The clash of allies: The AK Party vs Gulen Movement II- Levent Basturk

Seeing and reading the clash between the AK Party and the Gulen movement as a reflection of a fracture in the ruling grand coalition will be very misleading.

The clash of allies: The AK Party vs Gulen Movement II- Levent Basturk

Levent Basturk-World Bulletin

Within the last few years, many commentators who wrote on the conflict between the AK Party and the Gulen movement focused mostly on the domestic factors because they mostly looked at the issue as a power struggle between the two. They even went further and claimed that an attempt to seek the causes of this conflict within the context of external factors is a conspiracy theory. This approach fails in several accounts.

The Gulen movement does not describe itself as a political movement or party. Besides, it claims that it is a methodological obligation for them to stay out of politics. On the other side, it is very clear that it is actually one of the formations deeply rooted in politics. Recently, the Gulenists try to explain this dilemma by emphasizing that their movement is a civil society formation working as a pressure group over the government; aimed to influence the decision making process. Although this reasoning makes sense at a first glance, considering that, the movement uses its followers in state security, intelligence and judicial bureaucracy to shape rather than affect policies, it becomes doubtful that their civil society argument holds any water.

In-fact, the Gulen movement is recently functioning as a formidable political force in Turkey without being organized in any form of political legal organization. It functions in a way unlike any formal political organization functioning in a democratic political system. Being a civil society organization or association merely functions as a cover to hide the real sources of political power the movement has, which is its extensions in various governmental branches that bypass formal and legal decision-making hierarchy of the state when the movement’s vital interests are at stake. In reality, it is a deeply rooted political formation which is not subject to any set of rules in the political system. At the same time, it is also a political formation that does not play in accordance with any set of rules by the system.

Furthermore, the way the movement used its political power in the past by using its extensions in the state bureaucracy (arbitrary police-judiciary abuse of power against some suspects in various coup trials) to settle some of its political accounts with those whom it considered as contenders despite the government objections falsifies any claim that a democratic movement or social force objected a government tending to be more authoritarian every single day.


After the first part of my article on the clash between the AK Party and Gulen movement was published last week, the famous graft operation in Turkey launched by the pro-Gulen police-judicial apparatus opened a new debate about the tension between two sides. This debate, again, missed the points which we emphasized above.

Any analysis on the Gulen movement should not ignore the fact that we are dealing with a global movement whose leader and headquarters are in the US despite its Turkish origins. As we mentioned last week, being centered in the US, especially within the post-9/11 context, is not coincidental and not just related to Gulen’s escape from possible persecution in Turkey in 1998. There is a considerable convergence of the interests between the US and the movement within the context of “war on global terror” that made “dirty wars” routine and the “world a battlefield” as investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill has showed us. 

Moreover, Gulen’s understanding of Islam and approach to matters were considered acceptable during post-9/11 by various segments in the US. A RAND Cooperation report, Civil Democratic Islam, written by Cheryl Benard, wife of Zalmay Khalilzad, a member of George W. Bush’s foreign policy team during the post-9/11 era, categorizes Gulen as a modernist scholar whose works must be encouraged. According to this report, modernism is what worked for the West; so the West needs to advance their vision of Islam over the traditionalists. As of 2005, Daniel Pipes, a hardcore hawkish pro-Israel conservative who supported the so-called “war on terror” campaign of the Bush Administration, praised the “moderate” Gulen movement, with which, he claimed, he had good relations.

Although some hawkish (neo-)conservatives such as Pipes have changes their positions vis-à-vis the Gulen movement, the positive image of the movement still prevails in the US. Nevertheless, the movement had become convinced since 2010 that being seen as associated with the Erdogan government would hurt its image.

Despite the fact that the Gulen movement is proud to be so, being a global movement creates a sense of insecurity for the movement’s leadership. Within the current geopolitical atmosphere of world politics, operating in more than 150 countries without facing with strong resistance as a Muslim formation requires a maximum level of conformity with the global status quo. The movement is being tolerated or even promoted to have worldwide visibility due to its “moderate” appearance. This moderate stance is not just related to its “Islamic” message. It is also about the position it takes on world affairs.


A close review of the movement’s media will immediately reveal that a reader can hardly see any mention of the word “occupation” in any news or op-ed it published about Israel. If done at all, any criticism of Israel in the movement’s media is handled in a very carefully with mild language, which usually accompanies a harsher criticism of the Palestinian side. If anyone who is not familiar with the Palestinian Question reads the movement’s media, s/he will get the impression that Palestinians are the main obstacle in front of solving the decades old conflict in the region.

This is not to say that the Gulen movement is a pro-Israel Muslim formation. However, it is very clear that it does not want to antagonize Israel and does not want to be perceived as being anti-Israel. Moreover, it believes that not antagonizing Israel strengthens its moderate image in the eyes of the US and Europe, which is the key to movement’s survival and expansion on a global scale.

It is this stance that caused the first serious rift between the Gulen movement and the AK Party as confirmed by Huseyin Gulerce, a veteran journalist who writes for the movement’s daily Zaman. Mr. Gulerce said “It was the Mavi Marmara crisis [in 2010] that created the first cracks,” in their relationship” and added, “Mr. Gulen’s attitude was very clear, as he always suggested that Turkey should not be adventurous in its foreign policy and stay oriented to the West, and that it should resolve its foreign policy issues through dialogue”, reported by The New York Times.


Gulen’s desire to see Turkey oriented toward the West made him critical of Erdogan’s foreign policy on other matters too. In 2010, the US and Turkey had also a disagreement on the issue of Iran’s nuclear energy program. The US tended toward implementing a new set of sanctions to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. On the other side, Turkey supported Iran’s program to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. In 2010, Turkey and Brazil together agreed to a fuel-swap deal with Iran in May 2010 in a failed attempt to avoid international sanctions against Iran. Rejection of this deal by the US and other permanent members of the Security Council led Turkey and Brazil vote against United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929 that imposed further sanctions on Iran.

Turkey’s no vote against sanctions at UN SC together with the Mavi Marmara incidence on 31 May 2010 angered most of the political establishment in Washington, DC. Israel held a military operation against the Mavi Marmara and other five ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza with the purpose of breaking the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip. During the operation, nine Turkish citizens, one of whom was also a US citizen, lost their lives. This incidence led to a crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations. These two developments in May 2010 heated up the debate about the foreign policy orientations of Turkey. Many politicians and pundits in the US accused Turkey with the “shift of axis”, a change in policy orientation from the West toward a pan-Islamist foreign policy, under the “Islamist” oriented AK Party rule.

At the time the AK Party government in general and Prime Minister Recep T. Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in particular were intensely criticized, even attacked by various segments in the US capital. The US media, the Israeli lobby, both parties in Congress, and even the foreign policy establishment were part of the critical position taken towards the Erdogan government. These criticisms did not remain limited with the government’s handling of the Mavi Marmara incident. The entirety of Turkish foreign policy was under scrutiny. The critics accused Erdogan and Davutoglu with deviating from traditional pro-Western foreign policy in favor of an Islamist one with the aim of becoming a regional power.

At this critical conjuncture, Gulen had an interview with the Wall Street Journal that shows his discontent with the way the Turkish government handled the incidence. In this interview, Gulen said the flotilla, which included the Mavi Marmara ship owned by IHH, a Turkish humanitarian charity organization, had to ask the permission of the Israeli authorities despite the fact that asking this permission was completely antithetical to the notion of breaking an illegal blockade enforced by an occupying army at the expense of depriving an entire population from access to basic needs. 


The wave of Arab uprisings started in Tunisia and spread to the entire MENA region by the end of 2010 raised hopes and aspirations for the entire region. It also helped Turkey by changing the course of the debate from the “axis of shift” to the “Turkish model”. Those who argued that Turkey could be a model for the “New Middle East”, where authoritarian regimes were becoming anathema, as a country that has created a synthesis between Islam and secular liberal democracy.

The so-called “Arab Spring” brought to forefront Islamist formations that were willing to compete for political power in accordance with democratic rules. Their affinity to the AK Party, a political entity with roots in Islamist movement and ruling secular Western oriented Turkey, made the AK Party a center of focus again. In the first two years of “Arab Spring”, the AK Party’s role, position, and policy toward new developments were usually viewed positively in the West despite occasional ongoing criticisms caused by allegedly controversial steps taken by the government in some occasions.

In the third year of “Arab Spring”, the AK Party’s regional and overall foreign policy became a focal point of criticism again. The rising star of the region in 2011 began to be seen as the lonely wolf of 2013. Three factors primarily played a role in this change of course from optimism to severe critical position toward the AK Party rule: the Syrian stalemate, the military coup in Egypt that toppled President Morsi’s government, and the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s opening toward the West.

The Gulenists’ view of the AK Party’s foreign policy during the course of the Arab Spring developed along the lines of Western attitudes toward the Erdogan government. In 2011 and 2012, they maintained a conditional optimism about the government’s regional policy during these crucial years. At certain conjunctures, they remained critical of certain steps taken by the government.

When the Libyan uprising started, the Gulenists joined the critics of the government because of the government’s unwillingness to join the interventionist camp against Gaddafi. During the early months of the Syrian uprising, the Gulenists tried to present the crisis from a sectarian perspective. They not only tried to urge the government to immediately cut the ties with the Assad regime, but also promoted a confrontational policy vis-à-vis Iran, the most important ally of Syria in the region.

The Gulenists were also concerned with the ties the government was developing with the new political actors in the Arap Spring countries. They found the government’s policy of building strong relations with Islamist political parties objectionable. In the meantime, they constantly raised the issue of the necessity to improve political relations with Israel. After President Morsi was toppled by a coup in Egypt in July 2013, the Gulenists tended to criticize Erdogan because of his supposedly pan-Islamist foreign policy during the course of the Arab Spring.


Many tend to see the targeting of Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan  by the Gulenists as a domestic issue between the Gulenists and Erdogan government. The commentators usually present the case as the difference of opinion between the Gulenists and the government regarding how to solve the Kurdish problem. What disturbs the Gulenists mostly is that the US is critical of Turkey’s overall approach to the Kurdish problem, which also includes Turkey’s improved relations with Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq as an essential element. The increased interdependence between Turkey and KRG is not independent of AK Party’s search for a solution to the decades-old conflict. On the other side, the US is worried that growing economic interdependence between Turkey and KRG is weakening the ties between the autonomous region and central government in Iraq by itching fault lines between the two. It is not totally unreasonable to think that completely disappointed with the central government in Iraq, the KRG may choose to break off with Baghdad in favor of a federation between Turkey and KRG whose economies are mutually interdependent.


Seeing and reading the clash between the AK Party and the Gulen movement as a reflection of a fracture in the ruling grand coalition will be very misleading. The Gulen movement is not just a religious movement originated in Turkey. It is a global movement that that defines its needs and interests at the global scale. Treating and comparing it with an ordinary domestic group with a popular following is totally misleading.  It acts locally in Turkey after it does its calculations globally. Treating it as an interest and pressure group trying to affect the decision making process like any other civil society organization cannot read the real picture in Turkey. The Movement in fact had a great influence over the government and filled many government cadres with its followers. The clash is not because an authoritarian government denied any contributions recommended by a civil society formation that has deep interest in the democratization of political system. What the Gulen movement tries to do goes beyond a struggle to provide its input over the policies. Rather, in reality, it tries to force on the government its own policies determined in accordance with its global interests. 

Güncelleme Tarihi: 12 Ocak 2014, 09:50
a. khan
a. khan - 10 yıl Önce

Mr Fehtullah Gulen is staying in US courtesy of AIPAC. The deal is that Mr Gulen help implement Turkish government policies favorable to AIPAC and Israel. Further, the Turkish government should follow the rules laid down by AIPAC regarding their domestic and foreign policy and particularly the region. AIPAC not only covers Israeli interests but also the Saudi's too.

Mike Newman
Mike Newman - 10 yıl Önce

Hakan Yavuz, a Turkish political scientist at the University of Utah, calls the Nurcu movement “a resistance movement to the ongoing Kemalist modernization process.” Fethullah Gülen is a student of late Islamist Said Nursi (a trouble maker in early Republic years) who wanted to establish a strict Islamist state in Turkiye based on his own interpretation of Quran. Their sole purpose in life is to establish Islamism. Gulen is living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, USA