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Turkey's coup: the Gülen Movement, explained

Fethullah Gülen
Fethullah Gülen.
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

In the chaos of the attempted coup perpetrated by elements of the Turkish military in July, the nation’s president and incipient strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pointed the finger squarely at one source: the Gülen Movement.

In an address to the nation via web video stream, Erdoğan explained that the coup attempt came from "a faction in the military, the parallels," which Turkey observers understood as a reference to followers of Fethullah Gülen, a moderate Sunni cleric whose movement claims millions of followers in Turkey and around the world. Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag repeated the accusations in a TV interview, claiming the coup plotters were tied to Gülen.

A Gülen-allied organization, the Alliance for Shared Values, has condemned the coup unequivocally and denied any involvement. And there is no evidence as of this writing that Gülen or any of his groups or followers were involved in the slightest.

That hasn't stopped Erdogan from demanding that he be returned to Turkey to stand trial. On Tuesday, the Turkish leader formally asked Washington to arrest Gülen on charges of "ordering and commanding the attempted coup," according to state media.

Still, the cleric won't be leaving the United States anytime soon. A group of American officials traveled to Ankara in late August to discuss his possible extradition, but the Obama administration has steadily maintained that Turkey hasn't yet provided persuasive evidence that Gülen was behind was actually responsible for the coup. It's not clear if, or when, that will change.

The new extradition request marks the latest twist in the controversy surrounding Gülen, who was a close ally of Erdoğan until they had a massive falling-out in late 2013. Since then, Gülen and his movement — now officially designated as a terrorist group in Turkey — have emerged as one of the government’s favorite targets. So it’s very possible that Erdoğan would target Gülen even if he played no role in the events.

Nonetheless, even if it’s merely a scapegoat, the government’s history with the Gülen movement is crucial context for understanding what the hell is happening in Turkey right now.

The basics of the Gülen movement — and its surprisingly deep US ties

Fethullah Gülen is an imam (Muslim religious leader) who was born and raised in Turkey and has been active since the 1960s and '70s. He preaches an inclusive brand of Sunni Islam that emphasizes cooperation and tolerance, views modernity as broadly compatible with Islam, and, above all, stresses the importance of education outside of narrow religious schools.

More than anything, the Gülen Movement (which is also known in Turkey as hizmet, or "the service") is known for its schools. They are ubiquitous in Turkey but have also spread abroad to countries like Pakistan and even the United States. Indeed, Gülen-affiliated groups run more than 100 charter schools in the US — the largest charter network in the country.

The schools emphasize math and science and avoid proselytizing. "They prescribe a strong Western curriculum, with courses, taught in English, from math and science to English literature and Shakespeare," the New York Times’s Sabrina Tavernise wrote of the Pakistani Gülen schools in 2008. "They do not teach religion beyond the one class in Islamic studies that is required by the state. Unlike British-style private schools, however, they encourage Islam in their dormitories, where teachers set examples in lifestyle and prayer."

Gülenists insist they believe in secular democracy, and they have relatively progressive views on many social issues: For instance, boys and girls are educated on equal footing in Gülen schools. The movement stresses interfaith cooperation, and Gülen had a good relationship with Pope John Paul II, spurring criticism from more conservative Muslims in Turkey.

Gülen’s extensive US charter network has been the subject of considerable scrutiny, both from anti-Islam groups that object to a Muslim cleric having that degree of influence over US education (even though the schools are totally secular in content) and from government agencies over evidence of mismanagement.

Among other charges, critics allege that the schools were a scheme to replace US teachers with Turkish immigrants, who were then expected to transfer money back to Gülen organizations. This resulted in investigations from the FBI, Labor Department, and Education Department. An audit of Georgia Gülen charters found that they improperly awarded contracts to affiliated businesses, and in 2014 the FBI raided 19 Gülen-affiliated schools in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. A Gülen school in New Orleans lost its charter in 2011 after allegations of cheating and sexual misconduct involving kindergartners.

Fethullah Gülen’s role in Turkish politics

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Turkish president, former Gülen ally, and current Gülen nemesis Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Despite its avowed belief in democracy and modernity, secular critics in Turkey have long attacked the Gülen movement as a stalking horse for more thoroughgoing Islamism.

In the 1980s, Turkish generals — who at the time were in control of the government following a military coup — accused Gülen of plotting a takeover to install an Islamic dictatorship. As Al-Monitor's Murat Bilgincan explains, Gülen went on the run for about six years before being arrested. He was ultimately freed due to the support of Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, who later supported Gülen's post–Cold War efforts to open schools in Turkic republics newly independent from the Soviet Union.

In 2000, the Turkish government, then led by secularist Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, indicted Gülen on charges of attempting to undermine Turkish secularism — a core feature of the state since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Turkish Republic in 1922 — and trying to install a Islamic dictatorship. Though Ecevit himself had spoken in favor of Gülen and his schools, that didn't keep him from being targeted.

Gülen had traveled to the US in 1999, ostensibly for medical reasons, but stayed in a form of exile. He still lives in the Pennsylvania Poconos to this day.

Gülen’s political fortunes changed again with the rise of Erdoğan and his AK Party, which initially branded itself as a moderate, socially conservative Islamist group. In 2012, the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins noted that "while Erdoğan himself is not believed to be a Gülenist, [then] President [Abdullah] Gül is said to be one, as are several other senior members of the government."

Filkins reported that the Turkish National Police was widely believed to have been dominated by Gülenists, and to have spearheaded two controversial police investigations into allegations that secular opposition and military figures were secretly plotting to overthrow Erdoğan.

In other words, the Gülen movement was for many years a crucial ally of Erdoğan and the AKP — acting as a grassroots arm with significant funding that could support Erdoğan’s attempts to fight back secularists and, in the eyes of critics, suppress dissent.

How Gülen and Erdoğan fell out

Gulen, Erdogan, and Ataturk
Embroidered images of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (L), Fethullah Gülen (2nd L), Turkey's then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (2nd R), and Turkey's then-President Abdullah Gul (R) in a shop in Gaziantep, near the Turkish-Syrian border.
Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Once Erdoğan had more or less secured his hold on power, however, the relationship started to break down. "Once the old establishment was decisively defeated, sometime around 2010 to 2011, disagreements emerged between the AKP and the Gulen movement," Al-Monitor's Mustafa Akyol explains. It started when a "power struggle between pro-Gulen police/judiciary and the AKP" erupted over an investigation into the country’s top intelligence agency that pitted pro-Erdoğan intelligence officials against pro-Gülen police and prosecutors.

Then in November 2013, Erdoğan announced he planned to shut down prep schools (weekend classes for university exam preparation), about a quarter of which are run by the Gülen movement.

A month later, Akyol continues, "the real bomb went off: Zekeriya Oz, an Istanbul prosecutor who is widely believed to be a member of the Gulen movement, initiated an early morning raid on dozens of individuals, including the sons of three ministers, an AKP mayor, businessmen and bureaucrats." It was a massive corruption scandal, which alleged that the government illicitly traded gold with Iran in exchange for oil, undermining the international sanctions regime then in place.

The Gülenists argued this proved the government was fundamentally corrupt and in bed with Turkey’s Iranian enemies. Erdoğan and the AKP in turn accused the Gülenists of attempting a takeover through the corruption investigation, and of being in bed with Israel (which would naturally oppose Turkish cooperation with Iran). "An increasingly paranoid prime minister is said to believe that a ‘Gülen-Israel axis’ is bent on unseating him," the Economist wrote of Erdoğan at the time.

Since then, Gülen has been considered an enemy of the Turkish state, culminating in Erdoğan's Cabinet designating his movement a terrorist organization in May of this year.

What happens to the Gülenists now?

Erdoğan has accused the Gülenists of being behind Friday’s coup attempt, but there’s strong cause for skepticism: Unlike the national police, the military is not thought to be dominated by Gülenists.

However, whether or not they were actually behind the coup attempt may not matter at this point. The coup seems to be fizzling out, and Erdoğan appears to have survived. The aftermath will likely see Erdoğan, who has been slowly consolidating power behind himself for years and years now, cracking down on the movement as a way to squelch dissent and solidify his own standing. The actual truth of the coup is up in the air, but the takeaway is clear: a consolidation of power behind Erdoğan, and even greater scrutiny and targeting of the Gülen movement.

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