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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“It’s been a very positive alliance,” said Burton Visotzky, a JTS professor of Midrash and interreligious studies, and director of the Milstein Center. “I call it an alliance, but I see it as a real friendship.”

He added, “The Turkish domestic component is all but invisible here in the relations they are pursuing with the American Jewish community. That’s not what they are doing here. Here, they are not promoting Gulen versus Erdogan…. They are promoting Islam in America and [the group’s] relations with its non-Muslim neighbors. We’ve only had positive experiences with them.”

Gulen has been accused of anti-Semitism, particularly because of sermons and writings from the 1980s that Joshua Hendrick, a sociologist at Baltimore’s Loyola University who has researched his work, describes as “highlighting Jews as a crafty, wily group of people who were successful because of being clever, but this is spoken with a tone of being something suspect.”

According to a translation by Dani Rodrik, a Princeton University economist from Turkey, of a 1995 book by Gulen, the preacher wrote:

Even though they have lived in exile here and there and have led an almost nomadic existence, Jews have been able to maintain their racial characteristics with almost no loss. Moreover, the Jewish tribe is very intelligent. This intelligent tribe has put forth many things throughout history in the name of science and thought. But these have always been offered in the form of poisoned honey and have been presented to the world as such.

Previously, the movement tried to evade the anti-Semitism charge by ceasing publication of the suspect talks and trying to scrub the Internet clean of references to them. But in an interview with The Atlantic last August, Gulen took on the accusation, saying he’s not the same person today that he was then.

“During the interfaith dialogue process of the 1990s,” he said, “I had a chance to get to know practitioners of non-Muslim faiths better, and I felt a need to revise my expressions from earlier periods.

“I sincerely admit that I might have misunderstood some verses and prophetic sayings,” he said then. “I realized and then stated that the critiques and condemnations that are found in the Quran or prophetic tradition are not targeted against people who belong to a religious group, but at characteristics that can be found in any person.”

One of the interfaith meetings Gulen had in the United States during the ’90s, a time when Jewish organizations were part of the then warm relations between Israel and Turkey, was with the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman.

“We approached the meeting with some skepticism, but we walked away with the feeling that there is some genuineness to his thinking,” said Kenneth Jacobson, the ADL’s deputy national director, who attended the meeting. “In our view it seemed that he was genuine in his moderate and more open approach, that he was someone that we could work with. The efforts to demonize him now don’t resonate with us.”

Despite that meeting and a subsequent one in Turkey several years later, Jacobson said the two organizations never ended up working together. (Prior to the breakdown of Turkey-Israel relations, the ADL also had good relations with Erdogan, presenting him in 2005 with a Courage To Care award on behalf of Turkish diplomats who saved Jews during the Holocaust.)

Still, lurking beneath Gulen’s interfaith outreach remains the same question that dogs many of Hizmet’s other international projects: Just what is driving the movement’s global activity?

“The wanting to please felt genuine,” said a leader from a New York-based Jewish organization who went on a Gulen-sponsored trip to Turkey several years back “But I never understood toward what end. That was kind of the missing piece.” The leader asked not to be named so as not to damage ongoing relations with the movement.

The movement has also provoked suspicion because its myriad affiliated organizations were often circumspect about their Gulen connection, or denied outright any connection to Gulen.

Alp Aslandogan, president of the Alliance for Shared Values, a two-year-old organization that serves as an umbrella for Gulen groups in the United States, told the Forward that Hizmet is struggling to shake off patterns of behavior learned in Turkey, where the movement worked for decades while fearing the response of governments hostile to Islamic movements. This has left Hizmet adept at operating in the shadows.

“There is ambiguity,” Aslandogan acknowledged during an interview in the Washington offices of the Rumi Forum, a Gulen organization that arranges lectures and trips to Turkey. “I think the problem arises from that.” But he stressed, “In democratic countries, on behalf of Hizmet groups, there is an effort to be 100% transparent and express their affiliations and connections and intellectual influences and social networks.”

Still, as it moves toward greater transparency abroad, Hizmet is becoming ever more deeply enmeshed in the domestic political battle gripping Turkey. Eventually, the Gulen movement may find itself having to clarify another ambiguity: the clash between the image that it promotes abroad — “Let’s live happily as different cultures and religions, and as one big happy family,” as White put it — and the hard-edged image coming out of Turkey of Hizmet as a bare-knuckled political player.

“If indeed they are behind this corruption investigation,” White said, “this would be the very first time they have moved away from their quiescent state with this long-term project to change society to something that is raw, with raw control over state power and institutions.”

Contact Yigal Schleifer at feedback@forward.com

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