Gülen Movement

The Wide Reach of Erdogan’s Wrath

Anhänger des türkischen Staatspräsidenten Erdogan halten am 31.07.2016 in Köln (Nordrhein-Westfalen) Fahnen. Mehrere Tausend Deutschtürken sind zu einer Pro-Erdogan-Demonstration in Köln zusammengekommen. Foto: Henning Kaiser/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
A pro-Erdogan rally in Cologne in July.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany is home to some 3 million people of Turkish descent, the largest Turkish diaspora in the world, and Gülen supporters among them are feeling the wrath of President Erdogan.

  • Facts


    • The Turkish government has accused cleric Fethullah Gülen of orchestrating the July 15 coup attempt and has launched a major crackdown against his supporters.
    • Gülen supporters in Germany are reporting threats, abuse and assaults by backers of President Erdogan.
    • German authorities have rejected Turkish demands to extradite Gülen supporters and put them under surveillance.
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Fikret Dogan jumps up to reenact what happened to him one afternoon at the end of July. The slender Mr. Dogan, 40, stands in front the person opposite him and pretends to grab their throat. That’s how the muscular guy bore down on him. “If I just go ‘snap’ you’re dead,” the man had said to him in Mr. Dogan’s own office at his car dealership in the picturesque German town of Velbert in the Bergisches Land hill range of North Rhine-Westphalia.

“Fetö Terrorist.” Fetö – the Turkish abbreviation for Fethullahistic Terror Organization — is how supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been referring to the movement of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen since the July 15 coup attempt.

Mr. Dogan works in a local association that supports Mr. Gülen, and he has been having sleepless nights as a result. He is on one of the lists of names of Gülen backers that are doing the rounds on WhatsApp. His group, Clavis, focuses on education and integration, organizes music lessons for children and German-language lessons for refugees. “Education and integration,” he repeats several times, clasping his hands in a desperate appeal, as if to say, how can that be a crime?

The police are investigating the incident. “We live in a country governed by the rule of law,” said Mr. Dogan, who came to Germany as a baby. “This isn’t Turkey.”

If he were living in Turkey, he may not even be able to arrange a meeting in a café to talk about how he was threatened. After all, Mr. Erdogan wants to eliminate the sprawling movement of his former ally, which has established itself in schools, public authorities, the army and business.

The president has accused Mr. Gülen of orchestrating the attempted putsch and has not stopped short of exerting international pressure, demanding that the U.S. extradite him. The issue will be on the agenda when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visits Ankara on Wednesday. So far, the U.S. has refused to bow to Mr. Erdogan’s demand, saying Turkey has yet to present hard evidence of Mr. Gülen’s involvement in the coup attempt.

After five weeks of “cleansing,” the structures of the gigantic Gülen network in Turkey have been destroyed. Schools, foundations, student hostels and universities have been closed, depriving Mr. Gülen of his most important methods of recruitment.

The conflict has spread to Germany, home to the largest Turkish diaspora with some 3 million people of Turkish descent. The Turkish government has insisted that Germany extradite Gülen supporters. According to Spiegel magazine, Turkey has even demanded that German intelligence services help track them down. Turkish E.U. Minister Ömer Çelik told WirtschaftsWoche magazine that he wanted Germany to impose a “ban of companies and organizations that are close to the movement.”

An estimated 3,000 business people in Germany support Gülen, including World Media Group, which is based in the western town of Offenbach and publishes the German edition of Zaman, a Gülen newspaper that has been shut down in Turkey.

Some 300 associations, 24 private schools and around 150 educational institutions in Germany also support the cleric. They include Clavis in Velbert. Fikret Dogan led us through the rooms of his organization located in a busy pedestrian zone. Photos of playing children are on the walls alongside a cut-out article by a local newspaper praising the group for starting new music, sewing and painting classes.

Mr. Dogan showed us a guest book in which the pastor of the local Protestant church community and other local dignitaries expressed their thanks for being invited to a fast-breaking meal during Ramadan. There’s only small photo of Fethullah Gülen on the wall, on a self-made placard under the title “Chronicle of the Holy Scriptures.” It’s next to a photo of Mahatma Ghandi.

Mr. Erdogan’s wrath can be felt across Germany. Donations to the Dialogue and Education Foundation, a sort of umbrella organization for the Gülen network in Germany, have fallen by 20 to 30 percent, said its leader Ercan Karakoyun, 35. He said there been calls to boycott businesses and doctors’ practices, and that there had been several instances of property being damaged.

Private schools have been particularly hard hit, with parents having taken around 100 pupils out of BIL schools, a showcase of the Gülen movement with a high proportion of German pupils. It’s not only Erdogan supporters who are abandoning the schools. Business people who frequently travel to Turkey are worried about repercussions if their children attend the wrong high school in Germany.

It’s unclear how widespread repression against Gülen supporters is in Germany. The opposition Left Party on Monday asked the government to establish the extent of the problem.


FILE - A handout picture made avaliable on 27 December 2013 provided by Zaman Daily newpspaper shows Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic opinion leader and founder of the Gulen movement, in Pennsylvania, USA 14 October 2013. EPA/SELAHATTIN SEVI/HANDOUT ZAMAN DAILY NEWSPAPER HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES (zu dpa «Erdogan zehn - Erdogan macht Gülen für Putschversuch verantwortlich» vom 15.07.2016) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Fethullah Gülen, the Islamic leader, whose movement has many adherents in Germany. Source: DPA


But Gülen associations in Germany aren’t just under fire from friends of the Turkish government. Islamic scholars like Ralph Ghadban regard the movement as a conspiratorial sect that pretends to be enlightened but in truth attempts to indoctrinate its members with a traditional interpretation of Islam, and to infiltrate society. He referred to a quote from Mr. Gülen who said in a video at the end of the 1990s: “You must move in the arteries of the system and no one must notice you until you have reached the centers of power.” Mr. Gülen has said his words were misunderstood.

Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has been collecting information about the association. The regional division of the agency in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg wrote that the movement was pursuing Turkish nationalism with “Islamist components.”

But none of the associations has been banned. “None of the colleagues have so far had negative experiences, for example that Gülen education centers promote aggression or that they’re abused for ideological purposes,” Klaus Bouillon, interior minister of the state of Saarland and chairman of the group of 16 state interior ministers, told Handelsblatt. “Besides, we’re living in a state governed by the rule of law. If Erdogan accuses Gülen supporters of something, he must first prove it.”

Demands by Turkish diplomats that the intelligence agency monitor Gülen supporters have so far been rejected.

So-called “lighthouses,” student hostels in which Gülen supporters live together, pray together and read the writings of the cleric have come in for particular criticism. People who have left them have reported that Islamic rules were strictly implemented in the hostels, objections were punished and there was constant supervision, like in prison.

There are also accusations that Gülen supporters have set up an opaque parallel society with their networks of schools and associations.

“Of course Gülen supporters in Germany must be protected from attacks. But the movement must ditch its conspiratorial ways,” said Mr. Ghadban.

Even Cem Özdemir, the leader of the opposition Green party who is the son of Turkish immigrants, who recently let himself be photographed next to Mr. Karakoyun of the Dialogue and Education Foundation, has demanded that the movement “clarify what it really is, an Islamic-conservative religious community, a missionary career network or an Islamist-political and ultimately radical movement.”

Mr. Karakoyun countered that the movement is heterogeneous. “It’s impossible to know what Gülen means to everybody everywhere,” he said.

He didn’t deny the controversial incidents in the lighthouses but denied that they were typical.

Some argue that it’s understandable that the Gülen movement segregates itself from the state school system. Ursula Boos-Nünning, an expert on migration and education, said Germans were partly to blame for the fact that educated immigrants prefer to get involved in Gülen associations rather than in conventional clubs.

“German society has been reluctant to integrate even successful people of Turkish descent,” said the former principal of the University of Essen. She said people with foreign names were often discriminated against when seeking employment or accommodation.

Meanwhile, Mr. Karakoyun fears that the abuse, death threats and assaults on Gülen supporters will increase.

“A lot of people are on vacation in Turkey and are sucking up the propaganda there. It will probably get worse in the weeks to come,” he said.


Alexander Demling is a Berlin-based reporter for Handelsblatt. Gerd Höhler is the paper’s Athens correspondent, covering Turkey and Greece. To contact them: demling@handelsblatt.com, hoehler@handelsblatt.com

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