The preacher who could topple Erdogan

Der Spiegel reports: Turgut Keles loved his premier. He maintained his support of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan through early summer, when demonstrators in Istanbul were protesting the redevelopment of Gezi Park. When Erdogan held a rally for tens of thousands of supporters, Keles was in the first row.

But just half a year later, everything has changed. “Erdogan must go,” the former fan now says, adding that the prime minister has “betrayed” millions of Turks. Keles long voted in favor of Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP). But his support of the party is exceeded by his admiration of Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen, the leader of a powerful civic movement that is now at odds with Erdogan.

Keles attended a school founded by Gülen followers, and later studied at one of the movement’s universities. The organization helped him find a job, he says. Today, Keles works for a construction company in Istanbul and remains a devoted follower. “Anyone who insults Gülen, insults me,” he says.

For a long time, Gülen and Erdogan were allies. This fall, however, the prime minister announced that tutoring centers run by the Gülen movement would be shut down. Erdogan has accused the preacher’s supporters of creating a “state within a state,” and since then the two sides have been locked in a bitter power struggle. The conflict appears to confirm what many once dismissed as a conspiracy theory — that in many cases the Gülen movement controls the police and justice system.

Just before Christmas, police arrested more than 50 suspects, among them high-ranking AKP members, business owners and the sons of three ministers. They are accused of accepting bribes and involvement with illegal oil deals with Iran.

Gareth Jenkens, a Turkey expert from the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, suspects that Gülen supporters are behind the investigations. “The movement wants to intimidate Erdogan. It is desperately trying to prevent the closure of its tutoring centers,” he says.

A former justice minister with the AKP even says that one employee of the country’s top court sought the preacher’s advice before ruling on a case.

Afraid of being watched, Keles looks into a cafe on an Istanbul side street. He’s not actually authorized to speak about the Gülen movement, which is also why he doesn’t want to use his real name. He wants to set one thing straight: It wasn’t the movement, but Erdogan, who started the current conflict, he says. “He’s behaving like a despot.”

Fethullah Gülen, who is believed to be 72, lives in exile in Pennsylvania. He fled Turkey in 1999 when the government, which was secular at the time, accused him of attempting to Islamize the country. His some 8 million supporters run schools, media companies, hospitals and an insurance company in 140 countries, including Germany. It is the “most powerful Islamist grouping” in Turkey, according to US State Department diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks in 2010. The network “controls major business, trade, and publishing activities, has deeply penetrated the political scene — including AKP at high levels.”

Gülen got his start as an imam in Ederne and Izmir, and soon persuaded pious businessmen to make donations. With this he financed schools, and his supporters founded student housing known as “lighthouses,” which are a fundamental part of the organization. Keles lived in one of these facilities, which often offer free accommodation in exchange for loyalty. Dropouts say the tone inside is militaristic; residents study Gülen’s writings and sermons under a provost’s supervision.

The community recruits new supporters in its schools and tutoring centers, training them as “soldiers of light.” Their task, whether they become businessmen, politicians or judges, is to spread Gülen’s conservative vision of Islam and to expand his influence.

But despite the fact that it’s a huge organization, the Gülen movement has no address and no headquarters. Fethullah Gülen alone determines its structure and path, while the cleric’s trusted “brothers” are in charge of its most important businesses. Among these is Zaman, Turkey’s highest-circulation newspaper, along with Bank Aysa, the country’s largest.

More than two years ago, Gülen urged his followers to infiltrate the Turkish state in a sermon that was captured on video. “You have to penetrate the arteries of the system without being noticed,” he said. You have to wait for the right moment, until you have seized the entire power of the state.” Gülen says the video has been manipulated. [Continue reading…]

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