Why Fethullah Gülen Is Important To The Turkish Coup

Nov 21, 2013 at 7:53 AM ET

Early in 2013, thousands thronged Istanbul’s Gezi Park, demonstrating against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the brash Turkish leader who has dominated the country for more than a decade. Yet it’s not the protesters in the park who pose the biggest threat to Turkey’s conservative government; it’s a cadre of rival Islamists, led by a mysterious preacher—who lives in rural Pennsylvania.

The preacher, Fethullah Gülen, 72, is known as “The Billy Graham of Turkey.” And though he lives in a resort-like enclave in the heart of the Poconos, he’s the spiritual leader of the nation’s largest religious movement. For the past 40 years, Gülen and his followers have spread their brand of modern, moderate Islam by establishing schools in Turkey and more than 100 countries around the world. Since 2002, they’ve been allied with Erdoğan and his cohorts in the Justice and Development PartyBut the two groups, which have very different political ideas, have become openly hostile since the Turkish government started trying to shut down the nation’s various private tutoring programs.

Gülenists say these programs help underprivileged students prepare for the country’s notoriously difficult college entrance exams. They say their movement isn’t political; they simply want to maintain social mobility in a country where inequality remains stark. Yet the government says these schools are unnecessary and a financial burden to families. On Wednesday, Erdoğan said in a televised interview that he was committed to shutting these programs down, adding that the Gülenists “should stop this smear campaign.”

What really appears to be going on, analysts say, is a power play. The schools comprise part of the backbone of Gülen’s shadowy evangelical network. No one knows exactly how Gülenist organizations are funded or who is in charge, but Gülen supporters have major business interests throughout the country, including newspapers and TV stations. They also appear to have a strong presence in Turkey’s courts and on the police force. This influence combined with the group’s reputation for secrecy is probably the real reason Erdoğan wants to keep them in check. “No society would accept such a powerful structure to be that opaque,” says Hakan Altinay, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Another reason: In February, 2012 a prosecutor summoned Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s intelligence service, to testify about his secret negotiations with the PKK, the armed Kurdish movement that’s been fighting the Turkish government for decades. This may seem innocent enough, but with the Gülenists’ judiciary influence, and because Fidan is one of the prime minister’s most trusted aides, Erdoğan saw this as a personal attack. He made it illegal to interrogate the intelligence chief without his consent. And in November 2013, Gülen, who is known for keeping a low profile, called Erdoğan a “pharaoh” in a video on his website.

For about a decade, Erdoğan and Gülen had political allies, with a shared goal of reducing the power of the military and narrowing the separation between mosque and state. It was a long distance “friendship”: In 1999, Gülen moved to the U.S., his supporters say, to seek treatment for heart troubles, but soon after his departure, he was charged with trying to overthrow the secular state.

Erdoğan later ousted those secular leaders and the Turkish state has long since dropped the charges against Gülen, who remains in the U.S. But some wonder if he’s still in his woodsy retreat because he’s worried about any political or legal consequences should he return home.

Now, with the prime minister in no hurry to share power, the only alternative for the Gülenists is to back one of Erdoğan’s rivals. President Abdullah Gül, a moderate in both style and substance, is the most obvious choice. As next year’s decisive election draws near, he can expect support from the unlikely Turkish outpost of Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania.