The Gulen Movement and Turkish Democracy

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The clash between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gulen movement continues. Stung by accusation of corruption, the AKP nonetheless won local elections last month. Mr. Erdogan, thus emboldened, has vowed to take revenge against what he considers hostile elements of a parallel state. He has requested the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish preacher who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, even though there are, as yet, no charges against him. All of this poses the inevitable question in the minds of many regional commentators of what this internecine fight will do to Turkish democracy.

There are differences of opinion when it comes to assessing the Gulen movement and its actual impact on the Turkish state. Daily Sabah’s Burhanettin Duran sees the movement as a threat to Turkish democracy: “One of the most negative aspects of the Gulen Movement’s campaign is that the Movement is in fact harming itself. First of all, there is a rash opposition being implemented. The anger coming from being unable to obtain the desired power and the fear from being compared to a parallel structure is transforming into a radical reaction. Thus, the Gulen Movement’s opposition to the AK Party is becoming similar to the opposition of diasporic groups that are against Turkey….While combating the parallel structure, the Turkish political system has to be rebuilt in a democratic shape.”

Similarly, Berna Turam, writing for Al Jazeera, believes the Gulen movement’s transformation from an NGO to a quasi-political organization does not bode well for Turkey nor for the organization itself: “Both Western and local audiences have been stunned by the intensity of the clash, which peaked in the last couple of months….the GM has trespassed over the boundaries of civil society, within which it emerged and expanded across the world as a self-defined non-state “civic” entity.  Consistent with this image, the GM has refused to form a political party….However, when GM’s individual members began taking important offices in the branches of the state, they entered a different zone of politics. Understandably, both the AKP and the democrats of Turkey are concerned about the formation of a parallel state by the GM.”

Some have gone so far as to suggest that the Gulen movement needs to rethink its place in Turkish society and what role it wants to play. For example, Hurriyet Daily News’ Ahy Ozyurt argues that after the events of the last few months: “The ball is in the Gülenists’ court now. Can prominent members of the Gülen movement be bold enough to take up this challenge and discuss the mistakes in these trials? Can the Gülen movement live up to its principles of dialogue? Would a political and social movement of three decades perform self-criticism and dare do make peace with the most secular establishments of this country or live under the heavy burden of the ‘kumpas’ Let us hope they would at least try.”

Running against the grain of Mr. Erdogan’s argument that the Gulen movement aimed to create a parallel structure within the Turkish state, is Omer Yavuz’s op-ed on Today’s Zaman, where he criticizes the Turkish government for becoming a tool of Iranian foreign policy: “While Erdogan and his choir are hyping their ‘parallel structure’ allegations, however, there seems to be what one might call a ‘Persian structure’ making headways into the arteries of the state bureaucracy (including the Turkish Armed Forces [TSK], the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Intelligence Organization [MIT]), academia and mosques. The AKP government’s policies have transformed so much in favor of Iran, at the expense of Turkey’s interests, that one wonders what could possibly be any different if Turkey were run from Tehran.”

Others have taken issue with the Turkish government’s “witch hunt” of the Gulen movement, which a Gulenist spokesperson suggests in a recent interview with Hizmet News, has more to do with manipulation of truth rather than reality: “A large-scale propaganda war is being conducted by some circles close to the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government against the Hizmet movement and Gülen, particularly since the corruption scandal erupted….When asked to provide more details about Gülen’s extradition, GYV Chairman Mustafa Yeşil said Erdogan’s request was an attempt to manipulate public perception and the image of Gülen and the Hizmet movement, adding that Erdogan and his government want to create the perception that ‘we requested that they extradite Gülen but they didn’t do so; those people [Hizmet followers] are thus being backed by America.’…Indicating that the businessmen close to the Hizmet movement are subject to pressures from circles close to the government, Yeşil said: ‘I regret to say that some businessmen have some deep concerns. Those who are close to the movement in particular are being subjected to some difficulties while doing business.’”

Cihan’s Ali Aslan Kilic also cites several members of the Turkish opposition who “criticized reports that a criminal investigation was launched against Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, saying that the allegations are a political tactic by embattled Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to distract public interest away from a big graft scandal that has implicated himself, his family members and his senior government officials.”

In a report for the Hurriyet Daily News, Sedat Ergin notes that the debacle has become an item of discussion within the Obama administration, as the Turkish prime minister has publicly declared his government’s intention to seek the extradition of Mr. Gulen: “The issue is now on Obama’s agenda too, after Erdogan’s strong pronouncements during their phone conversation on Feb. 19. Erdogan presented Gülen as a ‘national security threat’ to Obama in this conversation. Dealing with a thousand issues across the world, Obama now has an extradition request for Gülen in front of him….The topic is likely to become a thorny issue that will spread through many years with objections filed and possible interventions from the domestic dynamics of the American system….So, the tough new issue in Turkish-American relations is the Fethullah Gülen file, which has already staged several difficult issues.”

The extradition demand by Mr. Erdogan is part of a larger campaign by the Turkish prime minister to delegitimize the movement, a campaign which, according to The National’s Piotr Zalewski, is fueled by Mr. Erdogan’s desire to take revenge against supporters of the movement: “With nearly every one of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s speeches, the list of invectives used to describe Turkey’s most powerful Islamic movement keeps growing….So far, however, the spiral of recriminations and denials has yielded few new facts about the Gulenists. With Mr Erdogan having dragged the group onto the political stage, there is still little agreement as to what the movement actually is, how it works, and what it is after…On March 30, Mr Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) scored a resounding win in Turkey’s local elections, earning over 45 per cent of the vote, allegations of voter fraud notwithstanding. Later surveys revealed that AKP voters appeared mostly indifferent to compelling evidence of government graft. The night of the AKP’s victory, Mr Erdogan threatened revenge against the Gulenists.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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