Gulen comments further threaten Turkish stability

Gulen comments further threaten Turkish stability

Words from the influential preacher Fethullah Gulen from his recluse in a town in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania recently plunged the Turkish state into further political crisis.

In a rare interview to the Wall Street Journal, Fethullah Gulen’s resounding statements signify that the relationship between the cleric and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to unravel. The once close alliance ushered in a period of development and prosperity in Turkey. However, as this key partnership now coming to an end, Turkish political stability is under serious threat.

Erdogan’s premiership has been praised for developing the Turkish economy and elevating the voice of Ankara on the world stage. However, amid a series of corruption probes, which began in June of last year, Erdogan and the AKP are quickly losing popularity. The latest outbreak by Gulen, a preacher with a worldwide following, will further cement Erdogan’s descent from popularity.

Gulen accuses Erdogan of abandoning reform and reversing the democratic progress, which was welcomed so fervently by the Turkish people and the international community. To Gulen, the Prime Minister has purged Turkey of individuals based on their ideologies and affinities – a practice of the past, which he argues has resurfaced. During the interview, Gulen insisted that any alliance formed with his movement, known as Cemaat (and internally as Hizmat), is based on “sharing values of democracy, universal human rights and freedom – never for political parties or candidates.”

Gulen’s movement began during the 1960s through the Imam’s popular sermons, his following initially focused on making education more accessible across Turkey. His followers, known as the Gulenists, grew in number and power, founding businesses across the nation and benefiting from the economic liberalization of the 1980s. The companies of Gulenists became the largest and most successful in Turkey, including the biggest business corporation Tuskon, which comprises 55,000 companies, as well as the largest newspaper in Turkey, Zaman.

In 2000, a video featuring Gulen encouraging his followers to infiltrate the Turkish state resulted in a treason charge for the popular preacher. Gulen denied the charges, but despite being acquitted in 2006 he has remained in self-inflicted exile in the US. The imam preaches his message of religious tolerance and democratic values via internet sermons and the books he has written. The powerful figure now has a following of two million people, and a further two million sympathisers across the globe.

The worsening rift between the two powerful leaders comes during an uncertain period for Turkey. Amid the corruption probes and questions regarding the direction of the Turkish government, a number of economic issues loom over the state and worry investors.

The Turkish Lira is at a record low, private savings have fallen while borrowing costs have soared. Turkish exports are shrinking, as are foreign investment and stocks. Furthermore, the US Federal Reserve has decreased their stimulus package, while constraints on the Central Bank prevent a significant interest increase, leaving little room for manoeuvring against further declines.

With the breakdown of an alliance that was once central to the incumbent party, Gulenists in various powerful posts have now turned their backs against Erdogan and the AKP. Gulen, who has a number of followers in the police force and the judiciary, is accused of threatening the government through his influence and followers, and attempting a coup. The imam has denied such accusations, claiming that he would never attempt to derail the Turkish state.

Erdogan argues that the Cemaat has created a “state within a state” and claims that the corruption probes are part of a conspiracy to destabilize the nation. As Erdogan responds with further targeting of the Cemaat, such as the arrest of 2000 police officers and closing down companies and schools operated by the movement, further public dissent is in the cards for the incumbent prime minister.

About Author

Elizabeth Matsangou

Elizabeth works as International Account Manager for an environmental technologies company and has previously worked for a political consultancy company in Westminster and for Intelligence Squared, a forum for live debates. She received a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Essex and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.