort of transparency witnessed during the formation of a political party and through participation in electoral politics. Rather, he planned to do so through infiltration into state structures.

Some indication of his intentions is found in Gülen’s appeal to his followers back in the late nineties in which he pleaded:

“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. We must not do it too soon.”

This type of infiltration has harmed Turkey’s reputation in the world, as evidenced by the arrests of many innocent people allegedly carried out by Gülen supporters in the police, prosecution and the judiciary. A Turkish organization for defending the freedom of the press claimed that journalists Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener were imprisoned in 2011 solely because of their work rather than involvement in subversive activities or links with ultra-nationalist elements, the crimes attributed to both.

In his book Imam's Army Ahmet Sik not only cites evidence of Fethullah Gülen’s interference in the work of Turkish police and judiciary, but he also reveals some of Gülen’s hidden activities aimed at helping his supporters to secure political power and influence in Turkey. There are indications that 95 percent of the employees of the police in Turkey are Hizmet sympathizers. Some experts, however, refute allegations about the infiltration. Professor Mucahit Bilici from the University of New York argues that Gülen is well supported and followed by Turkish citizens and that Hizmet is not a secret organization.

Unlike Erdoğan, with his serious assault on Israeli policies in the past, Gülen has cultivated close relations with Israel and members of the Jewish lobby in America, sharply criticizing the flotilla Mavi Marmara when its activists tried to forcefully deliver aid to the people of the besieged Gaza. Gülen warned that such action should not have taken place without obtaining prior approval from the Israeli authorities.

Erdoğan’s success and ability to create an economically strong and prosperous Turkey as well as his resolute stance in advancing an authentic and independent foreign policy, seem already to have caused serious concerns in Washington and Israel. So it would not be so surprising if Gülen’s Hizmet infrastructure were to be identified as a suitable mechanism to bring about a change of direction in Turkish politics. Gülen’s “empire of fear” as recently referred to by Erdoğan, could well have been specifically chosen for imposing a recycled secularist model on Turkey by the most hegemonic of global powers.

About the author

Osman Softic is a political analyst who lives in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina where he writes commentaries on Middle Eastern and Islamic Affairs for the web portal Al Jazeera Balkans. He holds a B.A degree in Islamic Studies from the Faculty of Islamic Studies of the University of Sarajevo and has a Masters degree in International Relations from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia


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