Inside the secretive religious movement that is being blamed for Turkey’s attempted coup
For much of the last month, in squares across Turkey, hundreds of thousands gathered for a “democracy watch” — part celebration of the failure of a bloody coup attempt that killed hundreds, and part an expression of determination to find and punish those responsible.
But not everyone poured into the streets. “It’s right to be proud of what is achieved against the failed coup and traitors,” said Orhan, a middle-aged teacher from Istanbul who asked that his full name not be used for his safety. “But on the other hand, a witch hunt started, and looking at my friends now I feel like a Jew under Hitler’s rule.”
For the record:
12:50 PM, Aug. 22, 2019An earlier version of this story gave Fethullah Gulen’s age as 77. He is 75.This story also originally reported that Turkey last week formally asked the U.S. to arrest and extradite Gulen. The request was made earlier this month.
Orhan belongs to Hizmet, a movement of millions of Turks inspired by the teachings of Fethullah Gulen, a 75-year-old cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania. Although Gulen’s public teachings center on a moderate form of Sufi Islam, his critics say he is the head of a cult that has masked a plan to infiltrate much of Turkey’s government and military infrastructure.
The Turkish government this month formally asked the U.S. to arrest and extradite Gulen, alleging he used followers in the military to engineer an uprising that threatened to plunge the country back into the cycle of military intervention that has beset the nation since 1960.
An English teacher and translator who joined Hizmet more than 30 years ago, Orhan has watched from his Istanbul home as a steady stream of government officials, television commentators and newspapers now call for Gulen and his followers to be executed for treason.
The grapevine brings troubling news: A friend of a friend, the head of a Hizmet school, found a job abroad and tried to leave Turkey, only to have his passport taken away at the airport. This month, Orhan lost his job at a school, one of thousands affiliated with Hizmet that have been shut down.
Thousands of soldiers and tens of thousands of government workers have been suspended, many detained pending an investigation. Many Hizmet schools and affiliated organizations have been shut down. In some cases, Orhan said, those detained have been outed as members of Hizmet by their spouses and close relatives.
“Now they are truly demonized in Turkey,” said Ilhan Tanir, a longtime Washington-based columnist for Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s largest independent newspapers. “I don’t think anyone at this moment will admit to being with Hizmet.
“Their image in Turkey is worse than ISIS,” he said, referring to the militant group Islamic State. “People would rather say they sympathize with ISIS than with Gulen, in my opinion.”
The government accuses them of being part of the coup attempt, but some political observers say the failed uprising has also become a pretext to dismantle Hizmet, which allies of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have seen as a threat to the ruling party.
Gulen has denied any involvement in the coup attempt, and followers such as Orhan insist their movement has not sought to control the country. To them, Hizmet is simply a loose association of the pious who have attained good government jobs to improve their lives and contribute to their country.
“For about 30 years now I’ve been listening to [Gulen’s] speeches and reading his books and never have come across anything violent,” Orhan said. “So what they claim today, as if these people sneaked into government institutions, was not a plan but a natural outcome.”
Still, many Turks appear convinced Gulen and his followers were behind the coup attempt. “The West thinks Erdogan is saying this, that Gulen is behind this,” said Mustafa Akyol, a columnist with Al-Monitor, an independent news and analysis website, who frequently writes about Islamist movements in Turkey. “But it’s not Erdogan, it’s virtually everyone in Turkey.”
Orhan grew up in a staunchly secular household, and credits a religious awakening in his teenage years to Gulen’s teachings, at a time when a host of government policies made it nearly impossible for the pious to make a career in civil service.
Orhan was part of a pious middle class of Turks that had long found institutions such as the military, police and judiciary closed to them because of their religious practices.
The military, which saw itself as the guarantor of the country’s founding secularist ideals, ensured that officers did not pray or fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and that women did not wear the head scarf, standards that often extended even to the families of prospective cadets.
In Gulen’s writings and sermons, Orhan said he discovered not only arguments for a modern, moderate Islam, but also a chance to progress beyond his middle-class upbringing.
“These people were religious but not radicals,” Orhan said. “They were more into combining belief with science, and dialogue was important … international, intercultural, interfaith dialogue. I really liked the idea and wanted to be a part of it.”
He gave up his dream of being a lawyer, opting to use his English proficiency to teach the language at Hizmet schools across Central Asia.
Hizmet, which means “service,” focuses on education and building social networks. Over the decades, thousands of Hizmet members have joined the police, judiciary and military.
“The Gulen movement was very effective in influencing other state institutions, particularly the police and judiciary, as well as some industrial groups and the media, and using this infiltration to advance its own agenda rather than that of the state or the larger institution,” said James Jeffrey, the American ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010.
An estimated 1.2 million Turks went through Hizmet schools. The movement’s members built one of the country’s largest trade associations and its third largest bank, and staffed newspapers that attracted millions of subscribers, including the popular daily newspaper Zaman, seized by the government and closed in March. Among the alumni of Hizmet schools is Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak.
Globally, the Hizmet network included scores of nonprofits operating thousands of private schools, including hundreds of charter schools in the U.S. Although the nonprofits say they are only “inspired” by Gulen, authorities in several states have investigated the schools for tax fraud and illegal hiring practices and found strong affiliations with the cleric.
Over the last four years, Erdogan has often referred to Hizmet as a “parallel government” using its presence in the bureaucracy to undermine elected authorities. Gulen says Erdogan has fabricated the charges because his followers form one of the last remaining organizations critical of a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian ruler.
“As someone who suffered under multiple military coups during the past five decades, it is especially insulting to be accused of having any link to such an attempt,” Gulen said after the failed coup.
It is a mandate that critics say stems from Gulen. “You must move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers,” Gulen said in a 1999 sermon. “You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey.”
Two years before that sermon, he had offered tacit support for a coup that toppled an elected Islamist government.
“Hiding their true intentions is the most important thing for them, more than anything else,” said Ahmet, a software engineer and former Hizmet member who also asked that his full name not be used.
Ahmet spent 12 years with the movement, including most of his university days, when he lived in Hizmet dormitories. In public, Ahmet said, he was asked to conceal his faith, but in private, he was ostracized for minor infractions such as listening to heavy metal music, or trimming his beard. “Each dorm had a ‘big brother,’ whose real name we did not know,” Ahmet said. “When one of us had doubts, they would be ready with some amazing story of a miracle performed by Gulen.”
A cousin, whom Ahmet had known since childhood, wanted to be a lawyer but was persuaded by Hizmet to join the air force, and was asked to hide his faith to climb the ranks.
“This man who was such a good Muslim served alcohol at his wedding. And he married a secular woman. When I asked him why, he told me he had to because of Hizmet,” Ahmet said.
Zekeriyya Christ, an American, first converted to Islam in the U.S. and spent his first years as a Muslim among Hizmet members in America. He moved to Turkey six years ago and began teaching English in private Hizmet schools. Though he never joined the movement, he described seeing Hizmet members gathered to listen to Gulen’s sermons live-streamed from Pennsylvania.
Eavesdropping at late-night meetings, Christ said he witnessed discussions about attempting to place members in positions of influence. “They would say, ‘We can put so-and-so in this government opening.’ They were putting people in important positions based on loyalty to them, and not on their faith or their qualifications.”
Whatever reservations Erdogan and fellow members of his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, might have had about Hizmet were put aside for years as the movement’s presence in the state’s bureaucracy became crucial to winning elections beginning in 2002.
At the time, Hizmet had the sympathy of Erdogan and other Islamists, said Akyol, the columnist. “Erdogan is referred to as a political Islamist; I refer to the Gulenists as bureaucratic Islamists, in the sense they want state power, but not by winning it in elections,” he said. “Their tactic was always to get power by very meticulously raising a cadre in a secretive way to capture key positions in the state.”
Erdogan at one point was using the Hizmet network to his own advantage against other adversaries.
Long wary of the secular military, Erdogan relied largely on Hizmet-linked prosecutors to bring charges against nearly 500 officers for alleged coup plots between 2003 and 2007, Akyol said. The convictions were thrown out this year by appellate courts that found the evidence was largely fabricated.
Jeffrey, the American ambassador at the time, watched with growing suspicion.
Even officers who were clearly loyal to Erdogan, Jeffrey said, were prosecuted “with totally trumped-up evidence just to show they could be put in jail, just so Hizmet could show, ‘If you cross us, we will get you: We don’t need laws, we don’t need the state, we don’t need anybody.’ ”
The alliance of convenience made a sharp reversal in 2013. Audio recordings of Erdogan and his son discussing what to do with millions in cash fueled a corruption investigation by prosecutors suspected of ties to Hizmet and forced the resignation of three Cabinet members. Erdogan responded by calling Gulen a “terrorist,” and over the next three years, Ankara suspended thousands of prosecutors, judges and police for alleged ties to Gulen.
Now, Turkish authorities claim officers loyal to Hizmet remained in the military after the earlier purges and were the chief instigators of the July 15 coup attempt. Thousands of soldiers and 40% of the military’s generals and admirals have been accused of being part of the plot.
Farooq is a special correspondent.
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