Fethullah Gulen, a 77-year-old cleric, runs schools, charities and businesses in Turkey and more than 100 other countries. He has lived in self-imposed exile in the US since 1997. Image Credit: AP

Istanbul: Last month’s failed coup brought into relief a bitter struggle at the heart of Turkish politics.

From his humble childhood in a working-class neighborhood of Istanbul, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has steadily transformed the nation in his image over almost a decade and a half in power and become the Turkish republic’s most influential leader since its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Halfway around the world, Fethullah Gulen, a 77-year-old imam, presides over a somewhat opaque network of schools, charities and businesses in Turkey and more than 100 other countries. He has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1997 and has acted as a kind of global spiritual leader, advocating peace and tolerance.

When the AKP came to power in 2002, it was a party largely composed of political outsiders, at odds with the military as well as a secularist establishment that had long balked at Islam in politics.

“The AKP had nothing except for its popular support. It came into government as if it was like an alien from Jupiter or Saturn landing on Earth,” said Halil Berktay, a professor of history at Sabanci University in Istanbul, adding that Erdogan’s party eventually “concluded an unholy alliance with the Gulenists” already installed in various corners of the Turkish state and enabled the promotion of countless more over the years.

The AKP and the Gulenists “have the same ideology. They both want to see a religious country, to give it the color of Islam,” said Levent Gultekin, a former Islamist and a popular commentator and columnist. “It’s just their direction is different.”

AKP leaders now say they were hoodwinked by their old alliances.

“For a long time, we couldn’t see that this group was an instrument and cover for other goals and sinister calculations,” Erdogan said in a speech on Wednesday.

While the AKP’s ticket was mass mobilisation and electoral democracy, emerging as the party of pious conservatives and merchant classes outside the country’s cosmopolitan coastal cities, the Gulenists entered the state in a more clandestine fashion.

According to Gulenists’ critics, the group operates with the cultish weirdness of Scientologists and militant discipline of the Jesuits.

The cemaat, or congregation, as most Turks refer to the movement, came to the fore in the 1980s after a military coup that targeted leftists and created space for a kind of political Islam to make inroads in doggedly secular Turkey. Its supporters set up schools that churned out a new generation of civil servants and intellectuals who started to enter the ranks of the government bureaucracy once wholly dominated by Turkey’s secularist elite.

A network of Gulen-linked business groups, charities and schools spread around the world and, in some places, served as a surrogate for Turkish soft power.

But at home, the secretiveness of the organisation - even experts on the Gulenists are not certain how large the cemaat’s membership is - surrounded it for years in a thick cloud of suspicion and fear.

By and large, there is little sympathy for the Gulenists among the wider Turkish public, even among those who are opposed to Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style. Opinion polls indicated vast majorities pinning the coup on the cleric and his followers.

“People realise, at the end of the day, they can get rid of Erdogan at the voting booth,” said Gultekin. “But how do you get rid of Gulen?”