American Turkish student Aisha Mehmet profiles the mysterious Muslim leader who’s at the centre of a major power struggle at the heart of the Turkish political establishment.
The man some perceive as the architect of Turkey’s current political storm threatening to topple Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government lives 5,000 miles away in rural Pennsylvania.
Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, was born in a village near the eastern Turkish city of Erzurum and heads one of the world’s most influential and mysterious Islamic movements. Gülen’s movement has no roll of members, and those who acknowledge being followers of the imam normally refer to the organization as “Hizmet,” meaning “service.”
Drawn from the teachings of the reformist Sufi thinker Said Nursi, who died in 1960, Gülen’s followers advocate alliance with the West, interfaith dialogue, self-advancement – with a dash of Turkish nationalism – and emphasize the importance of education in the sciences. The Hizmet Movement is believed to have between three to six million followers worldwide, and runs a network of schools in more than 130 countries.
Gülen’s followers, are mostly clean-shaven, Western-educated, and English-speaking, and in Turkey Gülen’s schools are considered among the best: expensive modern facilities and English taught from the first grade.
In the United States, it runs one of the largest networks of secular charter schools with links to more than 100 schools. These public charter schools in what is unofficially known as the “Gülen network” are believed to be operated primarily by Turks who are in ( or connected with) the Hizmet movement. The schools, many of them with strong academic records, have different names with many of them geared toward emphasis on science, math and technology education.
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In Turkey, the network not only controls some sections of the media, but also runs a business empire that includes the newspaper Zaman, which is the country’s highest-selling daily.
In 1999, Gülen fled to the US shortly before his scandalous speech, wherein he called on his supporters to “work patiently and to creep silently into the institutions in order to seize power in the state”, became public.
Turkish prosecutors demanded a ten-year sentence for Gülen for having “founded an organization that sought to destroy the secular apparatus of state and establish a theocratic state”. Gülen has not left the US since, and has lived in self-imposed exile on a secluded compound called the “Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center” in rural Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania.
Though the 72-year old reclusive imam, writer and preacher, has criticized secularism in Turkey as “reductionist materialism,” he has diplomatically stated in the past that a secular approach that’s “not anti-religious” and “allows for freedom of religion and beliefs,” is fully compatible with Islam. Gülen supports Turkey’s bid to join the European Union (EU), and has stated that neither Turkey nor the EU have anything to lose, but rather have much to gain from the membership.
In May 2010, Gülen criticized activists on board the Turkish-led Gaza flotilla, the Mavi Marmara, who were trying to deliver medical and humanitarian aid to impoverished Palestinians without Israel’s consent. He said it was an “act of defiance against authority that would not lead to fruitful matters.”
The deadly confrontation had taken place in international waters, and was instigated by Israeli commandos, yet Gülen has to this day continued with his criticism stating that the organizers had failed to seek consensus with the apartheid state of Israel before attempting to deliver aid.
In 1998, he was regarded by the ultra-secular establishment of Turkey as a dangerously subversive leader. Now, however, Gülen’s sympathizers in Turkey’s judiciary and police are behind a series of corruption investigations which are threatening to challenge Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Presently, the power struggle playing out within the Turkish government represents the breakdown of a decade-long alliance between Erdoğan’s conservative-rooted Justice and Development Party and the transnational movement devoted to Gülen that helped make the Justice and Development Party Turkey’s dominant political force by assisting its struggle against the secular elite.
Once allies in changing Turkey’s ultra-secular state order, the two men are now at major odds.
The falling-out comes after a decade of when both had found common ground after AKP’s first election victory in 2002. Both Gülen and Erdoğan had been targeted by the staunchly secularist regime that ruled Turkey at the time. Erdoğan was imprisoned for four months in 1999 for reciting a poem that was deemed as provocative, and Gülen was tried in 2000 of seeking to overthrow the country’s secular government. When the AKP swept into power in 2002, both men worked together in bringing down Turkey’s secular Kemalist ruling model.
Erdoğan had the backing of Gülen’s Hizmet Movement in consecutive elections, in the trials of attempted coup leaders, and in a referendum that led to a weak but crucial constitutional reform, that drastically altered the structure of the judiciary.
The friction started to develop in 2010, and it always had to do with two clashing views within the sphere of Islam stemming from the old traditions of Turkey.
However, despite having differences of opinion on various issues, the last straw came some months ago, when Erdoğan declared that he would terminate all the private prep schools in the country, more than half of which were owned by Hizmet members. When he insisted on passing a law for their permanent closure, all remaining bridges between the two men were burned. This estrangement is now irreversible.
Though Erdoğan still has great public support, the recent jaw-dropping revelations of widespread corruption and alleged bribery within the ranks of the AKP that have led to Turkish police arresting the sons of three cabinet ministers and at least 34 others in orchestrated raids, seem to represent perhaps the biggest assault on Erdoğan’s authority.
However, it must be clearly stated that not only do several factions of the Turkish public feel betrayed and embarrassed by their prime minister, they also do not trust Gülen and consider him to be an ever-treacherous religious huckster, opportunist, and an under-cover CIA agent who covertly is in the toxic embrace of the Zionists. It is the US and her allies, they claim, that have aided and abetted engagement of high level crimes, which will eventually lead to the destruction of the sovereignty of the Turkish nation.
It’s not yet clear what will happen next in Turkey, a country that is geopolitically important for European interests. The position of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not as secure as it once was. Nationwide local elections scheduled for the end of March 2014 could signal whether Erdoğan’s AKP still has what it takes to repeat or even gain greater success from three years ago, when it gained 50 percent of the vote.
That is significant because President Abdullah Gül’s term ends in August 2014, and Erdoğan has expressed interest in becoming Turkey’s next president. However, for Erdoğan it seems that his failed crisis management last summer with the Gezi Park protestors, and most recent political mis-steps have lowered his chances of ever becoming the next Turkish president.