Gulen Movement, civilian governments and the AK Party

Date posted: January 26, 2014


Despite the tensions with the secular military, Fethullah Gulen has remained distant from Islamic parties in Turkey, and has tried to simultaneously maintain ties with the center-right parties, including the social democratic leader Bulent Ecevit. Moreover, Gulen had a cool relationship with the leading late Islamist politician, Necmettin Erbakan, who headed (directly or indirectly) three successive generations of Islamist movements and parties going back to the 1970s: the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi), the Welfare Party, and the Virtue (Fazilet) Party. Gulen has always opposed the idea of an overtly Islamic political party, on several grounds. First, such overt entry into religious politics leads, by definition, to the compromising of faith. Gulen would prefer to exercise influence from a more indirect position, untainted by political log-rolling. Second, entry into politics would shift priorities away from moral principles and ideals toward the goal of winning power-which then drags personal politics, rivalries, and other extraneous factors into the equation. Third, because of the tense standoff between the Turkish military and the Islamic community, any Islamic party in power risks heightening military opposition to the overall Islamic agenda in Turkey.

When Turgut Ozal first became the prime minister of Turkey in the 1980s, Fethullah Gulen developed a close relationship with him. Ozal, arguably the most important Turkish political figure since Ataturk, undertook a major series of reforms, which brought Turkey into the world economy via privatization and an opening of the economy that resulted an extraordinary flowering of Turkish entrepreneurship that is still ongoing. After Ozal’s death, Gulen established good relations with Turkey’s first female Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, whose True Path Party (Dogru Yol) also enjoyed much support from conservative and religious elements in the country, including Nurcu followers. But Gulen later became disillusioned with Ciller and her corruption and extremely opportunistic policies, which courted the military, as often as it did religious circles.

Fethullah Gulen also had closer ties with the coalition government of Bulent Ecevit and Devlet Bahceli of the MHP. In fact, the lower echelons of the MHP are more religiously oriented than the upper echelons, and see Turkish nationalism as inextricably entwined with the glories of Turkey’s Ottoman Islamic past. Due to the military-imposed policies to cleanse Islam from the public sphere, many conservative Turks who voted for the MHP became disillusioned. Since the party leadership supported the military’s crackdown against religion, and did not oppose the anti-headscarf campaign and the proposed laws to purge the bureaucracy of all those with religious affiliations, many among its Anatolian voter base abandoned the MHP and also felt alienated from the Gulen community. The followers of the Gulen movement tend to be pragmatic in their political choices, voting on issues, and local alliances. Religion is not the sole criterion for their support, but they will not support candidates who are openly hostile to religion and they prefer “clean” and politically untarnished candidates. Within that context, votes can go to nearly any party or candidate.

In order to understand the current changing nature of the political engagement of the Gulen community (ie., its close alliance with the AK Party), one needs to understand the changing sociopolitical context, as well as the pressure from the military to eliminate the movement. Since the late 1980s and 1990s, the civilian governments, especially the Mortherland Party (ANAP) of Turgut Ozal, Tansu Ciller of DYP, and Bulent Ecevit of Social Democrats (DSP), have all defended the activities of the Gulen movement from Kemalist hard-liners, for it had strictly adopted a quietist strategy and preferred to focus on informal ties with politicians seeking to remain equidistant from all political parties. This strategy radically changed after the 2002 elections in reaction to the aggressive tactics of the military to overthrow the AK Part government and also to criminalize the social and cultural activities of the Gulen movement. What factors explain this shift from appeasement and accommodation? There are several points that shed light on the current shift. One of them is the collapse of the center-right parties as a result of the 1997 military intervention that targeted their grassroots by eliminating conservative-religious networks. Moreover, a series of secret military plans were leaked to the public. These plans sought to destroy the Gulen movement by falsely linking it to terrorism and illegal activities. This perception of common threat facing both the AK Party and the Gulen community created an alliance against the aggressive Kemalist military and bureaucratic establishment. Third, the harmonization laws, which were required for European Union membership, helped to create a freer political environment for the Gulen movement and others to more openly engage in political activities and its support of the AK Party due to its commitment to the EU process, continued democratization and the rule of law.

Although there are major differences in approach between the AK Party and the Gulen movement when it comes to politics, they are in a symbiotic relationship from which both have often, but not always, benefited. This expedient relationship is a source of concern, if not a fear, for more secular sectors of Turkish society. Although the Gulen movement reluctantly supported the AK Party in 2002 elections due to its skepticism about the AK Party’s overtly political Islamist roots and concerns over the international reaction to an electoral victory of a pro-Islamic Party, it became the major supporter of the AK Party by the next election cycle in the 2007 and 2011 elections. As the Kemalist establishment and its media outlets openly sought to launch another “soft coup,” the Gulen movement this time abandoned appeasement, and used its means to support the AK Party. In spite of this new alliance confronting a common enemy, there are several policy areas over which the Gulen movement and the AK Party are in conflict. Some important AK Party ministers are not happy with the involvement of the Gulenist activists in policy making. Prime Minister Erdogan, who is not a follower of the Gulen movement, and does not want to share power with it, seeks to maintain some distance from it by supporting Cemil Cicek and Besir Atalay, two outspoken critics of Gulen. Since the Gulen movement’s relations with other parties are in a lamentable state at present and Erdogan is wildly popular with its rank and file, he is assured that Gulen lacks an alternative party to the AK Party.

The Gulen community has been main supporter of the AK Party government in terms of votes and its powerful media outlets. The movement has closely allied itself with the government to promote desired legal and administrative changes. Some AK Party government ministers have publicly expressed their opposition against movement’s lobbying activities, and also the recruitment of pro-Gulenist bureaucrats within the state. According to US Embassy reports released by Wikileaks and some retired police chiefs, the Gulen movement is controlling the national police force, and they claim that the movement has also been targeting the judicial branch to gain influence. It is a growing concern on the part of the old establishment that such control over the national police force in Turkey will increase the likelihood that journalists and scholars would face harassment, or even imprisonment, if they dared to write critically of the Gulen movement. On the basis of my interviews I would argue that the movement is indeed more influential within the police force, but claims of its control of the police force are quite exaggerated.

In recent years, there have also been criticisms about the influence of the Gulen movement from within the AK Party government as well. For instance, Cemil Cicek the current speaker of the Parliament, and Besir Atalay, the former Minister of the Interior and current Deputy Prime Minister also stated that the Gulen community is involving itself in the decision-making processes and also recruiting their own followers into the bureaucracy. Indeed, in both cases the Gulen community has been lobbying on a number of issues. Neither Cicek nor Atalay are used to such direct challenges and input from social movements, and they both represent the “old ways of governing the country,” that is, governing without the input of civil society. In my interviews in Ankara, I was surprised to hear how some bureaucrats and ministers were quite critical of the movement. They all criticized the movement’s “lobbying efforts” on a number of issues. These bureaucrats and politicians believe that “bureaucracy” knows what is best for the society and no “lobbying group” should interfere in their decision. A high ranking advisor to the Minister of Interior said:

The movement wants to tell us what is good for the public. When they make an argument in the name of the “public” they mean what is good for them. We the bureaucrats and the AK Party are above all these small interests and can have much healthier judgments of what is good for the public. There is an increasing anger against the movement within the Erdogan government because they interfere with almost every regulation or appointment. I think the perception that the Turkish police force heavily recruited by the followers of the movement is very dangerous for the credibility of the police force in the country.

When I told the advisor, who happens to be a bureaucrat well, that is perfectly normal for the Gulen movement to lobby on public policy as it understands the public interest, he said “yes, but there are no other groups out there in Ankara as powerful as the Gulen movement to balance their power.” The relations between Gulen and the state bureaucracy is a process of ideological struggle, of debate, move and counter-move that have been taking place on a number of levels in the society and the state.

This represents a major paradox in the current AK Party government. They appreciate the support of the Gulen movement, but they are unhappy with the constant engagement of the movement in policy formulation. The old guard of the state treats all forms of grassroots movements and pressure as a threat to the autonomy of the state. There are major disagreements between the old guard, which stresses that the public good is best defended and defined by the bureaucracy and the new understanding of bottom-up politics; that the public is the people and they should organize and get the bureaucracy to do what is best for them. The main source of disagreement between the movement and the current AK Party government is over the role of social groups in politics and the movement’s insistence that electoral success does not bring an end to politics. The movement has been successful not only in pushing the military back into barracks and demilitarizing the political landscape, but also in introducing a new form of politics by actively engaging with decision makers to shape the policies of the government. The movement believes that the bureaucrats are there to serve the needs of the public and are not in a position to define what is good for the public from high on.

The Gulen movement has distanced itself from the government on a number foreign policy issues as well: controversially, they do not support the AK Party government’s very popular critical stance toward the aggressive regional polies of Israel’s Likud bloc because of an attitude of appeasement and exaggerated fears of the power of the Israeli lobby to harm Turkey. The Gulen movement is also critical of the government’s waning enthusiasm for becoming a member of the EU. Fethullah Gulen has always defended Turkey’s integration with European institutions, especially the EU. His pro-EU vision is based on social, economic and political reasons. Gulen regards the EU as a major democratizing factor and pillar of support for human rights and civilian rule. I would like to summarize my conversation with Gulen in the following way:

Democracy is necessary to control radicalism and integrate marginal groups into the political and economic system. The EU is essential for the consolidation of democracy in Turkey. Thus, moderation requires Turkey’s entry into the EU. Fethullah Gulen has rejected the arguments of the anti-EU coalition; that EU membership would lead to cultural and religious assimilation of Turkey, and that there is no way to overcome inherent “Christian animosity” against Islam. Gulen has disagreed with these two common arguments heard from radical Islamic and nationalistic groups. Gulen genuinely sees interaction with diverse cultures, and positive encounters with the Abrahamic faiths, as a source of dynamism and a way of rejuvenating the universal aspects of Islam.


Fethullah Gulen has become the most dominant religio-political leader of Turkey because he come to understand a wider range of ideational and material factors relevant to national and international politics and the prevailing waves of social transformation. Gulen’s actions have always had limited objectives, and he has never punched above his weight. His main policy has always been to coopt, rather than humiliate, his critics or adversaries. While Gulen has been vernacularizing modernity in Islamic terminology, his secularist critics are still wedded to the nineteenth-century concepts of politics as administration, secularism as the new lifestyle, scientism and positivist social engineering.

The Gulen movement’s understanding of politics and the political process differentiate it from the military and bureaucratic elite. Its main political objective is to transform society by raising the moral consciousness of individuals. By raising moral consciousness, the movement hopes to cleanse the bureaucracy of widespread corruption, increase the efficiency and transparency of state institutions, reinvigorate public work ethic to serve the people in order to enhance the legitimacy of the state, and create opportunity spaces for marginalized sectors of the Anatolian population.


Yavuz, M. Hakan. 2013. “Toward an Islamic Enlightenment: The Gülen Movement.” Oxford University Press, New York. Page: 215-220.

* M. Hakan Yavuz, the University of Utah, offers in his new book an insightful and wide-ranging study of the Gülen Movement, one of the most imaginative developments in contemporary Islam. Yavuz says in the introduction, “This book is an outcome of a ten-year long observation and interviews with different groups and leaders, followers and sympathizers, as well as critics and passionate “haters” of the movement in different countries.”

Source: Gulen Movement , January 24, 2014

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