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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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.

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.

“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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