Creating new perspectives since 2009

Why take the risk? Understanding Gülenists’ involvement in the failed coup in Turkey

September 3, 2016 at 2:11 pm

For the first time ever, Turkey’s three main political parties, including the Justice and Development (AK) Party, Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) joined together for a pro-democracy rally on August 8, 2015

In the aftermath of the failed 15 July coup, which terrorised Turkey on an unprecedented scale, most signs point to the Gülenist network as the main culprit. Over time, the extent of the Gülenists’ involvement in the putsch and their underlying motivations will get clearer. In the meantime, it is useful to study how the organisation’s evolution into a diasporic structure has contributed to its implication in the chain of events leading to the coup attempt, which will also shape its future evolution.

Before starting, it needs to be noted that any analysis of the issue has to proceed on the postulate that the coup attempt was the result of a deliberate political choice on the part of the Gülenist movement, whereby it waged war against the Turkish political system in general and the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government in particular. As a Janus-faced structure, it has amalgamated an esoteric religious community, civil society network, web of economic enterprises, and “parallel state” seeking to penetrate and control Turkey’s state institutions, particularly the security apparatus.

Over time, it has made enormous gains, thanks largely to the untraced yet simultaneous operation of its various components in a power-multiplying fashion. In the obscure relationship between the Gülenists’ civil and political faces, the networks in the religious and civil society realm had been at the forefront. This served as a major tool to establish effective communication with different societal segments and political actors both at home and abroad. Moreover, the very same civic face has served as the realm from which the movement as a religious “jamaat” (congregation) extracted power, resources and, most importantly, devout followers.

Since at least February 2012, the political struggle has been more openly pronounced. When the closure of the movement’s prep-schools was announced, some observers questioned why the jamaat would risk undermining its gains in the civil sphere. Today it has become clearer that the self-confidence derived from the depth and breadth of the parallel state structure has been a major factor behind its reckless behaviour. Still, the very same question is raised today to cast doubts on the jamaat’s involvement in the 15 July coup attempt, which risked the total elimination of its power in civil society and politics. Behind this apparently “irrational act” on the part of what the Turkish government calls the Fethullah terrorist organisation (FETO) lies the fact that it has increasingly internalised a diasporic character and derived power from the international level, all the while building new relationships with international actors.

In its aggressive growth strategy, the Gülen movement has expanded through a skilful utilisation of cross-linkages between its various components, as well as rendering such linkages obscure. Moreover, it has capitalised on the political agenda of the time effectively, by drawing, among other things, on the vast network of media assets under its control. It has often established its strategy on the prevailing political issues, such as democratisation or counter-terrorism. By developing a powerful discourse on those issues, it has managed to build critical alliances which gave it room to manoeuvre and then ridden on the back of other actors who followed its agenda.

Convergence with the international agenda

Following its emergence as a formidable force in the Turkish diaspora, the Gülen movement’s discourse has evolved increasingly in line with the international agenda. The global network achieved partly as a result of this internationalised discourse has rendered the Gülenist structure progressively less dependent on its home base in Turkey, in terms of both finance and recruitment. For instance, after its transfer of resources abroad was curtailed following the municipal elections in March 2014, the Turkish newspapers ran with headlines that the group’s international operations would be curtailed significantly. The fact that its influence has instead remained largely intact underscores the relevance of its diasporic character.

As it developed an effective network abroad, the Gülenist structure benefited enormously from the means and experience of lobbying and public diplomacy that it had acquired over the years. Thanks to the ties built up with the dominant political actors in Turkey, including the AK Party until the start of the break-up of the alliance in 2012, it has found a fertile environment to expand internationally. Given its strengths in adopting the hegemonic discourse or contributing to its production, the movement has gained enormous political capital in Washington, which tells us a lot. When the quality of Turkish democracy became a topic of discussion in the US capital, for instance, the representatives of the group took different conjectural positions. Until the split that followed the February 2012 National Intelligence Council (MIT) crisis, the group’s networks had effectively served as Turkey’s lobbyists in Washington, arguing that Turkish democracy was on solid ground. In the following period, as it embarked on a bitter political struggle against the AK Party government, the same group resorted heavily to the authoritarian thesis, which was embraced by the US intelligentsia, especially after the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul.

The most convenient and practical way to explain this obvious contrast between the two positions has been the “demonisation of Erdoğan”. The hegemonic reading in the West, which has personified the whole political process around President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and employed the Orientalist metaphor of “the Sultan” rather heavily, has been an important tool embraced by the PR arm of the Gülenist structure. At the same time, foreign policy has been used to legitimise the Gülenists’ change of course, whereby the same circles were instrumental in producing and disseminating the long-running speculation about alleged ties between Turkey and ISIS. As a result of this pragmatic relationship with international actors, it has become increasingly difficult for the jamaat to conceal its political agenda, and this new phase has seen it use its parallel state to wage an aggressive political war.

Meanwhile, following the September 2010 constitutional amendments — which affected the judiciary in particular — and the National Security Council meetings of 2010 and 2011, where the influence of Kemalist military bureaucracy over civilian politics was curtailed significantly, the Gülenists appeared to have concluded that the conditions were particularly ripe to further consolidate its penetration of the state apparatus. At this stage, the nature of its relationship with international actors grew even more obscure. To the extent that its agenda converged with the strategic preferences and interests of the international hegemons, it has become increasingly irrelevant whether this convergence was a result of a relationship of alliance, convenience, proxy or mere coincidence. As such, the deep suspicions harboured within the Turkish body politic regarding the involvement of the United States in the failed coup attempt of 15 July or its instrumental use of the Gülenists will be hard to dispel.

Why take the risk?

Coming back to the question posed at the outset, why did the Gülenists make such high-risk political moves that jeopardised their gains in the civic sphere? There is a credible case for saying that it was a sense of exponential power accumulation and invincibility, derived from the favourable balance of power at home and set of alliances abroad, which turned this structure into a political warrior. It has waged a war of choice; one that it believed it would win. Despite President Erdoğan’s various calls on the jamaat to normalise; to withdraw to the civil sphere by disengaging from politics and dismantling the parallel state — which were symbolised in his invitation to Fethullah Gülen to “return home” — the movement has preferred to escalate tensions since February 2012.

It turns out that in addition to its domestic motivations, the FETO has been driven by a combination of external calculations. In the run up to 15 July, a number of factors — such as the self-attributed inflated power potential relying on external alliances, the appeal to external audiences and the necessity to act according to external agendas — have combined to shape its calculus.

Moreover, it is plausible to suggest that, at the discursive level, it might have calculated that the environment was conducive to legitimising the coup. As the Middle East goes through a tectonic transformation, Western policies seem to favour two postulates: curbing the power of political Islamist movements and, where necessary, supporting anti-democratic but pro-Western regimes, based on the authoritarian stability thesis. Taking a careful note of the hegemonic narrative, the plotters must have calculated that the new status quo of a coup government in Ankara would receive the blessing of the West. Indeed, the declaration issued by the putschists’ self-declared Peace at Home Council sought precisely to capitalise on such a political platform.

The delayed and ambivalent Western reaction to the coup served as the prima facie evidence for many Turks that there existed a deep connection between the Gülenists and the Western powers. The statements coming from the Gülenists post-15 July tried to whitewash their involvement and showed little sympathy for the serious threat that the coup attempt posed to Turkey and its democracy. Large segments of the Turkish body politic have converged over the involvement of the Gülenist movement in the coup, in one way or another. Yet, with its reaction to developments since mid-July, the group seeks to synchronise its message with the international agenda as part of the political warfare it has been waging against the Turkish state. Hence, the group once again demonstrates the extent to which it has been alienated and disconnected from the realities of Turkey and its people.

Internalised hatred and “Yazeed”

At the same time, it appears that this aggressive discourse, which seems to have been adopted for pragmatic reasons, has been internalised in such a way that it has become part of the identity formation process for jamaat members. The convergence with Western political agendas and actors, either for the sake of gaining allies or due to certain pressures, has been the last asset at the disposal of the Gülenists. The new political discourse produced to align with the Western political agenda has detached increasingly from the sociological, political and economic trajectory of Turkey. Anti-“Erdoğanism” or heavily dosed criticism toward Turkish foreign policy has gone beyond pragmatic political posturing and become a key marker of the political identity of the devoted members of an esoteric religious movement. The extreme violence unleashed on the night of 15 July, when the putschists, including those from the Gülenist movement, terrorised the Turkish nation and state institutions, can only be explained with reference to this disconnect, foreignness and internalised hatred.

The most obvious reflection of this hatred has been perhaps the use of religious metaphors when referring to President Erdoğan. As much as it has had an instrumental value to bolster the criticism of his alleged authoritarianism prevalent in the West, which stems from the group’s political pragmatism, the demonisation of Erdoğan has a theological function as well. As the core religious element of Gülenism was politicised over time — which was anathema to the tradition from which it claims to hail — and its political agenda was alienated from the spirit of the Turkish body politic, the group’s drawing of parallels between Erdoğan and the historical figure of Yazeed ibn Mu’awiya, who is believed by some to have disgraced the position of Caliph of Islam, has served it efforts to justify its actions, which is needed to sustain its followers’ commitment. The ability of this esoteric and Messianic group to prevent defections from its ranks in the civil sphere and the parallel state structure at least since February 2012 owes a lot to this discourse of “fighting a just cause”, as well as other practical reasons.

In the wake of the thwarted coup attempt of 15 July, the Gülenists seem determined to wage the same political battle. As they continue to demonise the Turkish leadership, they are likely to evoke the hijrah of the Prophet (peace be upon him), who migrated from Makkah to Madinah to escape persecution, in order to encourage further emigration from Turkey, thus bolstering the diasporic community. Having been gradually disconnected from Turkey not only politically and sociologically but also demographically, the evolution of this group in the diaspora will probably proceed on two axes: the political discourse and posturing convergent with the pragmatic relationship forged with international actors, and an exponentially esoteric religious narrative to facilitate its followers’ internalisation of this discourse. In either case, it signals a very problematic relationship with the homeland, which, if not managed properly, may create negative repercussions for Turkey’s relations with the West.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.