March 5, 2024 | Global Voices

Turkey’s Erdoğan Silences Critics with “FETO” Terrorist Label

For 10 years, the Gulen movement has been synonymous with terrorism
March 5, 2024 | Global Voices

Turkey’s Erdoğan Silences Critics with “FETO” Terrorist Label

For 10 years, the Gulen movement has been synonymous with terrorism

“You’re a “FETO’cu!”, is a commonly used accusation by Erdoğan supporters and Turkish government officials, for all those who dare to challenge the country’s leader.

Turkey’s autocratic regime, through its army of online trolls and government elites, has mastered a strategy of silencing just about every critic by labeling them as a sympathizer and/or member of the Fetullah Gülen Movement — essentially calling them terrorists. The term refers to an elusive religious cult, led by Fetullah Gülen, which played a leading role in trying to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime through a failed military coup in 2016. Prior to this undemocratic attempt to forcibly remove Turkey’s elected leader, persons affiliated with the Gülen movement were referred to as “cemaat” (the community). After 2016, the pro-government apparatchiks relabeled the movement the  “Fetullahcı Teror Orgutu” (FETO) — the “Fetullah Gülen Terrorist Organization.”

Silencing critics through fear

To date, tens of thousands of Turkish citizens have been accused of being FETO members, resulting in the loss of their jobs, possessions, livelihoods, and in many cases, their freedom. Turkey’s jails are packed with scores of anti-Erdoğan dissidents, convicted of being members of Gülen’s cult. Erdoğan has used the coup to attack Gülenist perpetrators, but also silence many individuals who have challenged Erdoğan’s regime, including journalists, public activists, and authors. 

It’s not just Turkish citizens who have been labeled as FETO members. Oftentimes, foreign nationals, including but not limited to diplomats, prosecutors, and even Christian pastors, have been accused of being “kripto” — secret members of the Gülen cult. The government’s success lies in fostering fear that has undermined individuals’ willingness to stand up to Erdoğan. Citizens are terrified of being branded as a FETO member as it could lead to them being prosecuted, losing their job, and possibly going to jail.

The catch-all slur has successfully dampened wider public protest initiatives against Erdoğan, despite his disastrous economic policies and bouts of mismanagement highlighted by the government’s handling of the disastrous earthquakes in 2023, resulting in the death of tens of thousands of citizens.

The result is grim: People are afraid to speak out on social media channels — let alone participate in public protests — not knowing who might be able to see their tweets or posts. 

The Erdoğan-Gulen feud

The irony is, Erdoğan and many senior government elites under his tutelage, are the ultimate Gülenists. After coming to power in 2003, Erdoğan forged a very powerful alliance with the Gülen movement, which broke down between 2010–2016. The regime has been extremely successful in erasing public memory of the Erdoğan-Gülen alliance. 

In July 2016, the Gülen movement was identified as the main culprit that conspired with certain members of the military, state bureaucrats and law enforcement officials, to depose President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Although the actual coup attempt failed within hours of being mounted, it was surprisingly violent, with insurrectionists killing over 300 civilians who opposed the coup. Days after, the Erdoğan regime designated the Gülen movement as a terrorist organization and initiated a worldwide hunt to capture senior members of the cult, most notably, its leader, Fetullah Gülen, who resides in the United States in a state of perpetual isolation. Moreover, Erdoğan used the coup to prop up a new national myth of his resilience. Entire monuments like the Ataturk Bosphorus Bridge have been renamed the “July 15 Martyrs Bridge,” complete with annual commemorations of how the coup was thwarted.

In substantive terms, Erdoğan has devoted a vast amount of national resources to crack down on the Gülen movement, which had a staggering global presence, spanning from the Balkans, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the United States.

The Gülen movement’s ideological goals for Turkey have always been relatively opaque. In essence, it has sought to embrace the economic modernization of the country, while insisting that progress can only be achieved by adopting Islam and conservative values.

Erdoğan declared that he was only interested in cracking down on the leadership of the organization, and called upon Gülen’s followers to renounce their affiliation. Much of Gülen’s global network of businesses, charities and schools have been closed down, especially in the global south, mainly due to direct pressure being applied by Turkish authorities on poorer countries — many of which ultimately prioritized remaining in Ankara’s good graces, choosing to rely on developing commercial ties with Turkey. Inside Turkey, the movement is completely defunct. Even prior to the 2016 coup, Erdoğan ordered his government to seize all of Gülen’s assets, including businesses, banks, and newspapers. 

What is left however, is Erdoğan’s ongoing reliance on Gülen as a means to silence critics, dissidents, and opponents of various stripes.

Remembering the Erdogan-Gulen alliance

But how is it that Turkish society came to forget Erdoğan’s close ties to Gülen? As veteran investigative journalists like Ahmet Sik have documented so precisely in numerous publications, Fetullah Gülen and Erdoğan forged an alliance of convenience. After coming to power in 2003, Erdoğan gave Gülen and his followers access to vast amounts of power. Gülenists were given prominent positions in high-profile and highly-sought after government positions, including but not limited to law enforcement, the military, judicial appointments as prosecutors and judges, and as diplomats in the foreign ministry. Why? Because Gülen could deliver votes for Erdoğan at home from his vast following. Additionally, Erdoğan was able to utilize Gülen’s existing global relationships and network. For example, throughout the late 2000’s Erdoğan gained a tremendous amount of influence with the United States Congress, owing to Gülen’s established relationships with members of Congress. 

In return, Gülen was able to realize a dream which his cultish movement had long been seeking: The disestablishment of the secular state established by Kemal Ataturk. For decades, Fetullah Gülen has sought to reinvent Turkey and do away with its pro-Western orientation. 

Since the 1960s, his followers were successful in clandestinely gaining positions in the military and bureaucratic position, but their numbers were likely too few to implement Gülen’s desire to forge a more pious, Islamist state that could eventually transform society.

The alliance with Erdoğan was a game changer. For the first time in the movement’s history, Gülenist judges and prosecutors began to actively go after secular strongholds of the state. This included prosecuting and jailing high-ranking military officials, exemplified by the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, helping to facilitate the politicization of the Ministry of Justice through the 2010 public referendum, and further marginalization of secular elites via targeted prosecutions and media campaigns. Essentially, Erdoğan empowered a monster of untold proportions that ultimately turned on him. 

The deterioration of Erdoğan’s alliance with Gülen began as a result of severe policy differences that resulted in Gülen’s attempt to overthrow Erdoğan in 2016. Gülen’s biggest mistake was to believe that he had an equal voice to Erdoğan in determining government policy, which became evident during Erdoğan’s attempts to negotiate a peace settlement with Turkey’s Kurds in 2010, which Gülen fundamentally opposed.

The rift between the two widened to the point that Gülen attempted to undermine the peace talks by sending law enforcement officials to arrest Turkey’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan (now Foreign Minister), who was leading the talks. From then on, an all-out war between two allies began. Erdoğan’s rage against Gülen soared from thereon, prompting him to ask “What did they ever desire [i.e. Gülen], that we did not give them?” Erdoğan felt betrayed by his former ally. By the time the conflict spilled into the open, Erdoğan tried to brush off his criticism about his former patronage of Gülen, by simply stating “We were misled and fooled [by Gülen into thinking we were allies].” 

The Erdoğan-Gülen partnership has brought untold harm upon Turkey. Two Islamist leaders and their respective followings have used the authority of the state to undermine significant vestiges of the rule of law. In its place, what the country is left with, is over a decade of conflict in which Erdoğan and Gülen have spent all their energies to eliminate one another. For now, it seems as though Erdoğan has prevailed and more significantly, has mastered the ability to destroy any new opponents through the as FETOist label — whether they are ordinary citizens, or well-known public figures — helping him to silence dissent since the 2013 Gezi Park protests.

Despite his relative successes in making citizens forget about his deep connection to Fetullah Gülen, observers are working to raise public awareness that Erdoğan is the person who empowered Gülen. 

Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at FDD and an expert on Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy.