BACKGROUND: Although they come from rival traditions within the Turkish Islamist movement, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was founded in August 2001, Erdoğan and the followers of the exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen (born 1941) formed an alliance of convenience. Erdoğan allowed Gülen’s followers to establish a substantial presence in the police and the judiciary. In return, the movement mobilized its networks on the AKP’s behalf both domestically and internationally, particularly in Washington and Brussels where Gülen’s followers vigorously lobbied to convince the U.S. and the EU that Erdoğan was a force for democracy.
In the second half of 2007, when it became clear that the AKP no longer needed to fear the military – which had ousted four elected governments in the previous half century – a cabal of Gülen’s followers in the police and judiciary launched what became known as the Ergenekon investigation, which alleged that a single, centrally-controlled clandestine organization had been responsible for every act of political violence in the country’s recent history. As their confidence grew, Gülen’s followers launched a barrage of other cases, including the infamous Balyoz (Sledgehammer) investigation, which claimed to have uncovered documents detailing plans for a military coup in 2003.
The judicial investigations followed a pattern that became as distinctive as fingerprints: an anonymous tip-off by email or letter was followed by dawn raids, mass arrests, a vigorous propaganda campaign by pro-Gülen journalists claiming that investigators had discovered plans for often horrifying acts of violence. In total, over 1,000 people were taken into custody and more than 700 formally charged. Some subsequently died in prison as a result of poor conditions and inadequate access to healthcare. Others attempted suicide. The accused came from improbably diverse – and often conflicting – backgrounds and included more than a dozen journalists. The only characteristic that all of the accused shared was that they were perceived opponents or rivals of the Gülen Movement. Most disturbingly, there is a now a mass of evidence showing that members of the Gülen Movement not only fabricated allegedly incriminating materials but planted them in premises associated with the accused.
The same cabal of Gülen sympathizers also targeted Kurdish nationalists. In a series of judicial investigations, thousands of suspects were taken into custody on charges of membership of the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), an umbrella organization dominated by the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Some were known Kurdish nationalist activists. Others were merely critics of the Gülen Movement or worked in charities that were rivals to the pro-Gülen NGOs that were active in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey.
As they became ever more confident, pro-Gülen members of the police and judiciary also started to target their perceived rivals in the Islamist Movement, including eventually Erdoğan himself. In February 2012, while Erdoğan was incapacitated following a cancer operation, pro-Gülen prosecutors attempted to subpoena Hakan Fidan, the head of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and a staunch Erdoğan loyalist, on charges that MİT agents had been aiding the PKK. Erdoğan hit back by reassigning the prosecutors responsible. In November 2013, he announced plans to abolish the prep school system that provides private courses for students preparing for high school and university entrance examinations. The system had long been dominated by schools run by Gülen’s followers, providing both a source of revenue and a steady flow of recruits.
In December 2013, pro-Gülen prosecutors launched corruption investigations into over 90 politicians and businesspeople close to the AKP leadership. Erdoğan responded by initiating a purge of thousands of suspected Gülen sympathizers from the police and judiciary. In the run-up to the local elections on March 30, 2014, a barrage of voice recordings allegedly showing Erdoğan, his family and leading members of the AKP engaged in corruption started appearing on the internet. The allegations were vigorously supported by the Gülen Movement’s media outlets, such as its flagship daily newspaper Zaman and its main television channel Samanyolu TV. Many of the recordings appeared genuine. But it was difficult to explain the timing of their release – or indeed the inclusion of a recording of one of Erdoğan’s sons apparently haranguing his foreign mistress – as being motivated purely by a desire to eradicate corruption. Significantly, as soon as it was clear that the recordings had failed to have a major impact on the AKP’s electoral support, the voice recordings came to an abrupt halt.
In contrast, through summer and fall 2014, Erdoğan intensified both his rhetoric against the Gülen Movement – which he claimed had been trying to establish a “parallel state” – and his efforts to purge them from public life, including targeting pro-Gülen businesses and charities.
IMPLICATIONS: Ironically, the rhetoric that Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu now use against the Gülen Movement often appears an unconscious parody of the claims that the movement itself once made about what it claimed was the Ergenekon organization. Both men portray the Gülen Movement not only as the fount of all evil inside Turkey but a nefarious agent of the foreign conspiracies that Erdoğan increasingly maintains are plotting to stop the country’s inexorable rise to greatness under his leadership.
On December 15, 2014, Davutoğlu announced that the AKP had proof that the Gülen Movement had been actively cooperating with the PKK. Erdoğan has recently started to claim that the government has evidence that the movement has been carrying out politically motivated assassinations. The arrest warrants for the detentions of December 14, 2014, claim that the suspects are members of an “armed terrorist organization”.
In reality, although those responsible for cases such as Ergenekon and Sledgehammer had no compunction about imprisoning hundreds of people on fabricated charges – some of whom subsequently died behind bars – there is no evidence that the Gülen Movement has ever sought to take up arms.
The Gülen Movement itself has claimed that the recent arrests are an assault on freedom of expression. On December 17, 2014, Samanyolu released a statement – in English – entitled “Journalism under Fire”, which concluded with a call for the release of all journalists who are in prison in Turkey. Perhaps not surprisingly, the statement did not detail who had put them there.
Erdoğan’s attempts to suppress criticism and muzzle freedom of expression are well-documented. But his methods rarely extend to imprisonment. Hundreds of journalists have been dismissed from their jobs as a result of Erdoğan’s advisers pressuring editors and media owners. Thousands more have been intimidated into silence for fear of being publicly attacked by Erdoğan or sued for defamation and receiving a crippling fine. But, over the last seven years many more journalists – whether leftists, secularists, Turkish nationalists or Kurds – have been imprisoned as a result of cases brought by members of the Gülen Movement than by prosecutions instigated by Erdoğan.
In fact, of the 31 suspects for whom arrest warrants were issued on December 14, 2014, only six are journalists. Nine had been involved in the production of soap operas on Samanyolu TV, while sixteen are police officers. The specific charges relate to a case involving an obscure hard-line Islamist group known as the Tahşiyeciler (Annotators), who are followers of Said Nursi (1877-1960), whom Gülen also regards as his spiritual mentor.
On April 6, 2009, in what appears to have been an attempt to assert ownership of Said Nursi’s legacy, Gülen publicly denounced the Tahşiyeciler. Over the following weeks, a soap opera on Samanyolu TV started to refer to the Tahşiyeciler as an affiliate of al- Qaeda and critical articles about the group began to appear in Zaman. Following an anonymous tipoff, on January 22, 2010, the police raided premises associated with the group, arresting 57 people in seven different provinces. The Gülen Movement’s media outlets subsequently reported that the police had found evidence – including weapons and explosives – that proved that the Tahşiyeciler were an offshoot of al Qaeda. Those arrested were eventually released and claimed that the weapons and explosives had been planted by pro-Gülen elements in the police.
The police officers named in the arrest warrants of December 14, 2104, are all accused with fabricating the case against the Tahşiyeciler. The journalists and those involved in the production of the soap operas are alleged to have engaged in “black propaganda” against the Tahşiyeciler and thus to have been actively involved in a plot by an “armed terrorist organization” to plant evidence and imprison the organization’s. In reality, of course, the one does not necessarily follow the other. Nor has any evidence yet been produced to support the claim that the journalists, makers of the soap opera and the police officers were all knowing participants in a coordinated conspiracy.
CONCLUSIONS: The narratives of the AKP and the Gülen Movement about the arrests of December 14, 2014 are both attempts to coat a power struggle with the gloss of a commitment to principle. Even if the police accused of fabricating the case against the Tahşiyeciler are guilty – and the case against them is yet to be proven – the AKP’s main motivation is not to try to redress a past injustice. The Tahşiyeciler first filed a formal complaint alleging that they had been framed by pro-Gülen members of the police in June 2011. It is only now, as the AKP searches for more material for its campaign against the Gülen Movement that it has acted on the complaint.
Nor, as the Gülen Movement has sought to maintain, are the arrests simply about freedom of expression. This is not to say that the accusations that the pro-Gülen journalists and makers of soap operas are members of an armed terrorist organization are anything but absurd. But ultimately they have been targeted not because of what they have written but because of who they are, namely members of the Gülen Movement. In fact, after the role that it played in creating years of fear and self-censorship in the Turkish media, for the Gülen Movement to now present itself as the champion of freedom of expression is hypocritical.
More disturbingly, the international furor over the recent arrests has distracted attention from the plight of many other victims – including hundreds of university students – of Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism. On December 16, 2014, thirty-five members of the Çarşı group of football supporters went on trial for allegedly “forming a terrorist organization” and “trying to overthrow the elected government” on the grounds that they had participated in the 2013 Gezi Park protests. The hearing merited barely a mention in the international media.
Gareth Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
(Image Attribution: Fethullah-gulen.org and the Office of the Prime Minister of Turkey via eurasianet)