Political Landscape in Turkey: Suspicion Against the Hizmet Movement


After the failed coup d’etat of July this year, the persecution of members of the Hizmet[1] (Gülen) movement has reached new heights. More than 50,000 people have been fired or suspended, mainly within ministries, the educational sector, and the military. Fifteen universities have been shut down. Among those closed was Fatih University, where I conducted part of the fieldwork for my master’s thesis in the fall and winter of 2014. Zaman, the Hizmet-affiliated newspaper that was later placed under the management of trustees due to a court decision, was voicing concerns over registrations of ministry workers with connections to the movement. Such a registration is illegal under Turkish law, but all indications point towards the registrations actually having taken place, if we are to regard the efficacy with which the post-coup attempt firings took place.

In a country as riddled with tensions as Turkey, this does not seem very remarkable, but if we look at the formerly close relationship between Hizmet and the AKP (Justice and Development Party), it does call for some reflection. How is it that a movement that has helped the AKP gain power and influence can be dismissed and even demonized with such ease?

The Hizmet movement, operating in numerous areas of Turkey’s civil society, as well as in the area of trade, and which formerly had a solid media platform, is an entity that many Turks come into contact with through their (formerly) numerous prep schools, charities, or other initiatives. Its presence throughout Turkey is significant, albeit often only subtly marked. Despite ideological differences, many people from different backgrounds have attended the prep school lessons offered by the movement because of issues of price, accessibility, or convenience. A friend of mine proudly tells the story of how he received lessons at an all-girls prep school because he was the only male student interested in studying that particular subject. Their presence in the highly competitive Turkish educational sector, where it is not unusual to take extra lessons to crack the entrance exam to university is one of the contributing factors to the former success of the movement and the ill will against it.

It is almost impossible to speak of Turkish politics without to some degree addressing the conspiracy theories regarding the inner workings of the state. By calling them conspiracy theories, I intend to draw attention to how they are formed and in what way they reflect on how the state is imagined.

In the ever-changing Turkish political landscape, it can more often than not be hard to tell truth from fiction, so it is not my intention to address any of the following ideas as more than just that; ideas.

The Turkish state is heavy with bureaucracy and is in many ways inaccessible, yet maintains an immense power over the individual. Various factors account for its inaccessibility, for instance the 10 percent threshold for a party to enter into parliament, which makes it difficult for new parties to challenge those already established. Furthermore, to enter into account for one of the coveted state jobs, one has to pass the difficult KPSS test, where applicants are tested in various areas of knowledge. Many people pass years studying for it, and still do not succeed. In this way, entering into contact either with the democratic or the administrative system remains reserved for those who are already a part of either the political or educational elite.

In general, Turkey ranks low when it comes to trust in institutions and people.[2] A situation like this is breeding ground for much guesswork as to what the facts are, who is really in power, and how they got there. Whereas in the U.S. and Western Europe, most people regard conspiracy theorists as eccentric loners, in Turkey, many people believe that the state is either partially or fully controlled by shadow actors. One example is the idea of the so-called Deep State, an alleged state within the state, an idea that dates back to the Ottoman Empire. Throughout the existence of the Republic, the Deep State has been attributed to ultra-nationalists and ultra-Islamists alike, and within the last couple of years, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as well as other leading AKP members have spoken of the existence of a Gülen-led parallel state .However, the idea of a parallel state is in no way foreign to the Turkish political imaginary, as we see with the idea of the Deep State. This combined with the way that Hizmet promotes education and often invests in underprivileged, yet promising individuals’ careers, they add up to an image of attempted state infiltration. The way my secularist interlocutors interpret this is that these promising young people will then be bound by gratitude, if not brainwashed, to carry out the movement’s bidding.

Through prep schools, dormitories, and other educational initiatives, the Hizmet movement has managed to infiltrate state offices, the police force, and the military. They purportedly do so by providing tuition for free or at reduced rates for bright but poor students, and submitting them into a network of mutual help that also characterizes the movement. In this way, the movement is supposed to educate the members in the order it needs them, and through its own channels manages to position them where they can get maximum benefits. Some rumors also claim that powers within the movement have handed out the correct answers to young members who aspire to join the police force.

The stories of two of my informants, Ibrahim and Mehmet,[3] illustrate the educational trajectory of many Hizmet movement members. Living in a village in the West of Turkey, Mehmet had to move to a nearby city if he wanted to attend high school. Due to poor infrastructure and long distances, it is not uncommon that teenagers from remote areas have to spend the week, or even longer periods of time, at a dormitory (yurt), away from their family. At a young age, he moved into a dormitory that was led by an association related to the movement. Older students helped him with his homework, and when the time came, they talked to him about which universities would suit him and helped him prepare for the entrance exams. He ended up going to one of the prestigious universities in Istanbul, and living in the dormitory gave him the support necessary to graduate with good marks. He now holds a good position in one of the movement’s businesses. Ibrahim, who Mehmet met during his stay at the dormitory, has a similar story of entering the movement, but now works in a private company with ties to the government. His job position at the time of the interview was already problematic, and during our meetings he repeatedly asked me not to disclose his involvement with the movement to our common acquaintances. While neither one of these men is in a high-ranking positions within state organs, their stories demonstrate how involvement with the movement can help young men advance in life.

Studying the success of Hizmet students, some things come to mind as logical explanations. Students benefit from the system of mutual aid based on the idea of “paying it forward,” in other words, helping others as a way of paying back. The aid is called hayır, a good deed from an Islamic point of view. The strict lifestyle enforced in student houses, which is devoid of the enjoyments that many people associate with the youth, creates an environment where many of the waking hours of the day are spent studying or reflecting. For students able to adapt to this sense of collectivity and rigorous way of life, the strong work ethics and plentiful support often help them excel in their areas.

Cenk is one of the students who was not able to conform to all of this. When he left his native town to go to university, he found himself in a new city with very little support network. Students approached him from Hizmet, and offered him a room in one of the student houses run by the movement. However, the rigorous life style within the student houses, with curfew, no TV and an “open door policy,”meaning that he was not allowed to close the door to his room, which did not suit Cenk. He left in a hurry without any other housing alternative. It is stories such as these, which raise suspicions of the movement—stories that can be understood as a helping gesture to a student in need, can also be understood as an attempt to catch a young man at his most vulnerable, when he is most open for influence, a kind of “brainwashing.”

For the Hizmet strategies to count as attempts of infiltrating the state, it is necessary for there to be intent—a will to influence the world beyond what is possible through the workings of civil society. That this exists, has not been clearly proven, but neither clearly disproven.

In the above we see how the purge of Hizmet relations is made possible by already existing mechanisms in the Turkish political imaginary; the idea of a “deep” or “parallel,” state which is run by shadow actors, as well as certain issues regarding the movement in itself, and the way it is perceived by the Turkish public.

My aim here is to describe and bring awareness to a political culture where there is a constant search for “the outsider within,” an agent, be it from CIA, Hizmet, crypto-Jews or otherwise, and where constant speculations about the truth is a part of the political fabric. It is not then surprising to witness how one group can be ostracized, as is the case with the Hizmet, since it plays on mechanisms already present in the imaginaries surrounding the state in Turkey. When Erdoğan talksabout a parallel state in Turkey, he builds upon the idea of an enemy who controls the state, an idea which is readily accepted by many Turks. This enables the AKP government to carry out the purge of Hizmet related individuals with less opposition than would most likely have been found in countries where these mechanisms are less present in the political culture.


Mette Fallesen is completing her MA in Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. She is writing her thesis on mistrust and conspiracy theories in Istanbul, and conducted fieldwork in the city for two months in 2013 and for five months from 2014-15. She holds a BA in Social Anthropology from Lunds University/Universidade Nova de Lisboa.


Photo: deepspace | Shutterstock.com


[1] In Turkish, Hizmet means “service,” and during my fieldwork, this was the term most commonly used by movement members themselves.

[2] ESS (European Social Survey); ISSP (International Social Survey Programme); OECD (2008), Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries (www.oecd.org/els/social/inequality).

[3] All names and identifying details are altered as to protect the anonymity of those involved.

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