Is Fethullah Gülen the head of a terrorist organisation? On outward appearances, I find that somewhat implausible. Followers of the Gülen movement are actively engaged in education, social welfare projects, humanitarian aid and interfaith dialogue all around the world. To the outside observer, they could only be an altruistic social movement; the idea of a malignant conspiratorial secret society seems preposterous.
Through friends and family, our paths have crossed numerous times over the past 18 years. I have never met a follower of the movement in Britain who could be described as rabidly extreme, intolerant or, indeed, zealously Islamic. Those that I have encountered tended to be highly educated — many of them studying advanced technical and scientific degrees at PhD level — usually with a particularly liberal political outlook.
I once subscribed to their Fountain magazine, known at the time for its Watchtower-esque illustrations and pseudo-intellectual articles. For a time I attended their study circles in London, where we would listen to longwinded Said Nursi parables so impenetrable to understanding that we could only conclude that something had been lost in translation. I later joined their social gatherings as a guest in Leicester, witnessing their beautiful fraternity up close. Friends sent their children to their Saturday schools and weekend sleepovers. Other friends found and renewed their faith through them.
Fethullah Gülen himself is well thought of in traditionalist Muslim circles in the UK. Tim Winter, for example, has frequently referred to him as one of the world’s foremost Muslim scholars. Many consider him an influential thinker and man of peace. To the outside observer it would be unthinkable to conclude that the Gülen movement was a terrorist front.
Is it plausible that the movement may have been used by other groups in the pursuit of other agendas? To me, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility.
In my presence, followers of the movement used to talk openly about the methods they employed to rise through the ranks of the Turkish military undetected. There had been military coups in Turkey in 1960, 1971, 1980 and possibly 1993 — when many believe a covert coup took place — and a post-modern coup in the form of the military memorandum in 1997. It was in this context that followers of the Gülen movement spoke of infiltrating the military: it was a long-term strategy that would enable them to foil any future coup attempt aimed at disrupting democratic Muslim governance.
Over the years since then I have pondered how careless that talk must have been. Those conversations were of the mundane: of soldiers being careful not to roll up their trouser legs when wading through water — the sure sign that this was a practising Muslim schooled in the art of ritual ablution.
But the truth is, I could have been anyone — I was, after all, a recent convert studying at a university famed for allegedly being a recruiting ground for MI6. Fortunately my skeletal frame, exceedingly scruffy clothes and incoherent conversations betrayed that I was simply a bum. But given that their followers here and elsewhere were able to talk about these plans so openly in their circles without a hint of secrecy, it is highly likely that Turkish military intelligence were also well aware of these plans.
My supposition has long been that the infiltrators were themselves infiltrated by military intelligence years ago. It would be inconceivable if they weren’t. The ruling AK Party were well aware that followers of the Gülen movement held senior positions in every institution of the state, because they were once allies and would have held those same conversations too. Indeed, had followers not held significant positions in the police force and judiciary, it is unlikely that the party could have enjoyed the popular surge of support it did in the 2002 and 2007 General Elections.
Is it really conceivable that a military that had staged several coups as guardians of the secular state over the past four decades would turn a blind eye to men and women rising through its ranks who did not share their ideals? No competent intelligence service would let such a thing occur. There would be a purge, or there would be infiltration. One method risks alienating millions of followers — which is the course the elected government chose to take after 2013 — the other enables you to take advantage of the groundswell of popular support.
Of course there are different ways to look at the crack down on the Gülen movement on the part of the government that has occurred over the past five years, but since 2013 in particular. On the one hand you could say that the government has lost widespread popular support and is determined to stifle all legitimate opposition and criticism of its tenure. And by appearances, that could well be the case.
But, watching the government closely, it seems that it sincerely believes that the Gülen movement really has become a rogue force in Turkish society, which is intent on bringing down the establishment by any means possible. Once close allies, it has belatedly come to subscribe to views long held by the opposition — with the worst possible timing.
When the police and judiciary began investigating an alleged clandestine organisation supposedly operated by Turkey’s secularist elite shortly after the 2007 General Elections, the government chose not to intervene. These investigations and trials which went by the name Ergenekon — after Turkish mythology — became a key talking point amongst Turkish Muslims at the time who believed that the conspiracy was all too real. Outside observers, however, expressed their doubts, watching as a diverse group of journalists, opposition politicians and military officers who had little in common except a critical view of the government and the Gülen movement were swept up in the wide-reaching investigation.
The Ergenekon trials were followed in 2010 by investigations into Operation Sledgehammer, an alleged coup plot attributed to high-ranking secularist officers in the military. Despite doubts that much of the evidence had been forged or was at least tenuous, 300 individuals were given long prison sentences at trial in 2012. But while opposition politicians and journalists roundly condemned the case in the belief that key prosecutors, lawyers and bureaucrats involved were closely aligned to the Gülen movement, the government once again refused to intervene.
For the government, the Gezi Park protests seem to have been the key turning point, all too reminiscent of the CIA’s Operation Ajax and MI6’s Operation Boot, which brought down Iran’s Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953. Protests about the removal of trees in the park turned into a nationwide uprising, fed by misinformation on both sides. CNN International famously used a photograph of people crossing the Bosphorus Bridge during the Istanbul Eurasia Marathon in its broadcast covering the protests, while other photos from other conflicts were circulated widely on social media.
In the midst of these protests, which ran on for three months, Turkey’s Gülen aligned media switched from providing unwavering support to the government, to adopting an outright hostile anti-government stance. Zaman and the english-language Daily Zaman, two influential and beautifully produced broadsheet newspapers reminiscent of The Guardian that were once the mouthpiece of the government, suddenly announced that they were breaking rank, and thereafter adopted an anti-government editorial position. Its parent organisation, the Cihan News Agency, which provides news services to the BBC, CNN International and al-Jazeera, adopted the same line.
Later that year, a criminal investigation into allegations of corruption in the government was launched. Facing hostile reporting in the media, the government blamed rogue elements aligned to the Gülen movement for fabricating evidence and subsequently moved to purge anyone linked to the movement from the police force and judiciary, accusing the movement of espionage and unauthorised surveillance. Then in the run up to elections in 2014, media aligned to the Gülen movement encouraged their followers first to support the Communist Kurdish HDP party instead of the AK Party, and then, in the second round, the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Ever since the two groups have been in open conflict, with the state instituting ever more repressive tactics to neuter the movement in all its forms. Its media bodies have been taken over or closed down, anyone associated with the movement in public roles have been removed from their posts and parts of the movement have been accused of setting up and operating a terrorist organisation.
Such events can be interpreted in many ways. It could be said that the Gülen movement is passionate and sincere in its pursuit of good governance, and that its disagreement with the government is based purely on accusations of corruption and malpractice. This is quite plausible, although its support for the CHP would be questionable given their track record with corruption and suppression of Muslim practices, such as wearing headscarves and permitting religious education.
Conversely, it could equally be said that key influential roles in the movement had been infiltrated in an effort to bring down a government that had recently done much to make life easier for individual Mulsims in a society that had previously imposed draconian restrictions on them. The movement, on reaching a critical mass of influence in Muslim society, was well placed to bring about a sea-change in attitudes towards the government.
Muslims of course, are not obligated to vote for the AK Party, and indeed in the 2014 general election, many voted for the rival Muslim nationalist party (MHP) and the Kurdish HDP, which each took 80 seats in parliament, but refused to work together to form a viable coalition government. It is nevertheless of note that just two months after the government finally lifted the constitutional ban on Muslim women wearing the headscarf in the civil service, the government became embroiled in allegations of widespread corruption. Within months, a movement that had alway advocated for the rights of Muslims to practice their faith freely in Turkey, was calling on its followers to vote for the Kemalist CHP.
Politics is a confusing game, and a dirty business. In truth, the insignificant people, of whom I am one, will never really fully comprehend the lengths others will go to in order to gain, maintain and retain power. We little people will never get to the bottom of conspiracies of state and international relations; at best we can be believers or cynics, drawing together strands of information to form a conclusion that sits well with us.
None of my meandering thoughts are conclusive; my views are purely supposition, drawn from personal observations of Turkish politics over the past fifteen years. Over that period I have mingled with both government supporters and their foes. I know people within the party and its advisers. I have friends and relatives who have moved within the Gülen movement here and in Turkey. I have other relatives vehemently opposed to Muslim governance, who support Kemalist and leftist parties. It is never really possible to be objective in any sphere, but I try to remain somewhat aloof to the intricacies of Turkish politics and reserve definitive judgement.
Is it possible that the Gülen movement has been used by the guardians of secularism to further their own agenda? I believe it is certainly plausible, though of course this hypothesis runs contrary to other explanations I consider equally plausible, taking in the government’s relationships with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, big business and the secular establishment. It would be equally plausible to suggest that the coup attempt was a black flag operation, designed to cement constitutional change. Or that Muslim officers in the military were disgruntled that the government had just normalised relations with Israel and Russia, two states widely viewed as enemies of Muslim peoples. And of course, it is further possible that my view of the Gülen movement is too magnanimous, that it is indeed a clandestine organisation with long terms aims to infiltrate and take over Turkey. Of course, no explanation can be discounted.
I suppose that most of us will never know. It is possible that national security archives will be opened up in fifty years’ time, when most of those who would remember it are long dead and buried. It is possible that genuine documents could be leaked that reveal exactly who was involved in the latest coup and why. But for the time-being it is probable that we will forever have doubts. Two large groups of pious Muslims are now locked in a bitter and unending conflict, each blaming the other for treachery on a vast and obscene scale.
If it was a case of divide and conquer, consider it mission accomplished. One coup may have failed, but another was a great success.