Turkey’s attempted coup on the night of July 15 was a real and serious attack on the constitutional order of a democratic country. While evidence remains circumstantial, the government’s claim that followers of Fethullah Gülen are responsible for the plot has merit and should not be dismissed by the West, according to new research from the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The good, the bad and the Gülenists outlines the evolution of the movement, from an education-focussed philanthropic group in the 1970s to a powerful ‘enemy of the state’ in recent years.
A powerful network
The Gülen network is a global organization and an economic powerhouse inside Turkey. Funded by donations from Turks across Anatolia, at its peak in 2012 it had a net worth of $15-$25 billion and over 1,000 “Turkish schools” spread across 170 countries.
Through a decade-long alliance with AKP, the network amassed unprecedented power within Turkish bureaucracy, effectively serving as the human resources department for the Islamist government. But it is also an opaque brotherhood which has strong control over Turkey’s police and judiciary and where critical decisions are taken by an internal hierarchy. By 2013, 77 out of 81 provincial police commissioners were Gülenist sympathisers, according to Turkey’s Minister of Interior.
The Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials of 2009-2013, in which 113,000 citizens’ phones were tapped and hundreds within the state apparatus were jailed on the basis of fabricated evidence, revealed the more sinister side to the movement – at least to the Turkish people.
Fingerprints on the coup
The nerve centre of the coup was Akincilar air base, where a close confidant of Gülen – a civilian professor named Adil Oksuz – was present on the night of the coup. Despite his detention along with all the officers who were at the base that night, he was subsequently released by a judge under suspicious circumstances. The generals who took part in the coup were overwhelmingly from the ranks of those promoted to replace those convicted in the Sledgehammer trials. And a police officer purged by the government for being a Gülenist in 2013 was captured inside one of the tanks on the night.
Author Asli Aydıntaşbaş commented, “While none of this necessarily points to Fethullah Gülen himself, the presence of his followers in the organisation of the coup is hard to ignore. By contrast, Western media stories that the coup was orchestrated by the Turkish government have no basis in reality.”
The West struggles to take the Turkish government’s claims about the Gülenist organisation seriously, due to the group’s pro-western views and moderate form of Islam - as well as its effective lobbying in Washington and the European Union. One congressman who came to Istanbul on a 2012 tour organised by a Gülenist company described the group in glowing terms as “the anti-mullahs”.
Similarly, despite the obvious injustice of the show trials of 2009-2013, successive EU progress reports on Turkey’s accession process only noted them as investigations into “illegal networks”, preferring to emphasise the narrative of a “reformist” Turkey. For the West, it would seem, the Gülenists were a small price to pay for doing away with the vestiges of the Turkish military in politics.
The West’s perceptions of the Gülenist as a persecuted minority are not helped by the Turkish government’s more outlandish claims, referring to the movement as Turkey’s Illuminati and blaming them for the 2013 Gezi uprising and the downing of the Russian fighter jet in November 2015.
A widening gulf
The massive crackdown on all types of government critics since July 15 will only worsen the misunderstanding between Turkey and the West over the extent of the Gülen threat. Roughly 10,000 people have been arrested as coup-plotters; 100,000 state employees have been dismissed; and one thousand companies have been seized along with thousands of assets – all with no recourse to legal action. Targets of the purge have included liberal dissidents and Kurds, with President Erdogan using the occasion to consolidate his own power, tarnishing his image at home and abroad.
The author said, “The Turkish government has a right and duty to defend itself against a secretive movement that has infiltrated its key institutions and poses a real threat to Turkey’s fragile democracy. But the post-coup crackdown feels like a coup in itself.”
Notes to editors
Read the full paper here.
Please note this is embargoed until 00.01 BST Friday 23 September.