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The Gülen Organization's Long Journey

How did the Gülen Organization, which started out 40 years ago and went on to spreading messages of tolerance and solidarity, setting up schools all over the world and presenting itself as a model of moderate Islam, end up bombing its own country?

Konular: ENGLISH

In the early 1970s, Fethullah Gülen was an ordinary preacher from Erzurum, with a poetic, eloquent style of sermon based in the tradition of Nur. Breaking off from the Nur movement in İzmir, he started to build his own community.

Just a few people congregated around him, including some local businessmen and students. Education was highly important to him from the beginning. In a very short amount of time, secrecy became a basic principle to him. His movement has been closed and non-transparent from the very beginning.

There wasn’t much information on Gülen in those years. Even if his name got around, he himself was not seen. Only his articles appeared in Sızıntı magazine. Tapes of his sermons started becoming more and more available after the 1980s.

Secrecy and infiltrating the state

Other than a few companies, foundations, associations and magazines that were mandatory to run the movement’s legal business -and these were never openly affiliated with the movement either- the Gülen movement never had an organizational structure that was open to the outside.

As matter of fact, secrecy has always been a necessary method of all Islamic communities pushed outside of the public space since the first years of the Republic. But the secrecy of other communities was defensive; it aimed at minimizing the damage from the state on their assets and activities. The Gülen organization, on the other hand, espoused secrecy not only to protect itself from the state, but to infiltrate and overtake it.

Radicals, moderates, party members, those who wouldn’t join a party - there was no one among the representatives of other Islamic organizations that did not heed the importance of the Gülen organization, and no one that liked it. Islamists, who in regular conditions would be expected to dislike the state and especially the armed forces, spoke in horror of Gülenists’ intentions of infiltrating the army and overtaking the state. Indeed, when I was covering the news of the Gülen-affiliated students being expelled from the Istanbul Kuleli, Bursa Işıklar and İzmir Maltepe military high schools in 1986, I myself witnessed their ambition and facility in infiltrating state institutions.

Two wings: civilians and non-civilians

The Gülen organization could be said to consist of two wings - a civilian and a non-civilian one. The former includes education institutions in Turkey and the rest of the world, foundations, associations, commercial businesses, media outlets, etc.

The non-civilian wing includes the network within the army, the police and other institutions.

The Gülen organization is a single body consisting of these two wings. Fethullah Gülen oversees everything top to bottom. His organization is one that resembles more an intelligence agency than an Islamic movement - a global network with extremely serious political ambitions. The religion of Islam, Said-i Nursi and the tradition of Nur are just vehicles.

Considering Gülen has been living in Pennsylvania for years now, we are face to face with an organization that was born in Turkey, headquartered in the USA and is active all over the world with thousands of members.

A 40-year project of cultivating cadres

But how did Fethullah Gülen get to a large number of cadres within the police, army, education and bureaucracy with complete allegiance to himself? What we have here is a charismatic and highly skilled person carrying out meticulous and intensive work towards cultivating cadres for 40 years.

With the first decree issued under the State of Emergency, 35 health institutions, 1043 private schools, 1229 foundations and associations, 19 unions and 15 foundation universities were shut down. Even considering there will be a small number of institutions among these that are not actually Gülen-affiliated, these numbers still show the amazing extent of the organization we are dealing with.

Once you add to that the organization’s global activities, the schools all around the world as well as other institutions, ‘empire,’ as some researchers have called it, would not be an exaggeration.

The initial steps of this empire were taken with the schools that were set up first in Central Asia and then in every country of the world except for Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. These schools were seen as representing Turkey and the Turkish language.

These selective schools targeted the children of elite families. As a result of high quality education and the job opportunities that came with it, Gülen created a significant network and a base for himself.

In time the movement grew larger. While in those first years Sızıntı was the only publication and members were not even allowed to read any books written by those outside of the movement, with the media move that started with the purchase of Zaman newspaper, the movement came to own a media empire.

The foundations, schools and media were vehicles for Gülen’s expansion abroad.

Who supported the Gülen movement and why?

Without a doubt, the Gülen organization did not attain this much power by itself; in various periods and places, it had the open, generous and impactful support of various groups.

For instance, the September 12 (1980) coup cleared the way for the Gülen organization as part of the fight against communism. The organization started developing their relationship with civilian politics during Turgut Özal’s tenure. Özal and MHP leader Alpaslan Türkeş encouraged the organization’s activities in the Turkic republics in Central Asia. Tansu Çiller considered Gülen as a sort of strategic partner, while Bülent Ecevit saw him as a religious figure in accordance with the premise of ‘secularism that respects religious faith.’ Flinching at the rise of the (political Islamist) Welfare Party in 1990s, the ruling class attempted to position the Gülen organization as their alternative.

Gülen made excellent use of this opportunity. Pointing to the Welfare Party as a radical, staunch movement, he put himself forward as the representative of moderate Islam.

During these same years Gülen started appearing in public. The Foundation of Journalists and Writers (GYV) was founded, aiming at forging ties with the intellectual strata of society. Articles praising Gülen started to appear in mainstream media. The Abant Meetings, organized by the GYV, became a center of attraction for those liberals in Turkey who were seeking alliances from the left and the right but were not content with the current situation. The Gülen organization only organized these meetings, most of the participants did not belong to the group either. Turkey’s most important issues were genuinely being debated at these gatherings.

In this way, Gülen built up his network and created a civilian identity for himself, which became very strong capital for the organization, so much that it had become a significant focus of the intellectual debates in Turkey.

The AKP-Gülen relationship

The AKP kept a certain distance from the Gülen organization during its initial years. However, eventually the way was cleared for Gülen, as the thinking was that the real threat came from the army and pro-army circles. This was not unfounded, as the AKP faced a number of coup attempts after it came to power in 2002. It was during this period that the government lifted the embargo of Turkish diplomats and diplomatic missions aimed at the Gulen schools abroad.

Gülenist state cadres were cultivated further during the AKP era. While the government did not eradicate all barriers here, it certainly made it easier. But starting with the e-memorandum in 2007, in which the military directly threatened the party, the AKP-Gülen alliance turned into direct staffing of public positions. Many people in the bureaucracy were removed without due process and replaced with Gülenists.

From 2007 onwards, the Gülen organization, in alliance with the government, had its golden years in the war against the army.

For the duration of the cases like Ergenekon, Balyoz and Espionage, the Gülen group controlled the entire process, from the anonymous letters to the police, to the prosecutors and judges, to the documents provided to the media by the police, and received considerable support from some media and most liberals. These groups trusted the various information and documents obviously forged by the Gülenists and never questioned the reason why they were serviced to the public. Everything the Gülen organization said was accepted within a discourse of ‘the fight against the military establishment.’

In this process, Gülen and his movement managed to market themselves as the democratic, anti-coup center of civilian resistance to the military.

The Gülen-AKP relationship was eradicated after incidents like Mavi Marmara, MIT Secretary Hakan Fidan being called in for questioning and finally the December 17-25 process, which gave way to an all out war.

Why is the West standing closer to Gülen?

The West, however, openly stood with Gülen in this war.

The network that came with the schools made the organization a global power. When the appearance of supporting moderate Islam was added to that, many great powers, including the United States, started paying closer attention to the group in the 90s. When the US allowed Gülen to reside in Pennsylvania from 1999, it allowed his compound to be the headquarters of a global movement, rather than the secluded home of a religious figure in self-exile.

Considering the American policies on Muslims and Islamists after September 11, this space provided to Gülen could be interpreted to mean the US was not bothered by Gülen’s actions. In other words, the US was informed about and gave consent for Gülen’s global operations.

The majority of analyses appearing in Western media cast Gülen in a very positive light. That’s because his organization is known in the West for its schools abroad, successful lobbying in the US, as representatives of moderate Islam and with a civilian, liberal, progressive and democratic identity.

The Gülen movement is an organization that is extremely skilled in politics, analyzing its opponents, taking advantage of their contradictions and easily finding allies. In this way, they have used many people while telling them what they wanted to hear. Gülen’s meeting with the Pope at a time when Muslim countries faced enormous challenges and the Alliance of Civilizations was on the agenda, together with his books, translated into many languages, explaining that terror has no place in Islam at a time the world is faced with ISIS terror, solidified his image further.

Furthermore, compared to all other Islamic movements, Gülen had a different attitude. While Islamic movements hold the West responsible of the situation that Muslim countries are in, Gülen thought the exact opposite. His proposal to the West was this: Let’s solve problems like radicalism, terrorism and backwardness together. To the West, this was a very attractive offer.

What was seen on the surface was always the civilian wing, all the rest was just allegations. And the person voicing these allegations was Erdoğan, whose authoritarianism has long been solid in the Western image. For its own reasons, today the West is not comfortable with Erdoğan, and sees Gülen as the lesser of two evils.

What happened in Turkey on July 15, however, clearly demonstrated that this civilian structure was built as a base for the non-civilian wing.

For 40 years the Gülen organization presented itself as a civilian and nationalist pro-democracy service movement. What happened on the evening of July 15, on the other hand, showed that the movement’s civilian activity was mainly a cover for its mobilization within the military. Even just the bombing of the Parliament proved the falsehood of the pro-democracy claim, while the ruthless slaughter of anti-coup citizens showed just how far the Gülen organization is from nationalist sentiment.

Fethullah Gülen and his organization may continue to exist in the West and globally, taking advantage of Tayyip Erdoğan’s negative image. But their remobilization in Turkey -finding students for their schools or journalists for their papers- is near impossible.

Rusen Cakir is a Turkish journalist and columnist. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Ruşen Çakır

Gazeteci. Gazeteciliğe 1985 yılında Nokta dergisinde başladı. Sırasıyla Tempo, Cumhuriyet, Milliyet, CNN Türk ve NTV’de çalıştı. Türkiye Ekonomik ve Sosyal Etüdler Vakfı (TESEV) Demokrasi, Sivil Toplum ve İslam Dünyası Programı'nı yönetti. Devamını oku

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