Erdogan Is Blaming the Coup on a Shadowy Turkish Cleric Who Lives in Pennsylvania
The Turkish president wants Washington to send 75-year-old Fethullah Gulen back home to face trial.
Deep in the heart of the Pocono Mountains — a scenic, isolated region of the U.S. state of Pennsylvania — Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen lives a quiet existence on a sprawling 26-acre estate. But more than 5,000 miles away in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims the 75-year-old preacher-in-exile is responsible for the failed military coup that rocked the country Friday and Saturday.
“Turkey won’t be frightened by this kind of uprising, and Turkey cannot be governed from Pennsylvania,” Erdogan said when he landed back in Istanbul after the coup attempt was thwarted. “They will pay for what they did.”
On Saturday, Erdogan issued a sharper call for Gulen’s extradition. “Dear Mr. President, I told you this before. Either arrest Fethullah Gulen or return him to Turkey,” he said, addressing U.S. President Barack Obama. “You didn’t listen. I call on you again, after there was a coup attempt. Extradite this man in Pennsylvania to Turkey! If we are strategic partners, do what is necessary.”
In a rare appearance, Gulen, who is in poor health, told reporters Saturday that Erdogan may have staged the coup to smear his organization. “I don’t believe that the world believes the accusations made by President Erdogan,” he said, according to the Guardian. “There is a possibility that it could be a staged coup and it could be meant for further accusations [against the Gulenists].”
A powerful, shadowy movement, Turkey’s Gulenists operate a network of schools with locations in more than 140 countries around the world. The movement provides college prep courses and a huge network for its members to grease business deals and introductions for jobs and positions of power in Turkey. An elite Islamist organization, the movement includes businessmen, members of the judiciary, journalists, and members of the police.
On his website, Gulen describes himself as an “authoritative mainstream Turkish Muslim scholar, thinker, author, poet, opinion leader and educational activist who supports interfaith and intercultural dialogue, science, democracy and spirituality and opposes violence and turning religion into a political ideology.”
To his critics, Gulen represents an insidious force attempting to infiltrate the government, take it over, and swap Turkey’s founding secular ideology for the exiled preacher’s mystical brand of Islam. “You must move within the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers,” he said in a 1999 speech. “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 has disputed the accuracy of those remarks and said they were manipulated. Facing charges of attempting to overthrow the government, Gulen fled Turkey for the United States. He was acquitted in 2008. He is facing a slew of charges in Turkey related to accusations of attempting to infiltrate and overthrow the government, with prosecutors seeking a life sentence.
In a 2009 cable by then-U.S. Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey that was published by WikiLeaks, the envoy described the sense that the Gulenists are both everywhere at once and impossible to pin down. “The assertion that the [Turkish National Police] is controlled by Gulenists is impossible to confirm but we have found no one who disputes it,” he wrote, referring to an institution that is often cited as a central source of Gulenist power.
Selim Koru, a Turkish analyst based at the TEPAV think tank in Ankara, told Foreign Policy in an email Saturday that the Gulenists and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) — though once allies — grew apart from one another as each gained separate followings and strength. Gulen’s elite, educated supporters threatened Erdogan’s hold on power, and the two broke into conflict after Erdogan was targeted in a corruption inquiry in late 2013 that the Turkish leader believed was orchestrated by the Gulenists.
According to Koru, the Gulenists have been steadily losing influence since then, and Friday’s coup — if it was indeed carried out by military members loyal to Gulen — could signal the movement’s rapid decline. “At first, it looked like the Gulenists would be persistent, but it became clear over subsequent elections that the government would beat them,” he said. “This coup, if, as seems likely, was staged by Gulenists, could be their dying breath.”
The question now is whether or not Turkey will try once again to extradite Gulen, whom Washington has previously refused to deport to Turkey, claiming that there is no evidence he has committed any crime. Turkish pro-government media reported Saturday that Ankara is in the final stages of requesting his extradition.
On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he anticipated that Gulen’s future in the United States will be a central issue in coming weeks. “We fully anticipate that there will be questions raised about Mr. Gulen,” Kerry said in Luxembourg. “We … invite the government of Turkey, as we always do, to present us with any legitimate evidence that withstands scrutiny, and the United States will accept that and look at it and make judgments about it appropriately.”
In Washington, U.S. government officials did not answer questions about whether they believe Turkish government claims that Gulen orchestrated the attempted coup, and it remains unclear whether Ankara will follow through on its promise to seek his extradition.
“To date, Turkey has made a lot of noise about requesting extradition but has not actually followed through on all of the required steps to force the U.S. to make a decision,” said Aaron Stein, a scholar of Turkey at the Atlantic Council. “This may be because the evidence would not hold up to scrutiny, or it could be because Gulen’s presence in the U.S. is politically beneficial for Erdogan’s populist brand of politics.”
If Ankara demands Gulen be extradited, Washington will be forced to decide whether or not it succumbs to the NATO ally’s request. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Saturday in remarks carried by Reuters that any country that stands with the Muslim cleric will be considered an enemy of Turkey.
Denying an extradition request may risk access to Incirlik Air Base, the crucial Turkish launch point for American forces fighting the Islamic State. Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledged in a phone call with FP on Saturday that in the fight against the Islamic State, Turkey undoubtedly benefits from an American presence at Incirlik but that, at this point, it is the strongest leverage the Turkish government has to pressure Washington to extradite Gulen.
“One can imagine a situation where they’re asking for Gulen, and we’re asking to use the air base, and they say no,” he said. “Crazier things have happened.”
Cook said that placing the blame on Gulen is “incredibly self-serving” to Erdogan’s existing discontent with his rival, especially because the Turkish military is one of the country’s institutions that is actually less influenced by Gulen than others, such as the police and judiciary.
“The military really hates the Gulenists and has been pretty effective in weeding out the people they don’t like in Turkey,” he said. “They’re going to go hog wild after their opponents, both perceived and real.… Gulen is the first one in their crosshairs.”
FP staff writer Dan De Luce contributed reporting to this article.
Photo credit: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady