Home / Articles / Letters / The rise and fall of the Gülen movement (and Turkey)

The rise and fall of the Gülen movement (and Turkey)

By Abraham Thicke

Rise of the Gülen movement

Fetullah Gülen rose to prominence, or notoriety, as the founder and leader of the movement that bears his name (1). Gülen was born in Erzurum in the East of Turkey around 1940, the son of an Imam. His movement originated with a following Gülen attracted whilst working as preacher in Izmir in the 1960’s and grew steadily in size and scope. By the 1970’s it had begun to focus on providing educational services. Schools were opened, the first in Izmir in 1978, and later on across the rest of Turkey and abroad. Along the way, the movement expanded its interests, opening banks and newspapers. By the turn of the century it resembled a multinational company with business and charitable interests spread across the globe.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though. To its sympathizers and adherents the movement was, and remains, the benevolent champion of a moderate brand of Islam, inter-faith dialogue and education. Critics likened the movement to a cult, pointing to its secretive structure and the semi-divine status accorded to Gülen. In 1999, to escape a charge of treason levelled at him by the Turkish authorities, Gülen fled to America. He has remains there, in self-imposed exile, to this day.

Despite such difficulties, the Gülen movement continued to flourish. And when the newly formed AK party won a majority of seats in the 2002 Turkish elections, the movement’s horizons expanded dramatically. What the AK party lacked, despite its popular support, were powerful allies, particularly within the vast machinery of the Turkish state. Given that the AK party’s socially conservative and Sunni-centric religious outlook aligned to a considerable extent with that of the Gülen movement, co-operation appeared possible.

This is exactly what happened. The Gülen movement’s media outlets enthusiastically supported the AK party government, whilst its educational institutions provided suitably skilled cadres, sympathetic to the AK party’s worldview, to staff the bureaucracy.

For as long as the AK party and the Gülen movement shared similar goals, co-operation benefited both parties, if not necessarily more abstract principles such as justice and freedom of expression. In fact, the Gülen movement did much of the government’s dirty work.

A series of sensational plots to topple the government, centering on the military, were ‘uncovered’ in 2007. AK party officials enthusiastically endorsed the investigations, and the subsequent trial in which scores of officers were tried and imprisoned, conveniently ignoring that fact that the evidence was either flimsy or fabricated. Critics of the Gülen movement were also persecuted, notably the journalist Ahmet Şık and a police chief named Hanefi Avcı, both jailed for writing books presenting unflattering accounts of the Gülen movement’s modus operandi and motives.

The picture that emerges therefore of the co-operation between the AK party and the Gülen movement is one in which the Gülen movement benefitted by increasing its presence, and power, in key institutions, which in turn enabled the AK party to cement its grip on power. Across the spectrum of the Turkish state, hostile elements were gradually pushed out of positions from which they could threaten the government.

Power Struggle

It appears inevitable, with hindsight, that the relationship would break down. One key consideration in understanding the break down lies in the issue of where the loyalties of the Gülenists ultimately lay. When push came to shove, whose interests would they serve? Those of the AK party government, or those of the Gülen movement?

So long as the interests of both groups were aligned the issue was hypothetical. But once the AK party, in particular its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, felt secure against the threat from the old guard, this was no longer the case. Having neutered one powerful group of adversaries, Erdoğan then turned his attention to other groups that might, conceivably, pose a threat to his power. The Gülen movement, simply by virtue of the power it had amassed, represented one such threat. Unsurprisingly, it did not give up its gains without a fight.

The first sign of cracks appeared in February of 2012 when the Turkish Intelligence Chief and Erdogan ally, Mr. Hakan Fidan was summoned by a prosecutor over his talks with the PKK while Prime Minister Erdogan was undergoing a serious surgery. The second crack and the bigger one in the autumn of 2013 when the government proposed closing down private prep schools, a move intended to starve the Gülen movement of revenue and recruits. The Gülen movement’s response came in December that year, with a slew of corruption investigations that implicated, amongst others, several government ministers and even Erdoğan’s son. This revealed where the ultimate allegiance of many Gülenists lay.

Erdoğan and his government survived the scandal and in turn responded ferociously, with the first of a series of purges that focused primarily on removing Gülenists from positions of power, one that now seems mild in comparison to what would follow.

The Gülenists were not quite finished. In July 2016 there was an attempted military coup. It failed. Although much remains unknown about the coup’s organization, it is clear that Gülenist officers played a significant role. Since then, with Turkey under a state of emergency, the purges have intensified to staggering levels. The irony that the Gülen movement was brought on board to help prevent the possibility of a military coup, but then played a significant role in one with its followers, escapes no-one but Erdoğan, his acolytes and whoever Erdoğan’s latest temporary allies happen to be.


So where does this leave the protagonists? There are no winners here, only losers.

The Gülen movement is a shadow of its former self. In Turkey it is shattered: its members and even their associates, if not already in jail, live like hunted animals. Abroad it is struggling; its finances drying up, its motives questioned and its methods condemned. In its quest for power it reached too far and toppled into an abyss.

For Turkey the outlook is not much brighter. No doubt when he invited the Gülen movement into his house (for Gülenists, like vampires, do not cross thresholds unbidden) Erdoğan did not envision this.  His co-operation with them and his endorsement of their methods has inflicted untold damage to the Turkish state. In his efforts to undo what’s done Erdoğan has sawn off the branch he is sitting on: state institutions lie in ruins, paranoia and fear permeate every corner of society. Erdoğan’s personal credibility and that of the AK party are shot to ribbons.

It is often said that the chief danger Erdoğan poses to Turkey is that in his downfall he has the ability to bring the country down with him. But that task has already largely been completed. Having finally achieved his dream, of uncontested power, Erdoğan is finding that when he pushes the levers … not much happens. On the international stage Turkey now resembles not the player it aspires to be but the latest shambling basket case in a neighbourhood full of them, and Erdoğan himself, for all the angry bluster and visions of imperial glory, is a mute pariah Cromwell.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

1.  It is also known as the ‘Hizmet’ (meaning  ‘service’ in Turkish) movement and ‘Cemaat’ (the community’)  particularly by its admirers.