Istar Gozaydin, a professor at Gediz University in Izmir, felt the sting of Turkey’s purges earlier than most. She was fired days after July’s failed coup, not by the government but by her own university. She had tweeted articles opposing reinstating the death penalty and condemning mob violence. “Perhaps [school officials] thought they could escape intervention by suspending me,” she says. They could not. Two days later Gediz and 14 other universities were shut down over alleged links to the Gulen community, or cemaat, a shadowy Islamic movement that was [allegedly] in part responsible for the coup.
Most foreign analysts think an alliance of officers from different backgrounds took part in the plot to topple Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But the government blames the cemaat exclusively, and most Turks agree. The purge that Mr Erdogan has launched against the group and its sympathisers has swept up over 100,000 people. Last week 50,000 civil servants were dismissed by decree. Soldiers, journalists, academics, airline pilots and businessmen have all been targeted.
Increasingly the crackdown resembles a witch-hunt, far bigger than Senator Joe McCarthy’s purge of suspected communists in America in the 1950s. Its latest casualties include a pop singer arrested for publishing columns in a Gulenist newspaper and a dancer sacked by the national ballet for allegedly selling his home through a Gulenist bank (which he denies). The authorities have shut thousands of schools, businesses and foundations. According to one minister, the state has seized more than $4 billion-worth of Gulenist assets.
Meanwhile the purge is spreading to Turkey’s conflict with its Kurdish minority, which over the past year has led to heavy fighting in the country’s south-east. The government now plans to suspend 14,000 teachers over alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Once a witch-hunt starts, it is hard to stop.
A simple country preacher
The rise of the cemaat has its roots in the long struggle between the official secularism established by Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founding father, and Islam. The imam who founded the movement, Fethullah Gulen, was born in 1941 in eastern Turkey. By the early 1970s poor students were flocking to his impassioned sermons, infused with Sufism and Turkish nationalism. His wealthier acolytes set up a network of foundations, charities, newspapers and schools which pumped a stream of graduates (almost all men) into Turkish business and government, testing the boundaries of Kemalism’s anti-Islamist dogma.
In 1999, two years after the army ousted an Islamist prime minister, Mr Gulen wisely left for America. Soon thereafter, he was charged in absentia with subverting Turkey’s secular order. A videotape showed him urging followers to seize control of the state. “You must move within the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence,” Mr Gulen said on the tape. “You must wait until you have all the state power.”
The victory of Mr Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development (AK) party in the elections of 2002 cleared the way for Mr Gulen’s rehabilitation. In 2006 a Turkish court acquitted him. Mr Gulen, by now ensconced in a complex in rural Pennsylvania, became a spokesman for enlightened Islam, preaching interfaith dialogue and the value of science. Teachers and volunteers linked to the cemaat fanned out across the globe, blazing a path for Turkish contractors and diplomats. (Turkey had 12 embassies in Africa in 2009; today it boasts 39. Trade with the continent has tripled since 2003.) Under AK, Gulen sympathisers snapped up government jobs by the thousands, replacing the secular old guard and establishing what Turks now call a “parallel state”.[*]
They then began to hound their opponents. Starting in 2007, Gulenist [?] prosecutors orchestrated show trials that put hundreds of army officers, thousands of Kurdish activists, several journalists and the chairman of a football club behind bars. Gulenist newspapers cheered the arrests. In a recent interview with a Turkish daily, Ilker Basbug, a former army chief arrested in 2012, said he had warned Mr Erdogan about the cemaat. “I told him, we are facing this threat today, you will face it tomorrow,” he said. Mr Erdogan turned on the movement only after its bureaucrats turned against him in 2012, by trying to arrest his intelligence chief. A year later, he accused Gulenists of choreographing a corruption scandal involving AK politicians. The coup may have been prompted by government plans to purge Gulenists from the army.
In the months since, Mr Erdogan’s government has been rewriting history by pinning its mistakes on Gulenists in its midst. It now blames the show trials, the collapse of peace talks with the PKK in 2015, and the army’s long reluctance to intervene against Islamic State militants on the cemaat. With the government exercising emergency powers, there is virtually nothing to check Mr Erdogan’s crackdown. The new interior minister compares the Gulenists to a plague, and has vowed to fight them “until not a single member is left”.
The paranoia is spilling across borders, too. In the Netherlands, schools linked to the movement have hired security guards after parents complained of threats against them and their children. In Bulgaria, the government deported an alleged Gulen financier to Turkey over the objections of its own courts. Turkey’s state-run news agency, Anadolu, is churning out country-by-country blacklists of entities and people it claims are linked to the cemaat. A Turkish prosecutor recently accused the Vatican of appointing Mr Gulen as a “secret cardinal” in the 1990s.
Secular Turks have no love for the Gulenists, who [allegedly] targeted them in their own purges in the 2000s. They have supported the government’s crusade against the cemaat, most visibly at a national unity rally in August in Yenikapi, a square in Istanbul. But as people with no real links to the Gulenists are purged, other opponents of AK, and even some of the party’s supporters, are starting to fear they may be next. “This is not what we understood as [the spirit of] Yenikapi,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition party, the CHP, on September 3rd. That misunderstanding may cost Turkey dearly.
*Editor’s note: Hizmet Movement Blog reaffirms its non-endorsement policy of the various viewpoints expressed throughout the articles that are solely shared for the convenience of the readers.
Published on The Economist, 10 September 2016 (Europe print edition)