News / Europe

Feud Between Turkey's Erdogan and Influential Cleric Goes Public

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media next to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (R) at Esenboga Airport in Ankara, Nov. 21, 2013.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media next to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (R) at Esenboga Airport in Ankara, Nov. 21, 2013.
Reuters
A feud between Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and an influential Islamic cleric has spilled into the open months ahead of elections, highlighting fractures in the religiously conservative support base underpinning his decade in power.

Erdogan's government has incensed followers of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamic preacher whose supporters say they number in millions, with plans to abolish private 'prep' schools many of which are financed and run by Gulen's movement.

The reclusive cleric drew parallels with the behavior of the secularist military in the build up to past coups.

FILE - Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen at his residence in Saylorsburg, PennsylvaniaFILE - Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania
x
FILE - Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania
FILE - Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania
Gulen has built a global network of schools over the past four decades promoting Turkish language and culture. In doing so, he has established a powerful movement whose members hold influential positions across Turkish society, from the police and judiciary to the central bank, political parties and media.

“The draft bill regarding closing of prep schools and reading rooms came like a dagger to our heart,” an editorial on one of Gulen's official websites said, an unusually blunt expression of opposition to Erdogan's government.

In a voice recording on another site, Gulen recalled the actions of the military, staunch guardians of Turkey's secular order, which staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and forced Turkey's first Islamist-led government from power in 1997.

“They could even want to shut the gates of heaven,” he said. “We have seen this during the 1960 coup and have been slapped by it. We have seen the (1971) coup and been kicked by it. We have seen the 1980 coup and we've all been hit by them.”

Gulen's sympathizers, largely drawn from the same religiously-minded professional class which helped sweep Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party to power in 2002, revere him as an enlightened, pro-Western face of progressive Islam.

His critics see a more sinister agenda, accusing members of his Hizmet movement of furtively seeking to infiltrate state institutions and wield power through undemocratic means.

FILE - Children attend a class at Fatih College in Istanbul, Turkey. The 640-pupil school is run by followers of Fethullah Gulen.FILE - Children attend a class at Fatih College in Istanbul, Turkey. The 640-pupil school is run by followers of Fethullah Gulen.
x
FILE - Children attend a class at Fatih College in Istanbul, Turkey. The 640-pupil school is run by followers of Fethullah Gulen.
FILE - Children attend a class at Fatih College in Istanbul, Turkey. The 640-pupil school is run by followers of Fethullah Gulen.
Closing its prep schools in Turkey - schools that provide high-standard private education to prepare children for high school and university - could deprive the movement of one of its sources of financing.

In an interview on Turkey's ATV television late on Wednesday, Erdogan was defiant, referring to the Hizmet movement as the “opposing side”.

“If they are expecting a turnaround, they should know it is not going to happen,” he said, but denied that the draft bill on prep schools was targeting Gulen.

“Why should we side against the movement now? We find it very strange that our brothers are attacking us.”

Political sway

Erdogan, accused by critics of pursuing an increasingly authoritarian style of government, has in the past said his relationship with Gulen is an issue he prefers to keep out of the public eye.

But the secretive nature of the Hizmet movement means its impact on forthcoming elections - local polls next March, a presidential race a few months later in which Erdogan is expected to stand, and general elections in 2015 - is hard to quantify.

Surveys commissioned by the AK Party have put the level of voters the movement could sway at around 3 percent of the electorate, while other sources have suggested they control up to 8 percent, according to Turkish media reports.

Gulen left for the United States in 1999, shortly before the start of a case against him on charges of plotting to destroy the secular state and establish Islamic law.

He was acquitted but has lived there ever since, presiding over a movement with influence from the United States to Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe.

In a statement on the web site of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, which has Gulen as its honorary leader, the movement said it had no plans to establish its own party.

But its real power lies within the AK Party bureaucracy and ranks and its ability to rally support for or against Erdogan.

Erdogan has won three elections in a row since 2002 and presided over an economic boom in Turkey. On the electoral map nearly all of the country - apart from the Aegean coast, the mainly Kurdish southeast corner and a small region on the European continent - is AK Party orange.

But there are signs of fracture within the party.

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, a co-founder with Erdogan of the AKP and a long-time ally, sparred with Erdogan this month over his suggestion that regulations be drawn up to stop male and female students living together.

During anti-government protests over the summer, when Erdogan dismissed the demonstrators as looters and oversaw a heavy-handed police crackdown, both Arinc and President Abdullah Gul - both seen as Gulen sympathizers - struck markedly more conciliatory tones.

Erdogan has said that the prep schools, estimated to number around 4,000 in Turkey, boost inequality by placing an unfair financial burden on lower-income families and that in any case, only around a quarter of them are run by the Hizmet movement.

Not everyone is convinced.

“The real target is to deal a serious blow to Gulen's movement,” Rusen Cakir, a columnist in the pro-government Vatan newspaper, wrote this month.

“The first question that comes to mind is why Erdogan is taking such a risk before local elections, and presidential elections shortly after. Does he want to test the Gulen movement's strength at the ballot box?”

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs