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Coup, Counter-​coup, Consequences – Part 2: The Erdogan-​Gulen Connection

This, the second in a four-part series on the coup in Turkey, looks at the relationship between the erstwhile allies, President Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish clerical leader living in Pennsylvania, who has been accused of instigating the coup.

In his remarkable rise to power, Erdogan has been allied with the Gulen Movement and its leader Fethullah Gulen, a leader of a vast organization that has promoted education in Turkey and in many other countries around the world. Gulen exiled himself to Pennsylvania in 1999 in response to the efforts of the then Turkish government to curtail his activities.

Much has been written and rumoured about Gulen’s agenda and his relationship with Erdogan. Pretty much everything points to the fact that, while Gulen shared Erdogan’s objective of desecularizing Turkey, he was opposed to the political Islam Erdogan increasingly touted as of 2012. In addition, Gulen has consistently called for inter-confessional and inter-ethnic dialogue, both of which Erdogan had rejected in his latest mandate.

The Gulen Movement website describes the evolution of its Hizmet movement through the now almost five decades since its founding in the late 1960s.

In its first decade of its activity, Hizmet focused on enhancing the education on offer in Turkey, above all at the primary level.

From 1980–90, the onus was on creating new schools, using whenever possible individuals who had profited from the efforts undertaken from 1970–80.

The 1990s brought the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hizmet sensed a need and an opportunity to help rebuild the educational system in the erstwhile states of Soviet Central Asia, all but one of them speaking a Turkish language that was understandable to Turks (whose Turkish was in turn understandable to the Central Asians).

This coincided with a larger effort to support school systems worldwide. Hizmet now works in 140 countries around the globe, including in Canada.

More recently, the Gulen movement has focused on promoting inter-ethnic and inter-faith dialogue above all in Turkey but also further afield. So in Turkey, Hizmet efforts have focused on crossing the Turkish/Kurdish, Sunni/Alewi (a Shiite movement), religious/secular, and liberal/conservative divides that despite Turkey’s recent modernization still characterise the country.

At the same time, Hizmet has sponsored efforts to foster the Turkish-Israeli dialogue that prevailed before the relationship between the two countries went south in 2010. The catalyst for this deterioration was the storming of a ship – in international waters – with Turkish activists aboard on its way to provide humanitarian relief to the Gazans. (After six years of bilateral estrangement, it seems now that the relationship may be on the mend.)

Gulen has been branded a terrorist by Ankara. As for the content of Hizmet’s educational efforts. I have not yet been able to find any material that points in one direction or the other. But if Hizmet was pursuing the kind of agenda that certain religious authorities in Saudi Arabia do, I think we would know this by now. Overall, Gulen’s message of tolerance and inclusion is one that Turkey needs to hear and act upon if it is to realise its full potential.

Gulen has categorically denied any responsibility for the coup attempt that rocked Turkey on 15 July. He has condemned it, as have the vast majority of his fellow Turks, while acknowledging that some of his movement’s supporters may have been involved.

It is above all the latter that are now being arrested or are being tossed out of their jobs. At the last count, this concerns some 45,000 souls: military, police, judges, civil servants, and regional governors. The suppression also extends to academics who have been barred from leaving the country.

One suspects that in the process, Erdogan is seeking to create a political situation in where he faces no effective opposition. His successful put-down of the coup attempt of 15 July has in effect set the stage for what amounts to a counter-coup in Turkey.

David Law is a Senior Associate of the Security Governance Group and a Senior Fellow of its sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance. He is a former Head of NATO’s Policy Planning and Speechwriting Unit. In this capacity, he also followed Greek-Turkish relations for the Secretary General.

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