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Erdogan steals cleric's thunder

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s struck a major blow against Fethullah Gulen through last month's landslide victory in local elections, but insiders say Gulen's movement still has support in every corridor of power

Still basking in triumph after Turkey’s local elections last month, the key question facing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is whether his main enemy, the reclusive US-based cleric whom he accuses of running a “parallel state” within Turkey’s police and judiciary, has passed his peak.

The Turkish leader has vowed to go after the Hizmet (Service) movement founded by Fethullah Gulen. He is convinced Hizmet’s adherents orchestrated the tapping of phones and the leaking of taped recordings that threatened to bring down the prime minister and his government. “We will enter their lair,” Erdogan said in his election victory speech. “They will pay the price, they will be brought to account. How can you threaten national security? From tomorrow there may be some who will flee.”

The recordings raised serious allegations of corruption and Erdogan responded by forcing four ministers to resign. He also suspended or moved thousands of police, prosecutors and judges whom he suspected of links to Hizmet. Now he is vowing that others will face criminal cases for abuse of power.

Gulen left Turkey for medical treatment in the United States in 1999. He claims his movement is only concerned with civic values and not with politics. But the prime minister’s allies say his views on Israel, Russia and Iran coincide with those of US neo-conservatives.  They are convinced he is trying to bring Turkey’s foreign policy into line with Washington’s by surreptitious means.

In an exclusive interview in Istanbul, a former confidant of the cleric told Middle East Eye: “I agree with the prime minister that what Fethullah Gulen is doing is wrong. I agree that it’s a parallel state. At the beginning our goal was to educate people in religion and morality, but the movement went political when it got bigger.  Gulen changed and turned to politics and wanted to be a leader who can rule Turkey”.

Latif Erdogan (no relation to the prime minister) is an Islamic scholar who helped to found Hizmet with Gulen more than 30 years ago and now believes Gulen betrayed the movement’s original ideals.  He has gone public in local television interviews but has never spoken to a foreign journalist before.  “We started on our road together with a spiritual message, but now it’s only secular. He should go back to it”, he said of the man he worked with closely in Turkey and regularly used to visit at his estate in rural Pennsyvania.  Many Gulenists saw him as the most likely successor to the cleric, whose health has long been weak. Gulen is approaching his 73rd birthday.

Latif Erdogan shares the prime minister’s conviction that Gulen’s agents coordinated the phone-tapping of hundreds of prominent people, including politicians, businessmen, officials and journalists and selectively leaking tapes of their conversations.  In the most dramatic set of leaks last December, four ministers appeared to be implicated in corruption. Another tape, which the prime minister says is a deceptive montage, seems to record him urging his son to hide huge amounts of foreign cash.

Exploiting election success

Although the corruption allegations received massive coverage during the election campaign in newspapers and on TV channels that back Gulen’s ideas, voters were largely unmoved. The tapes may even have backfired since more voters came out to support the prime minister who turned the elections into a referendum on himself and the allegations.  He criss-crossed the country, campaigning tirelessly for local candidates. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) increased its vote by almost 7 percent.  The AKP share of the ballot rose from 38.8 percent of the vote in the last local elections in 2009 to 45.5 percent on 30 March in what was clearly a vote against the role of the Gulen movement.

The government victory was a double triumph.  It also showed that Erdogan had weathered the negative publicity he earned for the massive use of force by police against the Gezi park protests last spring. The centre of Istanbul was brought to a standstill with running street battles for weeks as police used beatings and tear gas against protesters.  Serdar Bilis, an Istanbul theatre director who criticises both the AKP and the Gulen movement, was heavily involved in the protests. He fears the government may exploit its election success by trying again to uproot Gezi park in favour of building a vast shopping mall.  His verdict on the way the corruption scandals failed to gain electoral traction is stark:   “People in Turkey are not very democratic. They can relate to a Sultan.  Erdogan’s supporters either say the corruption tapes are fake, or they argue that all politicians are corrupt but what matters is whether they are effective”.

The Gulen movement used to work closely with the AK party when both were seeking to reduce the Turkish military’s role in politics in the 1980s and 1990s and end discrimination against Islamists in the country’s public life.  Gulen was seen as an exponent of “social Islam” while the AKP represented “political Islam”.  The two were remarkably successful.  Over the last 12 years, Turkey’s AKP has achieved dominance over the country’s secular parties and can legitimately claim to be the only national party in Turkey. It has strong representation in town halls across the country whereas every other party is confined to a few regions.  Meanwhile, thousands of Gulen’s followers have moved into the state bureaucracy, particularly the police, gendarmerie, prosecutors’ offices and the judiciary, determined to imbue their work with what they bill as faith-based notions of honest public service.

The AKP has given Turkey a decade of unparalleled economic progress.  It weathered the global crash better than any country in Europe and this year’s growth, though slower than its average over the last decade, is expected to be above 4 percent.  Much of it has been based on investment in infrastructure and construction, with high-speed trains, universities in almost every medium-sized town and a network of municipal airports.  Critics say the building boom has fostered widespread corruption, alleging the AKP only gives government contracts to supporters and uses offers of lucrative deals to persuade media and TV tycoons who also have construction interests to support the government’s line. “This is a government of property dealers who don’t mind destroying the environment”, complained one Gezi park protest leader.  But for millions of Turks the boom has brought advances in living standards and opportunities that outweigh criticisms of AKP authoritarianism and arrogance.

The split between AKP and Gulen came as a surprise to many Turks. Differences first appeared over Turkey’s attitude to Israel. Gulen criticised the organisers of the aid flotilla, led by the Turkish boat the Mavi Marmara, which tried to break the blockade of Gaza in 2010. Israeli forces boarded the boat in international waters and killed nine passengers.  In September 2011, tapes were leaked on the internet of a team led by Hakan Fidan, the head of national intelligence, holding secret talks in Oslo with the militant Kurdish separatist movement, the PKK.  Although there was no proof that Gulenists were behind the leak and Gulen himself used his customary vague language to say he favoured a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish issue, columnists in newspapers which support him have claimed the government is making too many concessions to the PKK, particularly on constitutional reform.

With the benefit of hindsight, supporters and critics talk of more fundamental and long-standing differences between the AKP and the Gulen camps.  Although Turkey’s Islamists are seen as generally traditional and socially conservative, one pro-Gulen journalist sees a class difference: “The Gulenists are well-educated and globalised, open-minded and inclusive, compared to the masses who support the AKP”.

'An open struggle'

Taha Ozhan, the president of the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) and an Erdogan backer, says “Gulen was never married to the AKP historically.  At the time of the military coup in 1980 when 5,000 were killed and torture was normal, the Gulen movement praised the army. They have always praised the state, including during the period when the Kurdish issue got very bloody.  That was how they got into the police and then the judiciary.  They acted as hard-line nationalists. This allowed them to get legitimacy from the secular state apparatus”.

For Aykan Erdemir, one of the younger MPs in Turkey’s old Kemalist party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the contrast between Gulen and the AKP is stark. “Gulen is not a Muslim-Brotherhood-supporting Islamic authoritarian. I would call the Gulenists heirs of Turkish Anatolian Sufi Islam, pious and economically liberal. Gulen himself is unequivocally a pro-European-Union and Atlantic person, a free marketeer and a pragmatist on Israel”, he told Middle East Eye. “Erdogan is at his core a populist reactionary, a state capitalist and a crony capitalist.  Although he favours the EU and Atlanticism, it’s only pragmatic. He’s really against them”.

Some of the clearest insight comes from Latif Erdogan, the Islamist who broke with Gulen.  His links with Gulen began as a student in Izmir.  They were a small group who followed the teaching of Said Nursi, a Muslim reformer from eastern Turkey who wrote a series of Qur’anic commentaries called Risale-i Nur and founded a movement called Nur.  Nursi opposed atheism and materialism which led inevitably to corruption, he argued.  Under the militant secularism of Kemal Ataturk who founded the modern Turkish republic Nursi was persecuted and exiled to a remote province.

Latif Erdogan was with Gulen when they broke from Nur — 15 years after Nursi’s death. “We started our own movement to build schools and universities, first in Turkey and then abroad”, he said. Hizmet now has schools in over 140 countries and several hundred in Turkey, as well as business groups, lobbying organisations, newspapers, and institutions promoting interfaith dialogue. Graduates of the Hizmet schools act as low-paid volunteers in teaching younger children, forming a corps of like-minded people who in adult life help each other get jobs, promotion and business contracts.

Erdogan was president of the Journalist and Writers’ Foundation, a Gulenist body, 15 years ago when Gulen left Turkey for medical treatment in the United States. Erdogan has no doubt that Gulenists are organising the leaking of damaging tape recordings. “Gulen has a curiosity about listening”, he said. “Before he went to the United States, he told me he’d been secretly listening to me for 15 years. I made a joke out of it and said ‘Now I feel safer, thank you’”.

According to Latif Erdogan, Gulen never liked the AKP but welcomed the way it gave a voice to the country’s Muslims. “Since the AKP was winning support from conservative and religious people, Gulen couldn’t do better by founding his own party. So he used the AKP”, he said.

I asked Latif Erdogan whether he had suspected anything when Gulenists joined the police and army. “We weren’t interested in people’s politics”, he replied, though he conceded there was a potential element of subterfuge. “If you’re in the movement and you’re a police officer, other people don’t know you’re a member of Gulen’s movement. We had connections with people who joined the police and the judiciary but the aim wasn’t to use their positions within the government. I think it’s wrong for people to do that. Gulen never told me he was planning to use these people.  I didn’t know they were making tapes”.

His eyes were opened when the Hakan Fidan-PKK tapes were leaked on the internet.  “Gulen wanted one of his people to be the head of national intelligence.  That’s why they leaked the Oslo tapes. He wanted to get rid of Hakan and he disagreed with the PKK.  Israel also didn’t want Hakan Fidan, so we realised Gulen was doing politics close to Israel”, he said.

Neither Israel nor the United States want a strong Turkey which could be a leader in the Islamic world, he argued. “Since they can’t do anything from outside, they decided to use internal means.  They don’t want the Kurdish problem to be solved. It has been a real internal scar, with thousands dead and millions of lire spent.  For 18 months now, the fighting has stopped and it bugs Israel and the US”, he said. “Gulen used to want a strong Turkey before he went to the US. But now his politics are based on Israel and the US. He now says if Turkey doesn’t work with Israel and the US, you can’t be powerful”.

He predicted that the fight between Gulen and the AKP would intensify once the local elections were over.  But he had no doubt the AKP would win. “Right now there’s no intellectual support for Gulen within Turkey. The public don’t like him, and hard days are coming for the Hizmet movement”.

Spokesmen for Gulen deny this.  Lawyers for the movement are going to the Constitutional Court to try to strike down the government’s new law to close down the private schools which cram pupils for university entrance exams. A quarter of them are run by Gulen. They serve as the main source for recruiting and training new followers.

“Hizmet is not a political movement.  In all its years of experience Hizmet volunteers have supported different parties. The movement maintains equidistance from them”, Mustafa Yesil, the current president of the Journalists and Writers‘ Foundation, a Gulenist institution, told Middle East Eye. “The AKP has been running a systematic smear campaign against Hizmet because Hizmet insists on independence”.

“Hizmet volunteers are in every walk of life, in civilian and bureaucratic jobs.  Hizmet want bureaucrats to remain within legal boundaries. Since there is no entry or exit ritual for Hizmet and no registration of members, people may have sympathies for Hizmet or show support but they don’t do their job in sympathy with Hizmet”.

After years of tacit collaboration the AKP and Gulen are in an open struggle. With Erdogan’s victory in last month’s elections and a contest looming over the presidency which will be decided in August, the issue is bound to sharpen.

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