Calls for change unlikely to be heard inside Turkey's Gülen movement

Decimated by purges in Turkey and pursued abroad, current and former supporters of the Gülen movement, blamed for the 2016 military coup attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have begun to publicly voice criticism of the global Islamist network.

Reflecting on its fall from being one of Turkey’s most powerful groups with members high up in the police, judiciary, armed forces and media, Gülen’s followers called for more soul-searching and accountability, while former members said the movement had become intoxicated by power.

“There were so many mistakes,” said a Turkish academic and former Gülen supporter who said he “grew up in the movement”, but declined to be named to avoid a backlash from current members of the secretive organisation.

Citing the arrest of journalists ordered by Gülenists within the judiciary, its opposition to peace talks with Kurdish militants and support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the academic said:

“The movement couldn’t digest the social and political power that it was given.”

The movement begun by reclusive U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen has for four decades promoted a distinctively Turkish form of Islam that encourages piety, modern education, interfaith dialogue and the market economy.

After both suffered during crackdowns carried out by Turkey’s staunchly secularist establishment in the last decades of the 20th century, Gülen’s followers and the AKP, which emerged from a series of banned Islamist parties, worked together when Erdoğan’s party came to power in 2002.

“For me, the movement is all about answering this question, which is, what does it mean to be a Muslim in the 21st century? How can I be faithful to my faith, while at the same time cognizant of contemporary culture?” said Özcan Keleş, lawyer and chair of the Gülen-affiliated, London-based Dialogue Society.

Known as Hizmet, or service, to its adherents, the group, likened to the Masons or the Mormons by some Western observers, opened hundreds of schools in Turkey, Central Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East and encouraged its graduates to go on to influential jobs in academia, the civil service, the military and media.

In a recording that emerged in 1999, Gülen told his devotees to “move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the centres of power”.

The movement’s aim, said Joshua Hendrick, a sociologist at Loyola University who wrote a book about the Gülenists in 2013, is “the accumulation of social power. Social power, meaning to exact influence in a way to further your own interests.”

“I started seeing my friends coming very quickly into the bureaucracy,” said the Turkish academic and former Gülen supporter. “It was a big mistake.”


The movement began to push out the secularists who had previously dominated the bureaucracy and, from 2008 and 2010 respectively, Gülen followers in the police and judiciary orchestrated two mass trials, known as Ergenekon and Balyoz, that targeted enemies of the movement and of the AKP in the military, media, civil society, academia and opposition.

The charges of a secretive secular conspiracy turned out to be based largely on hearsay and fabricated evidence. Journalists who had been critical of the movement were among those imprisoned, while other critics were attacked by the Gülenist media.

“I think (Hizmet’s) aim was to take power back from the secularists, and in that sense was the same as the AKP’s aim,” said Caroline Tee, a social anthropologist at the University of Cambridge and author of a 2016 book about the group.

“I don’t see any evidence that the movement’s ambitions for Turkey and Turkish society are actually that different from the AKP’s, in that they clearly want a much stronger Muslim voice and a kind of Islamification of Turkish society and politics,” Tee said.

The Turkish academic and former Gülen supporter said the group’s close relationship with the AKP was a mistake.

“The AKP opened the gates for the movement, and in exchange the movement served the AKP, so it was a kind of cohabitation,” he said. “It was a mistake. It created huge anger from other sectors of society.”

Gülen and Erdoğan fell out spectacularly at the end of 2013 when prosecutors allegedly loyal to Gülen ordered the arrest of dozens of people close to the centres of power, including family members of ministers, on charges of corruption. After initially reeling from the arrests – three ministers resigned – Erdoğan bounced back and the police and prosecutors who had brought the charges were themselves locked up.

After failing with what AKP loyalists call the judicial coup, according to the government the Gülenists masterminded a military attempt to overthrow Erdoğan in July 2016, a bid thwarted when the president called people out onto the streets to stand up to the tanks. More than 270 people were killed and 2,000 wounded in the abortive putsch. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested and more than 100,000 have lost their jobs in the government crackdown since.

Branded the Fethullahist Terror Organisation (FETÖ) in Turkey, the group’s fall from grace has prompted a previously unheard of degree of soul-searching.

“It’s almost by definition that what this movement does and what Fethullah Gülen says is right,” said Svante E. Cornell, director and co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm.

İhsan Yılmaz, a Gülenist sympathiser and chair of Islamic Studies and Intercultural Dialogue at the University in Melbourne, said the current criticism was not new, but it was not out in the open before.

“Self-criticism has always taken place but only within the movement and behind closed doors,” said Yılmaz, a former columnist for the Gülenist newspaper Zaman.

“Having said that, self-criticism within the Hizmet has not always been applauded by everyone. Some individuals have tended to be autocratic and simply did not listen to any criticism,” he wrote in an email to Ahval.

London-based Keleş said the criticism was healthy.

“It’s good that there is this internal and external criticism,” Keleş told Ahval.

“A number of us have said, as active participants (in the movement), ‘Let’s embrace this.’”

But the criticism should go further up the chain, he said. “It’s not enough,” he said. The critics “aren’t people who were instrumental in some of the decisions in Turkey.”

“We need to do more of that soul-searching, and it needs to be more public.”

Cornell also said that critics were not from the movement’s core.

“You don’t see people who have a past in key Gülen-affiliated institutions speaking up like this. On the contrary, you see a rallying around the flag.”

Academic members of the group were most likely to voice dissent, Tee said.

“The voices of criticism seem to be coming from individuals who have been closely associated with the movement, but who’ve been in positions whereby they’ve always had the luxury of independent thought at the same time,” she said.

The Turkish academic who declined to be named said power had corrupted.

“I think the movement, because of the AKP, lost its sense of proportion,” he said.

But Tee, of Cambridge University, said it was too easy to point a finger at the AKP.

“Blaming all of that on the AKP seems a little bit rich, because I think the movement had its eyes wide open when it went into that partnership, and they played every bit as dirty as the AKP,” she said.

Judging from responses to difficult questions at recent Hizmet meetings in London, Tee said:

“I think this move towards transparency is perhaps quite limited.”

The Turkish academic and former supporter believes most ordinary Hizmet disciples think like him, but doubts Gülen and his core circle have the capacity or the will for reform.

“There is zero chance to expect change from within that group,” he said.

Next: Do Gülenists have a future in Turkey?