Was Gulen really “Once a close ally” of Erdogan?

Taking into account their contrasting roots and development in broader perspective, contending that Gulen and Erdogan were once close allies is not reasonable and accurate. Particularly, using this clause to justify the organized cruelty and tragedy in Turkey is completely unfair. Their ideology and viewpoints generally contradict. Hostility of and distrust by the National Outlook against Gulenists persists for decades.

Was Gulen really “Once a close ally” of Erdogan?

Kursat Yilmaz

Nowadays in Turkey, such moderate and peaceful rhetoric is attributed to the members and sympathizers of “Gulen Movement” (some call “Gulenists”), a civil and social organization which the Turkish Government, namely President Erdogan, ludicrously declared, first as “parallel state” and then as an “Islamist Terrorist Group” and imprisons hundreds of them on a daily basis since the corruption investigations of December 17 and 25, 2013, that shook his cabinet and led resignation of its four members. Ostensibly, Erdogan’s allegations and offenses on Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic scholar self-exiled in the US, started after this corruption probe extending to the inner circle of Erdogan including his son. In the three election campaigns (local, presidency and general elections), Erdogan has been very successful in using this pretension to further consolidate AKP supporters, already divided and radicalized during Gezi Protests of May 2013. This discourse, usually turned out to be a perfect hate speech, climaxed after controversial coup conspiracy in June 2016 which led to an organized crackdown on Gulenists and opposition groups displaying how cruelly state powers could be exploited. However, Erdogan and his party, AKP, with its predecessors have long been antagonistic to such peaceful and cooperative rhetoric which reminds of shared values of humanity and coexistence.

AKP and Gulenists: The Contrasting Roots

For 15 years, the AKP stands as an example of how a mixture of populism, pragmatism and political Islam could prove to be a devastating and unstoppable force even in a country with relatively developed institutions and lengthy democracy experience. In fact, “Political Islam” first emerged in Turkey around 30 years before the foundation of the AKP, with the National Order Party (NOP) established under the leadership of Necmettin Erbakan, also founder of National Outlook ideology. Following the NOP, the National Outlook ideology has been organized under 4 political parties successively: The National Salvation Party, the Welfare Party, the Wisdom Party and the Happiness Party. The AKP, a splinter from the Wisdom Party, was founded by Erdogan and his friends in 2001 after a failed challenge to capture the leadership. However, the original National Outlook people always saw themselves as the parent organization of the AKP and saw the AKP as a spoiled and misguided child.

One thing that separates conventional National Outlook parties and the AKP is the strong pragmatist nature of the latter. As a result of this, in order to position itself at the centre of the political spectrum and look pleasant to the voters and the secularist establishment, the AKP downplayed its close relationship with the National Outlook. However, the AKP`s ideological proximity to the National Outlook continued and became more visible after averting the threats of the secularist establishment. Overwhelmed by the financial and political power of AKP, the marginalized Happiness Party is still alive although most of the traditional National Outlook base now supports the AKP.

Like all the political Islamist movements and extremist Islamist groups around the globe, the National Outlook and the AKP are strongly affected from the views of Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, the main doctrinaire of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb developed an ideology which blends anti-western policies, anti-semitism and populism. According to Qutb anything non-Islamic was evil and corrupt and “physical power” and jihad had to be used to overthrow governments. Recently, before Erdogan`s first meeting with Trump, the flagship newspaper of the National Outlook, “Milli Gazete” (National Gazette), reminded core principles of the National Outlook to the AKP by one of the most infamous quotes of Qutb on its first page:

‘’I hate Westerners, I hate America but what I hate most is the Muslims who take refuge in the conscience of America’’.

In fact, apart from the ideological roots, the National Outlook and the AKP have more to share with the Muslim Brotherhood as they place themselves in a multinational network of political Islam. This became more visible in 1990s as the representatives of Muslim Brotherhood participated in the congresses of the Welfare Party[1]. Turkey also responded harshly to the coup against Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 and is still the only country to freeze diplomatic ties with Egypt after the ousting of Morsi. However, with fear of retaliations from the Gulf States, the main financiers of the Turkish Economy, Turkey has been downplaying its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood since the second half of 2016, a stance completely consistent with the AKP`s pragmatist nature.

On the other hand, Gulenists deeply influenced by the views and writings (Risale-i Nur Collection) of Said Nursi (1877- 1960), a moderate Islamic scholar. Nursi saw politics as evil and advised his followers to strictly refrain from directly involving in it. These views, made the followers of Nursi as natural enemies of the National Outlook and other extremist groups that see politics as the only and most effective tool for attaining power enabling an Islamic State.

In contrast with most of his contemporary Islamic scholars, Nursi believed that salvation of the nation and whole Islamic countries depended on advancement both in religious faith and modern sciences and he advocated teaching modern sciences in all schools[2]. Upon this will of Nursi, Gulenists opened thousands of schools in Turkey and around 120 countries. Although Nursi also advised to obey laws and orders of the state, alarmed by the growing popularity of his teachings and partly because of his Kurdish origin, the secularist establishment considered him as a threat to the republican revolution and an enemy of the state. Said Nursi spent most of his life in prisons and isolated exiles in remote parts of Anatolia.

The Role of Strong Pro-Iranian Faction in AKP

Along with Muslim Brotherhood, the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1978-79 also inspired the National Outlook as it reshaped political arenas in Islamic countries then[3]. The Iranian Revolution made a large number of Islamists to believe that the Iranian case to overthrow the existing authority with force and to transform the society from top down in line with Islamic principles is the best alternative for jihad. Within the Islamists, a new faction named pro-Iranians emerged, finding followers from both major sects of Islam, Shias and Sunnis. Iran’s aspirations to export its political regime contributed to the spread of this faction as it was once a common practice among Islamist around the region to take ideological training at special camps in Iran.

Today a number of the top aides of Erdogan and key figures in security bureaucracy, including Hakan Fidan the Chief of Intelligence, have pro-Iranian backgrounds[4]. Although diplomatic tensions escalate between the two regional powers from time to time, strong pro-Iranian establishment within the AKP also has its reflections on Turkey-Iran relations. In 2009, Erdogan described the international efforts to contain Iran`s nuclear ambitions as ‘’arrogant’’ and stated that countries opposed to Iran’s atomic program should give up their own nuclear weapons[5]. Although it is nearly impossible to reduce these words to further absurdity, such an approach may also justify North Korea and ISIS to develop nuclear weapons. A more recent example is a criminal procedure against Riza Zarrab, an Iranian born businessman and primary suspect of December 17 graft probes, in a Federal Court in New York for accusing him to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran. Arguably, backing up Iran against US sanctions did not merely stem from the financial interests of Erdogan and his ministers, but also from a solid political standing based on ideological ties.

In contrast with the close ties between Iran and AKP, Iran is one of the few countries that do not allow Gulenist school network to operate. Gulen harshly criticizes Iran`s political regime and its aspirations for spreading it. In an interview in 1997, Gulen criticized Iran for “the export of a sect and fanatical Islamic understanding in the name of religion and Islamic revolution”. Gulen also mentioned the danger for “Persian expansionism in the region” in this interview[6]

Close observers of Turkey may realize that the top figures on the frontline of organized attacks on Gulenists are those with pro-Iranian backgrounds. In fact, Iran has a strong influence in Turkish politics for a long time. In the Middle East, as tested in Iraq and Syria, supra-state identities may effectively beat the loyalty for the state. For the Shias, sectarian identity comes first and Turkey is no exception. In the light of this, the role of infiltrated pro-Iranians in orchestrated attacks on Gulenists and Iran`s hostile stance to Gulenist organizations should be interpreted together. One may also remember that the massive purge of security officers and the judiciary since December 2013 also included those actively pursuing probes for the alleged spying activities of a pro-Iranian terrorist organization (i.e. “Tevhid Selam Quds Organization”).

Anti-Semitism: The First Crack

One typical characteristic of political Islamist movements around the globe is anti-semitism. Political Islamists feed the anger of the crowds with a strong anti-western and anti-semitic rhetoric. Given their common fundamentalist roots, it is no surprise that the AKP gives Hamas a central role in its international network. It was first Erbakan in the historical perspective, who called for developing close relations with Hamas in 1997 but this vision was materialized after the establishment of AKP. After 2006, Turkey started to contact directly with Hamas and Khaled Mashal, the leader of the Hamas Political Bureau, along with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh who visited Turkey in 2012. Hamas has a headquarter in Turkey[7]. Turkey has pledged to provide Hamas a generous foreign aid annually.

The close relationship between Hamas and AKP deteriorated the relationship between Israel and Turkey and, after Mavi Marmara incident, the diplomatic ties between the two countries have been effectively dead. Mavi Marmara was also one of the first public cracks between the Gulenists and the AKP. In an article published in WSJ after the incident, Gulen pointed that taking into account and consulting with the existing authority before the cruise was crucial, which is completely consistent with Gulenists’ overall strategy[8]. In fact, albeit this constructive attitude, the relations between Israel and Gulenists could not be considered as warm. Although Gulenists and representatives of Jewish community gather in interfaith dialogue events, along with Iran, Israel is one of the few countries that do not host the Gulenist school network.

Relationship between AKP and Gulenists: Sour to Bitter

Around the world, particularly in the Middle East, political Islamists tend to deem softer tones as traitors and heretics. The segments of the society who do not side with them are always in the target of political Islamists and hatred most. An identical approach is also evident in Turkey. In his infamous quote, Erbakan described those who not vote to his party as heretics:

‘’All Believers should obey the orders of Welfare Party and join this army. If you do not join, you belong to the potato religion. Welfare Party is the army. It is your religious duty to obey this call for jihad’’[9]

This seemingly funny potato analogy dated back to 1990s indeed set the basis for Turkey`s cruel treatment of Gulenists. Denouncing a group as heretic paves the way for applying martial law ‘’jihad’’ and gives them every right to slaughter them and to loot their properties.

For AKP, making their core base to believe that certain groups are heretics justifies all the cruelty and human rights violations even if this treatment extends to their family members. This approach particularly applies to religious groups like Gulenists as AKP`s core base and Gulenists are socially intertwined. For this reason, after having been shocked and shaken by the graft probes of 2013, Erdogan inaugurated this apostasy (tekfir) strategy and repeatedly called Gulenists as heretics and Gulen as a false messenger[10]

As a matter of fact, the extremist groups including National Outlook denounced Gulenists as heretics long before 2013. These groups often called Gulenists as ‘’Dialoguers’’ to derogate them. Gulen`s meeting with Pope II. Jean Paul in 1998 has also been used as a common argument to denounce Gulenists as heretics. Although with a softer tone, this also continued after AKP took power in 2002 as Gulenists tried to develop warmer relations with the new Islamist government and the AKP wanted to side with Gulenists amid pressures from the secularist establishment, especially the judiciary and the army which had overthrown the government of Islamic Welfare (Refah) party with a ‘’post-modern coup’’ in 1997, only 5 years before then.

The breaking of ice between Gulenists and the AKP after 2002 was no surprise as Gulenists always try to get on well with the existing authority and affiliated to democratic values. While their wide school network needs political support, they try to develop warm relations with governments around the globe and support democracy for a peaceful environment enabling a fertile ground for individual self-realization. As a matter of fact, it may well be argued that Gulenists had warmer relations with the former governments. An example for this is the resistance of former governments for approving a plan which included expropriation of Gulenists` schools in Turkey and if possible abroad prepared by the overly secular establishment once effective in the Army. The Generals failed to pass the plan in National Security Meetings for years, which were once a mechanism for the Army to influence the politics. However, it has recently become evident that shortly after having taken the office, AKP had approved this plan in August of 2004. This was a sign of distrust and deep hostility between the two major religious movements of Turkey.

Apart from governments, in fact Gulenists used to have closer ties with the former prime misters in person before Erdogan. Bulent Ecevit, Tansu Ciller, Suleyman Demirel and Turgut Ozal regularly visited Gulenists` Schools in their foreign trips. Erdogan, famous for his fondness of traveling abroad, refrained from visiting Gulenists` schools in his international trips.

It is widely argued that Gulen and Erdogan sided to crush the overly secular military establishment using the judiciary mechanisms. It is no secret that this military establishment was not content with Gulenists` activities in Turkey and tried to persuade all governments to take measures against them for decades. However, with no doubt, the main beneficiary of curbing the political power of the army was Erdogan and the AKP. Many believe that the cases against the secularist establishment and the army were masterminded by Erdogan himself. At least, top police officers and judicial personnel who conducted operations against pro-coup military establishment pronounced publicly the clear role and directions by Erdogan himself. Erdogan even once declared himself as the prosecutor of a court case in which high level members of the army were accused of plotting against the government[11]

Organizing a Crackdown: Putin Style

After a brief truce, the relations between the AKP and Gulenists became tense after a subpoena issued for Hakan Fidan, the pro-Iranian head of Intelligence in 2012. An open fight started after the government’s decision to shut down a large portion of Gulenist schools and a corruption probe extended to the inner circle of Erdogan at the end of 2013.

At this point the pragmatist nature of Erdogan emerged again and abruptly after the corruption probe, the AKP sided with a faction of secularist establishment which has close relationships with Russia. Dogu Perincek, the leader of a pro-Russian Party which has deep connections in the judiciary and the army has become one of the key actors in this era. Perincek and his associates in the state establishment helped Erdogan to win the war with the help of coup conspiracy in 2016, which many argue that it is a set up to frame Gulenists and the main opposition leader of Turkey Kemal Kilicdaroglu naming it controlled coup. (12)

After this conspiracy, a state of emergency declared paving the way for a witch hunt displaying the extent of how cruelly state powers could be abused. In fact, more than two years before the coup conspiracy, in May 2014, Erdogan admitted his ambitions for a ‘’witch hunt’’ with the following words:

“If this is called a witch hunt, then yes, we perform a witch hunt.” (13)

Since the failed coup, almost 150,000 public officers have been purged under state-of-emergency decrees. In addition to the purges, more than 55,000 people have been arrested over alleged links to the Gulen movement and a number of other opposition groups. Turkey accounts for more than a third of the total jailed journalists globally. (14) As of May 2017, The Government also seized or appointed administrators to a total of 879 companies worth 11.3 billion dollars in assets. (15)

A Catchphrase Before a Tragedy

Taking into account their contrasting roots and development in broader perspective, contending that Gulen and Erdogan were once close allies is not reasonable and accurate. Particularly, using this clause to justify the organized cruelty and tragedy in Turkey is completely unfair. Their ideology and viewpoints generally contradict. Hostility of and distrust by the National Outlook against Gulenists persists for decades. Confronted by common threats by the overly secular establishments that proved to be very real in the second half of the 1990s, Gulenists and the AKP had a brief ice breaking period. But this could be interpreted as a result of Gulenists` overall strategy of developing warm relations with governments and developing democratic and humanly values in Turkey and around the globe.

  1. SENEM AYDIN-DÜZGIT, July 24, 2014, http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/07/24/seesaw-friendship-between-turkey-s-akp-and-egypt-s-muslim-brotherhood-pub-56243
  2. Gerhard Böwering, Patricia Crone, Mahan Mirza, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought, p. 482
  3. Ronnie Margulies , Ergin Yildizoğlu, The Political Uses of Islam in Turkey, Middle East Report 153 July/August 1988
  4. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2013/11/01/turbulence-in-turkey-israel-relations-raises-doubts-over-reconciliation-process/
  5. http://in.reuters.com/article/idINIndia-43582520091031
  6. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/08/fethullah-gulen-anti-iran-posture-zarrab-selam-tevhid.html#ixzz4ikv442H5
  7. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/08/turkey-palestine-israel-gaza-hamas-meshal-kidnapping.html
  8. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704025304575284721280274694
  9. Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey: The Case of the AKP William Hale, Ergun Ozbudun
  10. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26680033
  11. http://www.gazetevatan.com/-evet-ergenekon-un-savcisiyim–189246-siyaset/

Source: Platform foer Peace and Justice, June 2017


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