Turkey: Gulen-Erdogan Conflict Deepens With Corruption Probe

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People hold hoses to symbolize the siphoning of public funds by people close to the government as civil servants gather in central Ankara on December 28, 2013 to protest corruption and the government of the Turkish prime minister. (Photo: AFP - Adem Altan)

By: Elie Hanna

Published Saturday, December 28, 2013

Since 2003, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has succeeded in toppling his opponents from the military and the secular camp, leaving an indelible mark on Turkish political and social life. Today, the Erdogan the Sultan’s adversary is a man cut from the same cloth: Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen.

For months, Erdogan has struggled to justify his government policies. He is no longer seen as a model leader of an exemplar system, neither at home nor abroad. Since the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s “spring” in Egypt and Tunisia, and the retreat of the Turkish offensive against Syria, Erdogan has become preoccupied with defending his agenda and cursing his critics.

The days are gone when Erdogan preached and gave advice. The “conquering sultan” has retreated as he watches his Justice and Development Party (AKP) falter. Erdogan’s comrades – from Turkish President Abdullah Gul to the father of Turkish social Islam, preacher Fethullah Gulen – are about to pounce. They want to change the captain to protect the ship from sinking.

The Taksim-Gezi Park protests may have been but a rehearsal for what’s to come. Controversy over a few trees turned into days of protests and strikes. Strikers demanded social freedoms. The “dictator,” as Erdogan was called for stifling dissent, succeeded. He managed to silence journalists, and the security and judiciary were in his pocket.

The man did not placate anybody. He operated as an ideologue. Erdogan saw this as a war that he was intent on fighting. As a poetry verse he quoted in 1998 indicates: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers. This sacred army guards our religion.”

Erdogan didn’t know that Gulen, the godfather of this sacred army, was no longer guarding him. Differences between the two were not restricted to domestic issues. The failed foreign policy of Erdogan and his theorist, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, played a key role in creating the rift between Gulen and Erdogan.

Gulen, with his strong appeal among Turkey’s religious and business communities, has joined the camp of Erdogan’s opponents. The Gulen movement had been the unofficial arm of the AKP, but the gap that developed between the AKP and the movement began to show in 2010.

Gulen denounced the decision to expel the Israeli ambassador from Ankara over the attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla that sailed to Gaza in 2010. He told The Wall Street Journal that the Turkish side was to blame because the Turkish-led flotilla did not obtain Israel’s consent.

Erdogan, however, did not cut off ties with Gulen. In a goodwill gesture, he extended an invitation to the preacher, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, to return to Turkey. Erdogan told an audience at the Turkish Language Olympics: “We want to see those who are abroad and longing for the homeland among us … Absence from home is loneliness. We have no tolerance for loneliness. So, let's say the absence should be ended.”

Gulen responded: “The poor fellow [referring to himself] is the one who decides when he will return to Turkey.”

Then came a government decision to shut down Turkey’s prep schools, which represent a major source of financial revenue and human resources for the Gulen movement. The influential cleric responded to this decision in a speech addressing his followers: “If Pharaoh is against you, if Korah is against you, you are walking on the right path.”

The rift widened. The appointment of Hakan Fidan, described as a shadowy man close to Erdogan, as chief of Turkey’s intelligence agency raised Gulen’s ire. He rejected this appointment and used all his power to sink Fidan because the latter stood up to attempts by Gulen’s group to further penetrate the government’s intelligence agency. Erdogan responded by banishing many of Gulen’s supporters from posts they held in the police and judiciary.

On December 17 the floodgates opened. A corruption scandal rocked Turkey, with accusations coming from all sides. On December 17 the floodgates opened. A corruption scandal rocked Turkey, with accusations coming from all sides. Erdogan’s comrades began to fall, one by one. Among the accused is Halkbank general manager, Solomon Aslan, as the police seized $4.5 million in cash in his house. Fifty-two officials and businessmen with close ties to the AKP were arrested on various charges, including fraudulent bids to win contracts, bribery, and gold smuggling.

At an AKP meeting this week, Erdogan alluded to Gulen. “This man, who has nothing to do with religion, Islam, God, or Mohammad” is responsible for what he called a conspiracy.

Despite a major cabinet reshuffle, Erdogan is still in a weak position. Milliyet reported the prime minister as saying, “I am the real target of the operation.” The opposition Cumhuriyet predicted an “earthquake” at the top echelon of the state, pointing to the involvement of a nongovernmental organization headed by Bilal Erdogan, the prime minister’s eldest son, in this scandal.

The corruption probe took another twist when Muammer Akkas, a prosecutor in the investigation, said: “The police have refused to implement arrest warrants issued against about 30 additional suspects, especially MPs from the AKP.”

“Let all my colleagues and the public know that, as a prosecutor, I was prevented from opening an investigation,” he said.

Erdogan, who has single-handedly ruled Turkey for the past 11 years, now faces a violent political storm. Turkey’s municipal elections are scheduled for March 2014. It appears that Gulen’s powerful blow will heavily affect the fortunes of Erdogan, who upheld a “transparency and anti-corruption” slogan in his past electoral campaign.

This week, thousands protested in several Turkish cities denouncing the rampant corruption and demanding the resignation of Erdogan and his cabinet.

The conflict raging in Turkey is still playing out, and some of its features remain hidden. There are many questions about Gulen’s role and actions. Is he acting with a US green light or at least without objection from Uncle Sam?

Some say that breaking Erdogan has become necessary to preserve the AKP. President Gul said, “Corruption in the higher echelons of power will not be covered up … The country which has implemented major reforms in the past decade will not hide the corruption and will not stay silent regarding such mistakes. The courts will get a result in the most correct way possible.”

A Preacher the Size of a State

Over the past decade, Gulen fought shoulder to shoulder with Erdogan in a battle against the influence of the army and secular elites. This joint effort resulted in a paradigm shift in Turkish society in favor of Islamists.

Gulen’s role is not marginal. His group manages a huge network of schools, businesses, and media outlets in five continents. His movement is a state within a state in Turkey. It has a strong presence in the police force, the judiciary, and the state’s public administrations. It also owns TV stations and the high-circulation daily Zaman.

Gulen began his preaching duties in Izmir at a Quranic school. He then worked as an itinerant preacher focusing on students, many of whom worked in his movement after graduation.

Born 11 November 1941 in the village of Korucuk, located in Eastern Anatolia, Gulen began his preaching activities in western Turkey in the early 1960s. His rapid rise alarmed Ankara in 1999 after he criticized the government. Although Gulen apologized, the Turkish public prosecutor decided to investigate him. Bulent Ecevit, the Turkish president at the time, interfered to resolve the issue after Gulen appeared in a video to supporters stating that “they will move to gradually change Turkish society and regime from a secular to an Islamist system.”

Gulen then decided to hide from view and move to the United States, where he now lives in Pennsylvania.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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