The rise and fall of Gülen in 10 steps

The rise and fall of Gülen in 10 steps

fThe cliché used in such cases is usually “the rise and fall.” But this falls short in the case of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher who now amounts to one of the major problems in Turkey-U.S. relations, under the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) rule. That is because the rise of Gülen and his network within the Turkish state apparatus started long before the AK Parti first came to power in 2002.

Initiated by Gülen, a primary school graduate preacher, his followers – referred to as the “cemaat” (religious community) - started to grow not only among pious shopkeepers across Anatolia but also among rural-origin educated people in big cities in the mid-1970s. But their advance in the government and judiciary really started to accelerate after the military coup on Sept. 12, 1980.

It can now be seen in retrospect that the first news of stolen examination questions at police colleges and military schools came in the mid-1980s. It can also be seen that many of the police chiefs, generals, judges and prosecutors who are now under arrest for their alleged involvement in the bloody coup attempt of July 15 entered those colleges and faculties of law in the mid-1980s under the government of Turgut Özal. The justice, education and interior ministries all started to be infiltrated during the same period.

Not only Özal, but also center-right prime ministers like Süleyman Demirel and Tansu Çiller, Islamists like Necmettin Erbakan and even social democrats like Bülent Ecevit tolerated the rise in the civil service and judiciary of the hard-working and obedient followers of Gülen. They all considered him a moderate Islamist preacher of peace “in his silent corner.” 

So it is not to fair to put all responsibility on the shoulders of President Tayyip Erdoğan and his AK Parti regarding the rise of Gülen (who left the country for the U.S. in order to avoid court cases in 1999) and Gülenists in Turkey.

However, they did indeed continue to rise in the state apparatus - and then start to fall - under the AK Parti. This process can be summarized in 10 steps.

1- The National Security Board (MGK) meeting on Aug. 25, 2004, chaired by then President Ahmet Necdet Sezer (Erdoğan attended as prime minister and Abdullah Gül attended as foreign minister), where it was decided to recommend the AK Parti government take measures against the infiltration of Gülenists in state institutions. The decision was taken at a time when the Erdoğan government was under pressure from the U.S. because of the war in Iraq and also from soldiers who were not hiding that they could not digest the AK Parti seizing power through an election victory. The traditional establishment was forcing Erdoğan to take a stance against an Islamist faction that they thought of as Erdoğan’s best ally.

2- The AK Parti meeting on May 1, 2007, when Erdoğan decided to go to an early election. That decision came after the military issued a statement on April 27 against Gül’s election as president because his wife was wearing a headscarf, a symbol for republican establishment. Erdoğan felt he needed all the support he could get from conservative and Islamist circles to win the election against the threat from the military-judicial establishment in this struggle, which he considered existential. The first arrests that would evolve into the Ergenekon cases started in early June 2007. Gül was elected president after the AK Parti’s election win.

3- In 2008 there were a series of developments that caused the AK Parti to think Gülen’s cooperation might be indispensable for its survival. The opening of the closure case against the AK Parti on March 14, Gülen’s receiving of a Green Card in the U.S. on May 21, the opening of the Ergenekon case (by prosecutor Zekeriya Öz, who was known to be a Gülenist) on July 25, and the Constitutional Court ruling on July 30 refusing to close down the ruling party on the grounds of violating the secular system. The “cemaat” implied that the latter ruling was thanks to its influence in the judiciary.

4- A headline story in daily Taraf on June 12, 2009, claiming that there was a military plan to “Finish off the AKP and Gülen” together. The story said there was a document showing that the military was plotting a coup plot against the government, manipulating it to crush Gülenists first. In retrospect, this could be considered a move to manipulate the AK Parti as proof that their future is tied to each other. The probe was integrated with the Ergenekon case and led to the arrest and later life sentence given to then Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ. (It was later understood that the document was fabricated by Gülenist experts in the police force. Colonel Dursun Çiçek who was accused of signing the document, is now a member of parliament now on the main opposition Republican People’s Party list. Like Çiçek, Başbuğ has since been acquitted of all charges.)

5- The referendum of Sept. 12, 2010, on constitutional changes. The “cemaat” publications successfully manipulated urban liberals in the “Not Enough, But Yes” campaign. Gülen himself urged his followers through a video message to give full support to the AK Parti proposal. Following the changes, the rise of the Gülenists - especially in the judiciary – became more obvious.

6- In the June 12, 2011, general election, Erdoğan’s AK Parti got an unprecedented half of the votes. However, the cemaat, claiming to have a vote base of around 15 percent, said it deserved to be given more deputies on the AK Parti parliamentary list - not just the two declared deputies. This is the time when a debate within the Gülen movement allegedly started on whether it is time to move to seize power, taking into account Gülen’s previous order that “an early move would be the worst move.”

7- On Feb. 7, 2012, prosecutors who had been working on the Ergenekon and Balyoz coup plot cases against the former republican establishment tried to interrogate National Intelligence Organization (MİT) head Hakan Fidan, citing his contacts with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Those contacts were carried out under the orders of Erdoğan and would ultimately result in establishing indirect dialogue with the PKK for three years, during which no blood was shed. This was perhaps the first time Erdoğan (whose office had found two bugs just two months before) perceived a direct threat from the Gülenists.

8- On June 14, 2012, Erdoğan addressed the final of the 10th of the “Turkish Language Olympics” in Istanbul, an annual festival organized among the schools opened by the Gülen network over more than 150 countries. In his speech he asked Gülen to “come back to his country and end this longing.” This was a last call, disguised as a gesture of goodwill, as Erdoğan said in the same speech that staying abroad forever might have a “high cost.” 

9- On April 30, 2014, the National Security Board (MGK) declared the Gülen movement a terrorist organization trying to overthrow the elected government. That was due to a series of moves attributed by the Erdoğan government to Gülen and his network, including the alleged corruption probes of Dec. 17/25, 2013 and the stopping of trucks carrying military material to Syria on Jan. 19, 2014. The Gülenists had also done their best in the March 30 local elections to undermine the support base of AK Parti candidates and failed, proving that they were far from having the vote base they claimed to have. Over one year later, Erdoğan had no difficulty being elected as president on Aug. 10, 2014, despite the Gülenist propaganda that was unable to bring any additional points to other candidates.

10- On July 15, 2016, a bloody military coup attempt took place that was defeated by the resistance of the government, the parliament and the people. Not only the ruling AK Parti, but all other parties in parliament pointed at the Gülenist network within the state as being behind the coup attempt. Nearly 100,000 people have since been removed from public office, including more than 3,000 military officers arrested during the coup attempt on July 15-16. Prosecutors and the government now use the name “Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ)” to refer to the Gülenists, and the government has requested the extradition of Gülen from the U.S. to stand trial. At the moment, the situation of Gülen continues to constitute a major problem between the two NATO allies.