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What is the Gülen neo-brotherhood, a state within the Turkish state, and a thorn in Erdogan’s side?

What is the Gülen neo-brotherhood, a state within the Turkish state, and a thorn in Erdogan’s side?

23.12.2013 • Turkey •

The open, yet hidden, war within the Islamist galaxy, illustrates the Turkish democracy’s flaws.

A weak and destabilized Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced the large-scale anti-corruption initiative that targets his political circle, before launching new purges within the police force and the justice system. He claimed that the “Gülen neo-brotherhood,” which he described as a “State within a State” without naming it, incited this “conspiracy.”

How can a societal and religious movement, which is admittedly influential and has several hundred thousands of followers who revere the 75 year-old imam Fethullah Gülen, who is both ill and exiled thousands of miles away in Pennsylvania, make the most powerful government that Turkey has ever known shake in its boots?  Was the true political earthquake initiated by the declaration of open war between two ex-allies, the Gülen movement and the AKP government, foreseeable? And how should it be interpreted?

The alliance between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fethullah Gülen was not an obvious one. The Turkish Prime Minister, who comes from the Milli Görüs (National Vision) political and religious movement, is the spiritual son of the extremely anti-occidental Necmettin Erbakan. The latter was driven to resignation by the army when he was head of state in 1997, and Fethullah Gülen did not really object.

As to Fethullah Gülen, subscribes to the early-20th century Kurdish theologian Saïd Nursi’s beliefs and to the Nurcu movement, which is similar to Sufism, without the political engagement. This charismatic young imam started to construct his theological thought in Izmir in the 1970s. According to Louis Marie Bureau, a political analyst, Gülen advocates for “an unabashed relationship between Muslims and modernity, which is believed to be the best way to make sure rigorous Islam prevails.”

Schools rather than mosques

Therefore, Islam is not opposed to democracy for Anatolian imams, but it needs a metaphysical dimension that Mahomet’s religion can add to it.

The Gülenists (Fethullahci, members of the neo-brotherhood) meet in religious circles (Sohbet) or in Houses of Light (Isik evleri) to discuss theology but also democracy, education, and society. Their goal: to transform a religious motivation into a social movement, “to reconcile secular life with religious life and modernity with tradition,” as explained by researcher Erkan Toguslu.

The Gülen neo-brotherhood allows Turkish professors, doctors and engineers to live religiously in society, but it is often targeted and silenced by the military-secular establishment that suspects it of wanting to spread its influence within the State apparatus.

Restrained and under surveillance within Turkey, the movement became transnational starting in the 1990s, always holding the same idea: constructing schools rather than mosques. This started first in central Asia, then in Europe, in the United States, in Asia and in recent years, in Africa. To this day, approximately 500 schools in at least one hundred countries have been established through this movement.

Entrepreneurs and businessmen from Anatolia, who are pious and modest more often than not, emigrate as well. The movement has its own employers’ organization, Tuskon, its newspapers, the Zaman group, and numerous associations. It organizes conferences and colloquiums in Turkey and the entire world, and Fethullah Gülen’s books were translated into many languages. It is an international movement, but is nonetheless strongly tinted with Turkish nationalism.

The Gülenists have sustained an excellent relationship with the Jesuits, who even helped them establish their movement in some Asian countries. There are striking resemblances between the two: they namely both favor education. The Gülenists are “Islam’s Jesuits,” according to researcher Bayram Balci. Specialist Olivier Roy, however, holds that “it is a cult,” a term that Turkish sociologist Nilufer Göle contests, as he believes it is a network. They define themselves as being “at the service of” (Hizmet) and prefer comparing themselves to Protestant entrepreneurs, those who “earn their Heaven with their work,” their worldly action, as described by Max Weber in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”

Islam’s Jesuits or Islam’s Protestants?

In 2002, the large majority of Fethullah Gülen voted for the AKP. The Gülenists believed Recep Tayyip Erdogan when the latter promised them that he had changes, that he had quit the Milli Görüs tradition. And, they shared some conservative values, even though the government legislated what the brotherhood preferred to convince – or indoctrinate, according to those who are skeptical – the people of (about alcohol, extra-marital relations, etc).

Lastly, they are equally ultra-liberal in terms of economics. The neo-brotherhood and the party in power could seem complementary: one of them has the spiritual power, and the other the political power.

In 2007, the Turkish Prime minister realized that he was almost overthrown in a military coup d’état. He therefore entered into an informal alliance with the neo-brotherhood, which had many sympathizers within the police force and the justice system (in particular, in specialized courts), and relied on them to launch the Ergenekon and Bayloz processes. The latter eventually succeeded in sending the army back into the barracks, but at the expense of numerous irregularities, injustices and judicial falsifications, while all media that dared criticize the process were muzzled.

At what point did Tayyip Erdogan and the Gülen movement start to diverge? Probably in 2011, when several journalists well-known for being fiercely opposed to the Gülen movement (one of them compared it to the Opus Dei) were arrested and accused of terrorism, during the trials against the army.

These arrests and custodies of journalists, as well as those of activists and intellectuals, which were probably set in motion by the Gülenists, intensely deteriorated the AKP government’s image nationally and internationally. Having gotten rid of the army’s intervention on the political scene, the Prime minister no longer needed the neo-brotherhood’s help as much, and thus wanted to reduce its influence and capacity of mobilization within the State apparatus.

The Gülenists were then considered members of an illegal organization. They were subjected to many purges, within the police and the justice system, as well as in the ministry of education. Also on the line: the secret services (MIT) that are still largely inaccessible to them (except for the Intelligence Directorate). In 2012, the conflict between the two ex-allies became apparent when the neo-brotherhood attempted to destabilize the head of the MIT, Hakan Fidan, the most loyal member of Tayyip Erdogan’s circle.

Deeper and deeper divergences

At the same time, the neo-brotherhood and the government started to increasingly disagree on the international politics of the latter. Already in 2010, the pro-Gülen press denounced the choice of sending Mavi Marmara to Gaza without Israel’s consent; it questioned the legitimacy of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK, which is registered on the list of terrorist organizations in Europe and the United States), with which Tayyip Erdogan started negotiating; it protested the slowing down of negotiations between the government and the EU, the government’s Arab policy in Libya, in the Maghreb, in Syria, in Egypt, where Turks suddenly became persona non grata, which weakened the Gülenists’ long-term work in these countries.

As to the Gülenists, they avoided all attempts of rapprochement with Shiite Iran; however, the neo-brotherhood did not press for the State’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide. This is, besides, the reason why the San Egidio Community decided to break off its talks with the Gülen movement.

Although the repression of the Gezi protestors last summer finalized the ex-allies’ separation, it is the government’s intention, announced in November, to close the private classes preparing university entry (dershane, a quarter of which is controlled by the Gülenists) that concluded the divorce.

This is what drove a pro-Gülen representative to resign (others could follow his lead) and what triggered the launching of the anti-corruption operation carried out by public prosecutor Zekerya Öz, who is close to the Gülen movement.

Indeed, other that the “tithe” that the faithful pay it, the Brotherhood – whose finances remain opaque because, according to them, they believe in keeping their donors’ anonymity – lives in large part thanks to the schools that it established in the world and in Turkey’s revenues, which are also a way to recruit.

Closing these preparatory classes hence does not jeopardize the movement’s presence within the State apparatus, but rather its lifeblood.

Moreover, the Gülenists, who are dismissed or laid-off in public services, feel like they are reliving the exclusions they were subjected to under the military-Kemalist regime, especially because Recep Tayyip Erdogan still has not replaced the Constitution of 1982, the outcome of the 1980 military coup d’état, despite his promising that he would.

When the Prime minister offered Fethullah Gülen the opportunity to come back to Turkey in 2012, the latter’s supporters were convinced that he asked him that in order to arrest him. Many believe that the Turkish Prime minister has deceived them.

Could this open war nonetheless be an opportunity for the Turkish democracy? The fact that a neo-brotherhood is taking on the role of the opposition party, or an investigative press, in the context of a parliament, is worrisome. Besides, can the Gülenists be a democratic force, even though they are themselves divided between the movement’s militants, who are open to dialogue, and those who practice their occult powers in the high spheres of administration and government?

This double confrontation within the Islamist galaxy is not only an earthquake for the AKP. It also carries with it the seeds of a fracture within the neo-brotherhood itself and brings to light the deep inadequacies of the Turkish democracy that is deprived of a true force of alternation.

Ariane Bonzon
Translation: Lea Cavat
Photo: DR

Original French version:
Qu’est-ce que la néo-confrérie Gülen, Etat dans l’Etat turc, et épine dans le pied d’Erdogan?

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