ISTANBUL — Has a reclusive Turkish cleric exiled to Pennsylvania hatched a plot to bring down the government of his former ally?
That’s the narrative being peddled by the embattled Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan whose Justice and Development Party is embroiled in a massive corruption and graft probe.
While conspiracies and plots are an integral part of Turkey’s political culture, analysts say, there is little doubt the movement spawned by Imam Fethullah Gulen is playing a key role in the turmoil racking the political elite for a month now — with no end in sight.
On Dec. 17, prosecutors directed a police raid on the houses of cabinet ministers, their families and businessmen with close ties to the government. Millions of liras — some stuffed in shoe boxes — were seized in an alleged crackdown on graft and corruption that threatens to reach the very top of Turkey’s leadership.
But the prime minister has returned fire. He sacked prosecutors and police chiefs and reassigned hundreds of officers in a number of purges aimed at bringing the police and judiciary under the control of the government.
“Dec. 17 is a black stain on Turkey’s democratic history,” Erdogan told the party faithful Tuesday (Jan. 14). “It has surpassed all previous coup attempts and has been recorded as a betrayal of the state, democracy and the nation.”
The attempted “coup” — government supporters allege — is being orchestrated by Gulen, a Muslim cleric who fled Turkey in 1999 for the Pocono Mountains of rural Pennsylvania and preaches a moderate form of Islam.
Gulen’s business empire, calling itself “Hizmet” (service) has vast holdings in Turkey and abroad. It owns schools, universities, media and other industries, all of which are loosely affiliated but do not share a formal structure.
Until recently, followers of Gulen denied affiliating with any group and said they were simply inspired by the cleric’s teachings. Gulen himself has always denied having any formal power.
“My influence, if any, has been through my sermons, talks and seminars,” Gulen told The Atlantic magazine in a rare interview published in August.
In 1999, Gulen was charged with plotting to subvert the secular order and left Turkey for the U.S. He was tried in absentia and found guilty. In 2008, he was acquitted but remains in self-imposed exile.
Detractors accuse Gulen, 72, of spawning a secret society that is unaccountable and shadowy. But since the government announced it would close down Hizmet-affiliated prep schools, a major source of both funding and recruits, the movement has waged a very public campaign to bolster its image as a moderate Islamic movement promoting dialogue, tolerance and industry.
“Hizmet offers you a kind of worldview that would combine spirituality with the world, so the sacred and the secular could be combined,” said Ihsan Yilmaz, a Gulen follower who writes a column for an English-language newspaper in Turkey affiliated with Gulen.
Yilmaz said he first came into contact with Gulen followers 20 years ago as a high school student. He was attracted by their piety, discipline and perspective.
“Gulen says religion is about faith; you cannot coerce people to believe,” he said. “Hizmet has been focusing on civil projects by presenting Islam in a good way, not dictating it.”
Now the movement is spreading in the United States.
Gulen-affiliated charter schools — there are about 135 of them across the U.S. — have strong academic records and are geared toward science, math and technology. In Texas, for example, Harmony Charter Schools are believed to be linked to the network.
The schools have been the target of FBI probes examining whether they are being used in a kickback scheme involving building projects steered to Gulen-affiliated firms.
But the movement has far more clout in Turkey where followers fill the ranks of the police and judiciary.
Gareth Jenkins, a researcher with the Silk Road Studies Program at John Hopkins University, has been studying the rise of Hizmet in Turkish society. When the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (also known as the AK Party) came to power in 2002, the party collaborated with Hizmet members already in the judiciary to strip the military of its political power.
“The Gulenists were basically given free reign in the police and the judiciary,” he said. “So even though they already had a foothold in the police it’s really taken off since the AK Party came to power.”
The two groups collaborated to bring to justice members of Turkey’s secular elite — including the military but also academics, journalists and leftist activists — for plotting to overthrow Turkey’s government.
Erdogan’s ruling party hailed the verdicts in these cases as great victories.
But collaboration has turned into an open power struggle.
“We’ve seen over the last few years how this increasingly has become about power,” Jenkins said. “Because the movement has penetrated so many areas of the bureaucracy and because affiliating oneself is often a fast track to success.”
Analysts note the irony: The same judiciary that the government and Hizmet once used to battle a common enemy — Turkey’s secular elite — has now turned on the government as it cries foul over investigations into its own business practices.
Ilter Turan of Bilgi University in Istanbul warns that the internal fight is now threatening the rule of law in the country.
“While what the judiciary may have done may not be to the liking of the government, trying to put the judiciary under the command of politicians is not necessarily the most desirable way of tackling this problem,” he said.
Whether Gulen followers are behind the corruption probes is irrelevant, says Yilmaz, adding that the evidence should speak for itself.
“It’s not important if they are in Hizmet or not; what is important is if they are doing anything illegal or not,” he said. “Nowadays, because the government cannot cope with the corruption accusations, it’s simply trying to divert attention of the public.”
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