Middle East & North Africa

Who is Fethullah Gulen?

Turkish Flag

© Nico Kaiser

July 20, 2016 23:00 EDT

Is the Turkish Islamist a modernizer or a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Followers of Fethullah Gulen say he preaches a new, modern form of Islam. Critics charge that he is a power-hungry wolf in sheep’s clothing preparing to convert secular Turkey into an Islamic republic—a conspirator who has created a state within a state and attempted to topple Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a failed military coup on July 15.

That was not how past Turkish governments—or Erdogan in his first eight years as prime minister—saw Gulen, the leader of the Hizmet Movement, one of the world’s largest and wealthiest Islamic groups.

Who is Fethullah Gulen?

Back in the 1990s, secular Prime Ministers Tansu Ciller and Mesut Yilmaz and other prominent political leaders viewed Gulen as their weapon against the pro-Islamic Welfare Party, the predecessor of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which advocated Turkey’s divorce from the West and a return to its Islamic and Ottoman roots.

Erdogan, too, initially saw Gulen as a cherished ally. The two men worked together to force the staunchly secular military to be in line with one of the European Union’s demands for future Turkish membership and to accept civilian control. It fit both men’s goal of lifting French-style laïcité restrictions on freedom of religious expression that had long been resisted by the military. Erdogan had, at the time, no problem with Gulen’s followers establishing a power base in the police force and the military.

The failed coup, however, suggests that elements of the military still believe in a non-constitutional role of the army. Yet at the same time, it is to the credit of Erdogan and Gulen that significant parts of the military, opposition and public backed Turkey’s democratically elected president and helped foil the coup, irrespective of what they think of the president’s politics and leadership.

Gulen’s moves into branches of government, a version of German student leader Rudi Dutschke’s march through the institutions, reflected his long-term strategy. Gulen preaches obedience to the state and recognition of the rule of law, while at the same time inserting his followers into key institutions of the state and educating a next generation in his ideological mold.

Indeed, more than half a century after he first became a government-employed imam, Gulen adopted the role. He often dresses in a crumpled sports jacket and slacks, looking the part of a modern religious leader rather than a fervent Turkish nationalist or a militant Islamist. A doleful 75-year-old, he talks the talk, evading language often employed by Turkey’s right-wing nationalists and Islamists.

Modernist Approach

As a result, Gulen’s modernist approach has appealed to urban conservatives and some liberal segments of the middle class. His approach contrasts starkly with that of Erdogan, who has targeted the more rural conservatives and nationalists. It was indeed Gulen’s advocacy of tolerance, dialogue and worldly education, as well as his endorsement of Turkey’s close ties to Europe, that endeared him to the country’s secular leaders of the 1990s and subsequently to Erdogan.

“We can build confidence and peace in this country if we treat each other with tolerance,” Gulen said in a first and hitherto rare interview with a foreign correspondent. “There’s no place for quarreling in this world … By emphasizing our support for education and the media, we can prove that Islam is open to contemporary things,” he added, sprinkling his slow and deliberate speech with old Ottoman Turkish words regarded as quaint by modern Turks.

A diabetic with a heart ailment, Gulen has devoted himself since officially retiring in the early 1990s to writing tracts on Islam. Yet there is little in his writing or the administration of institutions linked to him that point in the direction of theological renewal.

Gulen, among other things, takes a conservative view of the role of women and has said that the presence of women makes him uncomfortable. It was something he had felt since he was a young man. Not surprisingly, Gulen’s movement operates separate schools for boys and girls.

Yet even Gulen has evolved. When in the mid-1990s a female visitor asked for directions to a toilet at the Istanbul headquarters of his Zaman newspaper, officials said the multi-story building was not equipped for women guests. A member of staff was sent to check whether a men’s room was free. That has since changed and women’s toilets were installed long before Erdogan sent his police in March 2016 to take over the paper.

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Critics charge that Gulen-professed moderation may not be what he really hopes to achieve. “Fethullah’s main project is the takeover of the state. That is why he was investing in education. They believe the state will just fall into their lap because they will be ready for it—they will have the people in place. That is their long-term plan,” said a prominent liberal Turkish intellectual.

Indeed, Gulen’s movement, despite the imam’s long-term vision, effectively sought to undermine Erdogan’s government in late 2013 with charges of corruption against ministers in the then-prime minister’s cabinet and members of his family. The charges and alleged evidence to back them up were never tested in a court of law. Erdogan made sure of that.

For the Turkish president, the charges were the straw that broke the camel’s back. What had been an increasingly public parting of ways that started with a soccer match-fixing scandal in 2011 turned, in late 2013, into open warfare with Erdogan firing or moving thousands of judiciary personnel and police officers to other jobs, shutting down the investigation and seeking to destroy Gulen’s religious, educational and commercial empire.

The fact that the police played a key role in foiling the coup attempt bears testimony to the degree to which Erdogan has succeeded in erasing Gulen’s influence in law enforcement. The dismissal of almost 3,000 judges and the issuance of arrest warrants for 140 of them on allegations of involvement with Gulen suggest that President Erdogan believes that his efforts to destroy the imam’s infrastructure were more successful in the police than in the judiciary.

Evidence of Gulen’s Involvement

None of this amounts to evidence of Erdogan’s assertion that Gulen engineered the failed coup attempt. Like so much in recent years, the president has used the alleged threat of a state within a state, as well as increasingly authoritarian measures, to remove his critics from the media and academia and to attempt to cow the parliamentary opposition to turn Turkey into a more authoritarian state.

Erdogan’s increasingly illiberal version of Turkish democracy in which the public is invited to protest on his behalf but not against him makes uttering unsubstantiated allegations relatively easy. The president will, however, have to produce hard evidence if he formally goes ahead with a request that the United States extradite Gulen, who is exiled in Pennsylvania.

Even if those who staged the failed coup turn out to be followers of Gulen, President Erdogan would still have to prove that Gulen was aware and involved in their plans. That may be easier said than done.

Back in 2011, during the soccer match-fixing scandal—the first public indication of the growing rift between the two Islamists—Gulen apologized to one of the involved club executives. The preacher said if his followers were involved in prosecuting soccer executives and players, he was not aware of that. It was a rare suggestion that Gulen, a by now frail old man, may no longer be in control of the empire he built.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Nico Kaiser

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