Escalating Conflict Between Turkey’s PM Erdogan & Imam Gülen

Turkey: A new Power Struggle Has Emerged

By Peter Edel

In 2003 Turkish PM Erdogan remarked that his Justice and Development Party (AKP) controlled the government, but not the state. In order to do so, the AKP had to get rid of the secular establishment that had been controlling the Turkish state for many decades. Easier said than done, for the grassroots of the party lack sufficient intellectual capacity to replace the secularists. A cooperation with the U.S. residing imam Fethullah Gülen, whose movement runs many schools and universities in Turkey, brought solace. With the effect that after some time many positions in the state were filled by Gülen’s followers.

The difference between the religious ideologies of Erdogan and Gülen hardly mattered at first, since both recognized the secularists as their common enemy. However, when the job was done there were far more Gülenists involved in state institutions, like the police and the justice department, than Erdogan could allow to happen. A new power struggle emerged, during which the differences between Gülen and Erdogan became enlarged.


The first confrontation followed in February 2012, after the AKP tried to limit Gülen’s influence within the police force. Subsequently his followers there hit back by handing over information to the justice department concerning presumably illegal contacts between the national intelligence organization MIT and the Kurdish PKK. Inspired by this information a prosecutor went after MIT undersecretary Hakan Fidan.

Since Fidan is a protégé of Erdogan, the PM felt the hot breath of the justice department closing in on him. To stop this threat he launched a new law, making it impossible to prosecute and investigate MIR-employees without his authorization. Shortly after, the government transferred officers of the intelligence unit of the police to other positions, while special authority courts were abolished. Both were widely assumed to be under Gülen’s control. The imam was pushed back by Erdogan, but only temporarily.

Today’s Zaman

This year Fidan came under attack again. Last October, U.S. newspapers made serious allegations against him. According to the Washington Post Fidan was responsible for inadmissible operations concerning Syria. The Wall Street Journal wrote that Fidan provided Iran with information, which enabled this country to identify secret agents of Israel.

This is not the place to determine whether these accusations were justified (as far Iran is concerned, I can’t imagine; when it comes to Syria I can). What matters is that the AKP responded furiously when Gülen’s English language daily Todays Zaman quoted both articles. Pro-government columnists accused Todays Zaman of involvement in an “international conspiracy” against MIT and Turkey.

Shortly after, Todays Zaman editor-in-chief Bülent Kenes stated that the AKP pays 6000 “legionnaires” to harass “us” on the Internet with “black propaganda”. Kenes claims he is accused through twitter of being a “Zionist spy”. Such assertions certainly are part of the repertoire of the AKP and its advocates, in Turkey as well as in the rest of the world. For instance, on a Dutch website about Turkey, I was called “a Jew” and a “spy of Israel” myself by AKP-supporters after having criticized Erdogan. In the case of Kenes there is of course the good relationship between Gülen and the Israel Lobby in the U.S., although this does not prove Todays Zaman’s editor-in-chief is a “Zionist spy” of course. Anyway, the spread of AKP propaganda through social media was also confirmed by other Turkish media than Todays Zaman. Besides, the AKP did not even deny it.

Gezi Park

Initially, both the AKP and the Gülen movement denied a dispute. But not anymore; the mudslinging has definitely begun. Three months after the protest against the demolition of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, and the police brutality by which it was beaten down, Gülen’s Foundation of writers and journalists (GYV) accused the AKP of slander. According to the GYV, the AKP wrongfully asserted that detained demonstrators were released by prosecutors belonging to the Gülen movement. That Gülen’s police used disproportionate violence to fuel the fire of the protest and to discredit the government, was also a fairy tale according to GYV.

It’s not only the AKP that attributes strong influence within the police to the Gülen movement. In fact all the secular media in Turkey have been doing so over the last years. On the other hand, Erdogan seemed quite satisfied with the police actions during the protests concerning Gezi park. The conclusion may very well be that under the current circumstances the AKP seeks ammunition against the Gülen movement wherever it can be found, or created. 


Erdogan latest weapon against Gülen is the closure of the “dershanes”, the prep schools in Turkey. These educational facilities are badly needed, considering the insufficient quality of Turkish high schools. Students are not really educated in the dershanes; they merely learn the tricks one needs to pass the entrance examination of universities. Parents often have to pay dearly for this service, which emphasizes the difference in opportunities.

The Gülen movement runs many dershanes. They are a source of income, but also important incubators for new followers. Therefore, when Erdogan announced to close them, he struck the Gülen movement deep in the heart. Gülen responded raging from his residence in Pennsylvania. He did not care about the sop presented by the AKP that dershanes can be transformed to private schools. For in that case they must submit to the demands of the government, which is of course far from his interests. Besides, Minister of Education Avci stated that only 20 percent of the Dershanes could be private schools. Gülen compared the end of his dershanes to a military coup and Erdogan to a pharaoh. Erdogan labeled Gülen’s opposition in turn as a smear campaign.

Mixed education

With the dershane issue, the already existing conflict between Erdogan and Gülen has escalated violently. What will the next phase look like? Gülen’s options appear to be limited. He may have influence within the state, but Erdogan makes the laws. However, the imam has a big stick and as Erdogan makes it more difficult on him he becomes more likely to use it. Erdogan anticipates already for this scenario. I will explain what I mean.

In March next year, there will be local elections in Turkey. Prior to that Erdogan endeavors to bind the conservative voters to him. His much-discussed attack on mixed cohabiting students is an example. Shortly after this media hype Sadit Yakut, an MP and co-founder of the AKP, called coeducation “a big mistake.” To add that “Insallah, this error will be restored in the next period.” It goes without saying that remarks in this style are very well received by conservative Turks.

Loss of votes

Why is Erdogan trying to ensure himself of the loyalty of the conservative community, which has been mainly voting for him since 2002 in the first place? Unlikely that he will lose these voters very soon. Or are there reasons to assume otherwise? There just may be. The conservative Gülen calls his followers to vote AKP. By withdrawing this support he can certainly sell the AKP a solid thump. The assumption that he will do so is not unfounded. Mustafa Yesil of Gülen’s Association of Writers and Journalists (GYV) recently hinted to newspaper Taraf that the fethullaci could decide to give up on the AKP. Given the popularity of Gülen among the conservatives in Anatolia, a loss of votes is lurking for the AKP during the local elections next year. After the  general election in 2015 the party could even see itself forced into a coalition. That would be a political change of proportions after more than ten years solitary ruling by the AKP. Especially if it comes to a coalition with what is now the second largest party in Turkey, the Republican People’s Party (CHP).


Good relations with a ruling political party in Turkey are very important to Gülen. In the nineties he successively had ties with Tansu Cillers True Path Party (DYP) and the Democratic Left Party (DSP) of Bülent Ecevit. Then the AKP followed. There are few alternatives for Gülen when he turns his back on this party. The Kurdish oriented Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP) does not stand the test. Not because Gülen doesn’t want to be close with the Kurds, but because the BDP shares the grassroots of the PKK, which he abhors. In 2011, he even cursed the PKK in a prayer. The ultra-nationalist National Action Party (MHP) then? Little chance. The MHP has lost lots of support and is immensely divided.

That leaves the CHP. Seems at first sight equally unlikely. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of Turkish secularism and the CHP, would turn in his monumental tomb with the thought of a connection between his brainchild and an imam who dreams of a return to Ottoman values​.

Still, Gülen’s earlier ties with the DYP and DSP teach that he is not by definition against an alliance with a secular party. But how about CHP leader Kilicdaroglu, about whom friend and foe agree that he will never be able to oppose the AKP forcefully? Kilicdaroglu is a kind man and approaches politics in a relatively subtle way, but these are not the qualities an ambitious politician requires in Turkey. To reign there one should be able to roar ugly. Like Erdogan can roar ugly. Only that way can you make an impression on the conservative Turkish masses, where emotions often touch deeper than positions.


However, the CHP has recently acquired a first class bigmouth. I mean Mustafa Sarigul, the mayor of Istanbul’s Sisli district. He was send away from the party in 2005 after he criticized the then party leader Deniz Baykal, but recently returned to the old nest. Sarigul has ambitions in the forthcoming local elections, he wants to be mayor of Istanbul.

Being the mayor of Istanbul is a good starting point to conquer the government buildings in Ankara. For after all, Erdogan began his march to the Turkish capital also from this position. Many Turks believe that Sarigul is the only one who can take it up against the AKP. Therefore, it is already taken into account that Kilicdaroglu will have to leave in favor of Sarigul.

Lately Sarigul doesn’t leave any important public event unattended, he has a special preference for funerals. This charm offensive does not remain unrewarded. In polls he approaches Kadir Topbas, the current (AKP) mayor of Istanbul, or even surpasses him in terms of popularity. Sarigul also finds support within the business community, such as from the ultra-rich Koc and Sabanci families.   


Sarigul has two problems. His reputation has been tarnished by corruption and the Sisli district became a mess under him. He knows that Erdogan has evidence about that, but in turn he’s familiar with issues the PM would rather like to keep hidden. Within this balance an amusing piece of theater has taken off. Sarigul never critizises Erdogan. He claims that the PM has ruled Turkey outstandingly, but “is now tired and should carry over his position.” So, Sarigul has appointed himself as Erdogan’s successor, although he is from another party.

Sarigul may have a moderate leftist background, but he frequently makes right-wing and even Islamist statements. So frequent that Gülen and Sarigul may not stand very opposed to each other. From that perspective a switch from Gülen towards the CHP suddenly becomes less unrealistic.


It’s a no secret that Gülen has always favored current President Abdullah Gül over Erdogan. In that way it could be said that Gülen has less of a problem with the AKP, than with Erdogan personally. The imam also still finds support in the AKP. Gül is often counted on his side. Gülen may very well like to see him as PM. However, Gül shares some characteristics with Kilicdaroglu: he can’t roar like Erdogan, or Sarigul. In other words, Gül could have a hard time against the latter and Gülen may recognize a problem there. With the rise of the more modest Rohani in Iran it could be argued that the days of the bigmouths are counted in the region, but it still remains to be seen whether this will continue as a tendency. Especially in Turkey, with its history of demagogues.

Another point is that Erdogan’s political future is still unclear. He showed ambitions to become president. But only within a new presidential system, providing him with mandates that would make him more powerful than a president in the U.S. It’s doubtful whether it will come to that point, for the constitutional modification it requires may very well not be ready in time. In fact, the parliamentary endeavor to form a new constitution in Turkey finds itself in a deep crisis at the moment.

Erdogan can of course rule over Turkey by proxy as president. Like Turgut Özal did through his puppet PM Yildirim Akbulut. However, Erdogan may consider that this situation was followed by the end of Özal’s Motherland Party (ANAP). Another possibility is that Erdogan abolishes the AKP-bylaw that prevents him from becoming PM four times. Former U.S. ambassadors Eric Edelman and Morton Abramowitz (a passionate Gülen advocate) took this scenario into account in their recent Bipartisan Policy Centre Report From Rhetoric to Reality, Reframing U.S. Turkish Policy. Erdogan has to show pretty solid reasons to change the bylaws of the AKP, also since he has backed them from the earliest days of the party, but it’s not impossible and he could become PM for at least one more term.    

Theoretically, there is also still the option for Gülen to come to terms with Erdogan, although the chances of that seem to become less by the day at the moment. One thing is sure, Gülen will remain an important power in Turkish politics whatever move he makes. With less political scope he would not have caused Erdogan so many headaches over the past three years. In that case the PM had probably thought of a ruse by now to put him aside. For usually Erdogan does very well when it comes to neutralizing opponents. But despite all his efforts he still has not been able to terminate Gülen’s influence in society and politics so far. That’s why the row between these antagonists easily guarantees more fuss for the coming period.

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 Peter Edel is an analyst and investigative journalist based in the Netherlands. He is a regular contributing correspondent to Boiling Frogs Post.

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