Much of the world was shaken this past July by the attempted coup d’état by certain members of the Turkish armed forces. The coup, ineptly planned and carried out, was put down within twenty-four hours at the cost of about three hundred lives. The coup attempt was universally condemned by Turkish political, business, and religious leaders, and Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who barely escaped capture or possible assassination, was acclaimed a national hero.
In the early hours of the coup, Erdoğan addressed the nation and blamed the coup attempt on a surprising source: the Hizmet community, a progressive Muslim group known and respected internationally for their work in education, disaster relief, publishing, and medicine. Members of Hizmet, which means “service” in Turkish, are inspired by the teachings of a traditional Muslim scholar, Fethullah Gülen, who was among the first to unequivocally condemn the coup. How did Erdoğan come to accuse the reclusive Gülen, who lives in the United States, of treason and masterminding the coup? A personal experience of mine points to the irony of this turn of events, since until recent years Erdoğan was a supporter of Hizmet activities.
In May 2009, I received an award at the International Turkish Olympiad. The festival, essentially a cultural event consisting of Turkish songs, dances, and poetry recitals performed by students in Turkish schools around the world, took place in a modern convention hall in Ankara, the nation’s capital, with thousands of spectators in attendance. The event was sponsored and organized by members of the Hizmet movement and most of the performers were students of Hizmet schools abroad. When I, together with a handful of other recipients, mounted the stage to accept our awards, there to shake our hands was the smiling then prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyib Erdoğan.
The incident underlines the fact that less than a decade ago relations between Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Hizmet movement reflected attitudes of cooperation and respect. Foreign observers in Ankara even referred to Hizmet as “the religious wing of the AKP.” Although inaccurate even in those days, such a characterization revealed a commonly held view among Turks and others that there was some kind of ideological link between the AKP and the followers of Gülen.
There is no doubt that the Gülen supporters had great influence in Turkey. They ran the best high schools and college-prep institutions, and students from those schools year after year obtained the top scores in the standardized college entrance exams. Hizmet members published Zaman, the most widely circulated and highly regarded newspaper in Turkey, referred to by Erdoğan himself as “the guardian of democracy in Turkey.” Hizmet members published scores of professional journals and popular magazines and established associations of medical professionals, teachers, and business leaders. They set up hospitals and clinics, and in Turkey’s highly polarized society they conducted national “dialogues” that sought to build unity among Turkish thinkers and leaders: Right and Left, Sunni and Alevi, Turk and Kurd, and Muslim, Jewish, and Christian.
However, storm clouds were gathering and perceptive observers could see trouble ahead. In a prophetic column in the left-center Hurriyet newspaper October of 2010, the late political commentator Mehmet Ali Birand noted:
I don’t know whether they are aware of it, but a danger that needs to be taken very seriously awaits the Gülen movement. In the eyes of Turkish society, which believes conspiracy theories, the Gülen movement is mythicized beyond its real dimensions. The power and influence of the Gülen movement is being so exaggerated that if no precautions are taken, this imagined power will one day destroy it… If the current trend does not change, future politicians will go after this movement with a view to annihilating it.Birand, who claimed to be neither a member of Hizmet nor antipathetic to it, believed that “the power attributed to the Gülen movement is enormously exaggerated. It does not reflect the truth but the winds of exaggeration.”
The first sign of tension between Erdoğan and Gülen can be dated to the pro-democracy Gezi Park protests of June 2013, when Gülen criticized the Turkish government’s heavy-handed suppression of the protests. The real break came later that year when investigators reportedly associated with Hizmet pursued charges of corruption leveled against the sons of various ministers of the Turkish government, implicating as well Erdoğan’s own sons. Since then, Erdoğan (president since 2014) has sought to destroy Hizmet and break its influence in Turkish society. The July coup attempt was only a few hours old when Erdoğan accused Gülen of masterminding it and his followers of carrying it out. Since then, the government has undertaken a “McCarthyite”-type witch-hunt, resulting in the dismissal and arrest of university presidents, police chiefs, military officers, and newspaper editors; seizure of the property of businessmen sympathetic to Gülen; and imprisonment of an estimated sixty thousand Turkish citizens. Then, on October 2, the government detained Fethullah Gülen’s brother, Kutbettin, in western Turkey, with the nation’s semiofficial news agency reporting he had been sought in connection with membership in an “armed terror organization.”
Erdoğan’s anti-Hizmet campaign has even affected U.S.-Turkish relations. The Turkish government has demanded Gülen’s extradition to Turkey, while Secretary of State John Kerry has noted that the United States does not extradite residents on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations, even those made by heads of state. He invited the Turkish government “to present us with any legitimate evidence that withstands scrutiny.” Up to now, no evidence of the involvement of Gülen or Hizmet associates in the failed coup has been forthcoming.
For those who know Gülen personally or have had contact with the open-hearted and idealistic members of the movement, claims of subversive “terrorism” seem incongruous. I for one have known Gülen for more than twenty years and find the retiring, soft-spoken Qur’an-teacher to be preaching and living a particularly attractive interpretation of Islam. His bedrock concept is that of ikhlas, which means doing everything, no matter how modest or unassuming, wholly for God’s pleasure. This spiritual principle, which is hardly original or unique to Islam, has motivated Gülen’s followers to commit themselves to administering and teaching in schools in places as diverse as Phnom Penh, Brussels, Accra, and charter schools in inner-city neighborhoods in urban areas such as Milwaukee and Cleveland. They are digging wells in Somalia and Mali, running clinics in Kenya, and establishing interreligious dialogue programs in more than two hundred locations in the United States.
Many Americans have come to know the Hizmet movement personally through the well-organized cultural trips to Turkey sponsored by local dialogue associations. For many non-Muslims, the trips are their first direct encounter with an Islamic community that is not interested in violence or domination, but rather in being a living expression of God’s compassion and mercy.
I am full of admiration for these Hizmet members, of whom I know hundreds, and many of whom I count among my personal friends. I have been to their annual retreats, where they encourage one another to live up to their lofty Islamic ideals. I have heard the testimony of Turkish bishops, Jews, and Alevis that the Gülen followers are their partners and allies in striving to build a truly inclusive Turkish society. I have talked with Christian students from Mozambique, Indonesia, and the Philippines, graduates of Hizmet schools, who are grateful for the excellent education they received and deny that they were subject to any form of proselytizing.
Could all this good work simply be public posturing, a façade to hide a conspiracy aimed at achieving domination and power? Some journalists, writing after the coup, seem to have uncritically adopted the government line. Among the more prolific is Mustafa Akyol who, writing in the New York Times and Al-Monitor, tells us that “there are good reasons to believe [Erdoğan’s] accusation,” but he then fails to offer any credible reasons. He says that the Hizmet community is hierarchically organized; its members have long been “infiltrating” the judiciary, military, and police; an (anonymous) ex-member complained to Akyol that there is a “dark side” to Hizmet. On this flimsy basis he accepts the government view. Is this serious journalism or propaganda?
Writing in the New York Review of Books, Christopher de Bellaigue pieces together a case for the plausibility of Hizmet involvement from conversations with Turks on the street, hearsay, public opinion, gossip, and fertile speculation. This boils down to the view that many people in Turkey believe the government view, so there must be something to it. He makes effective use of the passive voice: “The plotters were said by the government and by many others to have acted in the name of Fethullah Gülen”; “the near-unanimous view among Turks [is] that the Gülen movement was involved”; “it seems plausible to some observers I talked with in Turkey that there could have been an opportunistic alliance between the military and Gülenists to get rid of a president”; regarding claims of American involvement, de Bellaigue reverts to the same argument from plausibility: “To these Turks it makes perfect sense that their pro-Western message would make the Gülenists preferable to Erdoğan in American eyes.”
That most people in Turkey consider Hizmet involvement in the coup to be a plausible possibility could mean no more than that they were misled by Erdoğan’s propaganda. And there is no doubt that the Turkish government has been very effective in convincing the Turkish people of his slanders against Hizmet.
But if Hizmet was not involved, then who? The Turkish press has called out all the usual suspects: the United States, Israel, the Vatican, Kurdish nationalists, ISIS. Some have argued, as was noted in articles in Politico and Independent (“in the same way Hitler used the Reichstag Fire to suppress all opposition”), that the coup was stage-managed by Erdoğan himself to create a pretext for destroying Hizmet and suppressing his secular and leftist critics. Certainly, he had the most to gain and has, in fact, gained the most.
I suppose that Hizmet involvement in the coup is theoretically possible, even if a far-fetched and unlikely scenario. Still, like Secretary John Kerry and many observers who have been positively impressed by the movement, I ask Erdoğan: “Please produce evidence, if you have any, for your claims. Otherwise, why should anyone take your word for what appears to be a groundless assertion against this conscientious religious leader and a community that is doing much good in the world? Could your anti-Hizmet campaign be nothing more than an act of revenge for the whistle-blowing against your family members, or a distraction aimed at preventing a continuing investigation of the corruption charges?”
* Thomas Michel, SJ, is the author of several books on Muslim-Christian relations and Islamic thought in modern Turkey, including Peace and Dialogue in a Plural Society and A Christian View of Islam. He has taught for many years in Indonesia, Turkey, and Qatar.
Published on Commonweal, 6 October 2016, Thursday