Journal Essay

The Turkish Coup Attempt: The Gülen Movement vs. the State

M. Hakan Yavuz and Rasim Koç

Winter 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 4

Dr. Yavuz is a professor at the University of Utah. Dr. Koç is an instructor at Hasan Kalyoncu University in Gaziantep. We would like to thank Mujeeb R. Khan and Kılıç Kanat for reading and commenting on the paper.

When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, it encountered major resistance from state institutions, especially the secularist military, due to its Islamist roots and anti-secular rhetoric. In an effort to counter the military and control state institutions, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appointed followers of Fethullah Gülen to key government positions. This administrative support from the Gülen movement enabled the AKP to govern the country and closely monitor the military with the help of the police force. In order to consolidate his reputation as a moderately liberal Muslim leader, Erdoğan endorsed Turkey's joining the European Union, believing that membership in the EU would help grow the economy and build a democratic society. Erdoğan's most effective strategy was to ally with the highly successful and well-informed Gülen movement, the most powerful Islamic faction at the time.1 The movement included well-trained, educated and competent bureaucrats who would control key state institutions while working with Erdoğan to transform them. Moreover, the movement helped AKP officials to establish international connections that functioned as "parallel embassies" for the government. In fact, pro-Gülen bureaucrats were appointed to prominent positions throughout the government, including the police, the judiciary, and the departments of education and health. Before the failed coup of July 15, it was well known that the Gülen movement had a significant presence in both the police and the judiciary, being "in the loop" regarding key security policies.2 However, the coup revealed the powerful presence of Gülenists in the military, known up to then as the most anti-Gülenist of all Turkey's institutions.

Until the corruption probes of 2013, the Gülenist presence in the police, the judiciary and other state institutions had managed to weaken the military through a series of real and fabricated court cases, including Ergenekon, Sledgehammer and the Izmir espionage affair. The government supported the pro-Gülenist judiciary and police during these trials, in which top military officers, journalists and politicians were accused of forming a clandestine organization to overthrow the civilian government through coups, assassinations and subversive political activities. More accurately, the Gülen movement targeted the military, which had not allowed any religious movements to infiltrate its system.3 The Turkish military has always regarded itself as the founder and guardian of the Kemalist secular nation-state, and it remained resolute,4 regularly purging officers seen as having ethnic, religious or socialist leanings. In response to these purges, the Gülenists cultivated a secretive, tightly controlled network within the ranks to recruit and promote followers while removing those hostile to the movement. The question remains, how did the Gülenists manage to infiltrate the most secular institution in the Republic?


A former ally of the AKP, the Gülen Movement — now officially referred to as the Fethullah Gülen Terror Organization (FETO) — evolved from a piety-focused educational entity into a violent, secretive religio-political organization bonded by both religious ideas and material interests.5 In essence, the movement has evolved into a secretive structure for the purpose of controlling governance and the spaces of power. It comprises circles of peaceful idealists as well as an inner circle willing to use illicit means to attain its aims. Following official hostility and persecution, it began a tradition of secrecy in order to take over the security establishment: the police force, the military and the intelligence service. The movement masked its activities to avoid police monitoring, practicing taqiyya: concealing one's intentions and goals in order to control key power positions. Although many Turks tend to explain this shift to secrecy and violence in terms of its "real or imagined" ties with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), this conspiratorial narrative is an attempt to cover up the mistakes of the AKP government as they pertain to the transformation of the movement. The movement has not always been secretive in most of its public activities. Due to the oppression arising from the 1998 military coup, however, certain of its cells began attempting to control the police force. After taking over the police academy and the two-year police-training schools, with the help of the AKP government, the newly empowered movement turned its focus to the military.

To understand the movement's most recent evolution, we must look at Turkey's internal politics — characterized by corruption, nepotism and a vulgarized understanding of Islam. Since 2007, the Gülen movement has been the government's partner, controlling the ministries of interior, education and justice as well as the personnel departments of every ministry, including foreign affairs. The movement's success within the last decade is not the result of alleged cooperation with the CIA, but rather failing state institutions and widening sociological fault lines, a polarized party system, weak leadership in ministries and especially the manipulation of the police and judiciary. The radicalization of the Gülen movement's ideas and networks is the outcome of Turkey's weakened social, political and legal institutions and circumstances.

Added to this is the rigidity of its networks, its emphasis on secrecy and its total loyalty to the messages of Gülen, believed by some followers to have open channels to the Prophet Muhammad, along with moral education that stresses surrender and obedience. Moreover, the movement has been particularly successful in accumulating power and access to national resources through the help of the AKP government. The movement's morality is flexible enough to bend on every occasion in order to secure and fortify its control. Only recently have some scholars of the movement raised questions about its dark side.6 Now, after the coup, more are questioning the movement's lack of transparency.

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