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Armagan Yilmaz, center, holds his infant daughter as he speaks to the crowd of approximately 130 people assembled in Saylorsburg, Pa. on Saturday, July 13, 2013 to demonstrate against Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in town. (AP Photo/Pocono Record, Keith R. Stevenson)

Armagan Yilmaz, center, holds his infant daughter as he speaks to the crowd of approximately 130 people assembled in Saylorsburg, Pa. on Saturday, July 13, 2013 to demonstrate against Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in town. (AP Photo/Pocono Record, Keith R. Stevenson)

In politics, the pursuit of power always wins out over ideological affinity. That seems to be the moral behind the latest round of tensions between Turkey’s two most powerful Islamic groups—the government itself and the Fethullah Gülen Movement—tensions that became visible mid-August when the movement published a response to what it called “slanderous accusations” against it.

Most of the eleven allegations addressed in the August 13 statement are old hat: that its eponymous leader, based in Pennsylvania for the past fifteen years, is a patsy of the United States and its pro-Israel and alleged anti-Muslim Brotherhood policies in the region, that its followers have infiltrated Turkey’s state bureaucracy and have used their power—among other things—to oppose the government’s Kurdish peace process.

A couple more allegations look like theories dreamed up by sycophants to raise their profiles in the eyes of the increasingly paranoid Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: claims that a bug in Erdoğan’s office was planted by the movement, and that the movement came within a whisker of arresting Erdoğan in February 2012.

Three, though, have never been aired in public before: the allegation that the movement was responsible for the protests that swept the country in July, that its followers in the police and the judiciary blocked the arrest and trial of protesters, and that police linked to the movement stoked protests by burning protesters’ tents and using excessive force.

Never mind the apparent contradiction between police who burn tents and then fail to arrest the protestors. For Kadri Gürsel, a commentator who writes for the daily Milliyet, the fact the movement feels the need to answer such allegations implies it has heard them over and again in private discussions with the government. “If these allegations are expressed in the way they appear in the statement”, he says, that suggests “growing enmity” to the movement in government circles.

On the face of it, there should be little reason for tension between the two. True, since its birth in the early 1970s, the movement has played a much more cautious political game than the political Islamists of whom Erdoğan is the latest manifestation. While the latter were outspoken in their criticism of the Turkish secular regime, the movement preferred to hedge its bets. It supported (and was protected by) the leaders of the 1980 coup. It did its best to keep a low profile during the army-led crackdown on political Islam in 1997, a crackdown that began with the forced resignation of Erdoğan’s predecessor and saw Erdoğan jailed for reciting a poem.

In terms of ideology, though, the two are more similar than they are different. Like Erdoğan’s speeches, Fethullah Gülen’s writings are full of references to a powerful Islamic past. Both men more or less explicitly associate the collapse of the Ottoman Empire with a turning away from religion, and both dream of an Islamic renaissance. And nobody has worked harder than the movement, with its vast network of schools across Turkey and the world, to keep faith alive in the hearts of Turks and nurture a new generation of devout and morally upright young people.

The two have cooperated politically too. After years of adamantly refusing to come down in support of any one party, the movement’s powerful media backed Erdoğan’s government to the hilt in the run up to general elections in 2007 and the referendum to change the constitution in 2011. Moreover, without its support, and the support of movement sympathizers widely acknowledged to be powerful in the Special Authority Courts that have tried scores of senior military officers over the past five years, Erdoğan could never have reined in the military.

But perhaps that is where the trouble all stems from: the alliance between the movement and the government was cemented by a mutual hatred of overweening generals with a radically secular agenda and a deep hatred of anything that smacked of political Islam. The General Staff is now peopled with Erdoğan appointees and no longer presents a threat.

The first explicit signs that things might be falling apart came in February 2012, when prosecutors attached to Special Authority Courts issued a summons for five senior National Intelligence officials, including the National Intelligence chief Hakan Fidan. The summons came during peace talks with the Kurds. Prosecutors said they wanted to talk to Fidan about his links with the civilian arm of a Kurdish rebel group, but many in the media called it an act of sabotage. It escaped nobody’s attention that Fidan was an Erdoğan appointee, indeed, probably Erdoğan’s most trusted bureaucrat.

Erdoğan reacted fast. Within days, the parliament had pushed through an amendment preventing courts questioning the prime minister’s appointees. The government moved to whittle away the power of the Special Authority Courts. There were also widespread rumors of a purge of officials in the police and ministries known to be sympathetic to the movement.

And then peace seemed to return. Erdoğan said nice things in public about Gülen and Gülen said nice things about Erdoğan, and the pro-Gülen media continued on the whole to support the government. On the whole it also supported Erdoğan—and this is what makes the allegations addressed in the August 13 response so odd—during the July protests. While a handful of liberal columnists employed by pro-Gülen newspapers criticized the government for its brutality, the general approach of the movement’s newspapers and news channels was to link the unrest to a generation of youngsters who had been given too much liberty and to hint that the government should work together with the movement to teach them good manners.

What the August 13 response makes clear is that tensions had never gone away. There are all sorts of reasons why this might be the case. Erdoğan is not known for his ability to forget, and the movement’s role in trying to dislodge his political confidants, if it is true, is not the sort of thing he is likely to forgive. There are also hints that Erdoğan, ever the pragmatist, may blame the movement for the ferociously severe sentences handed out by a court in August at the end of a mass trial of military officers (dozens of officers—including the last chief of staff, who was if anything a slightly unwilling ally of the prime minister—received prison terms of up to 200 years). Events in the Middle East have also driven a wedge between the two groups: Erdoğan sees the Muslim Brotherhood as blood brothers; Gülen has always been suspicious of them. On the other side, the movement has been rocked by repeated government threats over the past year to close down the system of dershane, private crammers that millions of Turkish teenagers attend every year in an effort to secure a university place, and a multi-billion-dollar business for companies affiliated to the movement.

Underneath it all, though, the key issue is almost certainly power. Erdoğan, as his response to the July protests showed, is a man who is allergic to any form of dissent. The criticisms leveled at him by secular liberals employed by the pro-Gülen media may have irked him, but it is Gülen himself that he must find difficult to stomach, for Gülen has charisma and he has support, and Erdoğan’s Turkey only has space for one charismatic leader.

This article originally appeared in The Majalla.

Nicholas Birch

Nicholas Birch

Nicholas Birch lived in Istanbul, Turkey, from 2002 to 2009, working as a freelancer. His work—mainly from Turkey and Iraq—has appeared in a range of publications, including the Washington Post, Time Magazine, the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. He was a stringer for the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London until the end of 2009. He now lives in London.

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