With tens of thousands of devotees either jailed in Turkey, fired from their jobs or on the run abroad after the failed coup of 2016, even followers of reclusive U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen admit his movement has no future in Turkey, where government loyalists and secularists alike loathe the group for its abuses of power.
Formed in the 1970s, the global Islamic network, known as Hizmet (service) to its followers, became a major player in Turkey in a loose alliance with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002. The secretive movement encouraged graduates of Gülen’s hundreds of schools to take jobs in the civil service, police, judiciary, armed services and the media, from where they began to wield huge power without ever winning an election.
As prosecutors linked to Gülen launched mass trials of secularists they accused of being part of a secret conspiracy to overthrow the state, the AKP, which emerged from a string of banned Islamist parties, voiced its support. But the AKP split dramatically with the Gülenists in 2013 when prosecutors accused members of Erdoğan’s inner circle of corruption.
After the failure of what the AKP calls the “judicial coup” of 2013, the government says Gülenists tried to seize power with a coup. More than 260 people were killed during the abortive putsch of July 15, 2016. Gülen and his followers deny any involvement, but experts say his followers were involved.
“My sense is that the prime mover behind the coup was Gülenists,” said Svante E. Cornell, director and co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, adding that many non-Gülenists also joined in.
“By the same token, I don’t think at all that most of the people in the Gülen movement had any idea that this was going to happen,” he said.
While some Gülenists had reached the highest levels of the state bureaucracy, many were ordinary teachers or low-level bureaucrats with no direct connection to the core of the group or knowledge of how it worked, according to sociologist Joshua Hendrick, who wrote a seminal book on the movement in 2013.
“The expression used within the community is that the left hand never knows what the right hand is up to at any given time,” Hendrick said.
There is no concrete proof that Gülen or anyone in his core group planned the coup, but experts say its adherents wouldn’t undertake something so large without orders or permission from the top.
“I think it’s highly unlikely that they were acting independently. Everything I’ve seen of the movement evidences its extremely hierarchical structure,” said Caroline Tee, a social anthropologist at the University of Cambridge who also wrote a book about the Gülen movement, published in 2016.
“It’s my experience that every aspect of (a follower’s) life is mediated by their Gülenist connection,” she said.
After the attempted coup, authorities accelerated a purge of affiliated individuals and organisations already underway after the 2013 split.
Since then, more than 150,000 people, including more than 30,000 teachers, have been fired or suspended from their jobs, mostly without any charges or evidence presented. Many or most are believed to be Gülen followers. Purged workers, their names publicly listed, are blacklisted from their professions. The government announced in December that 234,419 passports had been revoked.
“The movement has been sociologically exterminated in Turkey. I call it a social genocide,” Özcan Keleş, a lawyer and chair of the Gülen-affiliated, London-based Dialogue Society, told Ahval.
Turkey has shut down 1,064 private schools, 15 universities and more than 1,500 associations. The government has also seized more than 1,000 companies linked to the Gülen movement worth at least $11 billion, and thousands of other properties worth billions more, recalling the Turkish state’s long history of confiscating property from minorities deemed as undesirable.
Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül said this month that 38,470 members of what Turkish leaders now call the Fethullahist Terror Organisation (FETÖ) had been convicted or remanded in custody. More than 18 months after the coup, some 500 people a week are being detained on suspicions of Gülen connections, according to Interior Ministry statistics.
Citizens, encouraged by the government, have reported their own family members as Gülenists, columnists have openly called for the killing of Gülen supporters and their families, and relatives of Hizmet supporters who have fled abroad have been arrested. Authorities have been accused of abducting and torturing suspects in Turkey.
“We got a note from people in Turkey the other day, saying they’re banished from the marketplace. These are professors, doctors, journalists and whatnot, and they can’t even go and sell pickles in the market. So what are these people to do? They’re homeless, they’re unemployed, they’re unemployable,” said Keleş.
The government has acknowledged that many denunciations have been false and based on personal vendettas. The word ‘FETÖ’ has become a catchall pejorative term. The head of a taxi union recently said ridesharing company Uber was “exactly like FETÖ”.
“If you want to get rid of somebody for your own purposes, call them a Gülenist and it’s going to make your life much easier,” said Cornell. “There’s clearly a witch-hunt going on. I know people who had nothing to do with the Gülen movement who were purged.”
Even so, there is very little sympathy in Turkey for the plight of Gülen’s followers. Due to documented and suspected abuses of power and the widespread belief that Gülen was behind the attempted coup, Gülen supporters are disliked in Turkey by nearly every group but their own.
People in Turkey, “haven’t been able to get beyond this notion that they’re a shadowy, murky group trying to gain power with an unclear motive,” Cornell said. “You almost find that people are more afraid of the Gülen movement than of Erdoğan, and the dislike for the Gülen movement is stronger.”
Selim Sazak, an analyst and doctoral student at Brown University in the United States, said contempt for the Gülen movement from the secular half of Turkey’s divided society was heightened by the fact that Gülenists blocked secularists like him from government jobs, and helped the AKP take control of the state and persecute secularists and other opponents.
“The reason everyone's so angry at the Gülenists is that, A: they were the public face of all of this and, B: Erdoğan couldn't have done this without them,” he said. “They were a religious group bent on taking over the state apparatus and yanking Turkey in their own direction.”
Sazak, who was advised against applying for the foreign service because of his secular background, said people like him had been warning about the movement’s rise since the 1980s, but were dismissed by some as paranoid Islamophobes.
“So there's an element of Cassandra-esque indignation,” he said.
Cornell said the almost universal distaste for the Gülenists in Turkey made the future of the movement there look very dim, even if the government changes.
“Especially because there is such a massive consensus in Turkey, even outside of Erdoğan and his people, that this was a Gülen-orchestrated coup, it’s going to make it very difficult for the Gülen movement to come back to Turkey,” he said. “I think for the foreseeable future being a Gülenist in Turkey will be very difficult.”
Keleş acknowledged the resentment and said it was time for the movement to embrace criticism and reform.
“Clearly the movement is disliked now. A lot of that is to do with dehumanisation, but some of it is to do with some of the practices associated with it,” he said.
The campaign against the Gülenists in Turkey and the evident distaste for them from all sections of Turkish society has affected the movement’s feeling for the country of its origin, he said.
“What I’ve observed is that the level of state persecution, coupled with the public indifference to that persecution has caused a psychological and emotional break for many Hizmet participants. Many can’t see themselves returning even if the political atmosphere changed dramatically.”
“A lot of people in the movement recognise that the future lies outside of Turkey and that Turkey is a lost cause,” Keleş said. “The movement shouldn’t return.”
Tee said the movement might do fine in the West, especially since it is seen as a staunch enemy of the unpopular Erdoğan.
“I think the West is where to watch them in the future. I think this is where they’ll be regrouping,” she said.
Experts said the movement would likely splinter after the death of 76-year-old Gülen, who is reported not to be in good health.
“As far as I know, there will be no one to replace him,” said an academic formerly close to the movement who declined to be named. “Post-Gülen will be better for the members.” The group would go on in one form or another, he said, but “as an institution, I think the movement is over”.