The Clash of Islamists: The crisis of the Turkish state and democracy

By Sebnem Gumuscu, Middlebury College

*This memo was prepared for presentation at the Contemporary Turkish Politics Workshop at Rice University’s Baker Institute on  October 14, 2016

Two powerful movements – the Milli Gorus (National Outlook) and Fethullah Gulen’s Hizmet – have dominated Islamic politics in Turkey since the 1970s. Capitalizing on their increasing power and presence in different realms of life, these Islamic movements allied in 2007 to put an end to tutelary democracy guided by the secular establishment, i.e. military and judiciary.[1] This marriage of convenience delivered benefits for both actors; the AKP successfully eliminated the veto powers in the secular state,[2] while the Gulen movement steered clear of the pressure of the secular establishment and accelerated its penetration of the state apparatus. The end of the tutelary regime in Turkey has not led to democratic consolidation though, as many had hoped. Instead the two Islamic movements in the course of their alliance and their subsequent struggle for power undermined democratic politics, the rule of law, civil liberties and governance capacity of the Turkish state.

Political Islam in Turkey came to be dominated by these two movements following distinct methods: 1) the political parties of the Milli Gorus movement seeking the capture of political power and the state apparatus to Islamicize the society top-down; and 2) the Gulen movement seeking Islamization of the individual, the society, and eventually the state through da’wa and bottom-up mobilization. Despite this difference in their methods, both movements shared the ideal of establishing an order based on some version of Islam, which, for them, is not only a religion but also a total system encapsulating and regulating all aspects of life. Both movements were inspired by Salafi reformists of the 19th century such as Jamal Al-din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh as well as their more conservative followers like Hasan al Banna. Also, both movements strived to strike a synthesis of Salafi reformism with Sufi traditions in Anatolia. In short, they agreed that Muslims should live under Islamic states and converged on an equally statist, authoritarian, hierarchic and anti-pluralist outlooks albeit from different angles and using different strategies. The most important difference between the Milli Gorus and Gulen’s Hizmet, therefore, does not stem from their ideological aspirations but from their respective strategies of replacing the secular republican regime with an Islamic order.

The Milli Gorus movement emerged in the early 1970s and established successive political parties to mobilize and represent marginalized and disenfranchised pious constituencies with an explicitly Islamic discourse. This political mobilization via explicitly Islamist messages led to the closure of several Islamic parties by the Constitutional Court. The final incarnation of the movement following the closure of the Fazilet Partisi (Virtue Party) in 2000 brought about a split and the birth of the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party, AKP) in 2001. The AKP came to power in late 2002 and eventually turned into a dominant party by way of establishing an electoral hegemony in subsequent elections.[3]

The Gulen movement (or Hizmet as their members would call it) was established in 1966 with the goal of fighting communism and raising a “Golden generation” that would be pious, hardworking, and well educated with a strong sense of solidarity and “military-like discipline.”[4] The leader of the movement, Fethullah Gulen, wary of secular regime’s repression, rejected explicit political mobilization instead building a network of educational institutions, civil society organizations, media companies and businesses motivated by Islamic principles. One of the primary, yet less publicized, targets of Fethullah Gulen remained colonization of the state bureaucracy with the members of the “Golden generation,”[5] primarily through manipulation of bureaucratic recruitment processes, i.e. centrally administered tests or appointments based on drawing of lots. The following excerpt from one of his taped sermons in the 1990s reveals the movement’s intentions of penetrating the state as well as its gradualist and non-confrontational strategy:

You must move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers … until the conditions are ripe, they [the followers] must continue like this. If they do something prematurely, the world will crush our heads, and Muslims will suffer everywhere, like in the tragedies in Algeria, like in 1982 [in] Syria … like in the yearly disasters and tragedies in Egypt. The time is not yet right. You must wait for the time when you are complete and conditions are ripe, until we can shoulder the entire world and carry it … You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey … Until that time, any step taken would be too early—like breaking an egg without waiting the full forty days for it to hatch. It would be like killing the chick inside. The work to be done is [in] confronting the world. Now, I have expressed my feelings and thoughts to you all—in confidence … trusting your loyalty and secrecy. I know that when you leave here—[just] as you discard your empty juice boxes, you must discard the thoughts and the feelings that I expressed here.[6]

While the Milli Gorus parties oscillated between confrontation and accommodation in its relationship with the secular regime in particular and the West in general, the Gulen movement opted for appeasement and accommodation[7] and avoided outright confrontation with the secular establishment and the non-Muslim world as testified by Gulen’s words above. These two movements thus kept their distance until 2002 and had fundamental differences vis-à-vis their respective relationship with the Turkish state, the secular establishment, and the Western world.

With the AKP’s rise to power in 2002, the relationship between the two movements improved remarkably. The rapprochement of the AKP and the Gulen movement eventually turned into an alliance against the secular establishment by 2007. Among the triggers of this alliance were a series of political crises the AKP faced in 2007 and 2008, including the presidential elections, e-memorandum of the chief of the general staff, and the closure case against the party. In the meantime, the Gulen movement had been under scrutiny between 1999 and 2006 as Fethullah Gulen himself was tried in absentia for conspiring against the secular state by way of infiltrating the security forces since the 1980s . Then, in 2004 the National Security Council (MGK) adopted a document that identified the Gulen movement as a threat to the Turkish state.

The AKP-Gulen alliance was established to end the military tutelage in particular and undermine the secular establishment in general, “using all necessary means” in Yavuz’s words.[8] A key instrument of this alliance was trials by “special courts, ” which targeted disparate groups within and outside of the state, including political dissidents and foci of power that could threaten the two Islamic movements. The Ergenekon and Balyoz cases accused several retired and on-duty members of the Turkish armed forces of conspiring to overthrow the AKP government with the help of the media, universities, and civil society activists; OdaTV in conjunction with Ergenekon case incriminated critical journalists; Devrimci Karargah tried members of a radical leftist organization along with a former police chief, members of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and journalists; the KCK trials prosecuted academics, civil society activists, unionists, journalists, politicians, students, and members of the MIT for association with the KCK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s urban network); and finally, the Sike case accused prominent figures of the largest football clubs in Turkey of engaging in organized crime.

In the course of these trials, the judges and public prosecutors frequently violated the fundamental rights of the defendants. Prolonged pre-trial detention became the norm; the prosecutors extensively relied on secret witness testimony, fabricated evidence, and frequently violated the due process.[9] The courts also imposed a media blackout on these probes limiting public scrutiny over the cases. Since the start of the special courts, 4,091 investigations have been launched against journalists, who reported on these probes, for breaches of the confidentiality of investigations.[10] Such violations led to changes in Turkey’s scores in democracy indices; in its 2013 report, Freedom House lowered Turkey’s civil liberties score from 3 to 4 (where 1 is the most free and 7 is the least) “due to the pretrial detention of thousands of individuals—including Kurdish activists, journalists, union leaders, students, and military officers—in campaigns that many believe to be politically motivated. The conduct of the trials, together with mass arrests of Kurdish activists in other cases, prompted widespread concern about the government’s commitment to civil liberties and the rule of law.”[11]

As the parameters of civil-military relations changed through sham trials, the AKP-Gulen alliance set to redesign the judicial system. In a constitutional referendum in 2010, both the party and the movement ran a joint campaign in favor of a yes vote. Fethullah Gulen, who traditionally denied any involvement in politics, publicly condoned the reform package that would restructure the higher courts and judicial councils and allow for further penetration of the judiciary by the Gulenists. Indicating the significance of this constitutional reform for the movement, Gulen suggested that even the dead should rise from their graves to vote in favor of the package. The referendum passed with 58 percent of the votes, and soon the Gulen movement secured its control over the supreme judicial council and several chambers of the higher courts[12] in addition to the special courts, which comprised Gulenists’ stronghold in the judiciary.

A pro-government columnist admitted that the Gulen movement had grown 15 fold under Erdogan’s premiership between 2003 and 2014.[13] In a recent interview, Hakan Yavuz affirmed this assessment with the claim that the AKP government had indeed ceded the control of the ministries of education, internal affairs and judiciary to the Gulen movement[14], allowing the colonization of the state by its partner. Perhaps more importantly, Erdogan himself in the early stages of the conflict reproached the movement for being ungrateful to the AKP, which had given whatever the Gulen movement asked for.[15] In short, the AKP-Gulen alliance replaced merit with ideological and political criteria in bureaucratic appointments to replace the remnants of the secular establishment while substantially inflating the Gulenists’ presence in the state.

As the rule of law and meritocracy deteriorated, so did fundamental rights and civil liberties. In the course of the AKP-Gulen alliance, the pressure over the media mounted, the number of incarcerated journalists increased, self-censorship soared, and Turkey’s rankings in media freedom indices rapidly deteriorated, as shown in Figure 1. By April 2012, there were more than 100 journalists in prison. The government, in the meantime, publicly defended the detention of journalists in cases like KCK and Ergenekon.[16]

Figure 1 Turkey’s rankings in Reporters without Borders Index


The AKP-Gulen alliance, however, soon disintegrated as the two Islamic movements clashed over the distribution of power in the “new Turkey.” In fact, at various time both Cemil Cicek and Besir Atalay, two prominent figures in the AKP, complained of Gulen movement’s growing involvement in decision-making processes.[17] The conflict rapidly escalated as the Gulen movement, entrenched in security forces and the judiciary, attempted to undermine Erdogan’s power through a series of investigations, including a graft probe in late 2013, while Erdogan in retribution cut the major sources of social capital and finance for the Gulen movement, curtailed its media power, and weakened the movement’s presence in the judiciary and security forces.

Fighting its former ally deeply entrenched in the state apparatus, the AKP government resorted to unconstitutional measures and bypassed the rule of law as it set to eradicate the Gulenist cadres from the state. The power struggle between former allies further undermined civil liberties, independence of the judiciary[18] (or whatever was left of it), and the rule of law. The government banned Twitter and YouTube prior to 2014 local elections; reshuffled thousands of police officers and prosecutors; passed new legislation to redesign the supreme judicial council; denied access to the satellite systems for pro-Gulen TV stations; seized the property of leading businessmen; and appointed trustees to companies, foundations, universities and newspapers with links to the Gulen movement following the graft probe of December 2013.[19]

The coup attempt on July 15, 2016, according to the AKP, was the Gulenists’ final attempt to takeover the government. Killing 240 people and injuring more than 2000, the coup attempt allowed the government to declare emergency law sidelining the European Convention of Human Rights and the constitution. In a series of executive decrees, President Erdogan and the cabinet suspended 88,056 civil servants, including 27,715 teachers,[20] and expelled more than 40,000 civil servants, including 7,669 police officers, 3,390 judges and prosecutors, [21] and 4,451 military officers for their alleged connections to the coup.

Democratic backsliding gained further momentum under the emergency law, which extended detention period up to 30 days[22] for more than 40,000 people placed under detention. Of those detained, 20,355 have been arrested[23], 105 of whom are journalists awaiting trial. In the meantime, the government shut down 170 TV stations, newspapers, magazines, and news agencies, including pro-Kurdish, pro-secular and left wing media.[24] The decrees also closed down 35 health care facilities, 934 schools, 109 dormitories, 104 foundations, 1125 associations, 15 universities and 19 trade unions.[25] In an attempt to redesign the institutions of higher education, an executive decree issued on October 29 canceled rector elections in public universities and expelled more than 1,200 academics from their positions.[26] Businesses were not immune to this crackdown as the courts appointed trustees to 94 companies, with alleged ties to the Gulen movement, by the end of July;[27] the ministry of finance placed injunction on the property of more than 100,000 individuals in the month following the coup attempt.[28] As confirmed by the deputy prime minister on October 19, more than 115,000 people have been subject to post-coup investigations.[29]

While these measures seriously threaten the rule of law, civil liberties, and property rights and might cause irreparable damage to individuals, whose connection with the Gulen movement or the coup attempt is not yet proven in a court of law, ongoing purges also put substantial pressure over the Turkish state and its capacity to provide public goods such as security, education, and health care for its people.

Turkey’s two Islamic movements, motivated by the creation of an Islamic state and society, successfully ended tutelary democracy guided by the secular establishment. [30] However, in the course of this process, the AKP-Gulen alliance weakened all sources of potential checks and balances – democratic and undemocratic alike – over the executive: the secular military, judiciary, mainstream media, and civil society. Paradoxically, their success has not only led to the AKP’s political hegemony and Gulenist colonization of the state but also a bitter power struggle between former allies. This power struggle in turn undermined both democratic politics and state’s governance capacity in Turkey.

Author’s acknowledgments: I would like to thank Berk Esen for his comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of the essay.


[1] Esen, Berk and Sebnem Gumuscu, “Rising competitive authoritarianism

in Turkey,” Third World Quarterly 37, no. 9 (2016): 1581-1606.

[2] Ciddi, Sinan and Berk Esen “Turkey’s Republican People’s Party: Politics of Opposition under a Dominant Party System”, Turkish Studies, 15:3, (2014) 419-441

[3] Gumuscu, Sebnem. “The Emerging Predominant Party System in Turkey.” Government and Opposition, 48, no. 2 (2013): 223–244; Keyman E. Fuat and Sebnem Gumuscu, Democracy, Identity and Foreign Policy, London: Palgrave Macmillan 2014; Müftüler-Bac, Meltem, and E. Fuat Keyman. “The Era of Dominant-party Politics.” Journal of Democracy 23, no. 1 (2012): 85–99; Ayan Musil, Pelin. “Emergence of a dominant party system after multipartyism: theoretical implications from the case of the AKP in Turkey.” South European Society and Politics 20.1 (2015): 71-92; Sayarı, Sabri. “Back to a Predominant Party System: The November 2015 Snap Election in Turkey.” South European Society and Politics (2016): 1-18.

[4] Yavuz, M. Hakan, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003: 189

[5] Yavuz suggests that Gulen’s ultimate goal is to become a political and cultural bridge between the state and the conservative middle class and upwardly mobile technocrats (2003, p. 199). Some Islamist groups in Turkey contend that “by gradually penetrating the state Gulen and others will be able to transform its Kemalist and antireligious foundation and render impossible any repeat of ‘Jacobin’ assault on Islam that Mustafa Kemal and his coterie carried out” (2003, p. 202).

[6] Quoted in Sharon-Krespin, Rachel. “Fethullah Gülen’s Grand Ambition.” Middle East Quarterly Winter (2009), pp. 55-66.

[7] Yavuz, M. Hakan, Toward and Islamic Enlightenment, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.

[8] Yavuz, 2013: 213.

[9] Doğan, Pınar, and Dani Rodrik. Yargı, Cemaat ve Bir Darbe Kurgusunun İcyüzü. Istanbul: Destek Yayinevi,


[10] European Commission Progress Report for Turkey, 2010

[11] Freedom House,

[12] The constitutional reform package permitted the election of a new HSYK (Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors). Prior to the elections the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Justice prepared and circulated a list of candidates. Not surprisingly, every single name on the list was elected while no other candidate supported by other groups—Kemalists and non-Kemalists[12]—were elected to the council.[12] “The HSYK has the authority to conduct the following procedures concerning the civil and administrative judiciary judges and prosecutors: Admission to the profession, appointment, transference, granting temporary authorization, promotion, allocation as first class, distributing cadres, making decisions about those who are not considered suitable to continue to perform their profession, rendering decisions about disciplinary punishments, suspension from office; and to issue circulars exclusively about the above mentioned subjects and the inspections, researches, examinations and investigations regarding the judges and prosecutors.”



[15] Erdogan’s speech available at

[16] In his speech in the Council of Europe in 2011 Erdogan defended the detainments of two journalists (Ahmet Sık and Nedim Sener) by likening Sık’s unpublished book to a bomb: “It is a crime to use a bomb, but it is also a crime to use materials from which a bomb is made. If informed that all materials needed to construct a bomb have been placed in a certain location, wouldn’t the security forces collect these materials?” Quoted in “Turkish PM rebuffs criticism over press freedom” HürriyetDailyNews, April 13 2011. Erdogan in a later interview sustained this view and claimed that some books are indeed more effective than bombs. “Erdoğan: Bazı kitaplar bombadan daha etkili” (Some books have greater impact than bombs) Available at:

[17] In an interview with Hakan Yavuz in 2010, a high-ranking advisor to the Ministry of Internal Affairs states: “there is an increasing anger against the [Gulen] movement within the Erdogan government because they interfere with almost every regulation and appointment. I think the perception that the Turkish police force is heavily recruited by the followers of the movement is very dangerous for the credibility of the police force in the country.” Yavuz, 2013: 218

[18] Ozbudun, Ergun. “Turkey’s Judiciary and the Drift toward Competitive Authoritarianism.” International Spectator 50, no. 2 (2015): 42–55.



[21] As of September 2, 2016


[23] As of August 17, 2016.

[24] As of October 29, 2016. See Turkish Journalists Association’s press release at






[30] Esen, Berk and Sebnem Gumuscu, “Rising competitive authoritarianism in Turkey,” Third World Quarterly 37, no. 9 (2016): 1581-1606.