By Robert Amsterdam
In the wake of a failed coup attempt in Turkey that left nearly 300 dead, the search for answers has made one reclusive cleric a household name. Fethullah Gülen, currently living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, is no stranger to those in Turkey or to anyone familiar with his worldwide network of charter schools – including over 160 in the United States. Now, with Turkey requesting the U.S. to extradite the coup leader, American readers are learning more, so it may seem, about Gülen and his transnational Hizmet movement.
Western media coverage of the cleric has by and large been skewed by a meticulous public relations strategy that has long sought to portray Gülen and his followers as peaceful proponents of “modern” Islam and “interfaith dialogue.” Washington has so far responded to Ankara’s requests for Gülen’s extradition with disappointing skepticism. Though his orchestration of the coup attempt is a matter of general consensus within Turkey, Gülen enjoys a greatly distorted reputation as an innocuous educator in his country of residence. With his vast network of taxpayer-funded US schools and complex structures of political donations and influence peddling, Americans have largely subscribed to the false narrative behind which the Gülen movement operates.
Deeper research into the cleric’s past, however, betrays a man whose methodology has long been based on violent suppression and manipulation.
The Gülenists, who have succeeding in infiltrating key Turkish institutions and whom the Erdogan administration now seeks to weed out in the aftermath of the coup, carried out much of their persecution of dissenters by means of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. On the basis of trumped-up charges of secularist coup plotting, Gülenist prosecutors launched what have since been described as witch hunts against opposition and anyone deemed threatening to the Hizmet movement. After countless procedural flaws and irregularities surfaced, Ankara dismissed the investigations and overturned the hundreds of resulting convictions. For some of Gülen’s fiercest opponents, however, permanent damage had already been done.
Investigative journalist Ahmet Şık decided to document the Gülenists’ infiltration of Turkey’s police, military, and judiciary in his 2011 book, The Imam’s Army. In it, he discusses how Gülen’s worldwide network of schools and businesses abets his mission to seize power over the Turkish state from within. Before the book could be published, Şık was arrested on the basis of unsubstantiated ties to the Ergenekon organization and his draft confiscated and banned.
“If you touch them you get burned,” Şık said of the Gülen movement upon his release from jail over a year later. “Whether you are a journalist, an intellectual or a human rights activist, if you dare to criticize them you are accused of being a drug dealer or a terrorist.”
Şık’s experience was far from exceptional, serving as but one example of the Gülenists’ systematic persecution of their detractors.
Nedim Şener, a journalist and recipient of the World Press Freedom Heroes award, was likewise punished dearly for his 2009 book, The Dink Murder and Intelligence Lies. His work revealed that the same Gülenist police and prosecutors spearheading the Ergenekon trials played a role in the infamous assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. Şener asserted that staunch Gülenists Ali Fuat Yılmazer and Ramazan Akyürek, head of Istanbul police intelligence and chief of Trabzon police respectively, carried responsibility for Dink’s murder – a claim corroborated by a Dink family lawyer.
Like Şık, Şener was subsequently accused of connections to the Ergenekon organization and arrested. He was held in pre-trial detention for over a year for charges brought by Gülenist prosecutors, including Akyürek himself. Discussing the Gülen movement with Al-Monitor, Şener expressed the sort of frustration felt across Turkey today as Washington continues to shelter Gülen: “When the West looks at them, it sees their movement as an interfaith dialogue group, like a nongovernmental organization. We, however, practice a different reality here. And that gap is the problem in trying to explain to outsiders as to why this movement is not what it seems.”
Gülen’s neutralization of perceived threats has not been confined to “legal” channels. Indeed, the very movement that operates schools with almost hilariously peaceful names like “Dove,” “Harmony,” and “Horizon” in the US has been allegedly linked to shocking violence and extrajudicial killings (beyond the 260 innocent people killed during the attempted coup).
In 2011, Haydar Meriç, a journalist planning to author a book detailing Fethullah Gülen’s unsavory past, was kidnapped and later found dead at sea. Family members reported Meriç receiving threatening calls warning him not to write the book. The ensuing investigation found that Gülenist police officers had illegally wiretapped his phone and labeled him a left-wing terrorist. Fifteen officers have since been detained and are awaiting trial.
Meriç’s fate mirrors that of historian and professor Necip Hablemitoğlu. A vocal critic of the Gülen movement, Dr. Hablemitoğlu was nearing completion of his book, Köstebek, an in-depth exposé on the Gülenists’ penetration of Turkish intelligence, when he was shot dead in front of his home. The book has since been published posthumously. Former Gülenist Hanefi Avcı asserted that both the Meriç and Hablemitoğlu assassinations were carried out by the Gülen movement. Avcı himself was arrested in 2010 after publishing a book detailing the criminal activities of Gülen and his followers. Like Meriç, he was falsely accused by Gülenist prosecutors of belonging to a communist terror organization.
The five mentioned above form a mere fraction of the long list of journalists, authors, and intellectuals who have paid with either their liberty or their lives for criticizing Fethullah Gülen. Attempts at distancing the seemingly soft-spoken cleric from the actions of his disciples risk minimizing the threat posed by Gülen himself. As columnist Mustafa Akyol notes, “In a wiretapped conversation between Gülen and one of his followers, posted on YouTube in early 2014, the latter was asking Gülen what to do about a refinery in Africa, planned gifts to Turkish businessmen and even campaigns on Twitter. Gülen, it turned out, was really not the ascetic Sufi we were told about, but a micro-manager of a global organization based on secrecy and hierarchy.”
The favorable media coverage the Gülen movement enjoys in the West belies the true face of a mafia-like organization, and the enormous presence the group maintains in the US should be of great public concern. Washington now has a duty not only to Ankara, but to its own citizens, to extradite Fethullah Gülen and launch a comprehensive investigation into his American network of schools and businesses. As the families of Gülen’s victims will attest, the teachings and actions of the Hizmet have no place in any democratic society, and our continued accommodation of Gülen represents an affront to American values.