WikiLeaked: 5 Things to Know About the Islamist Empire Trying to Take Down Erdogan

If the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan falls, a large portion of the blame — or credit, depending on your perspective — will lie with a little-known Muslim cleric named Fethullah Gulen and his shadowy, globe-spanning empire. Over the past decade, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been in ...

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images
OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

If the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan falls, a large portion of the blame — or credit, depending on your perspective — will lie with a little-known Muslim cleric named Fethullah Gulen and his shadowy, globe-spanning empire. Over the past decade, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been in a quiet struggle with Gulen’s followers for control of the country’s Islamist politics. That’s a battle that’s mostly taken place behind closed doors — but not anymore.

As a central player in Turkish politics, Gulen has frequently gained the attention of U.S. officials, both in Washington and Turkey. As detailed in the 155 diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks which mention him, U.S. officials have struggled to make sense of the man, but their collected writings on Gulen provide a snapshot of how deeply he and his followers have penetrated the Turkish state and illustrate what a severe threat he poses to the Erdogan government.

Here are five takeaways from Gulen’s appearances in the WikiLeaks cables.

This isn’t the first time the Gulen Movement has taken on Erdogan and the AKP.

The Gulen movement frequently claims it is not a political organization, but it’s generally acknowledged that Gulen’s followers are disproportionately represented in Turkey’s National Police. One U.S. embassy cable from 2009 states that "the assertion that the [Turkish National Police, TNP] is controlled by Gulenists is impossible to confirm but we have found no one who disputes it, and we have heard accounts that TNP applicants who stay at Gulenist pensions are provided the answers in advance to the TNP entrance exam." In 2005, two years into Erdogan’s term and during an early spate of Gulenist disillusionment with the AKP, a TNP corruption investigation began honing in on AKP officials. The Erdogan government intervened, transferring the head of the TNP’s organized crime office to a regional outpost — and off the case. According to a June 2005 U.S. embassy cable, the transfer was arranged by Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu, whose "Kurdish favoritism, reported ties to the heroin trade, well-known predilection for teenage girls, and his son’s open Mafia links make him a weak link in the cabinet."

As corruption investigations are again targeting AKP leaders, Erdogan has once again gone back to his 2005 playbook and begun transferring and outright firing corruption investigators in the Turkish National Police.

The Gulen Movement and the AKP had a common enemy … but not anymore.

After the 2005 corruption investigation, the Gulenist pressure on the AKP seems to have slackened, and before long they found a common enemy again: the deep state, a concept which in Turkey typically refers to a cabal of powerful secular nationalists, predominantly in the military, who have periodically ousted Islamist-leaning governments in Ankara. Both the AKP and the Gulen Movement were once targets of Turkey’s secularist establishment. The Gulenists in the TNP turned their attentions to anti-democratic forces within the military and, as detailed in U.S. embassy cables, in 2008 began targeting the deep state with indictments. Documents detailing an alleged planned coup to oust the AKP and undermine the Gulen Movement were leaked to Gulenist newspapers, which ran with the story. That led to the country’s landmark Ergenekon trials and the conviction of about 330 military officers.

The Gulen Movement is a quiet-but-powerful business, media, and education empire.

At the heart of the Gulenist Movement is Gulen himself, a cleric and a former member of Turkey’s state-backed professional religious establishment, the Diyanet, who ran afoul of the government in the 1980s for sermons that secularist officials felt went too far. He was brought up on charges under Turkey’s extremely broad anti-terrorism law for comments that "our friends, who have positions in legislative and administrative bodies, should learn its details and be vigilant all the time so they can transform [the bureaucracy] and be more fruitful on behalf of Islam in order to carry out a nationwide restoration." (Turkish secularists feared such sermons came a little too close to suggesting infiltrating and undermining Turkey’s secular state.) 

U.S. embassy cables, citing Turkish sources knowledgeable about the movement, estimate the movement may have anywhere from 2 million to 5 million adherents. Many of them are well-placed, holding public office or working in the police or judiciary. The organization supports a number of entrepreneurial ventures, and much of the movement’s wealth — which is thought to be a considerable fortune, the size of which is masked by the variety of charitable interests through which it filters — stems from convoluted business conglomerations and trade associations. Gulenist businessmen have paid forward this noblesse by establishing a network of science-focused schools around the world, particularly in Central Asia and Africa, but also in the United States.

Gulenist school advocates have said that they are based on Gulen’s teachings. Teachers at a Gulen school in Ankara stressed to embassy officials that "this is not a political movement." Instead, they said, schools are based on the vague, mystic adages of Gulen that "whomever is not everywhere is nowhere" and that "you must be globalized to be localized." That’s hard to square with admissions that Gulenists have made in less guarded moments, though — like when the head of a Gulenist-affiliated journalist association, the Journalists and Writers Foundation, "openly credited Fethullah Gulen with the vision to open schools in Central Asian countries just after the fall of the USSR. The reason was straightforward: beat the Iranians to Central Asia with the ‘smiling face of Islam’ Turkish style." Statements like that have worried Central Asian governments and the spread of schools has been a consistent sore point in Turkey’s relations with the region.

The AKP and Gulenists are in an ideological battle over what the future of political Islam in Turkey should be.

As the AKP was elected to office in 2002 and 2003, it did so with the support of the Gulen Movement, and several prominent Gulenists were given key posts in the new government. Around the same time, in March 2003, Gulen was acquitted of terrorism charges, though he has chosen to remain in the United States since first arriving for medical treatment in 1999. Initially, their cooperation seemed strong: In the early months of the AKP government, politicians began discussing a voucher program to make Gulenist private schools accessible to more students.

But then Gulenist politicians in the party reportedly pressed the government to move forward with morality reforms, like a controversial law to ban adultery, before the AKP leadership felt it was ready. By the end of 2004, Gulenist politicians began telling U.S. officials that they were "ambivalent" about Erdogan and the AKP. A leading Gulenist, "said to have influence over 60 or more AKP" members of parliament, "expressed to [to embassy officials] the Gulenists’ sense that Erdogan cannot hack it." Then came the TNP’s 2005 aborted corruption probe of the AKP. The Gulenists and AKP leadership managed to patch things up while they tackled the country’s secularist military, but now that alliance of convenience has come to an end.

Though both the AKP and Gulenists profess to be moderate political Islamist movements, they draw their inspiration from different ideological traditions. The AKP’s leadership adheres to a different core belief, Milli Gorus or "the National View," an ideology descended from ousted Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan which has been described as "Turkey’s version of political Islam with anti-Western and pan-Islamic overtones." Gulen’s following is founded on the work of turn-of-the-century Kurdish Sufi scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi and places more emphasis on cultural outreach with the world. While the difference is a nuance to outsiders, the ideological split has been a wedge in the AKP from the start, and the Milli Gorus leadership of the party has consistently rankled the Gulenists in the government.

No one can get a straight answer out of the Gulen Movement, and that’s left many worried about its intentions.

Despite living in the United States for more than a decade, the cables from the U.S. embassy in Ankara exposed by WikiLeaks show that the U.S. government is still struggling to understand the motives and interests of the Gulen movement, and even Gulen himself. He "was born between 1938-1942" one cable states, noting that "varying dates have been given." In another, embassy officials say that they couldn’t get a straight answer on information as simple as Gulen’s marital status.

Some of the organization’s secrecy can be explained by the caution it learned while being persecuted by secularist Turkish authorities in the 1990s, but that hasn’t put U.S. officials at ease. In May 2006, the U.S. consulate in Ankara filed a lengthy cable detailing the strange dissembling and obfuscation that characterized Gulenists’s visa applications and trends that suggested that they had been coached both to hide their Gulen affiliation and on how to make their applications more successful.

The secrecy with which Gulen operates has been fodder for conspiracy theories. Some of his Islamist detractors believe Gulen is a U.S.-funded mole in the religious establishment, trying to disrupt the ranks of political Islam from within; secularists fear he is a "scheming crypto-Mullah, plotting to turn Turkey into a sharia-based Islamic state little different than Iran." Not even the Gulen Movement’s friends completely trust its intentions. In public, Gulen has professed a belief in an open, inclusive, democratic society, and the movement maintains close ties with the Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities in Turkey, but when Gulen approached Istanbul’s chief rabbi in 2005 for a letter of support to help Gulen extend his stay in the United States, the rabbi told U.S. officials in private that he was wary of the movement’s ultimate intentions.

*Disclosure: The Alliance for Shared Values, a non-profit organization associated with the Gulen movement, has sponsored several events hosted by Foreign Policy.

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster