Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is in the toughest fight of his political career. He is punching above his weight by challenging the network of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish preacher with enormous wealth and support. The feud between the two is based on three factors: Power, Iran and ideology.
Some background is necessary to understand the conflict. Gulen is a Sufi-influenced preacher with millions of followers, billions of dollars and an empire of media outlets, schools and businesses. He is the most influential Muslim in the U.S. and is rated as the 11th most influential Muslim in the world. Erdogan is in sixth place.
Gulen fled to the U.S. in 1999 when the then-secular regime of Turkey accused him of trying to overthrow the government. A speech of his was aired where he told followers to change Turkey’s secular order by secretly infiltrating the institutions of power. Gulen says the footage was altered to slander him.
This strategy of "gradualism" was followed by Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) until they were elected into power in 2002. Gulen’s network is widely understood to have helped Erdogan achieve this victory. In fact, many members of Erdogan’s AKP are followers of Gulen.
The first sign of a rift came in 2010. Erdogan ferociously attacked Israel for a raid on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship that tried to break the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip. Gulen distanced himself, criticizing the mission and Israel’s response to it.
In 2011, government prosecutors wanted to investigate Erdogan’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan. Erdogan intervened to stop it. This was interpreted by some as a power grab by Gulenists, as they are known to have spread throughout the security services. In December 2012, a recorder was found hidden in Erdogan’s office, again raising suspicion about the Gulenists.
When anti-government protests erupted this summer, Gulen said the Erdogan government needed to recognize their legitimate gripes. However, he also said the youthful demonstrators were part of a “wrecked generation” and urged his followers to “rehabilitate hearts.”
The final straw came in November 2013 when Erdogan’s government announced a plan to shut down prep schools that are a centerpiece of the Gulen empire. Even in the U.S., Gulen runs the country’s largest charter school network.
Gulen-linked media outlets then triggered a political firestorm by publishing a secret document signed by Erdogan showing he planned to confront Gulen’s infrastructure as early as 2004.
On December 17, the Turkish security forces arrested dozens of Erdogan allies as part of a corruption investigation. The investigation had been proceeding in secret for almost two years. Without mentioning him by name, Erdogan clearly accused Gulen of making a “parallel state” and falsifying charges. Of course, because Erdogan is an Islamist, he also blamed the U.S. and Israel.
Erdogan retaliated by firing dozens of security officials, including the Istanbul police chief that led the investigation. The public outrage was uncontainable, so Erdogan replaced 10 ministers on December 26 and proclaimed, “We have weeded out the bad among us.”
That was not an admission of fault; he still blamed an international conspiracy. The new interior minister said, “This is almost a coup to topple the government.” His government says the conspirators have done $100 billion in damage to the economy.
The political eruption continues. The number of AKP parliamentarians that have resigned to protest Erdogan has climbed to six.
Gulen staunchly denies any involvement in the arrests, but whether he was directly involved or not is almost irrelevant. Gulen and Erdogan are at each other’s throats, no matter what the truth is. Gulen’s official website is full of anti-AKP and anti-Erdogan statements.
The Gulenists helped the AKP come to power in Turkey, and so it begs the question of why their differences have escalated to this point. There are three possible underlying factors.
The first reason is power and politics. The Gulenists are unhappy about Erdogan’s tightening grip on the country. Turkey now imprisons more reporters than any other country. Local elections are scheduled for March 30 and the Gulenists, who do not have a political party for themselves, may want to see AKP’s wings clipped by having other parties gain influence.
There is also the upcoming presidential race. The Gulenists look upon President Gul favorably, and he is interested in running for re-election. However, Erdogan’s term expires in 2015 and he is not ruling out a presidential bid, either. It’s possible that the two will avoid a contest by passing the Premiership to Gul and the presidential nomination to Erdogan.
The second reason may be Iran. Erdogan is trying to move Turkey closer to Iran, and it is probably not a coincidence that Iran plays a central role in the corruption probe.
The CEO of Halkbank, an Erdogan ally, was arrested for allegedly taking bribes from an Iranian businessman. The Iranian also allegedly bribed three of Erdogan’s ministers through their sons. Altogether, $64.5 million was distributed to undermine international sanctions on Iran by selling gold.
The scheme involved Turkey purchasing Iranian natural gas and oil. Since Iran is barred from buying gold in dollars and euros, Erdogan’s government agreed to accept Turkish currency to pay for gold purchases. At least $13 billion of gold was sold to Iran this way over the past year. A media outlet favorable to Gulen says the grand total could be as high as $119 billion.
Gulen is not a forceful critic of Iran, but an article on his website indicates he is not happy about Turkey’s drift towards Iran. The article states that the corruption scandal isn’t only about ethics. It accuses the Erdogan government of weakening national security by leaving the country vulnerable to Iranian espionage.
Another article argues that Gulen is different than Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the current Iranian regime. Gulen’s Sufi orientation and rhetoric about democracy, human rights and separation of mosque and state put him at odds with the Iranian regime, though some critics question his sincerity about these values.
The third factor is ideology. Gulen presents himself as the moderate Islamic alternative to Erdogan, but the degree to which they differ is up for debate. Gulen’s language is not inflammatory like Erdogan’s, but the aforementioned speech of his and his empire’s overall secrecy is unsettling.
The articles on Gulen’s official website illustrate the difficulties in assessing Gulen’s ideological orientation.
One article published on December 31 says Gulen is “vehemently opposed to the use and abuse of Islam as a political ideology and party philosophy while the latter [Erdogan] sees the religion as an instrument to channel votes and to consolidate his ranks among supporters.”
Yet, another piece says he is an “example of liberal Islamist thinking.” Then that same one says, “Gülen does not favor the state applying Islamic law, the Shari'a,” which is the basis of Islamist thinking.
The feud is giving momentum to the anti-Islamist secularists. The opposition Republican People’s Party is blasting Erdogan for protecting “thieves.” It is an open question whether this signals an ideological shift or whether Turks simply want to swamp one Islamist with another.
Some see Gulen as a masterfully manipulative Islamist and others see him as a genuine reformer and foe of Islamism. Wherever the actual truth is, Erdogan’s political crisis could be the turning point for the once-popular Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood ally.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.