One of the world's foremost researchers on the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), Professor M. Hakan Yavuz from the University of Utah, whose focus is on transnational Islamic networks in Central Asia and Turkey and the role of Islam in state-building and nationalism, spoke to Sabah about the group and its future. The interview is translated from Turkish.
Prof. Hakan Yavuz (L) with Sabah's İsa Tatlıcan.
Daily Sabah: As an academic who has followed the group for years, did FETÖ's coup attempt last year on July 15 come as a surprise?
M. Hakan Yavuz: While certain aspects of it were surprising, it did not really come as a surprise to me. Islamic movements in Turkey have been historically loyal and at peace with the tradition of the state. We call this "Turkish Islam," for which social stability and state is of paramount importance. The only outlier here is the Gülen Movement. While it appeared to feed from the teachings of Said Nursi, later it became apparent that they had nothing to do with it.
D.S.: When did foreign factors become involved?
Yavuz: Once FETÖ realized that it would not achieve its objectives through the modest and local means at its disposal, it began a search for international support. With the end of the Cold War, it got the opportunity to establish links with some countries by supporting the moderate Islam project. While FETÖ is basically centered on a single leader, it works through a network of cells in the international arena. As its international support increased, it started to follow a methodology more in line with the demands of the international community. In time, it became a conduit to deliver the demands of foreign forces to Turkey, which allowed it to strengthen its domestic base. Just imagine a law enforcement officer goes by himself to the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul to make a presentation to officials on Turkey's security problems. FETÖ, while infiltrating foreign networks to further its objectives, allowed the same forces not only to infiltrate, but build colonies in Turkey's most sensitive areas.
D.S.: How did they become so strong?
Yavuz: The strengthening of the organization and the movement necessitated the creation of an internal education structure and standardized group members. The education begins very young, and pupils are taught to lead double lives. They are taught to be tolerant and vicious, lenient and cruel. They are told to consume alcohol while believing themselves to be true Muslims for being part of a religious community. In short, they needed to be perceived by the public as secular or as a member of the military while taking their orders from "abis" [elder members]. All means were justified to reach the goal of taking over the state. The only goal of the convert is to obey orders. They were allowed no ego or will, just the determination to serve the leader.
D.S.: Are there groups similar to FETÖ in the world?
Yavuz: The Gülen Movement is not a classic religious movement. It is similar to Scientology in the U.S., Opus Dei or some Masonic networks. To understand FETÖ, one needs to know about the others. Patriarchal organizational structure, secrecy, distrust of outsiders, perpetual precautionary reflexes, sensitive interactions done solely by members, stealing of public recruitment test questions to allow initiates to infiltrate state agencies, issue threats, blackmail and others to control individuals and agencies, full control of the judiciary. When one looks at what FETÖ was involved in, there is no comparable movement. The Gülen Movement, after 2007, and especially after the 2010 constitutional referendum, transformed itself into a solely political movement.
D.S.: When did it start to resort to illegal measures to gain power?
Where FETÖ failed the most is among society. It is easy to take over the state, but much harder to do the same for the public. It assumed that it would take control of society once the state was subdued, and consequently focused on receiving the support of the state. It always shaped itself in accordance with the needs of the state. It preferred to not establish a political movement, rather exploiting those already present to infiltrate the state. This is because it is always harder to persuade the public to vote for oneself or one's movement. FETÖ tried to control politics through its control of the media, education, law enforcement and the judiciary, and it must be said that it succeeded. I believe [Fetullah] Gülen's objective was to control the state through its domination of the bureaucracy, not politics. Once it controlled the police, it moved on to the judiciary, and from there it turned to the military. Meanwhile, FETÖ, of course, focused on information, or, in other words, the media. Their third target was the finance sector. They were well aware that without control over money they had no control over power. Once they took over a certain agency, they initiated a purge. Those who did not think like them were fired.
D.S.: Where was it the strongest?
Over four decades, it took control of many agencies it never thought it could. Its headquarters were the Police Academy in Ankara. Once it was in, it started to get involved in criminal activities. Illegal wiretaps, videos and all the plots were done there. We all saw how extreme the belief in the ends justifying the means can go during the July 15 coup attempt. While plots hatched at the academy proved very useful for the group, through the guidance of academics there, they eventually transformed into FETÖ.
D.S.: FETÖ's coup failed due to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's forbearance. They may have succeeded if there was someone else in power.
Exactly so. His fight after the December 2013 judicial coup and his determined stance during the July 15 coup attempt broke FETÖ's back. The public, of course, did not leave the president by himself and resisted. For FETÖ, July 15 was practically suicide. But they had no other option. They established a huge network within the bureaucracy, business and media with incredible secrecy. Eventually, FETÖ wanted to control the state. In 2011, their demand from then Prime Minister Erdoğan to pick 100 parliamentary deputies was rejected. Erdoğan naturally did not want to share the political authority he won through legal means, with another power. FETÖ operatives controlled the interruption of bureaucratic procedure and the 2012 National Intelligence Organization [MİT] crisis showed Erdoğan what FETÖ's true objectives were. They were well aware of the fact that Erdoğan was close to destroying them if they had not initiated the coup. The FETÖ presence within law enforcement and the judiciary was gone. The only weapon left was the military. And if they had not acted, most FETÖ members in the military were going to be fired at the upcoming Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) meetings in August. They had one bullet left and they pulled the trigger.
D.S.: Is it possible to launch a coup without any outside support?
It was FETÖ that launched the coup. There is no doubt about that. Was there support from abroad? Most definitely. The U.S. knew about the coup. NATO as well. How else can you explain remarks by NATO officials after the coup that their contacts were arrested. However, explaining everything through the U.S.'s knowledge is not possible. One should not forget about the United Arab Emirates and Germany. Political analysts in Turkey lazily delve into conspiracy theories to blame everything on factors form abroad. The focus should be on internal dynamics.
D.S.: The U.S. knows about FETÖ but still allows its schools to operate?
This may appear as a contradiction, but the U.S. sees FETÖ as a threat exclusively for Turkey. I repeat, the U.S. administration and Pentagon know that FETÖ was behind last year's coup attempt. However, knowing this and usual diplomatic dialogue is something else. The U.S. will of course demand evidence and ask Turkey to persuade it. The documents given to the U.S. for Gülen's extradition are controversial. FETÖ activities in the U.S. are under scrutiny, but still, some agencies invest a lot in the group. The Gülen Movement was the fastest growing Turkish movement in the U.S. since 1995. It played an important part in bilateral ties. FETÖ, rather than the local embassy, arranged the visits of Turkish statesmen arriving in the U.S. The U.S. is severing its ties with the group, but time is needed for a complete break.
D.S.: What would have happened if the coup attempt had succeeded?
It is frightening even just to imagine it. If the coup attempt had succeeded, a civil war would have erupted. Turkey would have become a second Syria. Maybe it would have become a second Egypt. I don't know. What I know is that if it had succeeded, we would have faced a months-long civil war. Still, it is wrong to compare this with others, because we are not faced with soldiers here. We have a group of disciples who have completely surrendered themselves to a leader disguised as soldiers. That's why I don't call July 15 a military coup. Civilians played a critical role in this coup. We have seen many military coups in this country. July 15 was a coup arranged by FETÖ's imams. These people have no pity. They risked the nation's future for FETÖ's future. They hurt the military. That's why I don't call July 15 a military coup. So what happened? A secretive organization targeted a president who resisted its attempt to take over the state.
D.S.: So why did it fail?
Yavuz: They did not take the president and the public into account. They ignored the possibility that politicians and the public would resist. If the assassination attempt on the president had succeeded or the plotters launched the coup at 3 a.m. like they had previously set, we would be speaking about something else. But fate intervened and the morning of July 16 became FETÖ's last day in Turkey.
D.S.: Have you had to the opportunity to observe FETÖ members abroad?
Yavuz: There are some in dire straits. There were also some who made significant investments in California. They are transforming into a mutated diaspora movement. They are allowed freedom of movement in countries that are anti-Turkish. Some countries that can't speak to Turkey's face allow FETÖ to do the talking. There is a strong alliance between the PKK terrorist group, FETÖ and ASALA [Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia]. In short, nationalist Armenians act in cooperation with the PKK and FETÖ.
D.S.: What can be done?
Firstly, there should be a clear distinction drawn between those who are guilty and those who are not. Justice needs to be served. No one should be allowed to exploit the current situation to victimize innocent people. There are around 2,000 students in the U.S. from families linked to the Gülen Movement. I don't know how, but something must be done to win them over. Some realized what was happening only after the fact. FETÖ members seem to have severed all ties with Turkey. They face arrest warrants. Some may even lose their Turkish citizenship. Most have lost touch with their families. I don't think Fetullah Gülen's diehard supporters and those with financial ties will ever turn their backs on him as long as he is alive. Alternative strategies need to be adopted.
The PKK, Armenian groups and FETÖ do not act independently of each other. These three groups cooperate in many countries around the world. When the president arrived in Washington, these three groups had organized the protests. FETÖ supports Armenians on the 1915 issue. Who would have imagined that FETÖ members would be cooperating with the PKK and ASALA? And they do this openly. Leading members of FETÖ write tweets announcing their support.
D.S.: Have you ever come across a self-critical FETÖ member?
It is hard for people in such groups to engage in self-criticism. Once you start questioning what you are taught, your belief mechanism suffers and you are ostracized. For example, Zaman daily's U.S. representative wrote a tweet at one time calling on those who stole recruitment test questions to answer for what they had done. He was immediately silenced. Many FETÖ members depend on the group for their livelihood. They still have significant investments in the U.S. and EU countries. One should not forget that they are brainwashed. They fear they will be lost if they see themselves as individuals. Just listen to the testimonies of the generals at court. They all say the same thing. They protect the group, not themselves.
D.S.: What can universities do in this regard?
It is very hard to tackle the threat posed by FETÖ abroad. How many reports and studies were done on FETÖ at Turkish universities? How many symposiums were held? Isn't a social phenomenon such as FETÖ a topic of sociological research? The Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research [SETA] is trying to cover the gap left by universities. No other body is investigating it. This is not a problem only Erdoğan needs to think about. It is a national issue that needs to be tackled by the whole nation.
D.S.: Isn't it also the opposition Republican People's Party's (CHP) duty?
The CHP is a total disappointment for me. They are blinded by their hate for the president. I can't explain their support for FETÖ in any other way. They have not prepared even a single page of analysis on July 15. There are also indications that there is some FETÖ presence within the party at the level of deputy, advisor and local administrations. The CHP initially thought it could gain political capital after December 2013. The CHP is in a poor state. Just look at how the march to Istanbul began. It began after a case that epitomizes FETÖ's interference in the judiciary: The MİT trucks case. I believe the CHP base is not too happy with the leadership that is cooperating with FETÖ and the HDP [Peoples' Democratic Party].
D.S.: Can you talk about your soon-to-be published book: "Turkey's Coup and the Gülen Movement: Piety to Violence"?
The Turkish Coalition of America, supported by U.S. businessman Yalçin Ayaşlı, has been conducting studies on Turkey at the University of Utah since 2007. We conducted the most serious and scientific studies on the Armenian issue this way. Our studies after 2015 are on Turkish-Muslim communities in 19th century Russia. Of course, the main objective of the project is to better promote Turkey. After July 15, we invited 23 international experts who had studied and published articles and books on Gülen, the Gülen Movement and FETÖ to the University of Utah to attend a workshop. The two-day discussions assessed the group's role in the July 15 coup attempt. Academics came to the conclusion that FETÖ would be against cooperating with other factions within the military to launch the coup. There was a general consensus on this coup being the work solely of FETÖ.
D.S.: How did the coup affect Turkish-U.S. relations?
Yavuz: The basis of bilateral ties have been security rather than economic or cultural. Moreover, ties have never gone beyond the military. In recent years, the Turkish community in the U.S. has taken some initiatives to expand relations to focus on cultural, social and economic cooperation. The best example of this is the Turkish Coalition of America. To better promote Turkey, inviting and educating American teachers on Turkey's culture and history, scholarships and inviting political elites to Turkey were very beneficial. I also believe hiring a single lobbying firm is not correct. Turkish-Americans need to bear some of the brunt of lobbying efforts in cooperation with the Turkish state. [U.S. President] Donald Trump is unfortunately not trusted by American agencies. That's why it is definitely necessary for Turkey to improve its ties with Congress.