The Gulenists fight back
Founder of the Gülen movement, Muhammed Fethullah Gülen (L) and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R). Read more: “The Coalition Crumbles: Erdoğan, the Gülenists, and Turkish Democracy”
Turkey’s political imams
A Muslim cleric in America wields surprising political power in Turkey
May 18th 2013, NEW JERSEY
IN A recent sermon Fethullah Gulen, Turkey’s most powerful Muslim cleric, preached against hubris. Delivered in rural Pennsylvania, where Mr Gulen lives in self-imposed exile, it was broadcast from his website with an electrifying effect. Was the holy man alluding to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian prime minister?
Mr Gulen is the spiritual leader of a global network, the Hizmet (meaning service), that includes media outlets, schools and charities. These have spread his pacifist, modern-minded Islam, often praised as a contrast to more extreme Salafism. Much of the network is financed by Anatolian businessmen.
One recent afternoon Muslims from the Balkans feasted on roast lamb in a wooded corner of New Jersey. At the call to prayer, trousers were rolled up, ablutions taken and the genuflecting began—all organised by the Hizmet, which holds similar events in Africa and Asia. But their impact is strongest in Turkey. Long persecuted by the secularist generals, the Hizmet was relieved when Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) party took power in 2002.
Mr Erdogan began his career with the more traditionally Islamist “National View” movement of Necmettin Erbakan, who was ousted as prime minister by the army in 1997. Despite their differences, AK and the Gulenists joined forces against the generals. After AK swept to a second term in 2007, it set about declawing the generals through the “Ergenekon trial” of hundreds of alleged coup plotters. This was helped by prosecutors said to be close to Mr Gulen. But the alliance has frayed amid allegations of Hizmet infiltration of the judiciary and the police. Mr Gulen’s image was bruised by suggestions that Ergenekon had degenerated into a vendetta. “They shared power with AK but they kept wanting more,” says an observer.
The rift became clearer after the 2010 Mavi Marmara affair, when Israeli commandos killed nine Turks aboard a Gaza-bound vessel; Mr Gulen suggested the flotilla should not have been allowed to sail. Their rift became wider when an Istanbul prosecutor summoned Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s spy chief and one of Mr Erdogan’s closest allies, for questioning over links to Kurdish PKK rebels. An angry Mr Erdogan made the prosecution of any spy subject to government approval and threatened to shut Hizmet-run prep schools.
Turkey’s secularists are rubbing their hands. But their joy may be short-lived. Mr Erdogan and Mr Gulen share a hard-nosed pragmatism. Some believe their fist-shaking is the prelude to a bargain, not least because many of Mr Erdogan’s supporters approve of Mr Gulen and vice versa. “Neither can convincingly justify his enmity for the other,” says an analyst. “It is a lose-lose for both.”