The Current

Why is Turkey blaming Gulen and followers for coup attempt?

Turkish President Erdogan blames exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen for the failed military coup. Gulen denies the allegation but could not rule out the possibility his followers were involved. The Current looks at Gulenists and the Hizmet movement.
Turkish Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen left Turkey in 1999 and is living in exile in Pennsylvania. (Selahattin Sevi/AP Photo)

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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the military coup attempt a "virus" and vowed to "cleanse" all state institutions.  He blames exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen for the failed coup.

Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation, says Gulen and his followers are being unfairly scapegoated for initiating the coup attempt.  Momani speaks with The Current's host Laura Lynch on why Erdogan is  pointing fingers at Gulen.

A policeman stands atop of a military armored vehicle after troops involved in coup surrendered on the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey, July 16, 2016. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)
"The vast majority of Turks, I would say in the order of 95 per cent or so, feel that the Gulenist movement is a parallel government. They dislike their so-called power, they feel as though they are up to no good."

Momani says to her "it makes sense for Erdogan to really blame this on an easy scapegoat where there's a consensus in the country that something is going on."

On July 17, the reclusive cleric spoke out briefly, denying any involvement in the coup, but said he couldn't rule out the possibility that any of his followers may have been involved.

"The Gulen philosophy is quite spiritual, very progressive, modern and focusing on education," Momani says.

"[Gulen] has a huge following and one doesn't know exactly how many because they're not really card-carrying members of an organization."

"I think what we are seeing is the wide net being thrown  by Erdogan in terms of blaming many of those that he finds as his enemies to be a part of the Gulenist movement."

Not knowing who is a Gulenist – what Momani calls a "shadow system" – is prompting fear in the country.

"You will find in Turkey people often use it as a way to basically make people fear one another and it is really quite ominous in that sense."

Fear is also what is motivating Erdogan to throw blame, says Momani.

"There's a lot of fear and I think legitimately so that he will call people Gulenists out when they have nothing to do with the organization just for the sake of jailing them. We saw already numerous journalists jailed today. I think what we are finding that this is really just a witch hunt."

Relatives mourn over the coffin of Omer Cenkatar, July 17, 2016, during a memorial service in Istanbul. Cenkatar was killed in Turkey's thwarted coup attempt. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

Three days after a failed military coup, the Turkish government continues to crackdown on opponents. More than 6,000 people have been arrested so far — including military officers, colonels and judges accused of ties to the revolt.  

According to Momani, the majority of Turks see Gulen as trouble and by focusing on the blame in this coup, attention is diverted away from looking at the military.

"It really allows them to create this enemy from within that is still different and distinct from the enemy and that people can kind of see or kind of feel as though it's somehow tangible by being linked to the Gulenist movement," Momani tells Lynch.

Gulen said he has no sympathy of any kind for a military coup since he's been a target himself. An attempted coup in 1999 against an Islamist movement Gulen was involved with led him to self-exile in the U.S. to avoid potential imprisonment.

In the most recent military coup attempt on July 15,  at least 290 people were killed and more than 1,400 were wounded in the chaos.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post including Sanem Guner, an assistant director of The Hollings Center for International Dialogue.

This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino and Pacinthe Mattar.