Foreign observers of Turkey believe in the myth that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul are at odds, even rivals — a notion that some quarters are trying to promote. As part of their perception marketing campaign, these quarters are trying to create the impression that Gul is on good terms with Fethullah Gulen and Gulenists organized within the state. The Gulenist media, too, are constantly feeding this impression, and Gulenists tell international platforms that they oppose Erdogan and have very good ties with Gul. That’s not true.
According to a source close to Gul, the president was already ill-disposed toward the Gulenists in 2009, when Erdogan tolerated their entrenchment in the state. Gul was irked by the situation and worried about Gulenist dominance in certain institutions. Yet, he chose to express his concerns in a moderate and diplomatic language.
Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay, long at loggerheads with the Gulenists, is closer to Gul than Erdogan. Any Turkish journalist is aware of the close Gul-Atalay relationship, but it is hardly known to the foreign media. Just mention Atalay’s name to a Gulenist in Turkey and you will instantly hear insults.
In Gulenist ideology, it is a serious insult to call someone pro-Iranian or a “crypto-Shiite.” The examples are abundant. The Gulenists gave bizarre reactions, even to Erdogan’s latest trip to Iran.
As a Turkish journalist who knows both Gul and Erdogan closely, I can point to differences between them. The two leaders may differ in approach, but they are in full agreement that a parallel Gulenist structure exists within the state. They are both aware of Gulenist officials in the police force and judiciary who obey the orders of their own hierarchy of imams, not the state hierarchy.
Some Al-Monitor readers have criticized me, saying that until recently I used to praise Gulen. I used to praise Gulen’s attitude against Islamist extremism and his pro-Western stance. I would do it again. But at the same time, I have long opposed the wing of the Gulenists that aspires to set up a tutelage regime and favors a war with the Kurds. I have always criticized the Gulenists in this context. My mistake was to believe that there was also a liberal Gulenist wing opposed to this attitude against democracy and peace. We have now realized that Gulen is like a movie director, assigning “bad cop” and “good cop” roles to his followers. The argument of distinct wings among the Gulenists is a great fallacy. They are marching toward a single objective — a tutelage regime — but are using different instruments, with Gulen directing the orchestra. This is a major threat to democracy.
Let’s return to Gul’s position on the Gulenists organized within the state. During Gul's trip to Italy last week, in remarks to Turkey’s mass-circulation papers, he answered a question about the parallel state. “In some institutions within the state system, unusual types of solidarity exist. There are examples to that effect. It would be only natural to rectify this within the confines of the law,” he said. “Under any rule of law, the primary loyalty of all functionaries should be to the constitution, the laws and the state.” Gul’s remarks were an obvious reference to the Gulenists and an indication that he justifies the Erdogan government’s moves against them.
In remarks to Il Sole 24 Ore, published under the headline “Turkey needs reform,” the president said Turkey's current crisis was the result of particular circumstances. Asked how he, as one of the founders of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), sees the government’s standing after recent developments, Gul said: “As a democratic and conservative party, the AKP has contributed to religious values. Some members now face corruption charges. What matters here is that everything is done within the confines of the law, and the courts make their decisions independently. Any kind of corruption is unacceptable. Let me add this: In democracies, one does not always support the same party, one may change one’s mind. And on all levels of the state, there are certainly those who misbehave. But none of these can harm our stability. There is no political risk to Turkey.”
Before his departure to Italy, Gul answered a question about a possible pardon for academic Fatih Hilmioglu, who has been in prison for five years as part of the Ergenekon coup case and is suffering from diabetes, liver malfunction and cancer. “People think the president can pardon any sick inmate at will. I have no such authority. Otherwise, I would have used it at once. Sick or elderly inmates need to apply to the Forensic Medicine Institution via prosecutors.” The Erdogan government agrees with Gul that Hilmioglu should be freed on health grounds, but the Gulenists are against his release.
In sum, Gul’s comments indicate that:
- He acknowledges a parallel Gulenist structure exists.
- He believes the problem has nothing to do with religion or nationality, and that anyone in state service should obey a single authority.
- He justifies intervention if a second authority has emerged.
As Sabah columnist Emre Akoz writes, Gul in fact says that “the Gulenist organization [within the state] should be dismantled.” Those are the words of the president of the Republic of Turkey, a politician whom some quarters want to make a rival to Erdogan. So, even if he believes as much, what more is there to say?
Yet, a major problem exists in this context. We are speaking of Gulenists who are public functionaries — police officers, prosecutors and judges. They are only being reappointed to new posts, in other cities. The question is: How will the Gulenist parallel structure be tackled under these circumstances?
One has to consider the characteristics of the Gulen movement. We know it has a very strong culture of subservience. So strong that followers don’t hesitate to act as kamikazes when called upon. For instance, some are able to blindly risk public careers of 20 or 30 years. Moreover, wiretaps have revealed that they refer even routine, ordinary issues to Gulen.
On the other hand, their strong culture of subservience suggests that a small number of “masterminds” are in fact running the movement, like the “imams” who are said to be in charge of certain institutions. Gulenists working at a given institution take no action without instructions from the “imam” of that institution. They make no move on their own.
Therefore, neutralizing the relatively small number of “masterminds” would be enough for government quarters struggling with the Gulenist structure.
Beyond that, there is no problem with people being “Gulenists,” as President Gul underlines. It is fine as long as public employees act as true public employees, taking orders from their superiors and not “imams,” and doing their jobs in line with the law. It’s that simple. Gul and Erdogan are in full agreement on that.