Justin Vela in Istanbul
March 16, 2012
Anyone reading recently about concerns over press freedom in Turkey will have seen mentioned the "Gulen movement". The once covert movement is reportedly involved in a power struggle at the highest levels of the Turkish state, and is becoming increasingly included in the country's political debate, though the group denies it has any political aspirations.
On March 14, a top Gulen movement-affiliated organisation, the Istanbul-based Journalists And Writers Foundation, invited foreign correspondents to a presentation of the recently published book, "Is there 'the Cemaat' under every stone?", by controversial Turkish journalist Nazli Ilicak. In Turkey, the movement is also refereed to as the 'cemaat', or community. The author's argument was, essentially, that in polarized and conspiracy-laden Turkey, the secularists have accused the faith-based movement of orchestrating the recent arrests of journalists and producing the country's increasingly authoritarian bent. Yet, Ilicak says, the movement – a loosely knit group bound together by the inclusive and tolerant teachings of elderly Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen – is not behind what appears to be a grand scheme to control the Turkish state at the very moment it is being held up as a beacon of democracy in the region.
Indeed, some view the movement as one manifestation of Turkey's transition from authoritarian rule to representative democracy. For decades, Turkey's secular military took a hard line on Islamic groups, forcing the movement to remain in the shadows. But over the years, members of the movement allegedly have come to hold key positions within the bureaucracy, especially in the interior and education ministries, judiciary, and police force. Their influence grew when they chose to support the ruling Islamist-based Justice and Development Party (AKP), creating a coalition between a popular political party and an influential, but unelected body, that has together proven themselves capable of reining in the power of the military, the most historic change to Turkey since the establishment of the republic in 1923.
Behind the veil
While its lack of transparency makes it difficult to fully define, the movement is openly a trans-national religious and social phenomenon, and business fraternity that originated in Turkey during the 1970s. It claims to run schools in 140 countries and have business associations and foundations that are having an impact around the world, especially in Turkey, Central Asia and even the US. Its members own one of Turkey's Islamic banks, Bank Asya, and several media companies, including the daily newspaper Zaman.
Additionally, in Turkey its members are accused of pushing far-ranging investigations that have come to dominate the landscape of Turkish politics: the Ergenekon case, which alleges that a group of senior military officers aimed to overthrow the AKP, and the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) trial, which is aimed at containing Kurdish militants. Thousands of people have been arrested as part of these investigations, often on weak evidence, which has prompted human rights observers and government critics to claim that the cases are aimed at silencing opposition as much as stopping coup plots and terrorism.
Now, the movement is at the centre of a internal debate going on within the AKP, which is preparing for life after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who won't be able to continue his premiership at the end of his term in 2014 due to party rules.
In December, party factions clashed over the length of prison sentences for those charged under a politically sensitive football match-fixing scandal. In January, the country's intelligence chief, a key Erdogan-ally, was summoned for questioning regarding his alleged negotiations with Kurdish militants. The movement allegedly had a large stake in both issues and wanted to push through its favoured outcome, which both times Erdogan did not approve of. While Erdogan and the movement were considered close in the past, the degree of his domination over Turkish political life is believed to have created a rift now that the military is subdued and there is no longer a common foe to fight. The movement is reportedly seeking to broaden its power by promoting its own members in government.
Yet if this is indeed happening, the movement is something of a chicken-and-egg question. Perhaps the movement is as decentralized as its members insist and Gulen-followers are unilaterally seeking to promote themselves within the government and bureaucracy, to the benefit of the movement. This will not be easy. Though he was recovering from multiple surgeries at the time of the disputes, Erdogan was able to exert his authority over the party, despite concerns over his heath.
Critics say that the degree of the movement's influence is dangerous due to the lack of transparency surrounding its aims, resources and membership. That it appears to have a goal to promote Islamic values, even if they are moderate, is deeply concerning to secular-minded Turks. That members of the movement claim it cannot be so easily described due to its informal nature, is also concerning because as it grows, individual ambitions are likely to be more varied and these people could have access to the apparatuses of the Turkish state.
The movement's leader, Fethullah Gulen, who has lived for a number of years in the US mostly due to health reasons, is said to be asked only for his opinion on events that pertain to the group. Others allege Fethullah Gulen is purposefully kept in the dark about day-to-day issues due to his health.
This leaves the question of who is directing and organising the path of one of the most powerful global networks in the world? What kind of mark do they aim to make and what kind of methods are they using to achieve their goals? When asked these questions, members of the movement almost always refer in a clam manner to its inclusiveness and religious tolerance. Foreigners are often told they misunderstand the group, though never receive any alternative explanation. Yet many Turks, and others, would like to be included in the mystery of what are the aspirations of the Gulen movement?