Turkey’s allegations that Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen was behind the country’s recent coup attempt has exacerbated the ill will between him and the nation’s president, who were once considered close allies.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed the coup attempt on supporters of his US-based foe, Gulen, whose Hizmet movement has an influential presence in the Turkish media, police and judiciary.
Gulen issued a statement condemning in “the strongest terms” the attempted coup and categorically denying accusations that he was behind it.
“Government should be won through a process of free and fair elections, not force,” he said. “I pray to God for Turkey, for Turkish citizens, and for all those currently in Turkey that this situation is resolved peacefully and quickly.”
“As someone who suffered under multiple military coups during the past five decades,” Gulen said, “it is especially insulting to be accused of having any link to such an attempt.”
Faced with anti-government protests and corruption investigations, Erdogan has blamed his problems in part on Gulen’s followers and foreign powers. The Turkish president has frequently accused his former ally, who lives in exile in the US state of Pennsylvania, of trying to overthrow the government.
But in his own messages, Gulen has said Erdogan suffered from “decayed thinking” and denied the president’s accusations. Washington has never found any compelling evidence in Erdogan’s previous claims.
Speaking to reporters in Luxembourg on Saturday, US secretary of state John Kerry said that the US would entertain an extradition request for Gulen, but only if Turkey presented legitimate evidence of wrongdoing. “We fully anticipate that there will be questions raised about Mr. Gulen,” Kerry said.
As an imam in Turkey, Gulen encouraged his followers to become educated, and the movement spread beyond Turkish borders, with hundreds of schools and charities established in other countries.
Since the preacher’s run-in with Turkey’s secular leadership in the 1990s, one of the key aims of his movement’s international activities abroad has been to leverage its international clout back in Turkey.
The ailing 75-year-old Muslim cleric is known for promoting a philosophy that blends a mystical form of Islam with strong advocacy of democracy, education, science and interfaith dialogue.
In an interview with the Voice of America in 2014, Alp Aslandogan, a Turkish-American businessman, Gulen’s main spokesman, compared the preacher to US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
“The civil rights movement advocated equal rights for all citizens,” said Aslandogan. Similarly, in Turkey, Gulen advocated for equality and equal opportunity for all citizens – observant Muslims and others who historically had been discriminated against.
“The civil rights movement abstained from violence. Similarly, Gulen throughout his life always criticized and rejected violence,” Aslandogan said. After the September 11 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, he said, Gulen called Osama bin Laden “a monster.”
Gulen’s messages of peace and tolerance have won him praise from luminaries in the United States. Former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and James Baker and former president Bill Clinton have all spoken at Gulen foundation events.
His movement, Hizmet, or “service” in Turkish, includes think tanks, schools and various media enterprises.
Investigations in US
However, the movement has been under increasing scrutiny in the US for its links to a group of about 145 charter schools. Hizmet-linked schools in Texas have been accused of visa fraud and misuse of taxpayer money, and the FBI has investigated allegations of sexual misconduct at a charter school in New Orleans. Both the schools and the Hizmet movement deny that they have a relationship, but Gulen supporters are believed to hold positions in the schools.
In 1999, Gulen, who had conflicts with the military-backed secular government in Ankara, left the country and took refuge in what was then a camp for Turkish-American children in Pennsylvania. He was granted permanent-resident status in 2008.
(Fethullah Gulen photo: fgulen.com)