A Painful Prosecution, But Ultimately a Step Forward

A Painful Prosecution, But Ultimately a Step Forward

James Harrington

Political trials have run throughout the course of human history. Often ey have intertwined themselves with religious issues, especially when the powers of “church and state” have aligned in mutual interest. In Western tradition and culture, the trials of Socrates, Jesus, Galileo, the Inquisition, the Salem “witches,” and John Scopes stand out in history.

One of the more exceptional political trials in recent times involved the eight-year-long prosecution of Fethullah Gülen in Turkey that finally concluded in his favor in mid-2008. It was a prosecution with amazing behind-the-scenes maneuvering and intrigue. It has received little attention in European countries and the United States, but has great ramifications both in and outside Turkey because it involves the rise of a moderate, democratic movement in the Sufi Islamic tradition and the effort to suppress it.

In short, this book is about the trial of an influential thinker, a trial engineered by opportunistic members of the Establishment, who felt threatened by the popular movement succored by Gülen’s example, and buttressed by the malicious false claims of a chronically sensationalist media enterprise. Eventually, however, Gülen’s foes were undone by reforms sponsored by the European Union, the trenchant skill of his lawyers, and the good fortune of landing before an unbiased set of judges.

It is sometimes puzzling to understand how an ascetical, self-effacing, charismatic individual like Gülen, a moderate Islamic teacher now in his early 70s and living in the United States for health reasons, came to be such a threat to the Turkish establishment that it devoted so much energy against him, even to the point of prosecuting him over an eight- year period, beginning in 2000. Gülen, a stalwart proponent of democracy, has devoted his life to writing and preaching personal spirituality, emphasizing the importance of an upright life and helping less fortunate people, promoting interfaith dialogue and non-violence, and underscoring the importance of education and scientific knowledge. Yet, he had to spend much of his 60s defending himself and his movement against trumped up and spurious charges.

Gülen attracted large numbers of people to his message and inspired thousands of individuals to dedicate their lives accordingly. He drew crowds to him, which disconcerted the established powers, who felt threatened with the possibility of seeing their privileged status quo upended through the workings of this non-violent prophet of sorts, who exhorted everyone to democratic participation in their society.

The Gülen trial is reflective of the struggle within Turkey between the established secularist military and economic order and a more open, popular movement that, in part, seeks religious liberty; it is a struggle between an ancien régime for which freedom from religion means officially suppressing religious practice in public life and a movement that seeks to freely exercise religious beliefs in a secular state.

There is interplay with Turkey and its plans to enter the European Union, and secretive intervention by the U.S. Administration at the time to bar Gülen from attaining visa status in the United States where he had come for medical attention, during the same period the prosecution was going on in Turkey.

The Gülen prosecution is an anomaly of sorts because, although being political, it intersects with religion in a different sense. The Turkish establishment ratcheted up the prosecution, accusing Fethullah Gülen of undermining and subverting Turkey’s singular secularity, which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Republic’s liberator, founder, and first president, established and wrote into constitutional stone and which the Turkish penal code criminalizes.

The prosecution of Fethullah Gülen is also ironic because he is categorical in his professed belief that Turkey remain a secular state and because he is a de facto leading proponent of a moderate way of Islam that is unique to Turkey. In American terms, this would be comparable to mainline Christian traditions in the United States in which people live out their religious beliefs, but hold to a secular society in which church and state are separate. There are two sides to the First Amendment coin: no establishment of religion and the right to freely exercise one’s religious beliefs. Turkey is wrestling with that model, as have Americans for the last hundred years. (1) The shifting fortune of the Gülen prosecution plays out on this stage.

This all unfolds against the backdrop of Turkey seeking entry in the European Union. As part of Turkey’s eventual admission, the EU has required major constitutional reforms, many of which coincided with Gülen’s trial, and reflect enhanced protection of free speech and religious expression. Gülen in the end benefited from this; and his eventual success against prosecution, in turn, helped advance these principles of civil liberty in Turkey’s struggle to become a more democratic society and one which is more respectful of human rights.

The Gülen prosecution is about more than simply freedom of religious expression. It is about an ongoing struggle to shift economic structures, the rise of a new Anatolian bourgeoisie versus the established Istanbul/Ankara bourgeoisie (or, to use a common colloquial expression, the “Black Turks” versus the “White Turks”); it is about a grassroots movement to shift political power, attempting the wrest self-governance from an entrenched, non-transparent regime. The Gülen prosecution is a chapter in the still incomplete book about Turkey’s tentative and tenuous movement toward greater democracy.


1. To differentiate between these concepts, the book uses “secular” to express the traditional American view of separation of “church and state,” which accepts religious freedom, and “secularist” to express the model in Turkey of the state opposing various forms of religious expression (the widely- publicized head scarf ban, for example). People in Turkey often refer to the latter concept as “laicist” or “laicism” because of its connection with the anticlerical, intensely secular lalcité movement in France in the early twentieth century, which influenced Turkey’s founders. Many of them had studied in French universities. However, because “laicism” has various layers of meaning in the West, using “secular” and “secularist” seems a wiser course for defining the difference. Oftentimes, the stricter constructionist or more doctrinaire secularists are referred to as “Kemalists.”


Summarized from Wrestling with Free Speech, Religious Freedom, and Democracy in Turkey by James Harrington, 2011, University Press of America. Pages 1-3.

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