My meeting with Gulen at his retreat in Pennsylvania in December, 2016. A version of this essay was first posted by Religion Dispatches on January 12, 2017, under the heading, “Talking with the ‘Religious Terrorist’ that Turkey Wants to Extradite.”
Who would have thought that a Turkish cleric living in Eastern Pennsylvania would present the Trump administration with one of its first foreign policy challenges. But Turkey wants Fethullah Gulen extradited to face charges that he was involved in the failed coup attempt against the Turkish strong man, Recip Erdogan, several months ago. Trump’s short-lived national security advisor, General Michael Flynn, a former Turkish lobbyist, had suggested that this would be on the top of the agenda for the new foreign policy team. With Flynn gone, the outcome of the request is more uncertain.
But if Trump’s administration does extradite Gulen this will likely trigger a storm of protest from human rights activists around the world, since his conviction by Turkish courts will be seen as a sham justification for Erdogan’s attempt to purge Turkey of his political opponents. Since the coup Erdogan has rounded up tens of thousands of journalists, teachers, lawyers, police, and others thought to be sympathetic to the Gulen movement.
Gulen is in the center of this storm, and since I have made it my habit to study the intersection of religion and politics around the world, he was clearly someone I would like to meet. Recently, I had a chance to do just that.
My visit to Gulen in December 2016 was arranged by people in the movement associated with his teachings–the Hizmet (“service”) movement–who knew that I was interested in meeting him. Since I had already planned to be on the East Coast on that day, the movement did not provide for my airfare or any compensation for this visit, aside from an omelette at an I-Hop as we drove to the retreat from Newark airport. Three other scholars were also invited to the meeting; we were a group of Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
When we were introduced to Fethullah Gulen he attempted to rise from his chair. He swayed and tottered a bit, and I was afraid that he would fall. His aides quickly were at his side, steadying him, and he shook my hand firmly. Though he was frail, I found him to be alert and attentive, and he closely followed the conversation as the comments were translated from English to Turkish. At an age somewhere between seventy-five and seventy-eight (the records are not clear about the precise years), he is dealing with the effects of diabetes and cardiovascular ailments.
The reason that I had come to meet Gulen was not to find out whether he was in fact implicated in the coup attempt—I would have no way of assessing whether that was the case. Rather I came out of curiosity, to try to understand the extraordinary magnetism of the man who has garnered such an incredible following of hundreds of thousands of middle class professionals in Turkey and around the world, and whose political power has threatened Turkey’s head of state. My initial impression was of a reserved, quiet gentleman who was respected by those around him but not fawned over as spiritual leaders sometimes are.
The meeting room in his quarters where we met was the size of a large living room with comfortable, overstuffed chairs and couches lining either side with one prominent chair at the head of the room, almost like a throne. Clearly it was his, since there was a TV remote and some reading material beside it. I stepped aside so he could take the chair but he insisted that as the guest, I should take the honored spot. He took a more modest seat by the side. Soon tea and Turkish sweets arrived, and the conversation began.
“Do you often wonder,” I said to him, “why, considering all the possible enemies that he might have, Erdogan would target you? Do you sometimes ask yourself, ‘why me?’”
Gulen thought for a moment, and then said that he had often asked himself that question, especially in recent months. He had come to the conclusion that he and Erdogan were cut from different cloth. They were both interested in relating religion to public life, but their approaches were not the same. Erdogan came from the perspective of “political Islam,” he said, which by its nature was autocratic. It could not tolerate any form of organization that challenged him, or that he could not control.
Gulen told us that he did not know Erdogan well—they had only met on two occasions. One was when Erdogan came to him to ask for his political support, explaining that like Gulen he wanted to bring moral values into public life. At the time Gulen thought that that was a good thing, and he supported him, as did many of those associated with his movement. Many observers have credited the Erdogan-Gulen alliance as a major factor in weakening Turkey’s secular Kemalist establishment.
The relationship between Erdogan and Gulen began to sour, however, when information surfaced about corruption within Erdogan’s inner circle, and about the president’s autocratic attempts to solidify power. Gulen supporters within the police, the judiciary, and the news media were leading the corruption charges. Soon Erdogan began rounding up the more vocal of his Gulen-related critics and shutting down Gulen-related newspapers.
Then came the July 15, 2016 attempted coup against Erdogan, and Gulen was immediately accused. Even when the coup was underway, however, Gulen himself had been quick to denounce the effort as undemocratic. He and his associates denied having anything to do with it. I have no way of verifying whether or not this was the case, though considering his relative isolation in his woodsy retreat with little or no organizational structure around him, it seems hard to imagine him plotting an intricate coup attempt involving high level military leaders in a country on the other side of the world.
It seems even less likely that the tens of thousands of teachers, journalists, lawyers, judges, businessmen, and social service providers who have been imprisoned in Turkey since the coup attempt have had anything to do with it. Coup plots are by their secretive nature privy only to a small inner circle of those directly engaged in the operations. Even if an inner circle of Gulen supporters were involved, it is unlikely that the tens of thousands of Gulen admirers would have had any advanced knowledge.
Yet it is likely that many of them were critical of Erdogan’s rule. The largest circulation newspaper in Istanbul, Zaman, was sympathetic to Gulen’s positions and though once a supporter of Erdogan, it increasingly became critical of what it regarded as a deeply corrupt regime. Even before the attempted coup, the government had raided the offices, imprisoned many of the journalists, and eventually closed down the paper. Gulen’s followers were becoming identified as the government’s foes.
It is difficult to say, however, just who is a follower of Gulen since I am told that the movement does not keep roles. There is no initiation, no membership as such. There may be inner circles and networks of which I am not aware, but it appears for the most part to be a broad movement of those who agree with the main ideas of Gulen’s teachings and are inspired by him. Just owning a book written by Gulen can implicate someone as a follower.
What Gulen teaches in in his published writings is an interesting mixture of Sufi mysticism, interfaith tolerance, civic virtues and entrepreneurship. What is attractive is a notion of a modern Islam compatible with those who live active lives in multicultural milieus. This ideal of an engaged Islam has led his followers to establish hundreds of schools, newspapers, hospitals, social service projects, interfaith councils, and professional associations. My sense is that most of these projects are decentralized, created by the ingenuity of those inspired by Gulen’s teachings, and not orchestrated by a central command. Assuming this is the case, it would be difficult to see the movement as an organizational threat.
The setting of Gulen’s quarters did not give the appearance of the control center for a vast international organization, let alone one that could threaten a major international power like Turkey. What we saw when we visited the retreat center was a former youth camp on twenty-six wooded acres on a quiet road near the town of Saylorsburg in eastern Pennsylvania. A large farmhouse has been renovated into guest quarters, and another building is used for conferences. It is in this building that we met with Gulen in the meeting room that was adjacent to his bedroom, his only place of privacy in the compound. The bedroom itself was perhaps only ten by twelve feet in size, just enough room for a desk and chair, a dresser, a prayer rug, and a narrow single bed on a low frame near the floor.
In the compound were several other cottages for visitors and students, but the place seemed empty when we were there. He taught a group of students every morning, we were told, but there were no permanent residents on the property aside from Gulen himself. I did meet one visitor who was staying there at the time, the former head of a university in Turkey who had escaped from the country in the recent purge of tens of thousands of Gulen supporters following the attempted coup against Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a coup that Erdogan claims that Gulen masterminded, and for which Gulen’s followers were being punished.
From the appearance of the retreat center, it was hard to imagine the organization as a powerful threat. Yet any movement is a threat in that it is not easily controlled. If Gulen is right, and Erdogan fears anything that he cannot control, then the Gulen movement with its critical stance towards what it regards as abuses of the public trust, must seem threatening indeed. It is understandable, then, that the Erdogan regime has closed down all of the schools, universities, newspapers, and service projects related to Gulen throughout Turkey, and attempted to pressure governments elsewhere to do the same.
The question is whether Erdogan will be able to destroy the movement. Much of the rest of our conversation with Gulen was about that, how it can maintain itself in a time of persecution.
Gulen noted that the history of religious traditions is rife with cases of perseverance in the face of oppression, and in some instances the hardship seems to have made the movements more resilient. The history of Judaism is a case in point. But so is Christianity. I mentioned that when my wife and I visited Turkey’s Cappadocia region we stayed in rock caves where early Christians hid from Roman persecution. Christianity seems to have endured despite it, not only in Turkey but throughout the world, and Gulen affirmed that his following might as well.
When the Dalai Lama was forced to leave Tibet, many thought that his form of Tibetan Buddhism had been forever squashed. Yet in exile, the Dalai Lama has risen to a figure of global prominence, a spokesperson for a multicultural religiosity. Some in the room when I talked with Gulen mentioned that his teachings might have the same effect and also have a global impact, and he said that he hoped that that would be the case.
At the end of the forty-five minute conversation, Gulen rose to offer a gift of a nicely packaged Cross ballpoint pen and an elegant looking bottle of perfume. He was happy, his associates told me as we were leaving the room, to have had the chance to talk about broad issues and the future of the movement. Ordinarily these days, they said, he has been consumed with darker matters, about the fate of his many followers and the institutions they had created. He was pleased, they said, to turn again to his larger vision, that of a more just and tolerant society for Turkey and the world.