DALLAS, July 15, 2013 – Last weekend, the sleepy village of Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania found itself caught up in an international squabble. Its population of just over a thousand grew by almost 30 percent as protestors from around the country trekked to Pennsylvania’s vacation Mecca in the Poconos. What transformed this mountain hamlet into a scene of protest with bright red Turkish flags waving over pictures of Ataturk?
Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen.
Who is he? The short answer is that Gulen is an Islamic missionary residing in the US. The long answer is, well, let’s just say, it’s a bit more complicated, and in any case, far removed from the American conception of what constitutes a missionary. He is no Nate Saint or Jim Elliot, two of the men who sacrificed their lives trying to bring the Word of God to the Auca Indians in South America. Nor is he a William Carrey, who risked his life and endured unbelievable hardship to bring the gospel to India. Gulen takes missionary zeal to a new level.
For those unfamiliar with the man and his mission, here is a short summary of the facts.
It all began with Said Nursi, arguably the most influential Muslim apologist in Turkey during the 20th century. For many, he served as a bridge between the Ottoman Empire and the newly formed Republic of Turkey, but he was generally viewed as a threat by authorities and was often under house arrest. By any objective measure, Nursi was a moderate and an intellectual, and his approach emphasized the importance of education and science.
After Nursi’s death, Gulen inherited the mantle of leadership, retained its focus and inspired businessmen to begin creating “capital” for the mission. A network of successful private schools was established in Turkey. Yet, there was always the threat that his teaching would irritate the army (secular state) and land him in prison. In 1999, a video of Gulen encouraging his followers to “move within the arteries of the system” was leaked. In the tape, he cautioned his disciples not to reveal themselves until they were in a position to take over the institutions of the state. Otherwise, their movement would be crushed by the secular authorities. The government soon filed charges against him for trying to overthrow the constitutional order. An arrest would have followed, except that Gulen had already flown the coop.
Where does an Islamic preacher take refuge when godless secular authorities resort to force? Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of both Mohammed and Islam? Egypt, the cultural and academic center of the Arabic and Islamic world? Or maybe Samarkand, the epicenter of Turkish Islam? No. Gulen fled to the United States of America, and he has lived here ever since. Gulen claims he is here for health reasons, but this hardly seems to justify a 15-year stay, especially when Turkey has excellent doctors that he could easily afford.
Because of his self-imposed exile, Gulen was tried in absentia in 2000 for plotting to overthrow the constitutional order, but in 2006, three years after the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, he was acquitted.
His American residency is even more bizarre given that he is one of the most popular and charismatic preachers in Turkey. Imagine Joel Osteen, Rick Warren or Charles Stanley relocating to a mountain village in the Ural Mountains of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, and you will have some idea what it means for an Islamic teacher like Gulen to choose America as his second home.
Gulen is a controversial figure even in Turkey where secularists believe his true aim is to implement sharia law and view his moderate version of Islam and copious references to the Sufi mystic Rumi as disingenuous misdirection. Conservative Muslims, on the other hand, believe Gulen has sold his soul to the devil precisely because of his moderate stance and support for inter-faith dialogue. They exhibit a perverse sort of naiveté when they hold up of Gulen and the Pope shaking hands as if it were iron-clad proof of Gülen’s apostasy. In any case, both sides are a stark reminder to us all that the center stripe is beset by perils from either side.
His movement controls a network of companies worth between 25 and 50 billion dollars. Entities within the network are engaged in businesses including media, retail and construction. The Gulen movement, later rebranded as Hizmet, which means “service”, also operates schools in dozens of countries around the world, including the largest network of charter schools in the United States.
However, the schools operated by Hizmet have run into trouble. Russia has banned the schools and the movement on grounds that they are a front for the CIA. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Central Asian Turkic Muslim countries closed down his schools as well. And the Netherlands has cut funding to schools with connections to the Gulen movement. American opponents of the schools are becoming more and more vocal in their claim to have discovered a rash of improprieties.
Another interesting twist to Gulen’s residency in America occurred in 2008 when he was suing the Immigration and Naturalization Service for refusing to grant him a visa as “an alien of extraordinary ability.” He sued and won with arguments that seem to contradict many of his own statements. Nothing about this is really interesting if we discount the fact that Gulen himself doesn’t even have a university degree.
The real twist comes in the references submitted to the court in support of Gulen’s case. Individuals who recommended Gulen for a green card included Graham Fuller, former CIA officer and also former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council (!), Morton Abrahamowitz, former ambassador to Turkey (!), and George Fidas, former CIA officer (!). Anyone who requires an explanation for why this is bizarre should be reading a story from the entertainment section.
Given that the “Green Card Through Investment” plans offers a path to US citizenship to any foreigner who can invest 1 million dollars in America, it should not be surprising that the CIA and State Department are going to bat for someone as influential as Gulen. Whether it is healthy or even ethical is another matter entirely. Now, back to the protest this past weekend.
It was a humble event, but what it lacked in size it made up for in passion. In his opening remarks, the protest organizer Armagan Yilmaz complained about the clout Gulen has with local authorities.
“They have somehow mobilized the entire town against us. They have even blocked us from parking. Our most fundamental democratic rights, the right to protest given to us by the American Constitution, have been thwarted by this fascist mentality. They have brought the fascism they employed in Turkey to America…” The crowd erupted in cheers of solidarity.
Anyone who has spent much time listening to leftists in Turkey would have immediately recognized the phraseology and, were it not for the facts, one might be tempted to discount the speech as rhetoric.
After all, fascism has gained some popularity of late as a slur for any opposing ideology. But, the characterization actually seems have some merit in this case. Put simply, fascism is a political ideology that combines militarism, state authority, ultranationalism, and a “partnership” between the state and the economy. Except for the last item in the list, Gulen is guilty on all counts. (Many in his movement actually praise the free market economy).
While Gulen’s philosophy of tolerance, inter-faith dialogue and peaceful coexistence is well-known, in Turkish sources, he has often stated his support for the militant history of the Turkish nation, saying, “Then there is the nation which is a soldier from birth. It is born a soldier. Its lullaby is the song of the soldier and it dies as a soldier. It is in love with soldiering, raids, conflict and borders.” In Turkey, it is an open secret that Gulenists make up a large segment of the police force that has employed such excessive force in recent demonstrations.
With regard to state authority and nationalism, Gulen’s views are clear. He has nothing but praise for the exploits of the Ottoman Empire. Even the most despicable practices, such as the enslavement of non-Muslim children, their conversion to Islam and their service as the Sultan’s elite Janissary forces, is portrayed in a positive light. One of the most obvious examples of his Turkish nationalism, and one that strikes closer to home, is the fact that most of the charter schools run by the movement teach Turkish to American school children.
Back in Salyorsburg, protest organizer Yilmaz and the placards carried by protestors made it clear that their gathering has been motivated more by recent events in Turkey where Erdogan’s government has brutally suppressed demonstrations than by anything that Gulen has done recently. Indeed, the perceived ideological connection between Gulen and Erdogan appears to be the reason they have directed their energies against the “American tentacle” of the Erdogan Leviathan.
One protestor held a sign that read, “What? No water cannons for us?” This was a reference to the use of force by Turkish police against protestors in cities throughout Turkey.
Another sign read “FBI Get Out of Bed With Gulen in Houston”, a reference to the fact that the Gulen Institute is listed on the FBI’s Community Outreach page. The insinuation requires an understanding of Turkish “secularism”, which not only separates mosque and state but actually subjects the mosque to the state, so any “cooperation” with religious organizations is viewed as capitulation.
Another sign said, “”Stop stealing our taxes for your jihad.” Gulen’s educational activities are often characterized as camouflage for proselytism though evidence of any such activity is scant.
During his remarks, Yilmaz said that they had compiled a 570-page file of Gulen’s activities in the United States, including complaints from teachers who were victimized in the charter schools, and that this would be handed over to the authorities with a request to file criminal charges.
Mary Addi, a former teacher in the Gulen-inspired schools, also spoke at the rally. She said that she and her husband had both been employed at the charter schools for five and a half years and had been trying to get the US government to investigate. She said the schools were a cover for illegal immigration practices, that American teachers were discriminated against in the schools, and that the schools extorted money from their Turkish employees. Addi said that she and her husband had provided the authorities with documents of these crimes but that no arrests had yet been made.
At the end of the rally, a black banner that read, “The Most Dangerous Terrorist in the World” over a picture of Fethullah Gulen was hoisted, and Yilmaz said, “This is the Fethullah Gulen we want the American people to understand. He is an enemy of the people, an enemy of democracy and a very dangerous proponent of sharia law.”
It may be a very tough idea to sell here in America.
Luke Montgomery, author of A Deceit To Die For, lived in the Middle East for over a decade. He holds an MA in Linguistics, speaks fluent Turkish and writes on foreign policy, religion and culture. You can follow his work at www.lukemontgomery.net, or find him on Twitter at @LookingFor_Luke and on Facebook.
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