Plumbing New Depths in Turkey


For decades, Turkey’s Islamist politicians have spoken of a “Deep State,” [1] a network of alliances between the military, mafia, right-wing groups, academics, reporters, businessmen, and, really, anyone opposed to a more religious politics in Turkey.  Far from being wild, conspiratorial fantasy, a number of scandals have proved that this shadowy world has substance—during the 1990s, for example, alliances between Kurdish landlords, right-wing ideologues, and the security forces were revealed in a scandal reminiscent of LA Confidential [2] called “Susurluk.” [3]

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has long claimed that such groups were working to undermine it and played on Turks’ belief in a Deep State in order to justify a series of highly controversial investigations and prosecutions. Ergenekon—among the most troubling of these investigations—began by investigating retired army officers and various nationalist groups, but soon began accusing and arresting journalists and academics. Most telling, perhaps, was the arrest of journalist Ahmet Şık. Şık was in the process of preparing a book called The Imam’s Army, [4] which detailed how a powerful religious movement called the “Society” (Cemaat) was taking control of the Turkish security services—the same services which subsequently raided his newspaper’s office in search of the book and arrested him.

In the most positive light, the Society—better known as “Hizmet” or the “Gülenists”—is a movement seeking to inculcate values that are both Islamic and modern to Muslims around the world; to this end, it runs a network of schools that emphasize science and math.[5] To those who doubt its good-intent, the Gülenists are using their religious connections to gain power and wealth in numerous shady ways.[6]Their eponymous leader currently lives in western Pennsylvania, where he has resided since fleeing Turkey after a video was released of him calling for an Islamist seizure of power.

Gülenists are but one part of a much wider Islamist movement from which the AKP draws its support—but they are a very important part. Whatever the truth of Şık ‘s claims, the ruling AKP denied bias among its prosecutors and policemen and continued to support Ergenekon and other investigations, even as the number of arrests rose.[7] In the short term, the Gülen movement and the AKP benefitted one another, but the past several years have strained the relationship. The AKP’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has grown increasingly strident in a manner that does not jive well with Gülen’s softer tone. Moreover, Gülen has questioned Erdoğan’s attempts to improve relations with the country’s Kurdish population.[8] Internal disagreements of this sort have resulted in several high profile bureaucratic struggles that make the government look divided against itself. In early 2012, for example, the government was forced to push through legislation protecting its own intelligence agents from its own lawyers when a prosecutor thought to be close to Gülen attempted to subpoena the head of Turkey’s intelligence service.[9]

The tension has risen as the 2014 election cycle approaches. Turks will head to the polls twice this year: once for municipal elections and again for the country’s first direct presidential election. Erdoğan hopes to become president, but there is speculation that his long-time ally, current president Abdullah Gül, might seek to retain the job. Of the two, Gül is closer to the Gülen movement, and their support might be crucial if he is to fend off Erdoğan’s challenge.[10]

In the past several weeks there has been a massive split between the government and the Gülenists as the former moves ahead with its plans to close the country’s test-prep centers. The move was announced over a year ago as part of an education reform package, but now the implementation is beginning in earnest. Although existing test-prep centers can convert themselves into private schools by offering a wider range of classes, the process would be incredibly expensive and the Gülen movement, the country’s largest operator of centers, is dead-set against the new policy.[11]

In typical style, Erdoğan dismissed the idea of modifying his policy and declared his intention to move forward. After several weeks of chatter in the media, it appears that Gülenists have now flexed their muscles: on Monday, December 14th,  Hakan Şükür, an AKP parliamentarian, left the party citing the issue of center closures.[12] The following morning a massive police raid was carried out in Istanbul. The raid was based on over a year of investigations by the prosecutor’s office and has netted over fifty suspects. These include the sons of three different government ministers for taking bribes and the mayor of Istanbul’s most touristic municipality on the grounds that he accepted bribes and ignored safety warnings related to construction near the government’s prize new underwater subway line.[13]

The scale of the scandal, which threatens to touch the national government itself, is greater than anything the AKP has faced before. The nearest comparison, one related to charity-financing in 2007, could be brushed off at the time as attacks by the Deep State. These arrests are different, however. After eleven years in power, the government cannot admit that it lacks control of its own legal institutions; nor can it dismiss the criticisms and coverage coming from Gülenist media outlets that it had previously hailed as truthful. Wednesday morning, the government named additional prosecutors to the investigation and sacked five Istanbul police chiefs (ones who just happen to have overseen the raids). The following day it removed Istanbul’s head Security Director. Penalizing officials for not informing their superiors about operations is one thing, but the government can hardly deny the accusations its own prosecutors are making against the children of its own ministers.[14]

By late Thursday evening, there were pornographic images of (allegedly) AKP Deputy President Nurman Kurtulmuş filtering through the internet . . .[15]

In the long-term, it is extremely troubling that high-level crimes are only revealed to the public as a result of a power struggle at the top. In the short-time, however, watching the AKP stew in its own juices provides a good deal of schadenfreude[16]: after years spent purging the state of nationalist/secular networks, the government now finds itself confronted by a Deep State of its own creation. If, as many believe, the AKP has allowed the Gülen movement a decade’s time to seize control of the country’s legal infrastructure, then it has only itself to blame for what may be about to follow.


[1] Ex. Dexter Filkins, “The Deep State,” The New Yorker, 3/12/13.

[3] See Susurluk Report (in Turkish) HERE.

[4] Available (in Turkish) HERE.

[5] See Gülen’s website:

[6] Stephanie Saul, “Charter Schools Tied to Turkey Grow in Texas,” The New York Times, 6/6/11.

[7] Gareth Jenkins, “The Fading Masquerade,” Turkey Analyst, 4(7), 4/4/11.

[8] Mustafa Akyol, “Is Gulen Movement Against Peace With PKK?Al-Monitor, 5/22/13. Yalçın Doğan, “Gülen-AKP: Rahatsız ilişkiler,” Hurriyet, 5/21/13.

[9] Daren Bulter, “Turkish spy row hits Kurdish peace, democratization moves,” Al-Arabiya, 2/17/12.

[10] Svante Cornell, “The Diverging Paths of Abdullah Gül and Tayyip Erdogan,” Turkey Analyst, 6(8), 4/24/13.

[11] Svante Cornell, “Erdoğan, the Hizmet Movement, and the PREP School Crisis,” Turkey Analyst, 6(22), 12/4/13.

[12]Hakan Şükür AK Parti’den istifa etti,” Hurriyet, 12/16/13.

[13] Fatih Yağmur, “Marmaray’ın çökme riskine rağmen inşaata izin verdiler,” Radikal, 12/18/13.

[14]2 savcı daha görevlendirildi,” Zaman, 12/18/13  and “Emniyet’ten atama açıklaması,” Radikal, 12/18/13. “Çapkın da görevden alındı,” Radikal, 12/20/13.

[15]Numan Kurtulmuş’tan seks kaseti açıklaması,” Hurriyet, 12/20/13. Obviously, he denies it. You can judge.