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THE FORCE: Gulen at his compound in Saylorsburg, Pa.
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times/Redux
THE FORCE: Gulen at his compound in Saylorsburg, Pa.

Turkey’s inside man

Turkey | An aging but popular exile in the United States, Fethullah Gulen is considered by many behind moves to Islamicize his native land

Issue: "Effective compassion," July 27, 2013

After weeks of demonstrations in 76 cities, police forces in Turkey made one final sweep through Istanbul’s Taksim Square, arresting the remaining protesters and wiping out their tent city. That appeared to be the end of nationwide protests that injured 4,000 and left at least four dead—until a local performing artist arrived on the night of June 17 and peacefully planted himself in the square. 

With his hands in his pockets, the “standing man” stared solemnly for hours at the Turkish flag and a portrait of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey’s secular democracy. A photo of his silent protest went viral on social media sites, topping worldwide Twitter trends, as hundreds arrived to join him, complicating the prime minister’s attempts to depict protesters as enemies and rebels.

The icons of the Turkish protests have ranged from penguins to gas masks but perhaps the most telling has been the standing man. Demonstrations that began over plans to redevelop a cherished park turned into public—and violent—venting over Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style and fear that his Justice and Development Party (AKP) aims to replace the government’s secular identity with an Islamist one.

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The Gulen Movement is believed to be the force behind the AKP’s rise to power in 2002 and growing Islamism. The government recently passed a ban restricting the sale of alcohol and is considering a petition to turn Hagia Sophia—once the world’s largest church—from a museum into a mosque.

“They’re not going to say this is a demonstration against Islam, but this is a demonstration against Islamic rule in this country,” Fikret Bocek, a pastor, said of recent protests. Turkey is 97 percent Muslim, but many Turks are fearful of losing the freedoms they’ve enjoyed since Ataturk laid the country’s secular foundations some 90 years ago. 

Behind the government crackdown on protests, which eased in July, some Turks believe a secret society is at work. They say Muslim leader Fethullah Gulen is behind the arrests of dozens of journalists, military officers, and Erdogan critics and is vying for control of the nation’s military, police forces, and government. Perhaps the most puzzling part of the story for wary Turks is that Gulen—one of the most controversial Muslim leader in the world—lives in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania and has created one of the largest networks of charter schools in the nation. 

The image Gulen, 72, has created for himself in the United States stands in stark contrast to the whispers and carefully chosen words from many Turks when asked about Gulen. “Turks who oppose the AKP and the Gulen movement fear to speak their minds freely. If you have doubts, call a friend in Turkey and ask for an opinion. … Your friend will respond with details of the weather,” Turkish expert Soner Cagaptay wrote in the Financial Times

Many believe the Gulen Movement is the force behind the AKP’s rise to power in 2002, which ushered in a new era of Islamist control and a decade of troubling trends. Some say his loyalists comprise a substantial part of the police force and were behind the excessive use of water cannons and tear gas during this summer’s protests. Police in Turkey are known as “F type,” referring to Fethullah, Gulen’s first name.

Gulen followers can be divided into two groups, according to Ibrahim Yilmaz, a prominent scholar whose real name WORLD agreed not to use to protect his work: The first includes innocent Muslims who genuinely believe Gulen is promoting a moderate version of Islam and improving lives through education. The second group—far more dangerous, Yilmaz believes—is “after a religious government and system in Turkey. Most of them are rich businessmen whose wives used to have a modern style and secular ideas but turned out to be ladies with scarves. They get state bids by standing with the cemaat [the Gulen Movement] and they get richer and richer.”

Concern about the Gulen Movement may peak again this summer, with a Turkish court expected to announce a verdict on Aug. 5 on almost 300 defendants accused in the longstanding Ergenekon trial, a convoluted investigation viewed as a political witch-hunt. The courts have charged hundreds of Turks with plotting to overthrow the government since the case was opened in 2003, including dozens of journalists who have written accusations about Gulen.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkey is the world’s worst jailer of journalists, with 67 currently behind bars. Journalist Ahmet Sik was two months away from publishing a book detailing the Gulen connection to the Turkish police when officials raided his home and confiscated his materials in March 2011. Officials charged him with plotting to overthrow the government, his case bound together with hundreds more comprising the Ergenekon trial and his manuscript cited as proof and banned for publication in Turkey. Sik is sure his criticism of Gulen is behind the charges. “If you touch him, you will burn!” Sik yelled as police arrested him. They released him a year later, and his book was illegally published as part of an anti-censorship movement supported by more than 100 journalists in Turkey. 

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