Pending questions in Turkey on Gülen Movement and beyond

Since the failed July 2016 coup attempt, the issue of “cemaats,” or religious communities in Turkey has come under an entirely new kind of discussion.

The Turkish word “cemaat” has become almost synonymous with the movement associated with the U.S.-based Turkish Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen who is blamed by many including the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government for the coup attempt.

Even if Gülen’s followers have since been reported to be purged from state bodies, the income from his extensive network of international schools is great enough to prevent a full collapse of his movement.

While the Gülen movement had proved productive partners of the AKP during the early days of its reign from 2002, and collaborated with AKP leaders to strike a decisive blow against their secular opponents, the cracks in their relationship became apparent from 2009.

These fissures gave way to a full-blown split at the end of 2013, when police and prosecutors alleged to be linked to the Gülen movement launched corruption investigations into a host of prominent government-linked figures, including the children of AKP ministers.

The most significant result to come out of these investigations was the end to the collaboration. The two sides had been as close as comrades can be – President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan famously lamented that he had given the movement “whatever they wanted”. More than merely coming to an end, the relationship ended in an outright battle.

Erdoğan said the Gülen movement was moving to seize control of the state, and coined a new name for it, the “parallel structure”. Many members of the public, however, were of the opinion that the AKP had been running the state for years in collaboration with the Gülen movement.

While this collaboration was in play, Gülen cadres in the police and judiciary moved to eliminate any opposition that became an irritant to the government. Ahmet Şık, the investigative journalist whose book “The Imam’s Army” revealed the workings of the Gülen movement, was arrested in March 2011 and held for a year before being released pending trial.

His book was banned and all copies confiscated before its publication.

Türkan Saylan, a medical doctor and writer whose Association for Supporting Contemporary Life (ÇYDD ) made great strides in securing education for young girls, was arrested in a dawn raid as part of the Ergenekon investigations, an extensive series of probes into influential secularist figures accused of being involved in a shadowy conspiracy that was later found to be based largely on flimsy or fabricated evidence.

Saylan, aged 73, was undergoing chemotherapy at the time. She was hauled off along with her digital and paper documents. She died in detention of cancer 32 days later.

After the movement’s split from the AKP, a Gülen-linked association, Kimse Yok Mu (Is anybody there), was hit by a similar police raid.

Ekrem Dumanlı, chief editor of the movement’s largest media outlet, Zaman daily, wrote asking whether any other similar civil society association had been subjected to such treatment. The “vengeful attitude” shown to Kimse Yok Mu was the “epitome of discrimination”, wrote Dumanlı.

Yet while the AKP and Gülen alliance was in effect, Zaman adopted a markedly different attitude towards Saylan’s ÇYDD.

The newspaper printed a series of specious articles to smear the association, claiming it had prostituted young girls to military officers in order to gain leverage over them. It also accusing the association of “giving bursaries to terrorists”, and saying it had “strengthened a separatist movement”, referring to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which launched an insurgency for Kurdish self-rile in the 1984.

Journalist Doğan Akın’s October 2014 article for Turkish news site T24 highlights the viciousness displayed by the Gülen movement towards outsiders at the time. Akın describes how the April 18, 2009 Zaman article, while exposing the so-called terrorists bursaries from the ÇYDD, reported claims that the majority of girls on a list of the association’s bursary recipients had alleged links to the PKK. In the same article, Zaman published a list naming the girls, even though no court had passed judgment on them.

As evident in what I argued so far, the Gülen movement was able to infiltrate into the state with expertise, aligning itself by politicians so as expand its horizontal and vertical social growth with a great deal of determination and patience.

It was able to place its own affiliates in key positions of the public sphere - particularly in education and the police force - thereby seizing control of the elements of pressure that steer politics, in addition to carrying forward the Islamist-Fascist extension of the Turkish-Islam synthesis, which emerged following 1980, particularly during the era of 7th president Kenan Evren under the guise of fighting against communism and was implemented by 8th Turkish president Turgut Özal.

This Islamo-fascist journey, which began in the 80’s with ‘Sızıntı’ (Fountain) (1979-2016) magazine, penned personally by Fethullah Gülen, met its demise after becoming infused with accusations which movement devotees would have never imagined.

The Gülen movement, labelled ‘’the parallel structure’’ by Erdoğan, left its devotees ‘’high and dry’’ in this regard, as well.

Volunteers of the ‘’Hizmet’’ movement who once worked for the movement’s organizations and suddenly found themselves behind bars, and the scores of people who brushed shoulders with the movement (a large portion of which, despite not having an affinity for the movement, worked for its institutions) had no clue that the movement had transformed into an alleged infiltration network.

When I speak of an alleged ‘crime ring’, I am talking about many events which were the subject of harsh criticisms by the liberal democrats within the movement, too.

We are talking about events that extend from the stealing questions to Turkey’s civil servant examination, KPSS ; to the arrest of a journalist for a book that had not yet been published; the curious case of movement members excelling at state institution entry examinations; merit-based achievements becoming history; doctors, teachers who never got assigned to a post, etc.

There was not a day that went by during the 'AKP-Movement alliance' period in which a scandal did not erupt, where a victim didn’t speak to the press about the injustices they suffered.

It’s possible to elaborate on the injustice and destruction of reputation the movement caused during the times it joined forces with the government.

However, none of this, in any way, justifies the massive witch hunt that has taken place following the 2016 coup attempt; the illegal seizure of assets of individuals just because they are members of the movement, the firing of tens of thousands of people from their jobs without any legal ground; the indiscriminate criminalization of employees of the state; the trampling of people’s dignity and honour by running pages upon pages of degrading publications by the state’s media outlets, as was done with communists in Turkey in the past; with women who have just given birth being yanked out of hospitals with their newborns to be placed in prisons; rape, or torture and ill-treatment. as documented in reports issued by international organizations.

All that is being done is ‘’execution without due process;’’ political arbitrariness conducted under the guise of Turkey’s state of emergency; anti-democratic and unjust practices, just as it was with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when he was placed in jail for having recited a poem in 1998.

A regime that enters the terrain of the unlawful is no longer manageable and has begun take a tumble off a cliff.

However, not engaging in political and social revanchism, we need to ask ourselves how it was possible for the Gülen movement, or, as earlier, for example, Free Masons (they were for long deeply influential in Turkish state structures, an 'open secret' nobody is keen to mention) or any other interest group for that matter, to infiltrate the state to such an extent?

Is it enough to simply say, as Erdoğan did, that the Gülenists deceived the government? What if, this was a mutual duping? Is deception enough to explain how the group devastated the meritocratic state and replaced it with cronyism? Where is the guarantee that such deception will not occur again? And how can the state recover after being brought to an inoperable state?

And if the government itself was deceived, what about the thousands who have been prosecuted simply for earning a living at the movement’s institutions? Or those volunteers who in their innocence simply took it for a religious social organisation? How to prevent the state from being infiltrated by secretive formations, which change identity as the conjunctures change?

These are the questions whose answers are awaited by the victims of the Gülen movement as well as others in Turkey today.