Many news-savvy Americans doubtless scratched their heads in perplexity when on December 21 they encountered a snippet about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demanding that the U.S. government extradite a be-turbaned fellow named Fethullah Gülen back to Turkey. Erdoğan and Gülen used to be allies, the reader may have learned, but allies they are no more. More surprisingly, upon brief reflection, came the realization that the United States was harboring an infamous Islamist in defiance of the wishes of a NATO ally.
An even deeper perplexity is at work here. Most Americans by now understand something about how Islamists interact with secularists and secular state institutions, whether in Egypt, Syria, or France. Few grasp the splits between and among pious Muslim groups or even know of them, except when they splash blood before us, as the deadly conflict between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in Syria has done in recent months. Similar, if so far less sanguinary, divisions exist in Turkey, still known, with eroded justification, as the staunchest secular country of the Middle East.1
The Turkish case is in many ways sui generis. First, what is going on in Turkey between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gülen movement (GM) is not about “moderates” contending with “radicals”; both originated from social movements more than they did from standard-issue political parties. Second, in the Turkish case Islamists of a sort are already in power, so the AKP-Gülen rivalry reveals the importance of power dynamics between Muslims in government as well as in society. The Gülen movement deserves specific attention not only because it is the largest Islamic movement to originate in Turkey and expand globally, but also because of its complicated relations with various branches of the state.
The GM emerged out of the fragmentations within the Nur movement in the late 1970s. Unlike the other smaller groups that emerged out of Nur, it swiftly flourished, with its competitive schools expanding across the globe beginning in the mid-1990s. While the movement earned an international reputation for its scientifically oriented schools, the ambitious adaptation of its followers to the free-market economy also led to a striking accumulation of capital.
The past few decades have witnessed the rapid political and economic empowerment of two Muslim groups in Turkey. The GM expanded beyond the Turkish border into the Turkic states of Central Asia, the United States, and Europe before the pro-Islamic AKP was founded in 2002. The GM’s faith-based networks and schools across the world are known mostly as “Turkish schools” and cultural centers. On the basis of these networks, the movement came to be recognized as a non-confrontational and nonviolent international player in world politics. The AKP, formed originally on the basis of respecting the secular state tradition in Turkey, won the past three free and fair elections (2002, 2007, 2011). This past August former Prime Minister Erdoğan won the first presidential election after having brought about a constitutional change from a system of presidential appointment to one of presidential election. The AKP has not directly challenged the secular basis of the Turkish state, but in virtually every other way it has sought to expand room for authoritarian rule, undermining freedoms and rights.
Indeed, Turkish secularists continued until recently to speculate that the AKP and GM would naturally join forces in a “unified” Islamist camp against the secular Turkish state. The two groups were tagged as “Islamist” on the basis of their shared conservative lifestyle and nationalist sentiments, and they held similar affections for free-market capitalism as against the inherited statism of all Kemalist secular parties. Moreover, although they came from different Islamic perspectives—the Nur movement versus a more politically radical form of Islamism represented by Necmettin Erbakan—the two groups were on the same page in terms of major political issues during the AKP’s first term (2002–07). They cooperated on political matters such as Turkey’s EU accession, they both respected the secularity of the state, and they adhered to the game rules of democracy.
The relationship, and the commitment to democratic principles with it, started to deteriorate during the AKP’s second term (2007–11). As Turkey entered a phase of rapidly creeping authoritarianism under Erdoğan, the two groups became increasingly adversarial. After the AKP won the 2011 elections the two pious groups parted ways—but by then GM cadres had managed to set themselves up in some strength within various nooks and crannies of the Turkish state. When the two movements began to confront each other publicly and politically, the AKP government found itself with a determined adversary within the gates. A good deal of what has been happening domestically in Turkey ever since simply cannot be understood without factoring in this AKP-GM rivalry.
Both Turkish secularists and Western observers have struggled to come to terms with this dynamic. The former, for the most part, are in denial about what has happened to their country. What they used to think was a temporary aberration in electoral politics now reveals itself as the political tip of a social iceberg long in formation. Many Westerners are similarly in denial; they liked very much the Turkish NATO ally of Cold War days. But they have an additional problem: They rarely know enough Turkish history or language to make sense of things, and particularly so when it comes to the origins and premises of the Gülen movement. So read on.
Born to pious Muslim parents in 1941 in Erzurum, Fethullah Gülen received his early religious education from his parents. His mother taught the Quran to him and other children in their town. His father, an imam, was a respected Islamic figure. Gülen was raised in a household that regularly hosted leading scholars of Islam. His faith and worldview were largely shaped by the writings of Said Nursi, the leader of the Nur movement. In his books, referred to collectively as Risale-i Nur, Nursi discussed the compatibility of Islam with modernity, science, and a “new” world of faith. Influenced by Nursi’s teachings on modernity and nationalism, Gülen denounced violence and confrontation while developing a resolute anti-communism. When the 30-something Gülen began to preach in Izmir’s Kestane Pazari mosque during the late 1970s, he formed a rapidly burgeoning religious community around him. He soon began to appear on the radar of leading politicians from the center-right, particularly Turgut Özal—Prime Minister between 1983 and 1989—who often flew from Ankara to Izmir to hear Gülen’s preaching. After 1980, the base of the movement moved gradually to Istanbul, where GM centers and associations became concentrated over the next two decades.
The GM was born out of civil society. While Western modernization theory had predicted that modernization would lead to a decline of religion, what happened in Turkey (and many other places as well) showed the opposite: As people became more literate, more urban, and more world-wise, their standards of piety rose. Upward social mobility correlated positively, not negatively, with both religious observance and the vibrancy of religious community. Against the views of some within the growing movement, Fethullah Gülen refused to allow it to become or even to form a political party. When I spoke with him in 2005 at his home in Pennsylvania, he said that he relished not having conventional political power. He told me that mixing religion and politics was a bad idea, and that he disagreed with most Islamist political philosophers, such as Abu Ala Mawdudi and Said Qutb, because they insisted on fusing the two. Over a three-course dinner, with his close friends and associates around the table, I noted that despite his dislike for political power, power seemed to be sticking to him anyway. We all laughed, though perhaps not for the same reasons.
In a sense, Gülen seemed to have taken a page from Tocqueville’s famous description of religion in America; he strongly believed that religion should capture hearts and minds through education, socialization, and spiritual cultivation, for this is what creates the foundational predicates of decent, limited government in a citizenry that mostly organizes and regulates itself. But he disparaged the “establishment” of religion by government. The fact that the GM has consistently abjured party politics has nevertheless empowered it immensely in an indirect way. Contrary to the consensus among political scientists, power struggles take different shapes and surface in a wide variety of locations, including at the highly contested, hence variable, boundaries between state and society. During its years of formation and expansion, the GM’s abstinence from party politics facilitated the movement’s engagement with secular states, both Turkey itself and the Western democracies as well.2
The early republican period in Turkey had brought religion under the state’s control at the cost of restricting and repressing religion in the public and political sphere. In contrast, the GM’s politics of engagement played a pivotal role in the Turkish state’s increasing capacity to accommodate pious Muslim citizens. At the same time, engagement facilitated the integration of Muslim political actors into the state, polity, electoral system, and expanding market economy. Within Turkish borders, the non-confrontational engagement of pious Muslims transformed both the state and the Muslim actors themselves; it simultaneously secularized the pious and religicized—if one may coin a term—the secular state.3
Outside Turkish borders, the GM’s motto was the dialogue between civilizations. GM initially concentrated its activities in conflict zones such as post-Soviet Central Asia, aiming to restore both Islamic faith and the ethnic Turkic sense of belonging that had been all but eradicated in Soviet times. It expanded internationally by the late 1990s into America and Europe, ministering to Muslim populations there and winning a few converts as well. GM’s expanding influence was bound to get Gülen in trouble in Istanbul. In 1998 he was charged with conspiring against the Turkish Republic; he moved to the United States a year later and has lived in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania ever since. Even after the AKP came to power, and then cleared him of all charges in 2005, he opted to stay in the United States. He finds it easier to avoid conflict and to expand the GM’s educational activities across the globe, including in the United States, from American rather than Turkish soil.
As Gülen set down roots in Saylorsburg, the AKP won Turkey’s 2002 national elections after breaking ties with earlier, more politically radical Islamist parties. Since victory required Erdoğan to commit to the principles of the secular republic—lest another military coup be his undoing—the AKP worldview came temporarily to overlap with that of the GM. In the face of AKP’s secularization-friendly and cooperative attitudes toward the Turkish Republic and the West, GM followers largely changed their electoral behavior. They had always voted for center-right parties rather than Islamist ones, but in 2002 most voted for the new AKP. Despite the new confluence of attitudes and interests, however, membership did not significantly overlap; the GM and the grassroots of the AKP have always organized separately and mobilized independently from each other.
Despite their disagreements about mixing politics and religion, both groups advocated freedom of religion in the authoritatively secular Turkish state. During the first AKP term this common aspiration brought both groups closer to liberal democrats, in and outside of Turkey, who defended religious freedom, among other civic and human liberties. As long as the struggle was to achieve the freedom to live a faith-based life in a staunchly secular state, secular democrats abroad generally approved, and by 2007 the successful accommodation of the pious had established an image of Turkey in the West as a more liberal democratic state than it had been. That, as well as a range of AKP-led economic and political reforms, including the reduction of the military’s role in politics and increasing protection against domestic violence, further burnished that image. Hopes for Turkey’s EU accession grew as a host of observers leapt to the conclusion that a Turkish model existed to reconcile pious, genuine Islam with liberal democracy.
As it happened, AKP-GM collaboration proved partial, conditional, and temporary. Their shared agendas were specific to certain projects at a particular historical moment, and their fealty to democracy proved instrumental rather than principled. As a GM spokesman told me at the time, “We collaborate [with the AKP] if it benefits the nation and serves [the] national interest.” Cooperation, he added, was not an end in and of itself, a statement that proved true as political conditions changed after 2007. Along with the demise of the EU dream, certainly more Europe’s fault than Turkey’s, the two movements evolved in different directions. While the GM has gradually turned its international networks into a “global empire”, the AKP’s economic and political reforms slowed during its second term and stagnated during its third. This the GM would understand as the debilitations that come from mixing religion and politics.
However one interprets it, the period of smooth engagement between pious Muslims and the Turkish state came to an abrupt end in 2007, when the AKP government nominated Abdullah Gül from within the party to become the first pious president of the secular Turkish state. Many democrats perceived Gül’s candidacy as an AKP violation of the separation of powers between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of the state. With Gül’s candidacy a power struggle between the pious and the secularist state elite recommenced, albeit under new circumstances. The military issued a public warning (muhtıra), and Turkey’s then-powerful constitutional court reminded the AKP of the military’s widely accepted “protectorate” over Turkish electoral politics.
The 2007 presidential crisis served as an historical turning point for three major reasons. First, it immediately created a polarization within the state between the secularist camp (the military and the constitutional court) and the pious camp (the presidency and the AKP-dominated parliament). Second, it reminded pious Muslims of a 20th-century Turkish history tainted by military coups, repression, and political violence. The previously non-confrontational AKP increasingly turned to a more aggressive politics against the military and the constitutional court. Third, the shift in the AKP’s political body language alienated the GM.
The 2007 military muhtıra put a sharp and unrecoverable end to the serviceable modus operandi between the military and the AKP, which in the following years waged a kind of preemptive political war against military officials, accusing many senior figures of conspiring against the government. The GM stood by the AKP under the rubric of the Ergenekon trials. The two cooperated in a campaign against the Ergenekon and Balyoz networks, the residual extra-legal agents from within the Kemalist “deep state” who may—or may not—have been thinking coup-like thoughts. Yet gradually, their alliance deteriorated over other, wide-ranging political issues. Initially, they erupted infrequently and over relatively trivial events. But by 2011 a deeper fault line had begun to define the relationship.
Part of the conflict originates from conflicting views of world politics. As the GM’s international exposure brought it closer to global actors and superpowers, it acclimated the movement to different views of world politics. For example, the movement’s American branch has developed amicable relations with evangelicals and the Jewish lobby in the United States, and has acquired substantial experience in building interfaith activities and public relations. The AKP neither developed nor cared about such endeavors. The Gaza flotilla debacle of May 31, 2010, brought the unspoken tensions and disagreements to the surface for all to see.
The so-called Freedom Flotilla that departed Turkey with the aim of breaking the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza was organized mainly by the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (acronymed IHH in Turkish). The AKP government supported the flotilla and condemned Israel’s attack on it, during which nine Turkish civilians died. GM followers, however, see the IHH as a radical “Islamist” organization in part because it derives from the Necmettin Erbakan branch of Turkish Islamism. Fethullah Gülen took to respectable American media outlets to accuse the AKP government of dragging this activist group into risk despite clear warnings from Israeli authorities. He criticized the AKP for jeopardizing the lives of civilians on behalf of a symbolic gesture with no practical purpose.
The vocal AKP-GM split over the flotilla incident puzzled not only Western audiences but also secular Turks, who previously had not discerned much difference between the two groups. They simply had not been looking hard enough. The conflict-avoidance tenet of GM philosophy has been resolute since the 1990s and was only strengthened by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. GM is about conflict resolution, not conflict generation. It is about opening schools even in conflict zones and creating self-sustaining associations. It is about learning the host land’s political agendas and engaging the host state. Accordingly, in the United States, it has been developing interfaith networks in the aftermath of 9/11. During discussions with GM spokespeople in Istanbul, I asked if they had any reservations about engaging in dialogue with any group. They all gave the same answer: “We don’t cooperate with terrorist and violent groups.” The movement’s overarching consensus is that various social forces can and must sit together to develop mutual understanding. Its approach to states, including Israel, is an extension of this overarching worldview. The only exception concerns Sharia-based Islamist states such as Iran, with which the GM strategically avoids engaging.
This explains, in turn, how the movement’s priority to engage certain states can position the GM against the AKP. In recent years Prime Minister Erdoğan has condemned the Israeli government not only in the context of the flotilla incident but with regard to several other events. In the infamous 2009 Davos panel, Erdoğan stormed out of the room in anger at Shimon Peres. More recently, he has voiced a series of rather primitive remarks about non-Muslim minorities in Turkey. Displays of temper, acts of aggression, and expressions of arrogance are unwelcome in the GM’s conflict-avoiding universe. This is not because Gülen himself or his followers lack a resolute commitment to Islam or regularly bathe themselves in tepid ecumenical waters; it is because they believe that such attitudes and behaviors are counterproductive to Muslims’ true long-term interests.
While the flotilla incident laid open AKP-GM differences, close observers noted a series of antecedents. For example, when the GM’s plans for the Annual Abant conference in Diyarbakır (a city populated by a Kurdish majority in southeastern Turkey) were cancelled in 2008, several followers and spokespeople complained that the government had refused to guarantee security for the conference. Some also speculated that the conference was cancelled because Erdoğan himself was planning to launch a Kurdish reform project (Kürt açılımı) in Diyarbakır. From their perspective, there was a clear competition between the government and their own movement. The event was also symptomatic of different approaches to Turkey’s Kurdish challenge. While both the AKP and the GM regard the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist threat to the Turkish state, the GM remains distrustful of the AKP’s methods in reaching out to and handling the Kurdish movement.
The story of increasing conflict and widening cleavage between the AKP and the GM by now goes well beyond differences over Israel and the Kurds. It is not so much about what goes on outside the government as what goes on inside it. The GM has expanded its sphere of influence as its followers have acquired positions in different branches of the state. Despite the GM’s straightforward self-definition as a civil society actor, its followers have crossed and blurred the lines between civil society and the state. When non-state actors affiliated with a social movement opt for positions of power within the state bureaucracy, it changes the lines of engagement dramatically.
After many years of close engagements with the state, entrance to state bureaucracy was really not a challenge for the GM. These engagements set a climate conducive to affinities between the GM and various branches of the state, and also provided a platform for experimenting with political institutions in and outside of Turkey.
If we acknowledge the GM’s status as a social movement, its followers’ entry into the state violates no rules of the political game. This is particularly so because the GM proved to be a secular Muslim movement in the sense that it separated religion from the classroom in its schools, businesses, and other outlets of activity. If the followers of social movements, such as feminists and environmentalists, are entitled to work as state officials, why should GM followers be banned? However, the fact that the GM has widened its presence and holds increasing numbers of positions in an organized manner, mainly in police forces and courts, has fuelled conspiracy theories that Gülen is taking over the state from within. The main concern here is the principle that state officials must be primarily committed to the nation as a whole and to the state as its ruling apparatus rather than to a particular movement or community. Unsurprisingly, the GM’s entrance into the realm of the state created deep tensions and competition between its appointed followers and the elected officials of the AKP. Subsequently, its rise in the state bureaucracy has deepened the split between and within the governing institutions of the state.
Tensions between the AKP and GM exploded when a crisis fuelled further speculation of a power struggle between the government, the police, and the judiciary. On February 7, 2012, an Istanbul prosecutor summoned National Intelligence Organization (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan, appointed by Erdoğan, to testify in an ongoing investigation into the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) and the PKK. Soon after that the AKP government introduced a new bill requiring the Prime Minister’s permission for an investigation of intelligence officials. The bill was quickly approved by the parliament and ratified by President Gül, which rescued Undersecretary Fidan from having to testify. In a subsequent speech Erdoğan stated his commitment to preventing the dominance of appointed officials over elected ones (himself included). Although Erdoğan presented his bill as an attempt to prevent infighting among the government, the intelligence, the police, and the judiciary, he was suspected of trying to protect AKP interests against the investigations into the KCK (precisely what he was really up to).
The AKP-GM conflict extends down into society as well, and has been growing. Many AKP voters complain about how the GM has become a capitalist enterprise that cares only about its own economic interests. They condemn it for forming monopolies in certain sectors and excluding non-followers from participation and competition. Other AKP supporters in the business class claim that GM economic power is exaggerated and hence that the AKP does not need its support, collaboration, or votes. (This likely reflects competition between the MÜSIAD, the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association, associated with the AKP, and TUSKON, the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists, associated with the GM.) Many AKP followers refuse to send their children to GM schools, and a considerable majority of the GM membership does not vote for the AKP anymore. This is despite the fact that GM schools outperform most others, and that there is no serious opposition from an alternative party to the AKP.
When the government in February 2014 decided to close the GM’s dershane (preparation schools for university entrance exams), its bread and butter, the economic interests of the two groups clashed publicly. In the aftermath of this coup de grâce, Fethullah Gülen appeared on Turkish television to condemn the AKP government. Coming from a dedicated preacher of dialogue and world peace, a Sufi figure who meditates on non-confrontation, this act of condemnation from his secure redoubt in the United States drew much attention and caused no little confusion in Turkish society.
While the movement’s international expansion and engagement causes the AKP much discomfort, Gülen’s residency in the United States disturbs both the government and the AKP grassroots. Almost a year before Erdoğan declared Gülen a criminal and asked the United States to return him to Turkey, one of the AKP’s leading businessman supporters told me:
Our Prime Minister invites the leader of the GM back home to Turkey. If he is such a nationalist, why is he insisting so much on staying away? He is acquitted. He is welcome by the Prime Minister. What else would one need? I really think that the movement keeps him away to turn him into a mythical figure, to make a mysterious hero out of him. We can see how powerful he is, when he comes back. The obscure international affairs can come to the surface in domestic matters, once he returns to his homeland.
Obviously, these folks do not like one another.
A conflict as deep as this within Turkey may seem like sand in the gears of Turkish democracy, since it tends to inspire conspiracy theories and political workarounds to the constitution. But it may actually serve as a propellant of democratization, and for several reasons. First, a certain degree of distrust between like-minded social actors can incentivize greater reliance on political institutions. Once people can no longer take reciprocal, communal ties for granted, they are left with an increasing need to trust law-based, formal, Weberian institutions. Hence, people increasingly yearn for institutional reform to finally trump identity-based or religiously oriented personal or communal means of exercising political authority. (For more of this analysis, see my new book, Gaining Freedoms:Claiming Space in Istanbul and Berlin.) In this regard, Turkish politics seems poised to repeat the irony of European secularism and democracy, which arose as unintentional byproducts of arguments between very religious but differently minded people.
An in-depth analysis of the Turkish case suggests that we should jettison the opposing categories of moderate and radical Islamists. Muslim actors, like other political players, compete and struggle over sources of political and economic power rather than just the type of Islam they advocate. This is fine so long as the framework of competition remains stable and committed to the game rules of democracy. Unfortunately, both the AKP and the GM have recently crossed some red lines in this respect. They have politicized different branches of the state, particularly the police, the intelligence, the military, and the courts during and after the Ergenekon trials.
That politicization, at the time a matter of mutual interest, has now backfired on both parties and on the Turkish state as a whole. The new challenge for both Turkey and the states of the Middle East is to institutionalize competition between Muslim forces that have arisen both in the free-market economy and the realm of the state within the confines of democratic principles. Conflict and competition among Muslim groups over resources and power are both inevitable and potentially benign insofar as non-violent Muslims participate in the development of democratic politics. But if conflict and competition get out of hand, it could bring down the tent on everyone. Turkish politics and society now stand at a moment of testing. A great deal depends on the outcome.
1A terminological clarification between “Islamist” and “pious Muslim” is necessary here in the Turkish context. “Pious Muslim” refers to a believer who advocates freedom of religion and seeks to increase the space to practice a faith-based life within the confines of the secular state; “Islamist” means someone who seeks Muslim clerical control of the state.
2See my book Between Islam and the State: The Politics of Engagement (Stanford University Press, 2007).
3See my essay “The Politics of Engagement between Islam and the State: Ambivalences of Civil Society”, British Journal of Sociology (June 2004).