In Turkish politics the name to know is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current President of Turkey and one of the founders and leaders of the AKP or Justice and Development Party. Erdogan has held the reigns of power in Turkey for well over a decade now but that is not to say he lacks opponents. Erdogan sees his largest domestic enemy in a Turkish cleric who lives in rural Pennsylvania: Fethullah Gulen. The bad blood runs so deep that Erdogan claims Gulen staged a recent failed coup in Turkey while Gulen has suggested Erdogan staged it himself to give justification for the purging of AKP opponents that followed. Regardless of who caused the coup the rivalry between Erdogan and Gulen has taken center stage as it becomes an open battle.
Shortly after the coup the AKP labeled Gulen as a terrorist and demanded the Obama administration extradite him, but not so long ago the two camps were allied. Prior to Erdogan’s AKP coming into power Turkey’s government enforced a strictly secular approach to politics – attempting to isolate Islam from political discourse. Erdogan and Gulen’s two camps worked together to mold Turkey’s government into a more conservative one that promoted moderate Islam. Both groups shared a common enemy in the secular old guard and a common ideal of a moderate conservative Muslim government with healthy ties to both the Middle East and West. In spite of the common ground, the relationship between the AKP and Gulenists soured until they started trading blows. Erdogan moved to close down prep-schools, which serve as a major source of funding for the Gulenists. Gulen called it an attack on free enterprise in Turkey. Not long after, a Gulenist prosecutor initiated a corruption probe which indicted several AKP officials. Erdogan likened it to an anti-AKP coup launched through dishonest but legal means.
What exactly prompted the fallout and the ensuing political conflict is hard to say even for experts on the region because of the nature of Gulen’s movement and organization. Technically the Gulenists are not a political party or bloc as the AKP is, but closer to a council or fellowship. Outwardly the Gulenists are, as academic Bayram Balci said to the Middle East Eye, something like the Christian Jesuits, establishing schools and education programs that also quietly “diffuse their values.” Despite Gulen’s primary focus as a cleric and educator Gulenists seem to have political sway and serious soft power in Turkey. Some of Turkey’s bigger businesses and newspapers are owned by Gulenists and some politicians and policemen in Turkey are Gulenists as well. In addition Gulen’s detractors often cite a leaked speech in which Gulen pushes his followers to take up positions in Turkish government, bureaucracy, and law enforcement and wait for the right moment to change the country. However Gulen denies the authenticity of the speech. Other rumors abound around the Gulenists, including that local chapter leaders pick who members marry and rule over the lives of their members. Gulen’s own lack of transparency – rarely making public appearances or revealing the inner workings of his organization – feed into these rumors.
Erdogan’s recent authoritarian stripe also makes it difficult to determine how powerful the Gulenists are compared to how good a scapegoat they are. Since the coup, Erdogan has declared a state of emergency and stopped abiding by the European Convention on Human Rights. The AKP have shut down independent media outlets, arrested prominent journalists and purged police offices and bureaucracies. These crackdowns come after Erdogan had already increased the power of the presidency once he assumed it and arrested the heads of rival parties. The Gulenists might threaten Erdogan and wield political power without being a political party but Erdogan may also overstate their reach because their secretive nature and soft power makes it easy for the AKP to draw connections between Gulen and opponents in the press and other political parties and justify arresting key opponents to the AKP. Political expediency and lack of transparency make the actual reach of the Gulenists unclear.
What is clear is that the divide between Gulen and Erdogan will continue to shape politics in Turkey and that the US will have to play a role too. With Gulen living in Pennsylvania, Erdogan has been pressuring the US to hand him over. Turkey has been a longstanding NATO member and ally to the US, as well as a pillar of support against the Islamic State (IS) and the Assad regime in Syria so refusing extradition puts a strain on an important strategic relationship. This comes at a time when the normally icy relationship between Russia and Turkey has started to thaw as well. However, given Erdogan’s turn to more authoritarian methods handing over a political opponent also seems ideologically disingenuous and may embitter other Muslims as Gulen is a popular religious voice. The Obama administration is still fielding Turkey’s extradition request while an adviser to President-Elect Trump has openly voiced support for extradition. What Erdogan, Gulen, Turkey, and the US will do next is anyone’s guess.