Fethullah Gulen’s Race to the Top Is Over
The Turkish cleric's decades-long plan to use schools to acquire political power and cultural influence has ended in shambles.
“Like a cancer, this virus has metastasized,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech days after Turkey’s attempted coup. The virus to which he referred was the followers of the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom he blames for orchestrating the attempt to topple him from power.
Turkey’s newly declared state of emergency has armed the government with the powers to purge Gulenists across all state institutions: More than 10,000 military personnel, including 151 generals and admirals, as well as about 3,000 police have been arrested or are now in custody, pending investigation.
But the chemotherapy appears to be focusing on education. Of the 67,000 people suspended in the first 10 days of the state of emergency, at least 42,700 are from the Ministry of National Education. By decree, 1,043 private schools have been closed and expropriated, and 15 universities and 109 student dormitories have been closed. All of the country’s 1,577 university deans have been asked to resign, though many presumably will be allowed back once their records are cleared. Meanwhile, Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz has announced that the government will hire more than 20,000 new teachers this year to make up for the loss.
Education features so prominently in the government’s response to the failed coup attempt because the Gulenists have a decades-long commitment to building a network of schools in Turkey and around the world, which has been crucial for their efforts to expand their influence. Turkey’s political class may not have created the Gulen movement, but it allowed it to move into the state apparatus relatively unhindered. It is now determined to cut it out and is starting with the part that feeds the rest: education.
Like many of Turkey’s religious movements, the Gulenist network represents a reaction to the formation of modern Turkey as a secular republic in 1923. It traces its origins to Said Nursi, a polymath known for his prodigious memory and Gandhi-like resolve who built a movement that engaged in civil disobedience against the secular government.
After Nursi’s death, several religious communities based on his teachings took form. Only one grew beyond its provincial origins — the community nurtured by Fethullah Gulen, who was 25 years old when he first went to the coastal city of Izmir and established himself as an imam known for his emotional style. “He would always cry during his sermons,” an octogenarian who attended a few during the 1960s told one of the authors.
But Gulen also had a unique charisma, and his sermons quickly became popular throughout the region. Nearly all were recorded in audio and later video format and made the rounds among the faithful. Gulen was a state-sanctioned imam at the time and did not come out openly against the Kemalist order — but, being part of the Nursi tradition, he did not condone it either.
Starting in the late 1960s, his followers set themselves apart from other religious communities by emphasizing secondary and higher education. Unlike other religious communities, the Gulenists’ educational system reached into all aspects of life. Each boy would be assigned an abi, or “older brother,” who would mentor him in his studies and also endeavor to shape his character. When girls were incorporated, they were each assigned an abla, meaning “older sister.” They would be typically only a few years older than their pupil, such as a university student mentoring a high school student. This gave members of the movement a strong sense of belonging throughout their lives and established a clear hierarchy and ideological unity.
On Turkey’s political spectrum, the Gulenists were clearly political Islamists. It was their secrecy that made them stand out: Whereas most of Turkey’s Islamists openly resisted secularism through grassroots organization and participation in the democratic system, the Gulen movement sought to subvert secularism. Move “within the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence,” Gulen advised his followers during a now-infamous sermon.
This process should continue, Gulen went on, until his followers had amassed extraordinary influence. “You must wait until such time as you have all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey,” he counseled in the same sermon.
In Gulenist literature, those who will take the reins of the state when this time comes are among the “Golden Generation.” These people have the resolve to “cross over seas of filth,” meaning secular sin, while remaining pure in their intentions and thus bring about a kind of utopia.
But to play the long game, the movement needed a broader base in society, and the key to that was institutional education. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Gulen movement focused on training world-class teachers who could recruit children into their cause.
“I scored high enough in my university entrance exam to get into medical school, but the jamaat [a common phrase for the Gulenist movement] asked me to become a teacher, so that’s what I did,” a teacher who used to work in a Gulenist school said in an interview. As is typical for Gulenists, these teachers were willing to make huge material sacrifices over long periods of time, motivated by the status they attained in the movement and the prospect of religious fulfillment.
As the numbers of Gulenist teachers grew, they spilled over into the private sector. An extensive network of Gulenist student dorms and camps prepared students for university exams and gave them a sense of community. Most important, however, were the “cram schools” that Turkish students attend in order to prepare for university examinations. Students are usually under great pressure during the year they study for these examinations, since they determine the quality of their university degrees and, to some extent, professional lives. Although the curriculum of Gulenist cram schools was similar to that of others, it also exposed students to an environment where they would be assigned an abi or abla. These elder figures would invite the students to their homes for tutoring sessions, where they would pray together and be exposed to Gulenist books and sermons.
Over time, a certain mold began to emerge — Gulenist students were known to be pious, hard-working, punctual, and accomplished in math and the hard sciences. This made them excellent candidates for jobs in the government’s technical departments, such as the treasury and central bank, and allowed them to rise up fast in other institutions, like the police.
By 1992, the movement had enough experienced teachers to found its first schools abroad, in the newly independent Central Asian republics. At this point, the movement was funding its activities to a large extent through so-called “aid meetings” (himmet toplantisi), where sympathetic businessmen would come together to listen to private religious sermons and were asked to contribute large sums to the movement in the presence of others. As the movement expanded abroad, each Turkish city’s followers were made responsible for Gulenist activities in a different foreign country. Over time, these schools would spread across the world: Today, the movement boasts more than 2,000 schools in 160 different countries.
These schools became known for their emphasis on mathematics and the natural sciences. Education is not necessarily Islamic, but the quality is so high that they have become places where the elite send their kids to be disciplined — and where poor, bright children are given scholarships and a chance at success. Turkish politicians began to support these schools as beacons of Turkey’s growing “soft power” in the region.
Though the Gulen movement was on good terms with various governments, the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) that rose to power in 2002 became its first true ally. For more than a decade under AKP rule, Gulenist educational institutions thrived. The group’s reach into the bureaucracy also rose to unprecedented heights. Gulenists were especially strong in the police and judiciary and used those arms of the state to libel and imprison those who opposed their network. Some of this was in line with the AKP’s policies, such as the infamous Sledgehammer and Ergenekon cases, which charged high-ranking military officers with plotting a coup using fake evidence. Other notable figures, such as investigative journalists Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik and former police chief Hanefi Avci, were jailed on false evidence simply for writing negatively about Gulenists.
By the early 2010s, the Gulenist influence began to worry the AKP government. It had become like an invisible circle choking the government’s presence in key parts of the state.
When Erdogan finally moved against the Gulenists, he tried to hit them where it hurt — by targeting their influence over educational institutions. In 2013, he proposed closing down all private cram schools in the country, thus cutting off the Gulenists’ primary source of human capital. Without its educational infrastructure to mass-produce followers, the Gulen movement would be just another religious community in Turkey — a jamaat rather than the jamaat. Gulenists were unable to accept that and fired their first salvo against Erdogan in December of that year. Using its network in the police and other branches of government, it released audio recordings implicating senior government figures in corruption, bribery, money laundering, and inciting war in Syria.
Erdogan then made clear that battle lines had been drawn. No longer were the Gulenists going to be allowed to pull the strings of power from behind the curtain. “We will bring out into the open this structure,” he said, “which is a state within the state.”
But even in the midst of this impending battle, there was a last-ditch attempt to mend fences between the AKP government and Gulen. Fehmi Koru, a journalist close to both sides who, in full disclosure, is the uncle of one of the authors of this article, met with then-Prime Minister Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul and was dispatched to Pennsylvania — where Gulen lives in exile — to talk peace. Koru writes in his tell-all book that Gulen gave him a letter to deliver back to Ankara imploring the government to ease its grip on the schools. “It was transmitted to our prime minister that we do not desire the closing of institutions [cram schools] beneficial to the public and that we desire their continuation under their present mission,” Gulen stated in his letter.
But the rivalry between the groups had taken on a momentum of its own, and the bureaucratic shadow duel soon turned into open war. In the following years, the government declared the Gulen movement a terrorist organization and began to put pressure on Gulen-linked businesses, media outlets, and other institutions. The cram schools, as per Erdogan’s initial proposition, were closed down. The government also began to roll back the Gulen network’s 25-year presence across its entire apparatus — with the notable exception of the military, where, due to the institution’s secular sensibilities, Gulenists were often said to have entered secretly.
The feud also exposed the Gulenist educational system to corruption allegations. In 2015, Turkish officials investigated Gulenists for cheating on civil service exams, claiming that bureaucrats with access to the exam questions passed them to the educational arm of the network before test dates. There have been several waves of arrests of people who have allegedly perpetrated this crime, resulting in more than 3,200 ongoing trials and several civil servants whose examinations have been deemed void as a result of the scandal.
Government officials confirmed to the authors that they were compiling a list of Gulenists in various sectors, including education, long before the attempted coup. But Turkey’s new state of emergency has given them the authority to purge these remaining Gulenists from state institutions.
At present, the government does not seem to believe that all Gulenists are pro-coup infiltrators and does not formally accuse them of involvement in the coup, yet it sees their continued presence in the public sector as a national security risk. Given the public consensus in Turkey that the Gulenists were indeed behind the coup, this purge has received the passive support of the opposition. No matter what happens next, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people will lose their jobs as Erdogan makes a clean sweep.
The critical question at this stage is to what extent the government will abuse its state-of-emergency mandate and start to purge non-Gulenists. So far, this has not happened. For example, the 16,000 members of Egitim Sen, a leftist teacher’s union that has been under heavy investigation since January, have been left untouched. If the government oversteps those lines, there will certainly be public uproar about an abuse of power, and the anti-Gulen consensus that keeps the peace will disappear.
There is a real risk that the government will indeed go too far. Erdogan’s followers have taken to the airwaves and newspaper columns to smear former statesmen — including former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan. National Movement Party insurgent Meral Aksener, who billed herself as a serious challenger to the ruling party, has perhaps had the worst of it. Despite having come out against the coup in its early minutes, pro-government media have largely been successful in making her out to be in favor of Erdogan’s toppling. If the government fails to contain this trend and allows the anti-Gulen purges to sweep up the ruling party’s legitimate political opponents, wider unrest could ensue.
What appears certain is that the government will do its best to erase any Gulenist influence within Turkey’s corridors of power. The Gulenists’ remaining educational institutions will be disbanded and, with them, the future of the movement in its home country aborted. Education policy has long been an afterthought to Turkey’s politicians. They will now pay closer attention to ensure that no other religious or political group ever takes advantage of that deficit.
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