Friday, 24 April 2009

The Power of the Gülen Movement Causes Concern After New Arrests in the Ergenekon Investegation

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 2, no. 8 of the Turkey Analyst) 

The latest wave of arrests in the Ergenekon coup plot case, targeting secular academics and NGOs, has once again altered perceptions of the investigation. It has become more difficult to interpret the investigation as exclusively concerned with bringing coup plotters to justice.  Representatives of the AKP itself were dismayed by the turn taken by the investigation. Attention is now focused on the Fethullah Gülen movement, which is accused of masterminding an operation directed at its secular challengers in civil society, acting on its own and by-passing the AKP.

BACKGROUND:Professor Türkan Saylan is one of Turkey’s respected physicians, known for her work to eradicate leprosy in the country, as well as being a prominent figure of the anti-Islamist opposition. On April 13, her home in Istanbul was raided and searched by police as part of the latest round-up of suspects in the Ergenekon coup case. Academics and leading representatives of secular NGOs were targeted in the 12th wave of the long-running probe into the alleged nationalist-secularist coup plot. Eight professors and university rectors, among them Mehmet Haberal, rector of the Baskent University in Ankara, were subsequently arrested. Türkan Saylan was spared detention on medical grounds as she undergoes treatment against a fatal cancer. 

Yet the implication of Saylan in the alleged coup plot proved to be particularly difficult, even impossible to defend. Indeed, it appeared to be the ultimate confirmation of the suspicions that the Ergenekon investigation is used to intimidate and silence the secular part of Turkish society. To be sure, Saylan had taken the lead in organizing the pro-secular “Republican mass rallies” in 2007, but she had nevertheless taken care to distance herself from the authoritarian nationalist-secularists, even coining the rallies’ slogan. “No to Sharia, and No to a coup.” That slogan reflected the opinion held by a majority of the participants, although it was not as welcomed among all of the organizers. Indeed, Tuncay Özkan, the rallies’ main organizer, prevented Saylan from delivering a speech at one of the republican rallies, in Izmir in May 2007. 

Özkan is now imprisoned awaiting trial in the Ergenekon case.
Türkan Saylan seems to have been chosen as a target in her capacity as founder of the Association for the defense of the modern way of life (Cagdas yasami destekleme dernegi, CYDD). The association provides for the education of destitute children and adolescents, not least to girls, notably in the Eastern parts of Anatolia. In so doing, it has become the only secular, civil society organization to rival the Fethullah Gülen movement. Saylan has previously been accused of being a crypto-Christian missionary, alternatively of promoting Kurdish separatism, by Islamists as well as by the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT). The daily Zaman, which is owned by the Gülen movement and which lends support to the AKP, recycled the accusation about Saylan’s supposedly missionary activities. However, commentators in the other main pro-AKP dailies Yeni Safak and Taraf withheld their support for the prosecutors.

Hasim Kilic, Chairman of the Constitutional court and a conservative who is ideologically close to the AKP, criticized the way the Ergenekon investigation is conducted, with people being treated as guilty before having being tried and their honor trampled upon. Indeed, some representatives of the AKP and the government itself made their displeasure public. Nihat Ergün, deputy chairman of the parliamentary group of the AKP, stated that he found the treatment of Saylan hard to accept. Ertugrul Günay, the minister of culture and tourism, went even further, comparing the latest Ergenekon round-up of academics to the practices of the right-wing military regime of the early 1970s. Günay exhorted the prosecutors to refocus on what should be their primary concern, the prosecution of coup plotters. Commentators close to the AKP urged the prosecutors to treat the information delivered to them by the police with great care, so as not to endanger the credibility and legitimacy of the investigation.

In fact, that credibility and legitimacy has always been deficient, and the recent targeting of the secularist academics does not represent any departure from the modus operandi of the prosecutors. The net in the Ergenekon case has been cast wide from the start, and the open-ended nature of the investigation has for long sustained the suspicion that it is indeed conceived primarily as an operation to silence opposition. Nevertheless, it had lately become difficult to dismiss the case as a mere which-hunt. The recent publication of the second indictment, in which the prosecution gives a detailed account – primarily based on the diaries of the secularist journalist Mustafa Balbay – of what is alleged to be the coup schemes of a group of generals had seemed to undermine part of the argumentation that was put forward against the Ergenekon case. The content of the Balbay diaries (which, it should be noted, the incarcerated journalist claims have been manipulated to serve the interests of the prosecution) succeeded in convincing even secularist commentators that the prosecution indeed has a legitimate case. 

Notably, several of those who had expressed their solidarity with Mustafa Balbay when he was arrested declared that they withdrew their support upon reading the diaries. The 12th wave of Ergenekon arrests have once again reversed the narrative of the case, from being about bringing accused coup plotters in the military to justice to silencing legitimate, civilian opposition.

IMPLICATIONS: Yet, the more profound signification of the reactions to the 12th Ergenekon wave resides in the fact that they represent a departure from the dichotomy of a narrative that features only the AKP and the nationalist/secularist opponents who seek its overthrow. The impact of a third factor, the independent power of the Fethullah Gülen movement, is now generally acknowledged. 

Fethullah Gülen

The Gülen movement is an omnipresent force in Turkish society, as well as in the Turkish state, with strong economic clout and a powerful presence in the education system and in the media. The movement is believed to be heavily implanted in the police force, a belief strengthened by the manner in which the Ergenekon investigation has been conducted.  It is evident that opponents of Fethullah Gülen are purposefully targeted in the investigation. In the wake of the clampdown on CYDD, The Association for the defense of the modern way of life, and on another likeminded NGO, The foundation for Modern Education (CEV), it has become even more legitimate to pose the question if the investigation is indeed a vehicle for an Islamic movement that seeks to stamp out secular, democratic challengers to its influence.

Up to date, the specter of the power wielded by the Gülen movement had not caused any concern among the liberals and conservatives that support the AKP.  The fact that the prosecutors are now exhorted by AKP supporters not to take everything that they are served by the police at face value is noteworthy, since it is tantamount to suggesting that the Gülen movement – widely believed to control large parts of the police – should not be trusted. 

The relationship between the AKP and the movement of Fethullah Gülen has been symbiotic. The AKP has advanced the interests of the movement, as the party has relied on it as a pool of resource to staff the bureaucracy with Islamic conservatives. Indeed, to use Marxian phraseology, one could call the Gülen movement the infrastructure to the AKP’s superstructure. With the movement now entrenched in the power centers of the state – with the exception of the military – it has acquired a power and influence independent of the AKP. If Turkish, Ottoman and republican history offers any guidance, that is a power position that will inevitably invite a reaction.

CONCLUSIONS: Indeed, referring to the power of “the brotherhood”, (“cemaat”) in a two-hour lecture at the War Academy in Istanbul last week, General Ilker Basbug, Chief of the General staff, declared that “the perception of omnipotence is deceiving.”

It is customary for Turkish Chiefs of staff to issue warnings about the threat of “religious reaction” (“irtica”). Yet, Basbug did not use that word once in his lecture. Instead, he took care to express the military’s deference to Islam, recognizing that the military, for good reason, is denominated the “hearth of the Prophet” in Turkish folk tradition. However, it was significant that Basbug did imply that the “brotherhood”, in singular, represents a challenge and that will be dealt with “within the boundaries of the rule of law.” It was evident that General Basbug was speaking about a particular “cemaat”, the Fethullah Gülen movement.

To date, the Ergenekon investigation has dealt with one of the threats against the established order of the Turkish state, the nationalist/secularist grouping within the military, which had – so it seems by the evidence presented so far – sought to subvert the military hierarchy, topple the AKP government and planned to reorient Turkey from NATO to Eurasia, toward an alliance with Russia, Iran and China. That challenge has in effect been confronted and defeated by the High command, the AKP and the Fethullah Gülen movement acting in tacit collusion, in the form of the Ergenekon investigation.

It is not inconceivable that the challenge posed by the Gülen movement will be handled in similar fashion, in consort by the two other players of the power game. At least that would seem to be what General Ilker Basbug is inviting to.
As it were, Basbug did underline that the military has no qualms with accommodating Islamic conservatism as a societal force, while implicitly reminding that the General staff, true to centuries-old state traditions, will oppose the capture of the state by any particular religious brotherhood. 

The reactions from some AKP quarters against the latest transgressions of the Ergenekon prosecution suggest that interests could indeed be diverging within the Islamic conservative camp. However, that is not to suggest that the AKP as a bloc can be expected to disentangle from its relation with Turkey’s dominant Islamic movement.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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