Modern Turkish politics bleeds well into the territory of conspiracy theory, making it very difficult to separate fact from fiction; the fantastic schemes dreamed up by politicians and tin-foil-hat wearing journalists are sometimes difficult to distinguish from the reality of the situation.
The struggle between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen definitely falls in this category. President Erdoğan blames the July 15 attempted coup on his former ally, Fethullah Gülen, an exiled Islamic cleric living in Pennsylvania. Erdoğan claims that Gülen used his massive network of followers from within the Cemaat (meaning “community” in Turkish) organization to infiltrate the armed forces and instigate the failed coup.
Gülen, for his part, categorically rejects having taken part in the coup and has insinuated that Erdoğan himself might have staged the event to justify an expansion of his powers. Neither claim is out of the question, but Erdoğan’s spectacular performance in the face of the recent coup has given him tremendous political capital.
President Erdoğan has called on the US to extradite Gülen for his alleged part in Friday’s plot; Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım even went so far as to say that “any country that protects Fethullah Gülen will be the enemy of Turkey.” US Secretary of State John Kerry has said that while any extradition request would be considered, Turkey would have to provide evidence that Gülen was behind the attempt to overthrow the government. This is not the first time that Gülen has been accused of attempting to overthrow Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). He has been under trial in absentia since 2013 – the extradition request for those charges was not granted by the US government.
The State Department has not, as of yet, received a formal extradition request, but there is a possibility that recent events could make the US government more amenable to President Erdoğan’s demand.
In the meanwhile, Erdoğan has wasted no time purging the government of all suspected Gülenist supporters. So far 2,700 judges have been relieved of their duty and almost 3,000 soldiers arrested; in total, around 20,000 members of the civil service and armed forces have been detained or suspended since Friday, according to Reuters.
Yet relations between Gülen and Erdoğan were not always bad, in fact they were once close allies working against the old guard military elite.
Gülen’s movement has tremendous financial and institutional power internationally, and within Turkey itself. Most of this power comes from the huge education system he helped to establish which offered free tutoring, lodging, and religious classes to promising youth. Gülen’s movement allegedly encouraged many of these youths to apply for government jobs in the police and judiciary, and also to give back to the community. In the early 2000s, Gülen and Erdoğan worked together to help ensure the AKP’s rise to power, most notably during the spectacular Ergenekon trials.
The Ergenekon trials, from 2008 to 2013, saw more than 275 people, including military officers, journalists, and lawmakers arrested for being members of an illegal organization, which allegedly aimed to foment civil unrest within the country in the hopes of bringing about a military coup. Gülen and Erdoğan worked together to dismantle the so-called ‘deep state’ in Turkey, which has been compared to Italy’s Operation Gladio.
The Gülen movement’s significant connections within the police and judiciary in the country are assumed to have been instrumental in bringing the conviction of more than 200 suspects – including some of Turkey’s top generals. The conclusion of the Ergenekon trials left the AKP free to rule without hindrance.
The marriage of convenience between these two parties ended in 2012 when Hakan Fidan, the head of MIT (the National Intelligence Organisation), was called by an Istanbul prosecutor to testify in court regarding an investigation into the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Fidan had been handpicked by Erdoğan to head up the Turkish intelligence agency, and to act as the mouthpiece for the Turkish government during secret talks with the PKK in Oslo. The prosecutor in Istanbul, an assumed Gülenist, ended up issuing an arrest warrant for Fidan without consulting Erdoğan, then Prime Minister.
Many have interpreted this event to represent the beginning of a conflict between pro-Gülen elements within the civil structure and the AKP. Erdoğan supporters have since taken to the term ‘parallel state,’ to denote the alleged Gülenist extra-governmental power structure, which they believe constitutes a threat to the Turkish government. They claim that the anti-democratic organization is run by the cleric from his mansion in the Pennsylvanian foothills. A power struggle has since emerged between the two groups, with provocations from both sides sending periodic shockwaves through Turkish society.
The AKP went on the offensive in November 2013 when Erdoğan, still as prime minister, made it clear that he intended to close the private tutoring schools set up by Gülen and his supporters, known as dershanes. Erdoğan did this under the guise of education reform, but it was clearly an assault on Gülen’s power, as these institutions provided the main source of recruits for the Gülen movement, as well as a significant portion of its income.
Little over a month later, on December 17, Gülen-linked prosecutors responded by instigating a massive corruption probe into the finances of several high-ranking AKP ministers, including Erdoğan himself. The probe coincided with the release of several audio tapes, in which allegedly recorded various ministers are heard discussing nefarious activities with relatives and businessmen, the most famous of these being an alleged conversation between Erdoğan and his son Bilal regarding the liquidation of large sums of cash.
In response to this, Erdoğan dismissed several ministers and expressed outrage that he had had his phone tapped, while simultaneously claiming that the tapes had been fake. Directly following the corruption probe Erdoğan began a massive restructuring of the police and judiciary, demoting, firing, and relocating some 3,000 civil servants.
The true scope of the Gülen movement’s influence came into focus in March of 2014; some three months after the corruption probe began. At this time, an audio recording was released on YouTube, which allegedly featured talks between high-ranking military officials, the head of MIT, Hakan Fidan, and the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu.
In these tapes, a person alleged to be Fidan is heard musing over the possibility of orchestrating a ‘false-flag’ operation in Syria, in which he would send several covert operatives to attack Turkish positions in the hopes of justifying an invasion of the country. Davutoğlu is then heard asking about the specifics regarding international law, to ensure that such an attack would indeed grant them a casus belli.
In response to the release of these tapes Erdoğan banned YouTube in the country, and ordered a media blackout regarding the incident, all the while maintaining that the tapes were fake. The content of the recordings aside, the fact that talks between such high-level members of the Turkish government were being secretly recorded is troublesome from a state-security perspective. If Gülen was in fact behind the release of these tapes his influence is staggering, and provides a real threat to Turkish democracy, not to mention Turkish state security.
President Erdoğan has been working tirelessly to rout out the influence of Gülen from the Turkish government. He has restructured the police and judiciary on several occasions; organized the state take-over of Gülen’s Bank Asya as well as the country’s largest newspaper, Zaman; and has been vocal about Fethullah Gülen’s extradition from the United States on several occasions.
Whether or not Gülen was behind Friday’s attempted coup, his power is real and Erdoğan has had a very difficult time rooting it out. Recent events may provide Erdoğan with the necessary leverage to end the struggle between these two former allies, particularly if the US gives in to the Turkish extradition request. Maybe Gülen is correct in his insinuation that Erdoğan orchestrated the entire event, maybe Erdoğan is correct that Gülen attempted the anti-democratic putsch, or maybe a rogue element of the Turkish military simply possessed itself of some oversized ambitions – in any case, the result is the same.
Be it through expert political manoeuvring, or righteous truth, Erdoğan can now consolidate his control over the various levers of government, and Gülen – as well as the Turkish opposition as a whole – has been put decidedly on the defensive.