Turkish Scandal Shines Light On 'Shadowy' Muslim Leader

Jan 10, 2014
Originally published on January 10, 2014 12:45 pm
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Odd as it may sound, a power struggle in Turkey has a lot to do with a man who's living in the mountains of Pennsylvania, the Poconos. He's a cleric named Fetullah Gulen, who left Turkey long ago, and has followers around the world, including, notably, in his home country. Gulen supporters are believed to include prosecutors and police leading a corruption probe into Turkey's government and angering the prime minister. Though he's denied any designs on power, Gulen is a constant subject of speculation and intrigue back in Turkey, where NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: It wasn't that long ago when writing about Fetullah Gulen was seen as a quick way to shorten a Turkish reporter's career. Journalist Ahmet Sik wrote a critical book in 2011 about the Gulen movement called "The Imam's Army." And before it could be published, both book and author were seized by the government. Gulen's critics have called him the shadowy leader of the world's largest Muslim network and Turkey's most powerful religious leader. His supporters are just as extravagant with their praise, calling Gulen a global force for peace and religious tolerance, an ideal counter to the extreme Islamists who tend to dominate the media. Columnist Asli Aydintasbas says it's not surprising Gulen attracts so much hyperbole.

ASLI AYDINTASBAS: I don't think there is a figure like him in the Muslim world, in the sense that here is a preacher who has a huge following, but he's essentially pro-Western and believes in Western-style education.

KENYON: Those who have heard of Gulen probably know of his charter schools. There are some 140 in the U.S. alone. If you include Gulen-linked media, think-tanks and other institutions, the movement is active in 150 countries around the world. That's according to Mustafa Yesil, president of the Gulen-affiliated Journalists and Writers Foundation in Istanbul. The Gulen movement - known as Hizmet, or Service - has been credited with having several million followers, but figures are hard to come by, because there's no such thing as a card-carrying Gulenist.

MUSTAFA YESIL: (Through translator) Hizmet does not have a membership system, and it's decentralized and non-hierarchal. It's locally organized, and it gets its power not from the number of its supporters, but mostly from the devotion of them.

KENYON: Even some of Gulen's critics acknowledge that both in deed, and for the most part in rhetoric, he's one of the most moderate Muslim leaders active today. Nevertheless, suspicions persist that he harbors dreams of controlling Turkey's levers of power. In one old video clip, Gulen speaks elliptically of patience, growth and maturity, ending with what some consider a call for his followers to infiltrate the Turkish bureaucracy.

FETULLAH GULEN: (Through translator) Until you can bring the whole world on your back, until you hold the real power in your hand, until in Turkey's structure and law, you hold constitutional power, until you bring it by your side, any big step is premature.

KENYON: Gulen later denied telling anyone to take over government positions. He was never convicted of any attempt to seize power, but moved to the U.S. anyway and has resisted all calls to return. The attacks against Gulen used to come from the secular and military old guard. But recently, it's the ruling AK Party, with roots in political Islam, that's accusing Gulen backers of launching a political power play against Turkey's devout Muslim Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Gulen supporter Mustafa Yesil says the Hizmet movement has survived such attacks for half a century.

YESIL: (Through translator) A secret agenda would reveal itself through our 50 years. Hizmet basically runs its activities in terms of promotion of peaceful coexistence, and no secret activity has been identified yet.

KENYON: Author and columnist Mustafa Akyol says time will tell which side will come out on top in what appears to be a political fight between Erdogan and Gulenists. But he's been encouraged to hear a few voices in the Islamic community say that this feud has been reconsidering their general opposition to secularism.

MUSTAFA AKYOL: Because when you have two Islamic camps saying that God is on their side in a political war, what are you going to say? Well, maybe you should remove this God is on our side argument from the picture and discuss political issues on a more mundane level.

KENYON: For now, however, Turks are watching fascinated, as powerhouses of the country's religious elite turn on each other. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.