Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is right to fear cleric Fetullah Gulen and his Hizmet movement, but the recent failed coup has given him a golden opportunity to crush them for good. Erdoğan never tolerated the continued existence of serious rivals, and the Gulenists had long outlived their usefulness to him. Since being elected in 2003, Erdoğan has systematically co-opted, weakened, or destroyed every alternative power base throughout Turkey. Like other populist authoritarians such as Putin, Erdoğan centralized executive control in the name of nationalism, economic growth, ethnic pride, and an appeal to memories of past imperial and religious glory. This has worked well for him, and, like Putin, he will continue to eliminate any threats to his vision for the state and society, including fighting the Gulenists no matter the cost.
In 2003, after Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) first won national elections, Gulen and his Hizmet movement had been their allies and coordinated to dismantle the threat of the secular military to a more religious Turkish state. Erdoğan was given increased powers, and Gulen’s movement gained followers and influence in the civil service, especially among the judiciary and police. Four times in modern Turkey’s history, the military had led a coup to restore institutional stability or to prevent the Islamification of the state. Erdoğan had been a member of a previous party toppled by a coup in 1997 and saw the military as a threat ever since. Gulen also feared the military and fled Turkey to live in the U.S. shortly after the 1997 coup. Thus, it is no surprise that Erdoğan and Gulen saw the importance of taming the military, which they did with a series of show trials with trumped-up evidence of an alleged coup. Hundreds of officers were sentenced, and the top military leadership was replaced, securing Erdoğan’s control of the armed forces.
Yet, Erdoğan recognized that Gulen constituted the next possible threat to his power and that Gulen’s influence that toppled the military could be used to do the same to Erdoğan and the AKP. Not long after the military was tamed, Gulenists took issue both with several AKP policies, including negotiations with Kurdish militants and the government’s suppression of the Gezi park protests. Soon, those same Gulenist prosecutors began to dig up some real and some forged corruption scandals amongst high AKP officials, including cabinet members and Erdoğan’s family. Erdoğan struck back, removing or arresting many of those same Gulenist civil servants and forcing many private Hizmet-run schools and media outlets to close. The blows and counter-blows continued back and forth until the failed coup on July 15, 2016. That coup, which Erdoğan insists was carried out by Gulenists, and in which Gulen denies any influence, has resulted in a massive purge.
Given the large membership of Gulenists in many Turkish governmental and security forces, it is very likely that they were the leading group behind the coup. Through a combination of happenstance, luck, and the coup’s last-minute nature, it did not succeed, but Erdoğan is well aware it could have. With millions of members, billions of dollars, and reach into Turkey’s bureaucracies, there is no doubt that Gulen’s secretive Hizmet movement was rightly seen as a threat to Erdoğan’s grip on power. Indeed, that threat continues to exist in the opaque and powerful nature of Gulenists’ closed organizational structure and parallel networks throughout Turkey’s society and state. But because the coup failed, Erdoğan has the opportunity to finish them. Like the manufactured charges against the military years before, once again Erdoğan has the excuse and power he needs to purge Gulenists from positions of power. According to Human Rights Watch, since the attempted coup the Turkish government has used a state-of-emergency to arrest 34,000 soldiers, teachers, officers, judges, journalists, and other members of the government or civil society. Additionally, over 70,000 others are under investigation and over 150 media outlets have been closed.
Considering that the Gulenists’ main sources of power were in law enforcement, the judiciary, media, and education, those actions have greatly reduced the capacity of Hizmet to either instigate a further attack or to retaliate. Erdoğan has made vast strides towards reining in yet another rival power base. Erdoğan should be wary, but he also knows he is winning and has the power and excuse to do to the Gulenists what he did to the military. Gulen should be feared, but now not that much.
*John Dale Grover is a Young Voices Advocate and M.S. in Conflict Analysis Resolution candidate at George Mason University.
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