How Has the Gülen Movement Ended Up Where It Is?

Much of recent debate on the Gülen movement is, not surprisingly, framed in the context of the July 2016 coup attempt that the Turkish government blames on the followers of U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen.

Although relevant, however, it paradoxically obstructs the analysis of many other critical factors pertaining the inner dynamics of the Gülen movement.

It is also more helpful to observe problems linked with the Gülen movement as a result of the in-group dynamics that led to what we know about the present-day predicament of the Gülen movement.

How come did Gülen Movement ended up where it is now?

Let me elaborate.

The 'central power holders' of the Gülen movement – the small circle of leading names around Fethullah Gülen - seem to be happy that much of the debate is framed in the context of the July 15 coup attempt or the tension between the Gülen movement and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Such debate  helps Gülen’s inner circle maintain their 'safe zone' by serving to blur critical discussions about of their own past deeds.

It should be remembered that the same figures who were influential within the movement are still occupying their positions despite in-group criticism following the coup attempt.

Over-focusing on the coup attempt and similar other problems, recent analysis gives a reductionist idea of the Gülen movement, particularly of its power holders, in regard to their decisions and policies in other fields.

As a result, the power holders of the movement easily were able to defend themselves with a simple but effective logical defence: the failure of the AKP’s authoritarian rule would be the proof of how morally correct the movement’s leaders were.

Such a reductionist narrative obstructs a critical assessment on those power holders’ past decisions beyond their fight with the AKP.

Gülen-linked bureaucrats developed their first effective and cordial links with the government with the rise of the AKP, which was formed in 2001 and came to power the following year.

The alliance between Gülen-linked bureaucrats – including high-ranking policemen and senior members of the judiciary – and the AKP government simultaneously increased those bureaucrats’ leverage within the Gülen movement.

Fethullah Gülen, who was very sceptical about the success of the AKP at first, swiftly built an alliance with this party sharing a clear, common goal: Purging the Kemalist state; the secularist establishment and bureaucracy built up by modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

But, paradoxically, the process first transformed the Gülen movement into a bureaucratic-oriented movement from its previous religious-civil profile.

As a path-dependent result, the Gülen-linked members of the alliance, i.e. high-ranking policemen, bureaucrats and senior members of the judiciary, dominated the decision-making apparatus within the movement. With their newfound power, they significantly influenced the civilian wing of the Gülen movement as well as the movement’s traditional narrative on many issues such as the Kurdish problem.

By the middle of the last decade, the civilian wing of the Gülen movement was almost eclipsed by the bureaucratic wing.

By the end of the decade, the civilian wing was kept busy only with secondary items such as PR or generating financial support.

Since the movement is unquestionably centred on Gülen, its large civilian sector did not even realise the extent and scope of the bureaucrats’ influence on Gülen and his decisions.

However, the movement’s alliance with the AKP resulted in two catastrophic results:

Firstly, the movement, which is a civil and religious organisation in origin, became known for its complex affiliation with the Turkish police. But the ongoing impact of the bureaucratic wing continued making other major mistakes such as supporting former police chiefs in parliamentary elections despite objections from the civil wing of the movement.

Secondly, the Gülen movement naively attempted to re-design Turkish politics via “judicial engineering”. Such a naïve strategy gradually put the movement in the hub of very complicated and fierce developments that touched nerves of different social and political groups, such as secularists and Kurds.

For a while in those years, the Gülen movement’s position in Turkey in terms of its power sharing with the state became comparable with Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Indeed, it is not fair to explain the Gülen movement without mentioning the role of Fethullah Gülen.

Gülen’s reading of Turkish politics was largely a result of a Cold War mentality. Accordingly, Gülen underlined the state as the most critical actor in Turkey and ascribed other social dynamics a secondary status.

To a large extent, Gülen’s reading of Turkish politics and society was consistent. However, his reading failed in practice: Turkish society did not endorse the notion of identifying the Gülen movement with the state.

In other words, the Turkish people did not accept his movement becoming the state.

Even though Turkish society was not categorically against the idea of an Islamic movement, it did not approve an Islamic movement becoming such an active agent of state affairs.

On the other hand, Gülen himself changed during the period when the coalition between his movement and the AKP dominated Turkish politics. Gülen was a man of civilian messages during the late 1990s.

However, in the last decade, Gülen attempted to transform his status as “hocaefendi” – or esteemed teacher - into having national sway allowing him to directly intervene in Turkish politics. For a while, his messages on national developments such as the victory of the national football team were read out alongside those of political leaders. It was an attempt to normalise and elevate his position as a national “hocaefendi”. His movement founded radio and TV channels like Irmak TV or Cihan Radio where Gülen was almost the only content day and night.

Gradually, Gülen transformed himself into a “pious political leader” leaving behind his former guise of a “pious man of religion” with some political ideas.

However, the transformation isolated Gülen among his bureaucrats and bureaucratic-minded civilian followers. Under the influence of this small group, he sincerely hoped AKP support would fall below 30 percent in March 2015 local elections.

Detached from reality, Gülen became a man of successive failed political plans.

Listening to his latest speeches, it is still very apparent that Gülen still is under the influence of this small clique that employs the same bureaucratic and traditional theological mentality.