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The many faces of Fethullah Gulen

Is Turkey threatened by the stealthy rise to power of the followers of a former cleric turned politician?

Last updated: 27 Feb 2014 11:53
Hilal Kaplan

Hilal Kaplan is a political commentator and author based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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In the last few months, Gulen has proven that he is more than a religious leader, writes Kaplan [Reuters]

Fethullah Gulen, age 73, is a retired preacher. Despite having only a primary school education, Gulen is the religious leader of a movement which, due to the importance it gives to education and, more importantly, to the development of human resources, owns schools in 140 different countries.

However, during the political crisis that has erupted in Turkey in the last few months, Gulen has proven that he is more than a religious leader; he is also a political leader. In the views that he has declared in publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the BBC, he has taken up the stance of the Turkish opposition, voicing opinions on a range of issues, from Kurdish policy to Turkish foreign policy, going beyond the word of Allah. Thus it is impossible to comprehend the true nature of the Turkish crisis without understanding how this "politician" views politics.

Inside Story - Turkey: Political power struggle?

The following words, uttered during a closed-door conversation between Gulen and his followers, were broadcast in 1999 on the Turkish television channel ATV.

"The existence of our comrades is the guarantee of the future of Islam. From this aspect, their presence in the law courts, or in the civil service, or in other service sectors, the existence of our comrades cannot be evaluated as being out of individual obligation. Rather, in these units, they are the guarantee for our future (...) without having formed a strong front in the constitutional institutions; any step we take will be too early.

Until you have reached the correct saturation, until you have the strength to carry the world on your back, until you have laid claim to those things that represent power, until you have formed a powerful front in all of the constitutional institutions that are equivalent to the formation of the state in Turkey, every step you take will be a step too early."

When this video was broadcast, the members of the Gulen movement claimed that this film had been doctored, and denied its authenticity. Doctored or not, there is no denying the parallel nature of these words with the situation in which Turkey finds itself today.

Thus, Gulen's political perspective is centred on bringing the state cadre or departments under the domination of his group.

Gulen's political perspective is centred on bringing the state cadre or departments under the domination of his group.

Siding with the opposition

The police and the judiciary are the first institutions that must be "taken over". Indeed, if they are able to obtain an absolute domination over constitutional institutions, then there is no need to enter politics, or to try to win an election by legitimate means. If they are able to become organised within the state bureaucracy, then, no matter who is in government, they will be the true power that directs the state.

However, the upcoming elections have forced the Gulen Movement down a different path. Until today, the movement has chosen not to oppose any focus of power. For instance, Gulen supported the Turkish army even when there was a coup d'etat taking place. In another incident, he chose to put the blame on Mavi Marmara activists rather than Israel, for not "obeying authority". But now, for the first time in the movement's history, they are at daggers drawn with the current Turkish government.

The Gulen movement knows that it is at an irreversible point and that its own people will be dismissed from the state institutions unless they cause fatal harm to AK Party. Therefore, they are trying to broker a deal with the main opposition party, CHP, and with other parties that can take votes from AK Party.

Certainly the upcoming elections mean much more than a local election for AK Party. Because, the results will be a rehearsal for the presidential elections, for which the people will vote for the first time in August 2014. Erdogan will be testing the people’s support, while his opponents, in particular the Gulen Movement, will test the level of damage they can inflict.

Nevertheless, the present situation should not make us forget that both AK Party and the Gulen Movement worked together until recent times.

Muslim identities hidden

Until the new millennium, the identity of being a practicing Muslim formed a serious barrier to advancement in the state bureaucracy. For this reason, members of the Gulen movement hid their Muslim identity and stealthily took up positions in the state bureaucracy; with the coming to power of AK Party, they managed to rise more rapidly and effectively in the bureaucracy.

The Gulen movement, as made clear in the quote, became dominant in constitutional institutions like the Higher Council of Judges and Prosecutors, Court of Appeal, even in the Constitutional Court. And from December 17 onward, they started to "take action".

As far as the consolidation of democracy is concerned, a long road stretches in front of Turkey. However, it is clear that with the existence of an oligarchy that carries the identity of a religious group before its identity as a bureaucratic group which practices absolute obedience, the existence of a network that is not transparent and cannot be controlled, progress will be impossible.

Certainly, the AK Party government has made errors and has its faults, just like any other government. However, it is possible to bring governments to account, to query their actions, even to vote them out of power. But it is impossible to bring to account a deep state, created not within the rule of law, but rather in the "rule of Gulen", a group that has placed themselves in key positions in the police and judiciary.

This is the essence of the problem that Turkey has been trying to overcome for months and it is essential that this barrier be surmounted for Turkey to continue on the road to democracy.

Hilal Kaplan is a political commentator and author based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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