Broken Gülen movement faces existential crisis

Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen lost control of his global Islamic network years ago, leading to major missteps that have left the movement in an existential crisis while its guiding light has taken a hands-off approach from his remote compound in Pennsylvania.

When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002, its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was allied with Gülen and his movement, which was then able to move thousands of its members into influential positions in the police, judiciary, military and civil service. 

The AKP and Gülenists joined forces to subdue the Turkish military in two long-running, widely questioned coup-plot trials, “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer”, which put hundreds of mainly secularist military officers in prison, along with several prominent journalists.

The two groups had a falling out that became public in late 2013 and culminated with the failed coup of July 2016, which Erdoğan, now president, blamed on Gülen and his followers. A handful of top civilian Gülenists were arrested the night of the coup attempt at Akıncı Air Base, where the putsch was launched. Gülen has repeatedly denied any involvement and said any members who were involved had betrayed the movement’s ideas. 

“Gülen actually lost control, and I think partly that’s why he’s trying to change things now, because he has seen what could happen,” Ismail Sezgin, director of the London-based Centre for Hizmet Studies (some members call the movement “Hizmet,” meaning “service”), told Ahval in a podcast. 

He said the movement had grown too vast and disconnected within Turkey.

“People weren’t even questioning each other, in terms of their goodwill, and that creates a lot of loopholes and grey areas where abuse can happen,” he said. “A big responsibility on the movement is to set up certain parameters now after this crisis to make sure those potential abuse areas aren’t there anymore.”

The Turkish government labelled the movement a terrorist group, known as FETÖ, dismissed 150,000 suspected Gülenists from their jobs and threw 50,000 in jail. Ankara took over hundreds of Gülen schools abroad, pressured foreign governments to arrest and return to Turkey more than 80 suspected Gülenists and reportedly tortured hundreds of its own diplomats thought to be linked to Gülen. 

One issue in the government’s favour as it continues its crackdown at home and abroad is that, officially, the Gülen movement has no members. Being part of the movement is mainly about beliefs and association, which leaves the possibility of FETO membership open to interpretation.

This reality was highlighted this week when main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called Erdoğan Turkey’s top Gülenist. In response, the president described Kılıçdaroğlu’s party as the Gülenists’ political wing. 

“It’s a very hard thing to prove because there is no formal membership,” said Sezgin, who would not say whether he was a member, and compared it to being a socialist. “It’s adherence to a certain philosophy ... It’s about who you know.” 

Turkey’s past is filled with crackdowns on religious groups, going back to the days of the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who banned many religious groups, as he set up a purportedly secular republic. But the ongoing assault on the Gülen movement, which was also persecuted in the 1980s and 90s, might surpass them all. 

The movement has evaporated within Turkey, while outside Turkey its operations have mostly moved underground, to avoid attention from Turkish authorities. Analysts say the movement now faces extinction if it fails to be accountable and adapt.

Its leader might agree. After a few months of post-coup thinking, Gülen began writing a series of articles - 25 have appeared so far - on the Muslim culture of self-accounting. He has repeatedly acknowledged, according to Sezgin, that he and the movement failed to view their own actions critically. 

“He says, ‘We don’t have even one-tenth of this self-criticism, otherwise we would see how bad we have become and repent and change our ways’,” said Sezgin. “He said this kind of thing many times.”

In one article, Gülen suggested that the soul of the movement had been poisoned, mentioning senior leaders by name. “He makes it very clear he’s talking about the movement, or people from the movement, who have been affected and that made them go towards the world and forget their ideals,” he said. 

Sezgin said that the movement’s leader had of late been debating whether he should be outspoken, to give people hope, or stay quiet until things cool down. Either way, the movement has some major decisions to make, as a stocky and largely sedentary man nearing his 79th birthday is unlikely to be around for very much longer. 

Sezgin saw three actors plotting for the post-Gülen future. The first is Gülen himself, who Sezgin said had over the past half century had slowly shifted from being a micromanager to barely managing at all. One example is that he has eschewed several of the tools that might have helped manage this crisis, such as naming a spokesperson to deal with media requests. 

“To resolve this crisis sooner, he could have used some of the tools available to him ... I think he wants people to get used to this,” said Sezgin, adding that Gülen’s hope is that after he dies members are empowered enough to make their own decisions and build a strong system. 

The second player is the movement’s senior leadership, who have been jockeying for power and positioning for years. Sezgin said they would likely call for a coalition of senior leaders to take over after Gülen’s death. 

The third actor is Turkey, which even as it has worked to destroy the movement, has also sought to usurp its leadership. Sezgin believes Erdoğan intends to use the movement’s remaining domestic and international infrastructure and influence for his own ends. 

“The state is persecuting some movement members and allowing others to come into more senior membership positions,” he said, pointing to presumed coup ringleader Adil Öksüz, who some believe was working for Turkish intelligence. “They have a plan for who and what sort of system will take over the movement after Gülen.” 

This may explain why some AKP-friendly businesses in Africa have begun renewing ties and re-establishing partnerships with Gülen-affiliated firms, as Barin Kayaoğlu, assistant professor at the American University of Iraq, reported last month. 

This might also explain why these days, Gülen hardly ever uses the movement’s main traditional communication method, consultation meetings with senior leaders. Instead he posts everything publicly, online. “He doesn’t trust the mechanism as he did before. He thinks there has been some infiltration by MIT,” Sezgin said, referring to Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation.

The Gülen movement was largely built on trust, between members, between members and their leaders, and between leaders and Gülen. Now, because of the corruption and abuse, the coup attempt and the continuing crackdown, that trust is gone. The group’s leader can no longer trust his deputies to disseminate information. 

“There is a huge trust crisis there, which will lead the transformation of the movement, or the eradication of it,” said Sezgin. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.