The July 15, 2016 military coup attempt in Turkey shocked not only the country but also the Western world. After a couple of hours of silence following the incidents that night, U.S officials and several European leaders condemned the coup attempt and expressed their support for the democratically elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP). No one in Western capital cities was interested in Turkey, a NATO member, devolving into political turmoil. That would certainly have disastrous consequences for the already volatile Middle East and repercussions for the security of the neighboring European Union (EU) and the global fight against terrorism. But why did a faction in the Turkish army execute a military coup, and why now? Who were these coup plotters?
President Erdogan and the AKP cabinet have blamed the coup attempt on their former ally Fethullah Gulen, a preacher who leads a large Islamist network from the USA, where he lives in self-imposed exile. In February 2014, Erdogan first accused Gulen and his followers working in state institutions of running a “parallel state” to undermine his government and pledged to “cleanse” all state institutions of Gulen’s followers. Since then, the AKP government has purged hundreds of public workers in the security forces and judiciary and has seized the media enterprises linked to the Gulen movement. As Dani Rodrik notes, the Turkish military was the last remaining Gulenist stronghold and the AKP government was preparing to issue arrest warrants for soldiers suspected to be linked to Gulen. Thus, the Gulenist clique within the Turkish army, knowing that they were about to be arrested, launched the coup earlier than they had initially planned. Following the failed coup, 10,000 Gulenist military personnel (including 151 generals) and 3,000 police officers have been arrested or are in custody. Furthermore, 67,000 public officials in state ministries, the civil service and schools have been suspended, and the purges have continued in universities, private schools and student dormitories. Western politicians such as Barack Obama and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged the Turkish government to maintain both the rule of law and a sense of proportionality in its response to the coup attempt.
Meanwhile, mainstream Western media coverage has mainly focused on the high number of purges and has criticized Erdogan for out-maneuvering his opponents. Surprisingly, the media reports have not paid enough attention to who was behind the coup and what they did on 15 July. Some critics even made it sound as if it would have been better if the coup had succeeded in toppling Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule. Many Turkish journalists critical of the AKP were disappointed by their Western colleagues’ negligent approach and claimed that this approach mainly stemmed from the fact that Erdogan long ago lost his credibility in the West because of his authoritarian stranglehold on power. Furthermore, the Western media initially ignored the AKP’s accusations regarding Gulen’s involvement because Gulen was known to the Western media as a non-political, spiritual Islamic cleric who promotes tolerance and intercultural dialogue. But who is Gulen and why is his movement dangerous?
As Günther Seufert states in his analysis of the Gulen movement, in his early years Fethullah Gulen rejected Westernization and all the related social norms and lifestyles in a strictly secular Turkey. For instance, he held a conservative view on the woman question and advocated for strict gender segregation in society. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Gulen movement established student dorms and camps to prepare students from poor families for university exams and invited them to pray communally and read Gulen’s books. In contrast to other Islamic sects, Gulen’s main aim was to train and plant young, religious-conservative people in various important levels of governmental institutions. In one of his sermons, Gulen called on his supporters to “silently and patiently” infiltrate government agencies and wait for “the moment of change to take over state power”. Certainly, under AKP rule, Gulen’s educational institutions, within Turkey and abroad, have proliferated and their well-educated graduates are employed in all levels of state bureaucracy, especially in the police and the judiciary. As emerged in 2015, the infamous court cases known as Ergenekon, Sledgehammer (against secularist military officers) and KCK (against Kurdish activists and politicians) were conducted with falsified and fake evidence produced by Gulenist prosecutors and police who had at that time gained the support of the AKP government. Against this background, the Gulen movement has long been accused by secularist Turks and Kurds of infiltrating the state apparatus. Since the international media has not followed these events closely, the Gulen community was seen as a progressive Islamic movement, and thus perceived in the West as an antidote to rising radical Islam.
The Western media first flirted with a conspiracy theory claiming that Erdogan had “staged” this coup to remove all of his opponents, as Gulen also claimed in his interview with CNN. Given Turkey’s bad record on civil rights and freedoms, one may harshly criticize the AKP government and Erdogan, but serious journalism must look at and interrogate the entire story of the coup. The Turkish independent media, although small in number, has been reporting the facts of Gulen’s involvement while criticizing the government. Some of the arrested military personnel testified that they took orders from the Gulen movement’s high ranking members. Also, thanks to the WhatsApp messages of the arrested coup attempters, state prosecutors obtained a list of those who would have been appointed to critical posts if the coup had been successful, which includes names close to the Gulen movement (Gürcan 2016). Moreover, Hulusi Akar, the Chief of the General Staff, who was taken hostage during the coup attempt, said in his testimony that “a brigadier general among the mutinous faction offered to put me in touch with their opinion leader Fethullah Gulen” (Tharoor 2016). Turkish commentators contend that the Gulenists cannot have acted alone and they probably acquired support from a group of secularist officers who wanted to get rid of Erdogan. An increasing number of facts point to the Gulenist movement’s involvement in the coup attempt.
Although Turkey has meager democratic credentials, a military intervention is not a solution for re-establishing or consolidating democracy in Turkey. Surprisingly, the deeply divided Turkish political scene was unified in condemning the coup attempt and Gulen’s movement. The main oppositional Republican People’s Party (CHP), together with democratic civil society, organized a huge demonstration in Istanbul, where AKP sympathizers also participated, and the Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) – even though they are excluded by Erdogan – organized a demonstration in the Kurdish province Diyarbakir. However, the oppositional parties, civil society, and political commentators warn the AKP government that it must act with solid proof when suspending people related to the Gulen movement and insist on fair trials. They also remind Erdogan and the AKP of their unconditional support for the Gulen movement in previous years and claim that the AKP members who were responsible for Gulen’s infiltration should also be brought to justice. This newly emerging situation has helped narrow the unbridgeable gap between Erdogan and his political opponents after many years of a polarized political atmosphere in the country. Unfortunately, this has rarely been mentioned in the Western media.
Admittedly, Erdogan’s remarks on reintroducing the death penalty, the released pictures of officers who had been severely beaten, and high numbers of purges in public offices caused even more negative reactions from European governments and European public opinion. But criticism of Erdogan should be expressed together with a full investigation into what happened in Turkey on the night of the coup. One thing should be clear: a faction in the army brutally attempted to take power and bombed the Turkish parliament and intelligence headquarters in Ankara and Istanbul, and 265 people were killed that night. Certainly, the perpetrators should be brought to justice. Also, a serious number of the purges, especially in the military and civil services, are justified. But the critical question is: will Erdogan and the AKP use the state of emergency to suspend Gulen’s followers or to suppress all voices critical of Erdogan? Although some controversial decisions lie behind the purges, time will show whether the government will opt for more democracy or for autocracy.
In this delicate situation, instead of pushing Turkey away from Europe, the Western media and politicians should realize that this coup had no public support in Turkey and if the coup had succeeded, the blow to democracy’s prospects surely would have been more severe, with longer-term effects. It is time to reconsider EU-Turkish relations. Clearly, a Turkey firmly anchored in the EU accession process remains Turkey’s best chance to consolidate its democracy, pursue economic development and secure its role at the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East.
Hürcan Asli Aksoy is a postdoctoral research associate and lecturer in the research program “Politics and Society of the Near East” at the Institute of Political Science of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and a former Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM. She is currently working on an edited volume “Zwischen Patriarchat, Religion und Moderne: Geschlechterverhältnisse in der Türkei”, to be published by Campus Verlag in 2017.
 The split between Fethullah Gulen’s movement and the AKP began in December 2013, when corruption and bribery investigations were directed at Erdogan’s cabinet members and the business elite.
 Rodrik, Dani: Turkey’s Baffling Coup, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/turkey-coup-erosion-of-law-by-dani-rodrik-2016-07, July 17, 2016.
 Koru, Selim and Huseyin Rasit Yilmaz: Fethullah Gulen’s Race to the Top is Over, Foreign Policy, August 5, 2016.
 On Gulen’s contemporary webpages, however, Gulen propagates seemingly moderate views on the status of women but women do not enjoy high-level public positions in his movement.
 These Gulen schools with a secular curriculum are active almost in 150 countries.
 Seufert, Günther: Is the Fethullah Gülen Movement Overstretching Itself?, SWP Research Paper 2014/RP 02, January 2014, 31 Pages.
 Gürcan, Metin: Profile of a dedicated Gulenist in Turkey’s army, Al Monitor, Turkey Pulse, July 27, 2016
 Tharoor, Ishaan: Turkey increases pressure on U.S. for Gulen’s extradition, the Washington Post, July 26, 2016.