Gülenists were always in search of the ultimate power, they became enslaved by it

Few in Turkey today are reviled so frequently and with such force as U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen and his followers, who are accused of infiltrating the state, from the police and judiciary to the generals, in an attempt to topple Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The culmination of the efforts to capture the state by what the government calls “FETÖ”, the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation, was the failed coup of July 15, 2016.

The abortive putsch sparked a crackdown that has seen tens of thousands of alleged Gülenists jailed or stripped of their positions under an ongoing state of emergency. Meanwhile, the demand to extradite Gülen from his self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania has become almost ubiquitous in Erdoğan’s rhetoric around the United States. 

“From the beginning the problem was always their fixation on power,” said the prominent Turkish human rights leader Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu in a conversation with Ahval’s İlhan Tanir. “The thing that motivated Gülen most strongly was to seize as much power as possible, and he placed and promoted his own vision via his cadre of personnel in the bureaucracy, military and security services in order to achieve ultimate power.”

Gülenists and individuals connected to their organisation have suffered intolerable human rights violations in these purges, added Gergerlioğlu. Yet not so long ago, Gülenists played their part in instigating similar abuses, he said, a cycle of abuse in Turkey that he describes as “pathological” in a lengthy video conversation with AhvalTV.

The Gülen organisation had by the time of the coup already become a bugbear in Turkey, its name invoked by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to take the blame for every undesirable or embarrassing situation it faced, from the 2013 Gezi Park environmental protests, to the downing of a Russian fighter jet in 2015.  

Yet Gülen and his followers still present their movement, a global network of religious associations and private schools that they call “Service”, as a non-political, humanitarian movement that they say seeks to promote education and intra-faith dialogue, and the ruling party themselves for years paid lip service to Gülen’s image as a holy man.

Until their fall from grace, the Gülenists enjoyed an enviable position. They had a remarkable platform from which to pursue their interests with followers in prominent positions in the Turkish state and business worlds, the wealth to lobby hundreds of U.S. lawmakers, control over some of Turkey’s largest media organisations, enough international recognition to be welcomed to a meeting in the Vatican with Pope John Paul II, and a formerly friendly relationship with Turkey’s ruling party, So, how did it come crashing down?

In the first decade of the century, the Gülenists played on the conflict between the religious-conservative political bloc represented by the AKP, and the republic’s traditional secular elite, who dominated the country’s bureaucracy and military when the party came to power in 2002.

The organisation’s focus on education, and the well-trained operators this produced, provided a cadre of Gülenists within the state to pursue this aim.

As the former head of Mazlumder, a non-governmental and conservative human rights organisation that fought against religious discrimination, Gergerlioğlu had a close view of this sectarian-religious struggle, and the role that Gülen played in it. Gergerlioğlu, even though he has been critical of the group for a long time, is one of the rarest voices on social media and other public domains to talk about the human rights violations that the alleged Gülenists face in Turkey. 

Gergerlioğlu is currently spokesperson for the Platform for Rights and Justice. Established in 2016 by a group of human rights defenders, it conducted a large-scale survey to measure the social, economic and psychological damage of emergency rule. In a 400-page report, it focuses on how the rights of people tied to the Gülenists have been violated since the coup attempt of 2016.

“When you focus so much on taking power, you can get drunk with it. Then many things become permissible in order to attain it. So they walked arm in arm with the AKP government,” said Gergerlioğlu.

This was a coalition that would carry on “comfortably and peacefully” for 10 years, as prosecutors and police officers associated with Gülen joined forces with the ruling party to target thousands of secularist officers, politicians and journalists in a series of investigations that would leave hundreds behind bars, thousands of family members as victimised, allegedly for membership of a clandestine organisation that constituted Turkey’s “Deep State” or “Ergenekon”, and conspiring in a coup plot against the elected government.

The trials that followed revealed misconduct from the police and prosecutors on a staggering scale. The Silk Road Institute scholar Gareth Jenkin’s in-depth investigation found that court cases were marred by a lack of due process, manipulated evidence, and contradictory testimonies. And as the investigations went on, figures critical of the Gülen movement, such as the investigative journalist Ahmet Şık, began to find themselves behind bars on terror charges.

The trials turned the struggle over the state decisively in the AKP’s favour, and the ruling party happily went along with what Gergerlioğlu described as the “exaggerations and illegalities” of the trials. Such an alliance based on the pursuit of power, however, could not last.

“As time went on, Erdoğan’s appetite for power kept growing; and Gülen’s had never diminished. So, two individuals with a great desire for power became pitted against one another,” said Gergerlioğlu.

The first sign of this conflict came in 2012, when Gülenist prosecutors targeted National Intelligence Organisation chief Hakan Fidan, a close ally of Erdoğan’s. The Gülenists denied allegations that this was an orchestrated attack by its members. The split became public in December 2013, when prosecutors and police officers associated with Gülen launched corruption investigations into top AKP politicians. The ensuing struggle reached a climax on July 15, 2016, with the failed coup attempt that would leave Gülenists “like a spectre” haunting Turkey’s political scene.

“This was a very problematic point to reach (for the Gülenists). For years they had spoken in defence of democracy and human rights, and then they get their names mixed up in a coup attempt,” said Gergerlioğlu.

While the mysterious events of that night have not yet been fully explained, the popular perception is that the coup attempt was masterminded by Gülenists, according to the human rights activist.

For Gergerlioğlu, this should spur a period of self-criticism within the organisation. So too should its own history of involvement in perpetrating human rights violations, which he said negates the otherwise valuable contributions Gülenists made during their heyday to human rights advocacy.

“What they must face is that, by failing in those values they talked about for years, the thing they have harmed the most was Turkish society’s democratic development,” said Gergerlioğlu. “When you create such disappointment, it is not your own community that takes the brunt of the damage, but Turkey’s struggle for democracy.”

In spite of all this, Gergerlioğlu is determined to defend the rights of Gülenists who now find themselves on the receiving end of human rights violations in the wake of the coup attempt.

“I say this to whoever is facing oppression today. Yes, you may have made mistakes in the past, but if you are facing human rights violations and in search of justice today, you must remember this in the future when you become powerful, and seek the same justice for every other group.”

Gergerlioğlu doubts this is a lesson that the leading figures in the Gülenist organisation will take on board. However, he sees a newfound self-awareness and understanding among its ordinary followers that leaves him hopeful for the future.