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.
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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.
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Gulen’s movement also has close ties to Zaman, the country’s most highly circulated newspaper, and to numerous business holdings. In a 2004 diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman described Hizmet as “Turkey’s most powerful Islamist grouping.” The Gulen movement, his cable continued, “controls major business, trade, and publishing activities [and] has deeply penetrated the political scene — including AKP at high levels — and the Turkish National Police.”

Indeed, Gulen first came to live in the United States in 1999, just before Turkey’s then-staunchly secularist authorities charged him with plotting to overthrow the government, based on the content of a video that surfaced in which the preacher urged his supporters to “move in the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers…. You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey.”

Gulen claimed that the video had been tampered with. And Gulen’s supporters say he came to the United States for medical reasons, not because he was fleeing charges. In any case, a Turkish court acquitted the preacher of the charges in 2003, but he remained in the United States.

According to Jenny White, an anthropologist at Boston University who studies Turkish politics: “The movement has been about helping people of a certain caliber get into positions of economic and political power in order to make the country better, to determine the country’s character. That’s how the Gulenists have always presented themselves, until now.”

White, the author of, most recently, “Muslim Nationalists and the New Turks,” published in 2012, stressed the underlying significance of Gulen’s current stand: “This would be the first time we have seen the Gulenists openly be part of a power struggle.”

The role of Hizmet — the term means “service” in Turkish — as a powerful domestic political force is clear. But the Hizmet movement is also a very international one. It combines strong internal discipline and a sense of mission among its adherents, generating comparisons to the Mormons, Jesuits and Lubavitchers.

Like these movements, Hizmet has set up wide-ranging international, educational and commercial efforts run by emissaries. Hizmet has focused on interfaith outreach, setting itself up as a global ambassador of traditional Turkish culture and of a particular brand of moderate Anatolian Islam. Among the outreach meetings Gulen can claim is one with Israel’s then-Sephardic chief rabbi, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, during Doron’s visit to Istanbul in 1998.

Hizmet is also responsible for a global network of schools, many of them focusing on math and science, in more than 100 countries. In America it has set up public charter schools in several states. Gulen-affiliated organizations are also active in taking people — from small-town elected officials in Texas to congressional staffers — on whirlwind group visits to Turkey.

In recent years, the movement has focused increasingly on interfaith dialogue in the United States, reaching out in particular to Jewish institutions. This past summer, the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue, at the New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, held JTS’s first ever fast-breaking iftar, the Muslim Ramadan dinner, co-hosting it with a Gulen-affiliated organization called Peace Islands Institute. The two institutions have also organized several panel discussions on Jewish-Muslim relations.

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