Turkan Saylan was a trailblazing physician, one of Turkey’s first female dermatologists and a leading campaigner against leprosy. She was also a staunch secularist who established a foundation to provide scholarships to young girls to attend school. In 2009, police raided her house and confiscated documents in an investigation linking her to the alleged “Ergenekon” terrorist group, supposedly bent on destabilizing Turkey to precipitate a military coup.
Saylan was ill with cancer and died shortly thereafter. But the case against her associates continued and became part of a wave of trials directed against opponents of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his allies in the Gulen movement, made up of followers of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen.
The evidence in this case, as in many others, consists of Microsoft Word documents found on a computer belonging to Saylan’s foundation. When American experts examined the forensic image of the hard drive, they made a startling discovery. The incriminating files had been placed on the hard drive after the computer’s last use at the foundation.
Because the computer had been seized by police, the finding pointed directly to official malfeasance.
Fabricated evidence, secret witnesses, and flights of investigative fancy are the foundation of the show trials that Turkish police and prosecutors have mounted since 2007. In the infamous Sledgehammer case, a military-coup plot was found to contain glaring anachronisms, including the use of Microsoft Office 2007 in documents supposedly last saved in 2003. (My father-in-law is among the more than 300 officers who were locked up, and my wife and I have actively documenting the case’s fabrications.)
The list of revelations and absurdities goes on and on. In one case, a document describing a plot directed against Christian minorities turned out to have been in police possession before the authorities claimed to have recovered it from a suspect. In another, police “discovered” the evidence that they were seeking, despite going to the wrong address and raiding the home of a naval officer whose name sounded similar to the target’s.
Yet none of the trials has been derailed. Most have had Erdogan’s support and blessing. He has exploited them to discredit the old secular guard and cement his rule. More important, the trials have had strong backing from the Gulen movement.
Gulen lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, where he presides over a huge informal network of schools, think tanks, businesses, and media across five continents. His devotees have established roughly 100 charter schools in the United States alone, and the movement has gained traction in Europe since the first Gulen school was founded in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1995.
Gulen’s followers have also created a state within the Turkish state, gaining a strong foothold in the police, judiciary and bureaucracy. Gulenists deny that they control the police, but, as a U.S. ambassador put it in 2009, “We have found no one who disputes it.”
The movement’s influence within the judiciary ensures that its members’ transgressions remain unchallenged. In one well-documented case, a non-commissioned officer at a military base, acting on behalf of the Gulen movement, was caught planting documents to embarrass military officials. The military prosecutor investigating the case soon found himself in jail on trumped-up charges, while the perpetrator was reinstated. A senior police commissioner once close to the movement wrote an exposé about its activities. He was accused of collaborating with the far-left groups he had previously pursued, and also ended up in jail.
The Gulen movement uses these trials to lock up critics and replace opponents in important state posts. The ultimate goal seems to be to reshape Turkish society in the movement’s own conservative-religious image. Gulenist media have been active in this cause, spewing continuous disinformation about defendants in Gulen-mounted trials while covering up police misdeeds.
But relations between Erdogan and the Gulenists have soured. Once their common enemies, the secularists, were out of the way, Erdogan had less need for the movement. The breaking point came in February 2012, when Gulenists tried to bring down his intelligence chief, a close confidant, reaching close to Erdogan himself. The premier responded by removing many Gulenists from the police and judiciary.
But Erdogan’s ability to take on the Gulen movement is limited. Bugging devices were recently found in Erdogan’s office, planted, his close associates said, by police. Yet Erdogan, known for his brash style, responded with equanimity. If he harbored doubts that the movement sat on troves of embarrassing – and possibly far worse – intelligence, the bugging revelation must surely have removed it.
Foreign media have focused mainly on Erdogan’s behavior in recent months. But if Turkey has turned into a Kafkaesque quagmire, a republic of dirty tricks and surreal conspiracies, it is Gulenists who must shoulder much of the blame.
This is worth remembering in view of the movement’s efforts to dress up its current opposition to Erdogan in the garb of democracy and pluralism.
Gulenist commentators preach about the rule of law and human rights, even as Gulenist media champion show trials. The movement showcases Gulen as a beacon of moderation and tolerance, while his Turkish-language website peddles his anti-Semitic, anti-Western sermons. Double talk has become second nature to Gulenist leaders.
The good news is that the rest of the world has started to see Erdogan’s republic for what it is: an increasingly authoritarian regime built around a popular but deeply flawed leader. His government’s crackdown on dissent may well have cost Istanbul the 2020 Olympics. What has yet to be recognized is the separate, quite disturbing, role that the Gulen movement has played in bringing Turkey to its impasse. As Americans and Europeans debate the movement’s role in their own societies, they should examine Turkey’s experience closely.
Dani Rodrik, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, is the author of “The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy.” THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).