No progress for Gülen movement tied to status quo

Blamed by Turkey’s government for a coup attempt in 2016, reviled by large parts of the country’s public and hounded by its security forces around the globe, the religious movement led by Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen is one group that appears to be in need of an urgent change in strategy.

Nevertheless, I predicted two years ago that the Gülen movement would remain on its old course bar a few minor manoeuvres. The ensuing years have proven me right. Let alone aiming for change, the movement does not appear to even recognise it has any problems.

Tens of thousands of Gülenists have been arrested or dismissed from their jobs since the coup attempt, which the movement’s leadership denies any connection to. Few people in Turkey believe their denial, since news reports for decades leaked reports of how Gülenists had infiltrated the country’s military, judiciary, police force and other crucial institutions. 

Their influence is believed to have served the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) well when both groups were waging a power struggle against the secularist establishment. But the AKP says the Gülenist cliques in these state institutions turned against it in a series of clandestine attacks culminating in the 2016 failed putsch.

All of this is denied by the Gülenists, whose adherence to the status quo appears to stem from the belief that they will be vindicated once Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan eventually departs from power. In other words, they have found a way to defer all judgment of their actions.

Any discussion of the Gülen movement nowadays revolves around the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, which some say the AKP played a role in and reaped the benefits of emergency rule afterwards. But rather than this, the question I want to focus on today is why the movement is so attached to the status quo.

First of all, it has remained static because no real opposition faction arose within the movement. Self-criticism has been both weak and abstract, and neither attributed to, nor directed at any specific actors.  

Criticism is a public action. Statements from unknown circles whose subject is not stated amount to nothing more than gossip. What is worse, knowing that their actions will never be openly scrutinised has led some figures in the movement to believe that whatever they do, they can get away with.

For example, there has been a lack of debate over Mustafa Özcan, the man known as Gülen’s right hand man who left his stamp on the movement in the years running up to the coup attempt. To speak about the Gülen movement without discussing Özcan is like writing a book on omelettes without mentioning eggs.

Then there are other high-ranking figures like Barbaros Kocakurt and Cevdet Türkyolu who have been accused of illegal activities, but have retained their positions unchallenged for years.

The decisions taken by certain actors in the Gülen movement have affected hundreds of thousands of people. For people who have taken these decisions to continue hiding their identities by saying open criticism could harm the movement is unethical. 

The Gülen movement is an organisation in the true Turkish style, and that means that it brooks no dissent. Just like in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), stepping up to a dispute with the leader means automatic expulsion. It is natural in such an environment that individuals hide their critical views. 

On the other hand, there could have been change in the movement with the support of the leader. Gülen doubtless wished to make changes as the crisis mounted, but these were not, in the end, on a structural level. 

In the first place, Gülen does not have a modern-style relationship with his rank-and-file followers. He has never been accountable to the broader base of his movement. The group’s successes are attributed to him, but when it comes to its failures, his involvement is denied. This principle characterises the bond between the leader and his base.

Gülen is a person of his own internal world, and he takes neither his base, nor the external world seriously. His relationship with the outside world is based on the principle that nobody can understand him. For example, when Gülen in public expresses his regret that there are no women chiefs of staff in the military, nobody thinks to question why there are no women as country representatives in the organisation he leads. 

Secondly, Gülen has never prioritised the civil side of the movement. He developed his strategy in Turkey during the years of the Cold War, and as such he has always placed high importance on the army, judiciary and similar institutions. It is impossible for one who has spent his life thinking this to change, and his opinion still remains the same. Thus, the matters of debate related to his movement’s civil wing are of secondary importance to Gülen, who views this as a matter of logistics.

Another of the factors obstructing change is the movement’s idea that it must take precautions – but this apparent tendency to caution is nothing more than protection of the status quo. Today, whatever information the group attempts to hide with its precautions can be learned by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation in an hour and by the CIA in half that time. This is how Turkish intelligence has been able to discover the identities of thousands of Gülenists, despite 40 years of precautions. 

The movement must understand that something that thousands of people know can never remain a secret. There will always be a loose link in the chain to let it slip.

The continued presence on the movement’s front ranks of figures like Abdullah Aymaz, Mehmet Ali Şengül and İsmail Büyükçelebi, who have been its opinion leaders since nearly the Nixon period, also plays a large role in the group’s inability to move away from the status quo, since they have always shied away from risk.

This is compounded by Gülenist journalists’ startling level of devotion to the movement’s doctrines and leader. These writers view the world through a lens that can see only the AKP’s mistakes, without taking any responsibility for those from their own side.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.