Hours after an attempted coup in Turkey on July 15, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his officials were already clear who was to blame: Fethullah Gulen.
The elderly Muslim cleric has lived in exile in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, for nearly two decades. He’s the leader of a religious movement known as Hizmet, which espouses education, community service and interfaith dialogue. The movement is associated with a vast network of businesses, schools and other institutions around the globe.
Gulen denies anything to do with the coup. “If somebody who appears to be a Hizmet sympathizer has been involved in an attempted coup, he betrays my ideals,” the cleric wrote in an article for The New York Times on Monday.
The Gulen movement was an ally of Erdogan and his religious, conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) when the party took power in 2002, and they fell out a decade later when Gulenists became dissatisfied with Erdogan’s leadership. AKP officials accused the movement of trying to undermine the government from behind the scenes.
After the deadly and ultimately doomed coup attempt, Erdogan’s government vastly expanded a crackdown on the movement, which it calls the Gulenist Terror Organisation (FETÖ).
Turkish officials say Gulen’s followers have infiltrated every institution in Turkey. The government has closed thousands of schools, charities, and unions and placed over 60,000 teachers, lawyers, judges, police, soldiers and government workers under investigation, suspension or arrest.
Turkish leaders have demanded that the U.S. extradite Gulen to face justice in Turkey. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he would consider the request once Turkey provides “legitimate evidence that withstands scrutiny.”
The WorldPost spoke to Joshua Hendrick, a sociology professor at Loyola University Maryland and author of Gülen: The Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World, about the movement, its aims and supporters.
What evidence is there that Gulen or his supporters were linked to the coup attempt?
There is no evidence that has been made public. There’s a handful of anecdotes ― individuals confessing to be members of the movement ― and plenty of conjecture, but not a lot of evidence. Even so, there’s certainly enough circumstantial evidence to demand an investigation.
If you want my opinion on whether Gulen was behind it that’s a separate question. It’s not a well-kept secret that members, affiliates or loyalists to Gulen have occupied a number of positions in state institutions for decades ― and that swelled in the AKP-era from 2002.
Yet, if this was perpetrated by the movement it is so against everything they claim to stand for, such as conflict resolution and peace. The coup was also poorly conceived and carried out ― it was so inept that even the chain of command among the coup plotters was broken. You can say many things about the Gulen movement but you can’t say they’re disorganized. So, the coup is contrary to their aims and their organizational structure.
What are the aims of the Gulen movement?
The project has been focused on social change in Turkey since it emerged in the 1960s to facilitate pious nationalism. This is civil Islam positioning towards conservative social change, while accepting democratic institutions and structural reforms.
The Gulen movement’s ideas are mobilized through the private marketplace. For example, the movement includes pro-democracy social conservatives whose desire for social change brought them into the spheres of education and mass media. They appeal to the upwardly mobile, advocating for greater competition and less favor for a small number of elites using the language of democracy and liberalism.
The movement wanted to relax Turkey’s secularism, from a European model of “freedom from” religion to a U.S. model of religious freedom where groups compete for the hearts and minds, and the state won’t allow some to operate at the expense of others.
“This is civil Islam positioning towards conservative social change, while accepting democratic institutions and structural reforms.”
The movement shares a worldview with the AKP, including the shift in foreign policy from relying on U.S. and Europe alone to global engagement, what they call “strategic depth.”
The Gulen movement focused on outcompeting their competitors in the marketplace and the marketplace of ideas ― in education, media and banking. They kept equidistant from all the major political parties, as they were only interested in being influential. They can be compared to the moral majority movement in the U.S., which only later became connected to the Republican Party.
After the AKP came into power, the movement shifted from being an apolitical, civil actor to framing its efforts in lockstep with the AKP. Many of the AKP and Gulenists shared priorities have now been successful, which explains why they have turned on each other ― they’ve already accomplished most of their aims.
How did Gulen become so influential and his network get so big, becoming involved in education, social programs, cultural exchanges and businesses around the world?
The Gulen movement did not grow because of Fethullah Gulen’s ability as a religious scholar, or because of God’s grace, as their supporters would say, but instead because of their efforts to take advantage of Turkey’s trade relationships to put centers around the world. And the more they emphasize their experience around the world, the more influence they can project back in Turkey, including economic and cultural power, allowing them to generate wealth and pursue their aims, whether that be pushing for the military not to intervene in politics or pressing for access to the EU.
Why are their activities so often secretive?
They’ve been a suspect organization since their inception. This is not the first time there’s been an arrest warrant for Fethullah Gulen, and it’s not the first time Gulenists have been accused of being conspirators. And they are not unique ― there are many other actors who have been named by the Turkish state as threats to the Turkish Republic over the years. Turkey has a very top-down enforcement of secularism. There have always been religious communities that are illegal.
“The movement operates in over 100 countries and over 100 legal spheres, and this model ensures that if something goes wrong in one place, it doesn’t affect everywhere else.”
So, their organizational culture emerged in a context that demanded strategic ambiguity. While some people are open and proud about their affiliation, others deny it completely. This starts with Fethullah Gulen himself. He is very ambiguous character, right to his birthdate one cannot get a straight answer from him about anything.
The movement operates in over 100 countries and over 100 legal spheres, and this model ensures that if something goes wrong in one place, it doesn’t affect everywhere else. It’s a calculated measure. For example, when lots of questions were raised about charter schools linked to Gulen in Texas, you started to see the same answers appearing from institutions in Ohio, Maryland, Alabama with the same script: “Some people might be influenced by Gulen because they come from Turkey, in the same way as people from the U.S. are influenced by Martin Luther King Jr.”
What does it mean to be a Gulenist or follower of Gulen?
There are different variations of participation. At the top are the core loyalists, who are the directors of Gulen’s institutions and the people in Pennsylvania. Then there are the “friends,” who donate to Gulen’s institutions, but mostly for their own interests. Then there are sympathizers, who appreciate the movement but are not part of it, like sympathetic journalists or people who say that it is peaceful, or “moderate” version of Islam. Finally, the largest group are the many consumers of Gulen institutions’ products. By going to school or reading a newspaper, their actions are contributing to the movement. They have the weakest ties to the movement, but are the most important to its functioning.
When you participate in the Gulen movement, there is no ID card. There are some ritualistic practises that members take part in, the most common of which is the sohbet. Traditionally, this refers to the communication between a sheikh and their disciples ― which the Gulen movement has repurposed as a reading group, where people come together to read Fethullah Gulen and other religious scholars. It often starts out in a student house, and there’s someone in each company that organizes the sohbet. It starts out as a reading group and then becomes a group of peers who get together informally to discuss their sphere of business. Another practise of the movement is a religious donation called himmet.
How is Erdogan’s government classifying people as Gulenists or not during the current crackdown?
The Turkish state has been collecting intelligence on this for a while. The AKP are far more involved in who is a part of the movement because of their former partnership. This creates the conditions for a witch hunt, which is very problematic.
They know each other very well, so they can do huge damage to each other and already have.
The Gulen movement is already damaged and could be further if people believe it is not what it says it is. If the Turkish state leverages their bilateral relationships around the world to push for a crackdown on the Gulen movement, that could do global damage.
This interview was conducted on July 22. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the date of the attempted coup. It was on July 15, not June 15.