Turkish Cleric in The Poconos Challenges Premier — Split Over Israel

How Fethullah Gulen Became Tayyip Erdogan's Nemesis

Point of Contention: Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Fethullah Gulen (right) pictured on a banner at a protest in Istanbul, December 2013. Once allies, they fell out over the blockade of Gaza.
getty images
Point of Contention: Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Fethullah Gulen (right) pictured on a banner at a protest in Istanbul, December 2013. Once allies, they fell out over the blockade of Gaza.

By Yigal Schleifer

Published January 19, 2014, issue of January 24, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s hold on power is being challenged these days as he faces an onslaught of corruption allegations and the emergence of a powerful religious leader — and former ally — as a new enemy. In fact, with hindsight it appears that the fallout between Fethullah Gulen, who heads Turkey’s influential Hizmet movement, and Erdogan, one of Israel’s strongest critics today, may have actually begun over Erdogan’s response to a crisis with Israel.

In 2010, Turks almost universally assumed the role of victims in response to the killing of nine Turks by Israeli commandos in a botched raid on the ship Mavi Mamara. The ship, laden with humanitarian supplies, had sought to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza, and Turkish blood had been spilled. But few Turks were willing to question what part the flotilla’s organizers and supporters might have played in finally blowing up the already strained relations with Israel, which only a few years earlier was a regional ally.

But on June 4, only a few days after the incident, Gulen, a reclusive Islamic preacher living in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania, roundly criticized the organizers’ failure to reach an accommodation with Israel. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Gulen described their conduct as “a sign of defying authority [that] will not lead to fruitful matters.”

That was the exact opposite of the tack taken by Erdogan, his close ally. Fully supporting the would-be blockade busters, the Turkish leader angrily demanded a full apology and compensation from Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to comply moved Erdogan — an Islamist who had nevertheless earlier supported Turkey’s close military and political ties with Israel — to put relations with Israel on an even more hostile footing.

In retrospect, the interview marked the start of a fateful split between Erdogan and the 73-year-old preacher, who directs his followers in Turkey from a 28-acre compound in the Pocono Mountains.

It is impossible to predict how the power struggle in which these two figures are now locked may eventually affect Turkey’s cold relations with Israel. But the divide separating them on this issue, among others, makes this one battle worth watching.

In recent weeks, Turkish investigators pursuing their corruption probe have gone after government ministers and their relatives. Police authorities have also actively investigated businessmen close to Erdogan and to his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym, AKP. Erdogan, in turn, has fought back by reassigning hundreds of police officers and demoting the chief prosecutor in the case in an effort to quash the probe.

It is widely believed that the investigation is being pushed by followers of Gulen among the senior echelons of the judiciary and the police. From the start of his preaching in the Aegean city of Izmir in the 1970s, Gulen has urged his followers to work their way into state institutions that had previously been the almost exclusive province of Turkey’s secularist elite.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.