By Shabtai Gold
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan once regarded Fethullah Gulen as an ally in his effort to cement power, then as a rival, and now as a mortal enemy set on ousting him through a military coup.
Gulen, an Islamic preacher, has been in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999. He started his movement, known as Hizmet (Service) in the 1970s, and has been accruing millions of followers around the world ever since.
Charities, schools and other organisations in the United States, Turkey, Asia and Africa are affiliated with him. Some of the charter schools in the US have been the target of law-enforcement probes.
Gulen supported Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) in its rise to power at the start of last decade. The preacher had always encouraged his followers to get a good education, making them well suited to help the new government.
Members of the group became key civil servants, swelling the ranks of the police and judiciary in particular. Some also went to the military. Others, opened banks, businesses and media organisations.
As allies, the two tried to take down the vestiges of the old military tutelage in state institutions. Hundreds went up on trial in the Ergenekon cases launched in 2007, though nearly all have since been released, with much of the evidence doctored.
Tensions between the two men began to increase in recent years. The exact reasons were never clear.
The struggle became public in late 2013, when prosecutors launched corruption probes against the government, which Erdogan weathered, while blaming Gulenists for the investigations and the release of phone taps, in which top officials appear to be corrupt.
Turkey has since dubbed Gulen’s movement a terrorist organisation, even before the latest coup attempt. Thousands of alleged Gulenists were either arrested, purged from the civil service or shifted within state institutions to lessen their influence.
But what caused the tensions?
Erdogan and Gulen fought over foreign policy – including Syria and Israel – and domestic issues, such as the Kurdish question, including an attempted peace process between the state and the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
There were also signs of Erdogan’s upset over the wide-ranging arrests during Ergenekon, and he even came out to defend a general who was detained.
“It is not only two egos, but the egos are clashing because they have different visions for the country and both are leaders of Islamist movements. By 2013, they were no longer able to work together,” says Ilhan Tanir, a Washington-based Turkey analyst.
“Turkey was not big enough for these two.”
A mystery also remains about why Gulen remained in Pennsylvania after the AKP’s rise to power after 2002 and especially after 2007, when the party held not only the government but also the presidency, overruling the military, which long had influence over politics.
“He says he stayed in America for health reasons. I don’t understand why he didn’t come after 2010 or 2011 when Erdogan was firmly in control and winning elections by wide margins,” Tanir says.
Obviously he was unsure about his safety.”
The US is demanding Turkey present solid evidence linking Gulen himself to the coup plot.
Analysts say Gulenists may indeed be involved in the attempt, but others might have been too.
Whether the preacher himself knew anything remains to be proven. He strongly denies the allegations.