Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a big splash last week with his very public (albeit veiled) call for Fethullah Gülen to leave his self imposed exile in Pennsylvania and return to Turkey, and Gülen made just as big a splash with his tearful video announcing that he is staying right where he is. The entire incident was very strange, as it comes on the heels of an increasingly confrontational clash between Erdoğan and the AKP on one side and the Gülenists on the other. The Gülen movement was an early and important supporter of the AKP, but tension has been building between the two camps and is finally out in the open in the fight over Turkey’s special authority criminal courts, which have been the vehicle used to prosecute military officers and journalists and which are presumed to be controlled by Gülenists. Erdoğan has been annoyed since a Gülenist prosecutor attempted to question Hakan Fidan, his national intelligence chief, and a couple of weeks ago the prime minister opined that the special authority courts have gone too far and need to be curbed, accusing them of acting as if they are above the state. This criticism was unmistakably aimed at the Gülenists, and it prompted a furious backlash from the movement. Today’s Zaman, which is the English language version of the Gülen movement’s flagship newspaper, ran two articles recently that were extraordinary in their criticism of Erdoğan and the AKP, blasting the party as authoritarian and accusing it of endangering Turkish democracy. From a paper that has spent the five years since its founding boosting Erdoğan and the AKP relentlessly, this is a remarkable turn of events.
Against this backdrop came Erdoğan’s invitation for Gülen himself to come back to Turkey. The timing seems strange, and there are a lot of theories flying around as to why he did it. It might have been to demonstrate that, rifts with the Gülen movement aside, Erdoğan is still on good terms with Gülen himself; or to highlight Erdoğan’s self-confidence; or to begin repairing the divide between the AKP and the Gülenists. I, however, have a different theory. Ever since Fidan was targeted, Erdoğan has been pushing back strongly against what he sees as a movement that has grown too big for its britches. In a major show of power, the government last week abruptly removed the chief prosecutors from the Ergenekon, Sledgehammer, and soccer match-fixing cases – all of which have been driven by Gülenists – and reassigned them to different posts. While the three were all technically promoted, the message sent was crystal clear: the AKP, and not the Gülen movement, controls Turkey, and this includes the police and the judiciary, which are Gülen strongholds. Erdoğan also threatened to eliminate the special authority courts entirely, and has recently been standing up for the military, which is the béte noire of the Gülen movement.
I think that Erdoğan’s invitation for Gülen to return was an effort to put Gülen himself squarely in the prime minister’s crosshairs. It is difficult to target a phantom presence, and Erdoğan’s confidence and position as the colossus of Turkish politics leaves him unable to abide the power, whether real or perceived, of a legendary imam who is basically untouchable at this point. If Gülen returns to Turkey, much of his mystique evaporates, and it lets Erdoğan tackle him on more equal footing. Gülen will be out in the open and viewed as a normal (while still revered) public figure, subject to political caricature and debate. Erdoğan knows that he cannot really tangle with Gülen while he is in seclusion in the Pennsylvania woods since it risks debasing the prime minister’s image and won’t get him anywhere, but a Gülen who is back in Turkey is a different matter. This is why Erdoğan wants him back in Turkey, and why Gülen will never consent to returning. Erdoğan’s invitation was a poison pill, designed to mortally wound Gülen if he accepted it. It was a typically clever political move by Erdoğan, and combined with the other shots he has taken recently at the Gülen movement, it puts them on notice that he is not to be trifled with. It is understandable that the Gülenists have been spinning this as a sign of the deep respect that Erdoğan has for Gülen, and the prime minister is smart not to contest that interpretation of events, but viewed in context with chain of events from the past few months, I think that Erdoğan wants to take the leap from criticizing the Gülenists to challenging their spiritual leader as well. If Gülen ever returns to Turkey, it makes that possibility ever so much easier.