A rare defence from a secretive islamic movement of its role in Turkish political life has exposed a rift with prime minister Tayyip Erdogan that could weaken one of modern Turkey’s most powerful leaders.
The spell of Fethullah Gulen, a 72-year-old US-based Islamic preacher with a global network of schools, whose supporters say they number in the millions, has long loomed large over Turkey’s constitutionally-secular state.
His sympathisers, largely drawn from the same religiously-minded professional class which helped sweep Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party to power in 2002, revere Gulen as an enlightened, pro-Western face of progressive Islam.
Secularist Turks see a more sinister agenda, suspecting followers of the reclusive theologian of infiltrating government and cultural institutions, exerting influence over organisations from the police and judiciary to the central bank and media.
Gulen’s followers form a strong constituency at the heart of the AK Party, but their relationship with Erdogan — an autocratic figure who has centralised power around himself over the past decade — is showing signs of strain.
After accusations on social media that it was behind anti-government protests in June, a foundation representing Gulen’s Hizmet movement spoke out to deny any such role.
But in a rare political commentary, it also tacitly chided Erdogan, throwing its weight instead behind president Abdullah Gul, deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc and others who took a markedly more conciliatory tone with the demonstrators.
It said Gul’s comments that democracy was about more than victory at the ballot box, Arinc’s apology for police violence, and a report by AK deputy Idris Bal acknowledging “strategic mistakes” in the government response were “not significantly different from the Hizmet Movement’s views”.
In a speech during the unrest, Gulen himself said protesters should not be dismissed as “capulcu”, which loosely translates as “riff-raff”, a term repeatedly used by Erdogan.
“When the protest first began, it was completely peaceful and solely about the environment,” the Journalists and Writers Foundation, which has Gulen as its honorary leader, said.
“At this early stage, some people sympathetic to the Hizmet Movement may have looked supportively on the protests out of personal choice,” it said, adding this in no way suggested it was “involved in a conspiracy” supporting the demonstrations.
Viewed by his followers as a tolerant, moderating force in global Islam, Gulen is also spreading the influence of a country strategically positioned between Europe and Asia, promoting Turkish language and culture through his network of schools.
His influence over politics at home is a constant source of speculation in Turkish society.
Erdogan himself made clear his relationship with the Gulen movement was an issue he preferred to keep out of the public eye. Asked about his statement at a news conference on 15 August, he said: “I believe conducting these matters via the media is wrong, and I’m not saying anything else.”
Erdogan has won three elections in a row and presided over an economic boom. On the electoral map nearly all of the country — apart from the Aegean coast, the mainly Kurdish southeast corner and a small region on the European continent — is AK Party orange and he is expected to run for president in 2015.
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