At the NATO headquarters in Brussels, a Turkish diplomat greeted a passing delegation in his mother tongue. “They are Albanian diplomats. They are the F type,” he told me. By “F type,” he meant that they were graduates of the schools in Albania run by followers of Fethullah Gülen, Turkey’s most influential cleric.
Many Gülen-affiliated schools were established in the post-Cold War period, particularly in the Balkans and Central Asia, and later in Africa. At home, the Turkish secular system has long been suspicious of the movement’s religiosity, and has always kept a close eye on the Gülenists.
Nervous about the growing strength of political Islam, Turkey’s fiercely secular military-judicial elites embarked on a massive purge of the Gülenists following the military coup of 1997, which unseated the Turkish Republic’s first Islamist-led government. Gülen, who took refuge in the United States, was tried in absentia on charges of seeking to overthrow Turkey’s secular order.
But while Gülenists and their schools outlived the secularist grip on power, the movement is again coming under pressure, this time from Erdoğan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Today, some of the educational institutions run by Gülen’s followers are facing closure by the very Islamist government the movement has long supported.
The Gülen movement contributed to the consolidation of AKP governance as the two joined hands to eliminate a common foe: Turkey’s Kemalist, staunchly secularist military-judicial tutelage system. While the AKP government turned a blind eye to the growing dominance of Gülenists in key institutions, the movement helped the AKP eliminate their enemies. Gülenist institutions, such as their media outlets, supported the controversial Ergenekon case that landed hundreds of military officials and journalists perceived to be supporting the old “Kemalist” order in jail, having been convicted of plotting to topple the AKP government.
While the weakening of the old actors suited the interests of Erdoğan’s party, the Gülenists’ perceived abuse of power and infiltration of the judiciary and police started to alarm the AKP. Many trace the beginning of the falling-out to the government’s move to strengthen the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) against the police department. Erdoğan appointed one of his closest aids, Hakan Fidan, to head the MIT in 2010.
The power struggle was laid bare for the first time when a court summoned Fidan for questioning in early 2012 over talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Many in Turkey felt that the Gülen movement was targeting Erdoğan and displaying its discontent with the government’s policy toward the Kurdish issue.
As the main foe had been eliminated with the military under civilian control and their former civilian supporters discredited, “the partnership is over,” wrote journalist Ahmet Hakan.
The struggle has now entered a new phase after the AKP government decided to target the Gülenists’power base, the so-called prep schools that provide private courses to high school students to help them pass their university exams. They not only generate financial resources, but also serve as a recruiting ground for new followers.
Speculation abounds as to why Erdoğan has gone for this potentially risky move against the Gülenists, especially ahead of local and general elections that will take place in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
Showing increasing signs of authoritarianism, Erdoğan no longer has an appetite for sharing his power, let alone allowing any other power center to interfere with his way of governing.
Although it is a large network that controls major business, trade and publishing activities, the lack of transparency and the loose organizational structure of the Gülen movement make it hard to assess its influence on Turkish society. But Erdoğan must have calculated that the movement’s clout is smaller than what is being projected by Gülenist media outlets.
In his gamble, Erdoğan is relying on his own support base and the extremely low probability of the Gülen movement’s supporters turning to other political parties, like the Republican People’s Party or the Nationalist Movement Party, which they see as the remnants of the old Kemalist system.
The local elections in March next year will give an indication of where the struggle will lead. Some believe that there will be a temporary ceasefire until after the local elections and that the contention will flare up with the presidential elections, which are scheduled to take place in the summer.
Since Erdoğan is expected to run for the presidency, the Gülen movement might also want to show its strength by boycotting the local elections. A significant loss of votes for the AKP in the local elections might force the prime minister to mend fences with the Gülenists if he wants to secure the presidency.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.