Turkey’s Inside Man
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hunting down his Gulenist opponents in the media, and one high-profile turncoat may be his secret weapon.
In the informal hierarchy of the Gulen movement — a powerful if opaque Islamic group with numerous followers in Turkey’s media, police, and judiciary — Huseyin Gulerce used to be as close as it gets to the top. In the 1990s, he headed Zaman, a top-selling Gulenist newspaper currently in the crosshairs of a government-backed terror probe, and the Writers and Journalists Foundation, the movement’s public relations arm.
He first met the movement’s leader, the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, in the summer of 1980. During his years as editor of Zaman, he says, the pair would meet every week. After Gulen moved to the United States in 1999, fleeing charges of conspiring to overthrow Turkey’s secular order, of which he was later acquitted, Gulerce traveled to see him “twice per year, on average,” he says. He became known, at least in those days, as Gulen’s point man in Turkey.
Gulerce, 65, still looks back fondly on his early days with the Gulenists as a teacher. “They opened dorms and gave college prep courses, took an interest in students.… Then they began to promote dialogue, universal values, love and respect, they embraced everyone, people of different faiths and beliefs,” he says. “I figured I had to be part of this, that this kind of movement was exactly what I’d been looking for.”
Today, Gulerce finds himself at the heart of an investigation poised to deal a potentially fatal blow to the movement and to press freedoms in Turkey. On Dec. 14, he was detained, along with 26 Gulen sympathizers, on charges of founding a terrorist group.
On the face of it, the suspects — who include journalists working for Gulenist media outlets, police officials, and even the producer of a fictional TV drama — are being accused of attempting to frame a rival Islamic sect, the so-called Annotators, as an al Qaeda offshoot. According to most observers, however, they are paying the price for exposing, and perhaps engineering, a December 2013 corruption scandal that implicated a number of top officials, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On Dec. 19, a Turkish prosecutor raised the stakes even further by requesting an arrest warrant for Gulen himself, who resides in Pennsylvania. The same day, a Turkish court ordered that eight suspects in the investigation be released from custody, including the current editor of Zaman.
The arrests have provoked a wave of criticism from the United States, the European Union, and a who’s who list of human rights organizations. The EU’s foreign policy chief and enlargement commissioner called the police operation “against the European values and standards Turkey aspires to be part of,” while Human Rights Watch warned that the arrests would “chill free speech.”
Such criticism seems to have made no impression on Erdogan. “The EU should mind its own business,” he said recently. “You can come here so that Turkey gives you a lesson in democracy,” he later added. As the Turkish leader and other officials see it, the 2013 bribery scandal, which began with a series of high-profile arrests followed by a torrent of leaked phone conversations featuring cabinet ministers and construction magnates, among others, was nothing short of a coup by Gulen followers in the Turkish bureaucracy. Having dismantled the original corruption investigation earlier this year by replacing or reshuffling tens of thousands of police officials, judges, and prosecutors, Erdogan insists he has every right to continue hunting down the Gulenists “in their lairs,” as he puts it.
That’s where Gulerce comes in. The man once known as the Gulen movement’s spokesperson might be a suspect in the new investigation — but in the context of a wider crackdown, he is more likely to be used as a weapon than as a target. That is because, for a government hell-bent on wiping the movement off Turkey’s political map, Gulerce is the rarest, most precious of finds — a high-profile Gulenist defector.
Gulerce began to have second thoughts in the winter of 2012, he says, when Gulenist prosecutors tried, in vain, to subpoena Turkey’s intelligence chief and Erdogan’s trusted ally, Hakan Fidan. The move, he now believes, was the opening salvo in what has since turned into a fight to the finish between the government and the movement. “Until then Gulen had never challenged any ruling power in Turkey,” he says.
In the aftermath of the December 2013 corruption scandal, Gulerce began to sever his links with Gulen. “I made a decision, I said these guys are entering into a war with the government…. The movement lost its attraction for me,” he says. This spring, he resigned from both Zaman and the Writers and Journalists Foundation. “I no longer have any relation to the movement.”
Today, Gulerce has switched sides completely. Like Erdogan, he describes the 2013 investigation as a failed coup, and says its purpose was to cause the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to stumble in the March 30 local elections. “The goal was to prevent Erdogan from becoming president,” he says. If so, the plan failed spectacularly: The AKP won by a wide margin, capturing more than 40 percent of the vote. In August, Erdogan coasted to victory in the presidential elections, and then declared open season on the Gulenists.
The jury is out on whether Gulerce broke with the movement out of conviction or out of fear of Erdogan’s wrath. In a November interview, Zaman’s current editor, Ekrem Dumanli, the most prominent of the Gulenists arrested on Sunday, suggested his former colleague was simply an opportunist. “He changes his convictions about the movement, he changes his convictions about the prime minister,” he said. “Is that a sign of intellectual conviction, of intellectual courage?”
Gulerce himself is a suspect in the current investigation — he spoke to Foreign Policy hours after giving his testimony to prosecutors. He says his detention was caused by a column he penned four days after Gulen made a statement condemning the Annotators, which led prosecutors to believe he was still in league with the Gulenists. In reality, however, he has little sympathy for his detained ex-colleagues: Echoing claims made by prosecutors and pro-AKP pundits, he believes media outlets like Zaman and Samanyolu, a TV station, launched a smear campaign against Gulen’s rivals through news articles and, for good measure, a soap opera.
“A civil society group that gets into intelligence, wiretapping, and organizing a state within the bureaucracy, that has no place in a democracy,” Gulerce says.
After decades of working by his side, Gulerce now paints Gulen as someone who exercises absolute authority over his flock. “The movement never acted on its own … Gulen took all the decisions, he issued all of the orders,” he says. “Gulen speaks about Erdogan growing increasingly authoritarian, but he himself is the best example of authoritarianism.” While at Zaman, he remembers Gulen as having the last word on all editorial decisions. “He checked the headlines, the columns, the news, and he censored everything he did not like.”
Asked whether Gulen himself ought to be included in the ongoing investigation, Gulerce treads carefully, musing about the difficulty of convincing the United States to extradite the elderly preacher. “But if all this is proven he will be detained of course, he will have to be detained,” he finally says, before taking a step back. “Well, that’s what the prosecution is saying.”