‘Hizmet’ movement to fore in battle with Turkish government over corruption

Supporters found across media, banking and charity organisations

Ruling party politicians (right), and the members of the main opposition brawl in Turkey’s parliament during a debate over a corruption scandal that has ensnared prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Photograph: AP

Ruling party politicians (right), and the members of the main opposition brawl in Turkey’s parliament during a debate over a corruption scandal that has ensnared prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Photograph: AP


Headed by exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, Turkey’s Gulen or “Hizmet” Movement today finds itself front and centre in a battle with the government following the biggest corruption scandal in the country’s history.

With no official name or membership structure, the Hizmet Movement is thought to have millions of supporters across Turkey, many in the judiciary and police.

Its supporters can be found across Turkish media, banking and charity organisations but Hizmet, meaning “service to others”, draws its grassroots influence in networks of education institutions including Fem or “cram schools” where students prepare for university examinations outside the normal school curricula.

Often regarded as a shadowy organisation, Hizmet found itself drawn clear into public view in Turkey on December 17th last when police arrested dozens of leading businessmen as well as the sons of Turkish ministers following an investigation into illicit construction deals.

Three ministers resigned in the fallout with Turkey’s ruling AK Party government left thoroughly embarrassed.

Shadow state
The AK Party immediately went on the front foot, firing hundreds of police officers involved in the investigation and accusing the Hizmet Movement of running a shadow state in Turkey. The government is currently pressing to transfer extensive powers away from the HSYK, a top judicial body, and into the hands of the minister for justice.

The proposal has led to protests as well as scuffles between government and opposition politicians in Turkey’s parliament this week.

Scholar and Islamic leader Fethullah Gulen and the AK Party enjoyed civil relations based largely upon a shared view of Islam’s democratic credentials until last November, when Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for the Hizmet cram schools that prepare students for university exams to be closed.

Erdogan criticised Hizmet for running mixed-sex dormitories for students studying away from home. A Hizmet official told The Irish Times that out of hundreds of schools in Istanbul, only three had dormitory buildings, and there, dorms are not shared by males and females.

Turkey’s belligerent prime minister has faced down a number of challenges to his rule over the past decade. He led the gutting of the country’s once-powerful military in 2012 by jailing high-level officers for an attempted coup, while last summer, the government faced down the largest anti-government protests for a decade following plans to turn an Istanbul park into a museum and shopping mall.

The plan was later shelved, but Erdogan emerged unscathed in opinion polls.

At a Fem cram school in Umraniye, Istanbul, students in one classroom sit exams designed to prepare them ahead of critical university tests this month.

Down the street, Faruk Ardic, the chief guidance councillor for all Fem schools across Turkey, said that cram schools are meant to supplement the mainstream education system, and believes the government “doesn’t fully understand Fem”.

“The constitution says that cram schools are permitted. Whatever happens in the future, we hope that things turn out for the good of the people,” he said.

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, 72-year-old Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile at a mansion in Pennsylvania since 1999, would not directly criticise the AK Party’s recent actions, but conceded: “It is ironic that members of the police force and judiciary who were applauded as heroes a few months ago are now being shuffled in the middle of winter without any investigation.”

Some former cram school students say pressure from teachers and administrative staff to study law at university and then seek key positions as lawyers and in the judiciary was intense.

Twenty-year-old Zeynep, who studied at a Hizmet school in the western Turkish city of Bursa, said: “We had to go to programmes where we watched DVDs of Fetullah Gulen and read his books. You had to not take a stance against anything he wrote or else the teachers would create a blockade against you.

“There was a huge effort to try to me make me go [study] law. The teachers even said openly that the movement had a need for judges and lawyers. When I did not go to law, the teachers stopped talking with me.”

Hasan, who is 19 and from Konya in central Turkey, said that he had a positive experience at his Kem cram school, adding that teachers spoke about cleric Fethullah Gulen “only when asked by students”. He said he felt no pressure to go into a specific area of study at university.

About 600 police officers and chiefs were sacked this week in the government’s latest purge of what it sees as the chief threat to its power today.

At least 2,000 prosecutors and members of the police force have been fired since the graft investigation broke last month.

Bayram Balci of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace believes the proposed changes to Turkey’s leading judicial authority will not come to pass. “If it happens it will complicate Erdogan’s relationship with [President Abdullah] Gul. Gul will not sign the final approval of this change,” he said.

“Erdogan will never be able to completely wipe out the Gulenists from the police and judiciary. This war is interminable and in the long term, I think both will lose.”

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