The anti-graft operations that took place in Istanbul this week have grabbed headlines not only in Turkey, but all over the world. Top businessmen, bankers, bureaucrats, politicians and ministers' sons have been arrested and charged with corruption and bribery. The scandal has shaken prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AK Party to the core ahead of upcoming local elections in March, as many of those caught up in the case are considered loyal to the government.
Following the raids, dozens of senior police officers were replaced, including the head police chief of Istanbul. As investigations continue into the alleged corruption case, counter investigations into how and why an operation of this scale took place without the foreknowledge of senior security officials has also begun. Many suspect that the order for the operation may have come from outside the country, especially since the arrest of Halkbank general manager Suleyman Aslan follows pressure applied by US congressmen to investigate the bank for breaching sanctions against Iran.
The question is why is all of this happening now? To find the answer, one needs to have some background information on religion and politics in Turkey. When it comes to these topics, one can rarely talk about them without in one way or another touching on the subject of the 'Gulenists'.
Gulenists are followers of religious scholar Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999. From his mansion in the state of Pennsylvania, Gulen has been running one of the most influential lobbies in Turkey today, known as the Hizmet Movement. Having been persecuted by Turkey's pre-AK Party government, that had heavily cracked down on all open displays of religion after the February 28, 1997 military coup that ousted former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, the movement was forced to go underground.
However, with the organization, funding and determination of his followers, Gulen succeeded in raising lawyers, security officials, politicians, lobbyists, diplomats, businessmen and academics who cemented their spot in influential positions across Turkey. With their support, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was voted into office in 2002, under whom their movement flourished both in and outside of Turkey.
However, Erdogan himself has no background in the Hizmet Movement. Rather, his background stems from Milli Gorus (National Vision), a movement that was set-up by his former mentor, ousted prime minister Necmettin Erbakan. Ironically, Fethullah Gulen was among those who supported the coup against Erbakan.
Milli Gorus, which similar to other Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt projects a more assertive form of political Islam had influenced Erdogan as a young man. Although Erdogan claims to have changed his opinions since leaving the movement, his background made a staunchly secular Kemalist Turkey anxious when he first came to power, as it still does for some segments of Turkish society today.
It could be argued that it is his background in assertive Islamic political thought that fuels his firm stance against Israel's atrocities against the Palestinians, and his fondness for the Palestinian cause. Gulenists, on the other hand, prefer to take a more introverted approach to religion, and busy themselves more with the survival and spread of their movement without concerning themselves much with the plight of political Islam.
For this reason, cracks began to show in the relationship between Erdogan and Gulen in May 2010, when Turkish charity IHH organized an international flotilla to deliver aid to the blockaded Palestinians of Gaza. Following the failed attempt to break the Israeli blockade, which resulted in the killing of 9 Turkish activists when Israeli commandos raided the Mavi Marmara ship in international waters, Gulen expressed his disapproval of the mission.
Huseyin Gulerce, a conservative intellectual, told the New York Times, that his followers "never approved the role the government tried to attain in the Middle East, or approved of its policy in Syria, which made everything worse, or its attitude in the Mavi Marmara crisis with Israel."
After this incident, friction between Gulen's movement and Erdogan increased further, when a prosecutor believed to have ties to Gulen exposed a covert mission conducted by Erdogan's intelligence chief and right-hand man Hakan Fidan in 2011. Hakan Fidan also recently attracted international condemnation after an article in the Washington Post accused him of exposing a covert Israeli Mossad mission against Iran to Iranian intelligence. Erdogan was quick to defend him.
Last month, Erdogan announced his government's plan to convert prep schools in Turkey into private high schools. This was considered to be an attack on Gulen's movement, whose income largely comes from prep schools set up all over the country. Newspapers and TV channels loyal to Gulen, whose followers claim that they are unable to make the transformation, have since then been printing propaganda against Erdogan. .
Erdogan, who won his third consecutive term with a clear 50% victory last year, has been accused of becoming increasingly authoritarian, causing a previously divided, weak opposition, which is comprised a many groups, to form a united front against Erdogan. With the local elections approaching and AK Party's hotly contested seat in Istanbul in the balance, the emergence of main opposition CHP candidate Mustafa Sarigul, who portrays himself as semi-religious, may attract the Gulenists to vote for AK Party's biggest contender, despite the fact that they have in the past been staunchly anti-religion.
Although Fethullah Gulen and his followers have firmly denied allegations that the anti-graft operation was ordered by them, suspicions run high across Turkey that the scandal may have been exposed, if not orchestrated, by the Gulenists to discredit Erdogan's AK Party ahead of the local elections. Ever the opportunist, main opposition CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has been ever-eager to pick up on lost votes that may occur due to AK Party's position on prep schools.
This article was first published on World Bulletin