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The Exile That Might Derail Erdogan’s Grand Design | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Those looking for an “away-from-it-all” spot in the United States are unlikely to find anywhere better than the Poconos, a jumble of mountains, forests, lakes and rivers in Pennsylvania, mid-way between New York and Washington. People come here to forget the world, admire the waterfalls at Bushkill, fish in the majestic Wallenpupack Lake, or undergo a “restore-your-health” cycle in one of the area’s numerous resorts.

Some also come here to hide. Among them are gangster characters from thrillers by Harlan Coben and Jack Higgins. More recently, however, this corner of the American “paradise” has been the home of a special kind of fugitive who also wants to hide from his enemies while keeping contact with his “network” of friends, associates and followers across the globe.

This new arrival, having taken up residence here since 1999 is Muhammad Fethullah Gulen, the man blamed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for having tele-commanded last Wednesday’s abortive coup in Ankara.

On the surface, Gulen is no more than the “spiritual leader” of a string of informal groups that together form the so-called Hizmet (in Arabic khidmah) or “service” movement. The movement’s raison d’etre, as spelled out by Gulen in some of his writings, is for the members of “Hizmet”, sometimes also labeled “Jama’a”, to prove they are good Muslims by putting themselves at the service of society at large.
One of Gulen’s favorite poems puts it this way:
“Prayer (ibadah) is nothing but serving the people,
“It is not dependent on rosary (sabha), and the prayer mat (sajjadah).”

But, of course, to be “good Muslims” and to be of any service to others, one also needs to eat. This is why Gulen’s Hizmet Movement is also a gigantic network of businesses concentrated in Turkey but also present in more than a dozen other countries in Europe and North America. The network is sustained by semi-secret cells patterned on the old Turkish Sufi fraternities like the Bektashis and the Naqshbandis without adopting their theological and/or philosophical narrative.

Gulen was born in the village of Pasinler, near Erzerum in eastern Anatolia on 27 April 1941 into a family of religious preachers who had fallen on bad times because of the secular system introduced by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), the founder of the Turkish Republic after the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924.

People seeking religious education for their children had to depend on the few thousand preachers still around. Gulen’s grandfather and father were among them. They also earned a meagre living by performing necessary rites at weddings and funerals. According to Gulen’s entourage, some members of his family wanted him to seek a “modern education”, more in tune with the Kemalist epoch. However, his father decided that the young Fethullah must continue the family tradition dating back to two centuries and become a religious scholar.

However, Pasinler lacked the facilities needed for advanced Islamic studies. After a brief sortie in Erzerum, young Gulen ended up in Izmir, at the other end of Turkey, where European influence had always bene strong. There, young Fethullah became acquainted with the teachings of some Sufi fraternities and flirted with them for a while. But the encounter that was to determine his future course came when he discovered the writings of Said Noursi, a theologian whose ambition was to “revitalize” the Hanafi School, one of the four “madhabs” of Sunni Islam followed by a majority of Turks. In Noursi’s theology, the key concept is that of light (nour in Arabic) in the sense that the key aim of faith is to shed light on the darkness of human ignorance and point men towards “the right path.” The Noursi School borrows some of the lexicon of Sufism without moving away from faith towards philosophy as Imam Muhammad Ghazzali had warned 1000 years earlier.

By all accounts, Gulen was caught between two options: becoming a religious thinker or a socio-political leader. He tinkered with both options. He has composed hundreds of pseudo-philosophical poems the best of which could be described as “average” at best. He has also published a number of theological essays most of which consist of hasty re-hashing of classical Hanafi texts.

By the 1980s, Gulen must have understood that his future as an Islamic scholar might not be as bright as he had hoped. So, he shifted gear by mobilizing his undoubted leadership talents. Forging close ties with a succession of Islamist parties, starting with Necmettin Erbakan’s Rifah (Welfare) Partisi he secured enough prestige to attract attention but kept enough of a distance not to go under when the whole experience failed. He adopted the same tactic vis-à-vis the Fazilat (Virtue) Party that succeeded the Rifah while continuing to build his network of business, political and military influence.

Having taken up residence in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and its cultural and business capital, Gulen was bound to run into Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer, and a rising star of the new generation of “Muslim engineers.” Erdogan is 13 years younger than Gulen and, according to most accounts, regarded the older preacher as a “big brother and teacher.”

Although he needed Gulen’s support to get started, Erdogan was nobody’s poodle. He could stand and fight on his own two feet as he did by winning the key position of Istanbul’s Mayor in 1989, succeeding Betrettin (Badr Al-Din) Dalan who had put the great metropolis on a new course.

There is no doubt that Gulen played a crucial, though behind the-scene, role in the creation of the Justice and development Party (AKP) which was to become Erdogan’s vehicle for achieving power, first as Prime Minister and then as President, and, as he now hopes, a kind of “super-leader” in a new chapter in Turkey’s history. By appearing to stand above factions, Gulen was able to bring more than two dozen different Islamic groups and parties together to form the AKP. He was the “honest-broker”, the man who has “no personal interest”, the shoulder on which everyone could cry. In every meeting he repeated one of his favorite mottos: “My aim is to serve (khidmah), not to get power (qudrah).”

Gulen made several crucial contributions to the development of the neo-Islamist discourse in Turkey. Chief among these was his acceptance of secularism, albeit with his original re-interpretation. Kemalist secularism he argued, had not separated religion and state but created a fusion between the two.

To achieve real separation, Turkey had to develop “a secular state in a religious society.” In practical terms, that should mean the restoration of the endowments seized by the state since the 1920s. Taken together, religious endowments and the businesses they have invested in for more than eight decades represent between 10 and 15 per cent of the Turkish gross domestic product. To return them to “the people” in a massive program of privatization would give “true believers” a strong economic base from which to challenge the state when and if it tries to exceed its powers.

Differences on how to divide the spoils created the first rift between Gulen and Erdogan who, as his power grew and his self-confidence deepened, resented being labeled “Gulen’s boy”. Erdogan wanted to give the lion’s share to his own faction within the broader Islamist constituency. Gulen wanted a suitable share for his own followers. By the end of the 1990s, Gulen was beginning to feel concerned about his own safety and decided that a period of self-exile might persuade Erdogan that AKP won’t be successful without support for Hizmet.

In hindsight, that was a mistake on Gulen’s part. Exiles seldom return to positions of power; most die in foreign lands stricken down by nostalgia.

Gulen was also influential in encouraging Erdogan to play the European card as a means of dispelling Western fears about an Islamicization of Turkish politics. A series of seemingly “progressive” shibboleths now associated with Erdogan, things such as “gender equality” and “cultural freedom for minorities” came straight out of Gulen’s earlier writings.

Gulen also helped soften the image of Turkey’s Islamist movement as a whole by forging ties with leaders of other religions. He met the late Pope John Paul II and waxed lyrical about “common values”. Israel’s chief Sephardic Rabbi, the late Eliahu Bakhshi-Doran also became a close friend of Gulen’s; the two were often on the telephone to each other exchanging jokes, ideas, and gossip. Gulen’s contacts with the Orthodox Church helped soften Greek opposition to Turkish attempts to join the European Union.

Nevertheless, the Gulen-Erdogan alliance was bound to run into trouble. Two egos, each the size of Everest, cannot co-exist for long. Forty dervishes could sleep on a mat but two Khans cannot live together in a continent, as the Turkish proverb has it.

Erdogan began to think that Gulen had secured the better deal, reaping all the rewards of powers, albeit much of it distributed among his followers, but not sharing any of the hustle-and-bustle of political dogfights.

The point of no-return in what had been a beautiful, though at times bumpy, friendship, came in 2012 when Erdogan began to shape his “Grand Istanbul project”. This is going to be the biggest urban regeneration and re-equipment enterprise of the new century anywhere in the world. Estimates of how much business it could generate vary between $120 and $250 billion. To Gulen, it was, of course, intolerable that all of that should go only to one faction within the Islamist movement with his army of “Service” ending up with either mere crumbs or nothing at all.

Slowly but surely Gulen’s attitude towards Erdogan changed from “friendly-critical” to “benevolent-critical” and, by 2013, outright “hostile-critical.”

Gulen’s admirers claim that he is a “very ill-informed man”. He certainly is, if only because he has sources within every nook and cranny of the Turkish machinery of state, notably the secret service. By the summer of 2013 special couriers from Ankara and Istanbul brought “blue files” to the Guide’s residence at Saylorsburg. The “blue files” contained documentation regarding a range of alleged corrupt practices directly or indirectly linked to Erdogan and/or his family.

At one point, and though he has repeatedly denied it, Gulen seems to have decided that it was time to “expose and oppose” Erdogan in the hope of driving him out of power. It was then that some of the “blue files” were leaked to the media, weakening Erdogan’s position as he prepared the AKP for a difficult general election.

Rightly or wrongly, Erdogan concluded that his former mentor and friend had declared war on him. However, Erdogan is nothing if not a fighter. This is why in 2014 he launched a massive purge of pro-Gulen elements in all sectors of the military, judiciary and civil service. He even took over some of the businesses, including media outlets that directly or indirectly belonged to “Hizmet”.

What Erdogan feared most, and perhaps still fears, is a tactical alliance between Gulenists, pan-Turkists and Kemalists to stop his ascension to unchecked power, if not actually toppling his regime. This is why he was preparing a second wave of purges for August when the amateurish coup attempt forced him to speed things up.

Gulen wanted a share but was denied any. Erdogan wants it all. He may end up by being denied that, too.