Turkey’s Erdogan Battles Country’s Most Powerful Religious Movement

The intensifying hostility between Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Gulen movement, an influential religious organization once seen as a key Erdogan ally, shows how the Turkish premier's power is unraveling

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Adem Altan / AFP / Getty Images

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is applauded by members of parliament from his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara June 25, 2013.

Both were religious men. In the early 1970s, Cemal Usak and Recep Tayyip Erdogan were classmates at the Istanbul Imam Hatip Lisesi, an Islamic high school. By the end of the decade, their career paths had begun, ever so slightly, to diverge. “I was coming from what you would call a tradition of cultural Islam,” says Usak. “He opted for political Islam”. Still, he says, the pair remained close.

Today, forty years removed from his high school days, Usak is a leading figure in Turkey’s largest Islamic movement, the Gulen community. Erdogan, meanwhile, is the country’s Prime Minister and by far the most powerful man in the land, if not the entire region. Usak still counts the Turkish leader as a personal friend, but the alliance between the groups that each man represents – and which helped bring Erdogan to power – is fast unraveling. For the first time in years, the glue that binds Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is being put to the test.

To Turks and outside observers alike, Usak’s movement remains something of a puzzle. Its leader, Fethullah Gulen, a septuagenarian preacher, resides in a sprawling estate in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. Its followers, said to number in the millions in Turkey alone, preach a feel-good gospel of tolerance, almsgiving and education, which they feel is intrinsic to Islam. Their preferred activities, at least those advertised publicly, include running hundreds of schools across the world, organizing humanitarian assistance, and engaging other religious groups in inter-faith dialogue.

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The movement’s leading lights insist that it has no political agenda to speak of. Critics find this laughable. Over the years, they say, the Gulenists have accumulated and exercised considerable power in Turkey, rising to positions of influence inside the civil service, the media and the business community. The movement, some of them say, has become a state within a state.

Formerly one of Erdogan’s most stalwart allies, the Gulen community has recently become a major thorn in the Prime Minister’s side. Last year, prosecutors said to be close to the movement tried to subpoena his intelligence chief. This year, media organs run by its followers criticized his clumsy handling of the Gezi Park protests. Finally, prominent Gulenists have taken the Prime Minister to task for his government’s restrictions on press freedoms, policies towards the Middle East, and the post-Gezi crackdown.

Erdogan has now decided to hit the Gulenists where it hurts. In mid-November, the prime minister announced that he would close down the country’s private exam prep schools, or dershanes, roughly a quarter of which are run by Gulen’s followers. The schools, he said, are perpetuating social inequalities between those who can and cannot afford them, creating a parallel system of education. The government has since moderated its tone, emphasizing that dershanes would be allowed to operate until 2015, at which point they would be “transformed” into private schools.

For young Turks, the dershanes are a necessary fact of life, offering hours of daily tutoring for the tortuous high school and college entrance exams, both of which, given the amount of stress and cramming involved, make the SATs seem like a pop quiz. For the Gulenists, the schools are also a major source of financial revenue and a way to attract young followers. The decision to close them, they say, is an attack on private enterprise. Usak himself acknowledges that the dershane system might be an anomaly, but it’s the flawed educational system that needs fixing first, he says, and not its byproduct.

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With the controversy in full swing, the Gulenists and the Erdogan faithful, once wary of allowing tensions between them to boil over, are now trading blows on an almost daily basis. The movement’s leader, Fethullah Gulen, known for speaking in abstruse parables, has resorted to ones that are less difficult to decipher. “If people concerned with mundane interests in every realm are against you, if the Pharaoh is against you, if Croesus is against you, then you are walking on the right path,” he told supporters in a statement posted online, almost certainly likening Erdogan to ancient, tyrannical potentates.

The latest bombshell landed last week, when a Turkish newspaper leaked a 2004 document in which Erdogan’s government and the top army brass signed off on a decision to go after the Gulen movement and its interests. (The movement is said to boast several million supporters, many of them in influential positions.) AKP officials do not deny the document’s authenticity. They insist, however, that the decision, signed at a time when the generals still breathed down the government’s neck, never entered into force.

They might have a point. For much of the past decade, the Gulen movement appeared to be working hand-in-glove with the AKP, much to its own benefit. Its sympathizers filled key positions in the bureaucracy. Its newspapers cheered the prime minister through thick and thin. Gulen followers also found plenty of common ground with the government during a series of controversial coup trials that eventually landed many of Turkey’s top military officials behind bars. The trials not only neutralized Turkey’s meddlesome army as a force in domestic politics, critics say, but also allowed the Gulenists and the AKP to silence a handful of outspoken critics.

Even if the movement’s marriage of convenience with Erdogan had recently been on the rocks, why the Prime Minister should file for divorce just months ahead of local elections remains anyone’s guess. “Mr. Erdogan feels that has the power to do whatever he wants, to control everything in the country,” says Sahin Alpay, a lecturer at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University. Perhaps, he says, having won nearly 50 percent of the vote in 2011, having brought the army to heel, and having made some inroads with Turkey’s Kurdish minority, “Erdogan does not care whether the Gulen movement will oppose him or not.”

Even so, the AKP’s polling numbers aren’t expected to budge significantly, at least in the short term. Continued economic growth, though down from 2010 and 2011 when it approached double digits, is one reason. Another is that with the opposition unable to mount a credible challenge to Erdogan, AKP supporters upset with the government’s reaction to the Gezi Park protests and its handling of the dershane issue have practically nowhere to turn. “As long as the AKP performs to satisfy the economic and social wishes of its constituency, Turkish voters are not going to look for an alternative,” says Atilla Yesilada, an Istanbul-based political analyst with Global Source Partners. Some might vote for the nationalists, he says, and some might turn to the social democrats, but overall “there aren’t too many addresses that could accommodate them.”

The same goes for the Gulenists. For all its recent criticism of Erdogan’s government, the movement can ill afford to jump ship. “It has nowhere to go politically,” says Joshua Hendrick, a professor at Loyola University Maryland. The ruling party, he says, is its only home. “There is no opposition that can create and implement policies that are as favorable to the movement’s political interests.”

The Gulenists’ only available recourse, Hendrick says, is to try to reshape the AKP. They appear to have started already – mainly by championing the only man capable of mounting a challenge to Erdogan—Turkish President Abdullah Gul.

Erdogan, who has promised to stand down as Prime Minister at the end of his current third term, is said to have his eyes on the presidency, which he hopes to use to continue steering the ship of state. Gul, who has hinted at running for reelection, appears to be the only man in his way. He may, of course, make way for Erdogan, but in exchange for becoming prime minister. However he positions himself, the sitting president, who projects the image of a much more conciliatory, inclusive leader, can count on the Gulenists’ backing. “There is very vocal support for Gul inside the movement,” says Hendrick. “They are strongly pushing for him to take up the mantle.”

Usak, though guardedly, appears to acknowledge that the movement’s main grudge is not with the AKP, but with Erdogan. “He seems too overconfident compared to his previous terms,” he says of Erdogan, so much so “that he does not even discuss the issues with his own team.” It remains to be seen how much Erdogan’s team will suffer from losing the loyalty of Usak’s movement.

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8 comments
Informed_Dissent
Informed_Dissent

The "Gulen community." That's a new one to me and I follow these things.


First, before I rant, to see the plot of the novel "The Prophetess of Islam" discussed, watch this one-minute You Tube clip:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UU0rWNGZDuU


To buy the book on Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/Prophetess-Islam-Gary-Nelson/dp/1482016656/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1386357084&sr=1-1&keywords=the+prophetess+of+islam


As I read this TIME news article about yet another man speaking out, a thought occurred to me: Why is it I rarely see a Muslim woman speaking publicly about Islam in any way? And even if a woman does speak it’s never as an authority on the Qur’an. Women are 50% of the world's population after all. Maybe the fictional story line in the 2013 novel "The Prophetess of Islam" needs to come to life. Allah/God/Yahweh made women too. Is Islam, or any religion for that matter, ready for a female prophet?

MoemenShahawy
MoemenShahawy

I don't know much in politics, but it seems to me like that dude is going down fast, along with his government. We just pray to see that happening sooner than later !

GooseNetworkUSA
GooseNetworkUSA

There is no point in comparing Gulen operated schools to Sylvan and Kaplan, as the argumentation is moot. If Sylvan and Kaplan were operated by an Islamic Cult, with Ties to a controversial exiled leader they would be closed, there is no transparency at these Gulen operated schools, especially with finances and use of American tax dollars to immigrant unlicensed /uncredentialed male Turkish teachers. Then there is the matter of only Gulen operated contractors getting bids for uniforms, catering, construction, book distribution, etc., it becomes a matter of self dealings not to mention the arrogance of some Gulenists who believe that Americans are too stupid to educate our own children. The fact remains according to OCED rankings, turkey is still below standard in teaching and ranked 34 out of 36 countries just above chile and Mexico. But the schools know how to hand out awards, honors to students and lie about 100% college acceptance.

HasanYilmaz
HasanYilmaz

Unfortunately the Erdogan government has become overly authoritarian over the years. The press freedom deteriorated enormously. It is now revealed that people have been profiled during the whole Erdogan rule and the daily newspaper who revealed this is now facing prosecution (http://todayszaman.com/news-333243-celik-admits-profiling-as-daily-faces-criminal-complaint-for-revelations.html)

Another (attempted) blow is received by the private educational tutoring centers. For people in the US, the following may make the issue more clear: Can you imagine Obama administration trying to close down the tutoring centers, like Kaplan or Sylvan, in the US? Or force them to become full-time private schools? This is what Erdogan government is trying to do in Turkey and this is why all sane people and organizations, including the ones affiliated with the Gulen Movement, opposed this measure. 

This is really unbelievable but it's unfortunately true. 


GooseNetworkUSA
GooseNetworkUSA

The Gulenist operated American charter schools are always having scandals whether it is financial mismanagement, lack of transparency, paying for h1-b Visas of their fellow brethren, kickbacks (Tuzuk) of 40% of their salarys must go back to the movement. and their worst issue is the special needs education that they do not adhere to. These magnitude of Gulen foundations and institutes are not about "dialogue" but rather cajoling with local media, politicians, and academia to gain more share of power. They use the foundations to have "friendship dinners" where they will puff up the local police, clergy, poltiicians with an award for "leadership" or "peace" or some other nonsense. They will also sponsor FREE trips to Turkey for these people as a PRECURSOR to getting their charter school application approved.

Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn't, in Maine they were turned down despite them sending over 2 dozen people from Maine to Turkey. In Indiana they were flatly turned down on an expansion for IMSA (Indiana Math and Science acadmey) after taking no less than 20 people from Indiana to Turkey, the Mayor Ballard approved and pushed through a gulen charter school as part of the "Mayors' Charter School" program.

Hopefully America will grow some and follow Erdogan's lead and close down the remaining charter schools operated by Cemaat. http://www.gulencharterschools.weebly.com

GooseNetworkUSA
GooseNetworkUSA

Erdogan should have taken care of the Gulen Movement's infiltration of top government posts in 2004 when he signed the document outlawing Cemaat (Gulen Movement)  Instead Erdogan used the Gulen Movement to gain the votes for his election to the PM post.   In the last 10 years, Cemaat has infiltrated education, politics, media, judiciary system, police and now the high ranks of the military.  It is estimated that Erdogan could not contain the reach and strength of the Gulen Movement, who also has Turkish Schools worldwide, including operating the largest network of American Tax supported Charter schools in the USA. 

Interesting that the writer doesn't mention too much about Gulen's self imposed exile to the USA where he has lived on a spacious estate in the Poconos (Saylorsburg area of Pennsylvania) while his followers rape, infiltrate every government official and office in the USA and worldwide.  These schools in the USA and in Turkey are NOT high performing as the Gulenists Public Relations campaigns would have you believe.  But they rather serve as recruitment centers for Gulen's future Movement which he has dubbed "Golden Generation"