After the Republic of Turkey was established on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, its founding fathers decided to cut ties with the region and the wider Arab and Muslim world. They wanted Turkey to become part of the West and initiated a cultural revolution to adopt western values. This was a strategic decision and successive Turkish governments followed it. The military and civilian bureaucrats were the guardians of this move.
The coup attempt of 15 July was not the first in Turkey’s modern history. The main reason for previous coups was to take control of the government away from elected officials because the army and bureaucrats thought that they compromised the new state’s secular ideals; the democratically-elected governments tried to be close to the region and the Muslim world. Turkey has been a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (and its predecessor the Organisation of the Islamic Conference) since 1968. Ever since then, Ankara has sought to increase trade with the Muslim world in general; cultural ties got stronger but Turkey remained part of the West in terms of values and policies.
In 2002, however, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The party proceeded to develop regional and Islamic links, while seeking EU membership. As a result, Turkey’s regional influence grew, although with Erdogan’s Islamist background the West was suspicious. In 2011 a campaign was launched against Erdogan and his party, in which he was blamed for “Islamising” Turkey as well as for becoming more authoritarian. The West neither liked his approach towards Palestine-Israel nor his support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world. Although the Brotherhood does not use terrorism as a tactic, preferring the peaceful approach through politics, it was seen as a threat to western interests; Erdogan has been demonised because of this. It is also why the West supported the coup in Egypt, even if its politicians often couldn’t bring themselves to call it as such. Despite the democratic rhetoric used by western governments, there was general silence about the coup attempt in Turkey on 15 July this year, along with some media support for it.
Since Turkey’s first democratic elections in 1950 there have been five military coups. All were carried out by Kemalist army officers; in July, though, the officers behind it were Gülenists, followers of Fethullah Gülen.
Who are these people and what is their aim? Although he now lives in self-imposed exile in the US, Gülen himself was a cleric for many years in Turkey. Initially following the teachings of Said Nursi, he went on to become the cult figure of his group. Apparently, his followers believe that he is the expected Imam Mahdi, sent to lead the Muslim Ummah. Over the years, the group has infiltrated Turkey’s government institutions, particularly the Ministry of Education, as well as the security services and judiciary.
Its strategy has been to disguise its members very discreetly, making them difficult to identify. Although Gülen uses religious rhetoric and collects money for nominally religious causes, his followers present themselves as non-religious individuals in the workplace. They live an apparently dual existence. In the army and judiciary, for example, they drink alcohol and do not fast in Ramadan, both clearly against Islamic teachings. At home, they follow the orders of the cult leader. They have established a parallel hierarchy in government institutions with the aim of taking over the government when ordered to do so.
Unlike mainstream Islamic groups, the Gülen movement is very pro-America and pro-Israel. From his base in Pennsylvania, Gülen has presented himself as a symbol of moderate Islam and so is welcomed by the West. He has opened schools in 140 countries, which he uses to recruit new followers.
From 2002 his group had good relations with the AK Party government and used this to get its people into strong positions in state institutions. They were instrumental in the campaign against some army officers between 2007 and 2013, which not only made the movement stronger but also ensured that its members were promoted.
After 2011, Gülen was confident enough to think that he could take over the government. He tried to instigate a civilian coup between 17 and 25 December 2013 but failed. Following this, the government and Erdogan — when he was prime minister — took legal action against Gülen’s movement. In the past four elections (local, presidential and two general elections), Gülen’s followers have supported opposition parties, even the pro-PKK (a banned Kurdish terrorist group) People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The group used its propaganda network against Erdogan and the AK Party but failed again; the AK Party got 49.5 per cent of the vote and a majority seats at the last election.
Through their links in the West, the Gülenists have conducted a very aggressive PR campaign against Erdogan’s government. They have portrayed the president as a dictator and his government as an autocracy. This propaganda has been very effective over the past three years, especially in the western media.
Throughout all of this, the Turkish government has tried to sack Gülenists from their positions in state institutions, but this has not been easy, such is the secretive nature of their way of working. Although some were moved from important roles, this was not enough to stop them from undermining the government.
Court cases linked to the earlier campaigns against the army between 2007 and 2013 have been overturned by the High Court; some members of the group now face charges as co-conspirators and some arrest have been made. The court dealing with the Izmir military spying ring had the names of senior officers from the Gülen movement and arrest warrants were imminent just before the July coup attempt. Furthermore, newspapers revealed that the meeting of the Higher Military Council in August was going to discharge most of the officers belonging to Gülen’s group.
These two developments together prompted the movement to bring the coup attempt forward. They planned to start at 3am on 16 July, but the National Intelligence Service heard about the coup at 4pm on 15 July. Agents informed the army chief of staff and a meeting was held to discuss how to stop the coup. However, even the chief of staff’s private secretary was a Gülenist; he informed the movement and the coup started earlier than planned. The group tried to eliminate the National Intelligence Service, police Special Forces and some other strategic units. In the meantime, it sent a team to arrest President Erdogan. All of the Gülenists’ actions failed, although they did succeed in kidnapping the army leadership for a while and took temporary control of some areas.
The turning point was Erdogan’s appearance on live television, sending a message to the people via CNN Turkish network. He explained that the coup was an illegal action against the democratically-elected government and urged the people to go onto streets in protest against it; millions did as they were asked, despite coming under fire from the rebels. Even opposition party leaders condemned the coup, in a rare show of political unity.
As we now know, the coup attempt failed, and thousands of Gülenists have been arrested and removed from their jobs. This, though, was not a victory for Erdogan and the AK Party. The coup attempt was defeated by the people of Turkey regardless of their political affiliation. It was a victory for Turkish democracy.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.