The cleric, the coup and the conspiracy

Date posted: September 9, 2016

The lobbying war to extradite Fethullah Gülen to Turkey could irreparably damage Washington-Ankara relations.


At a spacious retreat in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, an elderly Muslim scholar named Fethullah Gülen spends much of his day at rest, in prayer or receiving well-wishers. It would be a peaceful existence, were it not for the international battle raging over what to do with him.

Gülen, a native of Turkey in his 70s, said he is an advocate for peace, democracy and religious tolerance. In a written interview with POLITICO, he stressed that these are values he has spent decades preaching to millions of followers in Turkey and around the world.

But the Turkish government sees in Gülen something quite different: the leader of a terrorist cult, the mastermind of the recent attempted coup in their country and a fugitive trying to take advantage of the U.S. legal system. Turkish officials accuse Gülen and his followers of having spent years building a “parallel state” that the government is now bent on eradicating. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who once saw Gülen as a partner, is now demanding that the U.S. extradite him, even though Gülen insists he had nothing to do with the coup attempt.

“My teaching has always been to act within [the] law and in an ethical way,” Gülen said in his written responses to POLITICO, delivered through his aides. “If anybody who follows my works acts illegally or unethically, or if they disobey the lawful orders of their superiors, that is a betrayal of my teachings and I fully support their being investigated and facing the consequences.”

Despite Gülen’s protests of innocence, a lobbying war has heated up over what to do with the imam. His presence in Pennsylvania is putting U.S.-Turkish relations under pressure at an especially sensitive time, as U.S. officials struggle to balance a desire to keep a NATO ally onboard in the fight against Islamic State (ISIL) with mounting worries about Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic tendencies.

This is not the first time that Gülen has been accused of trying to overthrow Turkey’s political leaders. Back in the late 1990s, he faced similar accusations under what was then a secular government.

Meanwhile, American officials’ unwillingness to simply hand over Gülen is feeding Turkish skepticism about the longstanding geopolitical relationship, with many in the country openly speculating that the U.S. government was behind the attempted coup. “Stirring up anti-American sentiment has the potential to significantly harm the relationship, the potential to make strategic cooperation more difficult,” said a senior Obama administration official.

Respected teacher

Fethullah Gülen, known as hocaefendi, or ‘respected teacher,’ to his followers, was born between 1938 and 1941 in the Turkish village of Korucuk. Aides say the reason for the discrepancy in the dates is that his father wasn’t allowed at first by Turkish officials to register his son’s birth because his first name sounded too Arabic.

Gülen grew up studying Sunni Islam and soon began preaching, obtaining a passionate following in Turkey, where strict secularism was the law of the land for much of the 20th century. Gülen’s brand of Islam is believed to be influenced in part by the teachings of Said Nursi, a Turkish-Kurdish spiritual leader who died in 1960.

Gülen’s followers call their movement Hizmet or ‘service,’ and they have focused largely on education. Gülenists have opened schools, charities and other institutions around the world, including in the United States, while also promoting interfaith harmony. Although some of his early sermons are reported to have contained some anti-Semitic tones, Gülen said his views have evolved, and that some of his words were taken out of context. Readers responding to a 2008 survey by Foreign Policy and Prospect named him the world’s No. 1 public intellectual.

Gülen said he doesn’t personally run the many institutions his followers have built, even if he is their inspiration. His movement is funded through donations from its members and by the profits from a range of businesses. Gülen himself is also believed to have a number of financial holdings and makes money through sales of his books. He firmly denies that he ordered, or even inspired, the July 15-16 coup attempt in Turkey, which left some 270 people dead and many more wounded.

This is not the first time that Gülen has been accused of trying to overthrow Turkey’s political leaders. Back in the late 1990s, he faced similar accusations under what was then a secular government. As an Islamist, albeit a relatively moderate one, Gülen’s teachings had long drawn the suspicions of Turkey’s secular elite.

In 1999, amid growing accusations against him in Turkey, Gülen moved to the United States, ostensibly to receive medical treatment. U.S. officials were suspicious of his desire to stay at first, but they eventually granted him permanent residency. Graham Fuller, a former CIA official who has researched Islamic movements, wrote a letter of support in 2006 for Gülen’s application for permanent residency, fueling rumors in Turkey that Gülen is a U.S. intelligence asset.

Since 1999, Gülenists have watched their fortunes rise and fall in Turkey. When Erdoğan, whose political party has Islamist leanings, came to power in 2002, he at first found an ally in Gülen. During much of the 2000s, Gülenists rose high in many of Turkey’s institutions. It was under Erdoğan’s rule that Gülen was acquitted of charges of trying to overthrow the state.

In recent years, however, tensions grew between the two men, as Erdoğan became convinced Gülenists were slowly taking over key institutions in Turkey — including the police, the media, universities and the judiciary — in an attempt to undermine the elected government and deliver real authority to the imam in Pennsylvania.

In his exchange with POLITICO, Gülen downplayed his relationship with Erdoğan, saying the two “were never very close” and only met “two or three times.” He said he and his followers supported Erdoğan’s early promises to pursue European Union membership, implement democratic reforms and respect human rights.

The rupture came, Gülen said, in recent years, as Erdoğan began pushing to transform Turkey’s parliamentary democracy into a presidential system that would give his office far more power. The Muslim scholar said he couldn’t support the idea because Erdoğan’s “proposal was akin to a sultan regime” that lacked the checks and balances of similar systems in the United States or France.

“Mr Erdoğan put pressure on me and Hizmet sympathizers to publicly support his idea of a presidential system,” Gülen told POLITICO. “If we complied by his demand and became loyalists, we would be enjoying the Turkish government’s favors now. But we declined and we have been facing their wrath for the last three years.”

Some analysts describe this explanation as spin, noting that tensions between Gülen and Erdoğan appeared well before public discussion of a strong presidency. The analysts say Gülen, or at least his followers, and Erdoğan appeared to differ on an array of issues, including how to deal with Kurdish separatists and how to react to the tumult in a region following the Arab Spring revolutionary movements. “I’ve heard them complain about Erdoğan’s accumulation of power, and you can see it in Gülenist news coverage,” said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. “But has it been a longstanding position? Nope.”

After prominent Gülenists pushed a series of anti-corruption probes involving members of Erdoğan’s government in 2013, Erdoğan moved to sideline the elderly scholar’s movement. The crackdown, which included arrests of Turkish journalists, disturbed U.S. President Barack Obama, whose opinion of Erdoğan is said to have tumbled dramatically over the past eight years.

At the same time, however, documents unveiled by WikiLeaks indicated that U.S. officials have had their own suspicions about Gülen’s goals. In a classified 2009 cable, then-U.S. ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey noted that even other Islamists viewed the Gülen movement as “murky.”

“Gülen’s purported main goal is to bolster interfaith dialogue and tolerance, but the notion is widespread among many circles in Turkey that his agenda is deeper and more insidious,” Jeffrey wrote. He added: “Most discussions in Turkey which touch on Gülen tend to be somewhat delicate and deliberately artful. Our interlocutors often seem reluctant to express their views, seemingly uncertain if it will rebound on them to their detriment.”

The Gülen movement’s activities in the U.S. have also drawn the government’s scrutiny. The well-funded organization has set up an estimated 150 charter schools in the U.S., many of which emphasize science, and the FBI has been looking into an array of allegations against the schools, including claims that they abused the U.S. visa system. Separately, USA Today and other media outlets found that Gülen’s followers spent large sums on questionable donations to an array of U.S. politicians and may have improperly funded travel for some Members of Congress. But little has resulted from any of the federal or media investigations so far, and nothing that directly implicates Gülen.

Realm of the unthinkable

When elements of the Turkish military took to the airwaves on the evening of July 15 to announce they had taken over the government “to restore constitutional order,” Washington was caught by surprise. “One initially thought this must be some kind of spoof,” the senior administration official said. “It was kind of outside the realm of the thinkable. In this day and age a democratic NATO ally doesn’t experience a military coup.”

The reality sank in fast, brought home by images of tanks on Turkey’s streets. U.S. agencies scrambled to ensure the safety of U.S. personnel, especially troops stationed at Turkey’s Incirlik airbase overseeing airstrikes on ISIL. For a few hours the outcome was unclear. Troops loyal to the coup plotters apparently missed Erdoğan by minutes, but managed to close key transportation links, damage the parliament building with airstrikes and take other top officials into custody.

But Erdoğan, who at one point used FaceTime to conduct an interview with CNN Turk, managed to rally his supporters to protest the coup attempt. Citizens poured onto Turkish streets to confront the putschists in the military. Elements in the Turkish security forces loyal to the government eventually put Erdoğan firmly back in control.

In Pennsylvania, Gülen and his aides scrambled to denounce the coup attempt as it unfolded. “As someone who suffered under multiple military coups during the past five decades, it is especially insulting to be accused of having any link to such an attempt,” Gülen said in a statement, referring to Turkey’s spotty democratic history.

The U.S. also was quick to condemn the coup attempt, but not quick enough for many in the Turkish government and media. Erdoğan immediately cast Gülen as the true mastermind and demanded the U.S. turn him over. And the Turkish media fanned speculation of American involvement, citing as evidence, among other things, Gülen’s residency in the U.S.

U.S. officials privately question whether Gülen would be treated fairly in Turkey’s legal system, especially after the ongoing purge of state institutions.

Turkish officials say they have sent reams of material to the U.S. in support of an extradition request. The material (which fills at least 85 boxes, according to Erdoğan) does not reference the coup attempt. Instead, the officials told POLITICO, it revolves around long-standing allegations that Gülen and his followers have tried to create a parallel state in Turkey — claims of everything from illegal eavesdropping to fabricating evidence in court cases.

Turkish officials say they will soon send evidence of Gülen’s putsch links. But they also said they want U.S. officials, at least for now, simply to acknowledge that Gülen was behind the plot, even if they have yet to see the legal evidence to back that up. “Our allies should accept that this is what happened,” one Turkish official told POLITICO. “It’s like O.J. Simpson killed that woman, right? But then you have to prove it.”

The PR war

The Turkish government was disparaging Gülen’s activities in the United States well before soldiers took to the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. Last year, Turkey hired prominent attorney Robert Amsterdam’s firm at a rate of $50,000 a month to wage a legal and public relations war against the imam. In response, the Gülen-linked Alliance for Shared Values retained the services of the Podesta Group, a lobbying and PR firm in Washington for an undisclosed sum to fight back.

In the weeks since the coup attempt, the lobbying wars have escalated, as an array of other Turkish-linked groups in the U.S. stepped up their public outreach. Some, such as the Turkish Heritage Organization, are sympathetic to Erdoğan. Others, such as the Turkic American Alliance, support Gülen.

Turkish officials compare the coup attempt to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. Some Turkish leaders say if the U.S. doesn’t hand over Gülen, it will risk its relationship with a country that has been a NATO ally for more than 60 years. Other Turkish officials emphasize that more than anything Turkey just wants to know that the U.S. is on its side. “What we seek from the United States is sympathy, empathy and solidarity,” a Turkish official said.

Gülen has turned to the law firm Steptoe & Johnson to represent him in the extradition process, which could take months if not years. The lawyers insist the odds of Gülen being forced back to Turkey are near-zero, partly because the extradition system requires ironclad evidence. They point to language in the 1981 extradition treaty between Washington and Ankara that suggests the crime in question has to be illegal in the United States as well as in Turkey. Gülen, they argue, cannot be extradited merely because he may have expressed a political belief.

The U.S. has tried to ease tensions with Turkey, sending a team of experts to talk through the extradition request and arranging a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who expressed a “wish” that Gülen was in another country instead of the United States. Obama also met with Erdoğan in early September on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

U.S. officials privately question whether Gülen would be treated fairly in Turkey’s legal system, especially after the ongoing purge of state institutions. Since the mid-July coup attempt, Erdoğan has fired, and often imprisoned, tens of thousands of people — journalists, educators, judges, soldiers, even football referees — who allegedly sympathized with the putsch plotters. Although the American judicial system oversees much of the extradition process, Gülen can ultimately appeal his case to the U.S. secretary of state, arguing, for instance, that deporting him to Turkey could violate the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

‘I will buy my own ticket’

At Gülen’s idyllic retreat in the Poconos, anywhere from 50 to 100 people are usually with him — personal aides, students and visitors. In the days following the coup attempt, anti-Gülen protesters also showed up, shattering the typically tranquil atmosphere. Gülen’s aides say the white-haired cleric’s health is fragile and that he gets especially worried about the crackdown on his followers back in Turkey. “They’re detaining family members of people who’ve been charged,” said one of his aides, Alp Aslandogan. “They’re detaining them like hostages.”

Shortly after the attempted coup, Gülen said he was surprised he hadn’t died from the stress and sadness, according to Aslandogan. But he has since tried to resume his usual pattern of study: teaching and a minimum of nine prayer sessions a day.

Erdoğan has asked Obama to put Gülen in pre-trial detention so that he doesn’t try to flee to a third country, a request the U.S. is not likely to fulfill. Gülen’s lawyers, meanwhile, say they are worried that Turkish elements will try to assassinate the cleric.

Gülen, who says he would be “sad” to see the U.S.-Turkish relationship deteriorate, nonetheless insists he is confident that the American legal system will treat him fairly. “In the unlikely event that the extradition matter is decided on political grounds, I have already stated that they don’t need to force me out of the country,” he wrote to POLITICO. “I will buy my own ticket and go on my own will without blinking an eye.”

Source: The Politico , September 9, 2016

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