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HomeExpertsIslamist vs. Islamic: Erdogan's deep-rooted hatred of the Gülen movement

Islamist vs. Islamic: Erdogan’s deep-rooted hatred of the Gülen movement

All Islamists are Muslim, but we cannot say that all Muslims are Islamists. This simple logic, which is applicable to the Islamic world, is true for Turkey as well. However, modern Turkish history is full of interwoven, stratified contradictions and controversies. 

Until recent times, the tension between the religious segments of society, which have had a different visibility and discourse within itself, and the French-style, rigid secularism, which had long dominated Turkey, has left an indelible imprint on Turkey’s socio-political agenda. Outsiders were able to see the main and perhaps the only tension in Turkey through the contradictions between the religious and secularist segments of society. 

Having a deep-rooted history, this socio-political polarisation has prevented people from seeing the intra-group tensions, contradictions and controversies. The struggle of political Islamism in Turkey, which built its political projects based upon the exploitation of the feelings of religious people who have been defining their socio-political identity more with a religion, namely Islam, against a staunchly secularist understanding full of serious democratic deficits had over time become a hatred of all types of secularism and diverse lifestyles. 

By polarising the society over religious-secularist contradictions, Turkey’s political Islamists, who planned to transform this tension into political capital, have increasingly headed for a discursive, discriminatory and hateful discourse that overshadows the peaceful and comprehensive messages of Islam. Society had felt to the bone how this led to a major political devastation in Turkey during the post-modern coup process that took place after decisions taken on February 28, 1997 by the notorious National Security Council (MGK). As a matter of fact, there had never been an autochthonous (native) political Islamism as we know it today in Turkey. 

Political Islamism, which deeply affects Turkey, comprises different versions of the political Islam that was imported from Pakistan, Egypt and North African countries, developed in reaction to colonialism and based on reactionary experiences in those lands. From this point of view, we can easily say that the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhvan) in Egypt and Jamaat-i Islami in Pakistan were the fathers of the political Islamism on which Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political origins were based. However, following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the influence of Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini and his fellow mullahs became more dominant over Turkish political Islamists. The political and religious thoughts of Erdogan’s political mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, were based on challenging Islamist conceptions that were hardened and radicalised by anti-colonialist movements and the revolutionary understanding in Iran rather than the moderate and comprehensive local religious concepts in Turkey. Most of the books that heavily influenced the political and religious thoughts of Erbakan and his inner circle were Turkish translations of the works published by such radicalised Islamist groups outside of Turkey. 

Along with the political Islamism that became evident in Turkey, especially after the 1960s, a more moderate, tolerant mainstream Muslim tradition, Islamic tradition, I would call it, has always been powerful. This Islamic tradition has always approached Islam as a pure religion descended from the Prophet Muhammad, not a political ideology that would present them the opportunities of political power as the Islamists see it. They have refrained from making this sacred religion an appetiser for a political agenda, social polarisation. These traditional or more modern Islamic movements, which have embraced the entire society, have assumed the role of important sociological bearers of a peaceful culture of co-existence that has flourished through history by taking its soul from Islam. 

These religious groups, including some hundreds-year-old religious orders, embarked on a quest to gradually rehabilitate the ultra-secular political regime through mutual interaction rather than clashing with it. As well as many other religious groups, Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has been on the stage of Turkish society since the early 1970s, has also preferred to pursue a reformatory Islamic process and an embracing democratic path against the agitating provocations of political Islamism. Just like other deep-rooted civilian Islamic movements, the Gülen movement, inspired by the thoughts and the teachings of Fethullah Gülen, did not support any political formations or parties staged by the political Islamists in the pursuit of power or seeking revenge on secularist regime. 

The Gülen movement has always kept its distance from the political Islamist discourse and actions that differentiate, polarize and divide the society, and found itself much closer to the center, center-right or center-left political parties, which have at least been trying to embrace the whole society. Therefore, the Gülen movement, with its penetration into society, its media and its civil society capabilities, has always supported the political formations that appeal to the entire society and has tried to democratise the state and the society and prioritise basic freedoms, fundamental human rights, transparency and accountability. 

Based on such a background, Erdogan established the Justice and Development Party (AKP) with a group of friends in 2001 and publicly declared that he was keeping his distance from the political Islamism formulated by his political Islamist mentor Necmettin Erbakan, saying that “I have taken off the shirt of the Milli Görüş [National View].” The party programme and the election manifesto announced by the AKP before the elections of November 3, 2002 were consistent with democratic reformist commitments in support of Erdogan’s “I changed” discourse. 

Indeed, the AKP and Erdogan had undertaken to perform their commitments to rapidly democratise the state, unify the community and integrate Turkey with the world during the first of their years in power as stated in the party programme and election manifesto. Thus they gained a reputation and credibility both in Turkey and around the world. 

The Gülen movement, with its rich and well-educated human capital, civil society entities and media organs fully supported Erdogan and the AKP’s revolutionary democratisation policies during that period, which embraced the whole society in line with the goal of membership in the European Union. In the face of the anti-democratic interventions that were reinitiated by the notorious deep-state entities that resisted these democratic reforms starting from 2007, like all other democratic circles in Turkey and worldwide, the Gülen movement also took sides with the AKP government. 

The democratic and social reforms realised by Erdogan and the AKP created great excitement in society and increased their support to 50 per cent. In the course of this struggle against the anti-democratic deep-state structures, not only was the dominant military tutelage broken, but also a strong pro-Erdogan media and civil society were created. After seeing almost 50 per cent popular support for the AKP in the elections of June 12, 2011, in which his party competed by promising to draft a new civil and democratic constitution, Erdogan realised a great opportunity before him where the regime of military tutelage and the bureaucratic oligarchy were paralysed, and the judiciary in particular was democratised with a referendum on September 12, 2010. Instead of using this opportunity in line with the expectations of democratic circles and fulfilling the commitments he made before the elections, Erdogan utilised this opportunity to return to his ideological factory settings, in other words, to his political Islamist origins. 

The Arab revolts that erupted in early 2011 also led to the inclusion of imperial motivations without for Erdogan’s pursuit of absolute power within. Thus, the opportunity of political power that he pursued within the framework of the objectives of political Islamism in the country and his passionate, imperial plans encouraged by the assumptions of Arab revolts intersected, and Erdogan turned to brand new targets. In this process, Erdogan not only attempted to radically change Turkey’s regime in line with the targets of political Islamism, he also intervened directly or indirectly in the internal affairs of regional countries, including Egypt, to change their regime in the same direction. He used proxy organisations to influence political groups in those countries in order to carry out his interventions in the internal affairs of the countries he targeted. If there was no such organisation in the targeted countries, he formed brand new ones. 

As in the case of Syria, since he could not afford the cost of these illegitimate and illegal activities, which are solidly international crime, with legitimate money, he embarked on both national and international black money and bribery operations including laundering black money from the illegal oil trade conducted by Iran, which was under UN and US sanctions. Erdogan was not only caught up in this dirty business, he also expected all segments of society, including the Gülen movement, to support these illegitimate initiatives. 

Finally, part of Erdogan’s international dirty business was exposed by the corruption and bribery scandal that became public on December 17/25, 2013 and by the apprehension of Turkish National Intelligence Organisation (MİT) trucks carrying weapons and ammunition to radical Islamist terrorist organisations in Syria in early 2014. Contrary to his expectations of support, the Gülen movement started to distance itself from Erdogan and his AKP, which gave signals of returning to his political Islamist roots after the 2011 elections and of acting in line with the objectives of political Islamism both at home and abroad. 

This distance increased, as much as the AKP and Erdogan deviated from democracy and moved towards political Islamism. Because of this divergence, Erdogan launched a witch-hunt to annihilate the Gülen movement and started his genocidal program by halting the educational activities of the movement, which is widely known as a global educational movement. Erdogan has argued that the corruption operations of December 17/25, 2013 were a “coup” to topple his government despite the abundance of evidence related to corruption and bribery. He claimed the graft and bribery operations were carried out by police, prosecutors and judges who were close to the Gülen movement, and he embarked on the demolition of state mechanisms and the judiciary. At the same time, he launched an intense, systematic and widespread campaign of hatred to discredit in public opinion both Fethullah Gülen and the Gülen movement. 

Unfortunately, his efforts were facilitated by shutting down all media organs opposed to him, and Erdogan has become the only voice appealing to the community. In spite of all these, he could not fully convince the society and the world of the unfounded arguments he put forth against the Gülen movement. 

Therefore, by plotting a great conspiracy on July 15, 2016, he attempted to achieve his ultimate objectives by staging a false-flag military coup as if it were against himself. He has realised his goal, so far, to a great extent in this way and with the thousands of companies and institutions belonging to the Gülen movement which he demonized in the society that were either closed down or seized. He ordered over 150,000 people to be detained, at least 55,000 to be jailed, thousands of people tortured and the personal properties of tens of thousands of people to be seized and plundered. 

Turkey has suffered from coarseness, a loss of reputation and failure in every sense as Erdogan, who considers himself to be the caliph of the Islamic world, continued his unlawful, immoral and arbitrary persecutions targeting alleged members of the Gülen movement, meaning in fact the targeting of the well-trained, educated and qualified human capital of the country. Turkey, whose prestige and credibility had rapidly risen in the world with the process of democratisation fully supported by the Gülen movement after Erdogan guaranteed that he has taken off the shirt of the political Islamist Milli Görüş, has unfortunately been devastated, including all of its democratic institutions and principles. In sum, the Gülen movement, as a moderate, liberal Islamic civil society group, has tried to prevent the radical Islamist Erdogan from taking Turkey to a political Islamist hell. 

However, despite all these efforts that led it to pay a very heavy price, the movement could not stop the country from becoming a complete hell due to the unconscious support given by the masses, who were stigmatised by the intensive propaganda campaign through the media totally under the direct control of Erdogan.

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Dr. Bulent Kenes
Dr. Bulent Kenes
Bulent Kenes (Ph.D.) is an academic and journalist who has over 25 years of professional experience. He has managed multiple publications, both in Turkish and English. He has held top editorial positions at various media outlets such as Zaman daily (foreign news editor & news coordinator), Turkish Daily News (news coordinator), and Anadolu news agency (New York bureau chief). Kenes was editor-in-chief of Bugün daily (2006) and founding editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman (2007-2016; the paper was seized on March 4, 2016, by the Erdogan regime and formally closed in July 2016). Kenes was among the founders of the Stockholm Center for Freedom. He served as a voluntary chief editor from 2017-2019. He is based in Stockholm, where he lives as an exiled Turkish journalist and academic. He is also among the founders of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS).

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