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.
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.
Cross over the Atlantic Ocean to American soil and you’ll find an entirely different portrayal of Fethullah Gulen. His network of charter schools has joined battles against behemoth teachers’ unions, bringing more than 135 schools in 26 states to underprivileged areas. It’s difficult to deny the benefits of Gulen’s vast educational empire.
The names of the Gulen-inspired schools sound like any other charter schools—Harmony, Magnolia, and the Daisy Education Corporation, to name a few—and their emphasis on science and technology generally produces decent to excellent test scores. Turkish language classes are often added to the curriculum.
Gulen, affectionately called hocaefendi, or “master teacher,” by his followers, launched his movement 40 years ago when he was an imam in Izmir, Turkey, preaching the ideas of the mystical Nur sect. He immigrated to the United States in 1999, allegedly for medical treatment, but the timing suggests another possible explanation: Shortly after his trek abroad, a sermon aired in Turkey suggesting his support for an Islamic state: “You must move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers … until the conditions are ripe,” Gulen said in a video (loyalists argue it was altered). The video exhorts followers to bring to their sides “all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey.”
At the time, Turkish courts charged Gulen with corruption and anti-secular political activity. He was acquitted but critics still wonder about the true intentions behind his growing empire. Since his exile, Gulen resides on a 45-acre estate in the Poconos of Pennsylvania with an estimated 100 followers who guard the premises and tend to his needs.
In addition to the charter school network, Gulen has holdings in 140 countries in media, think tanks, universities, banks, and charities.
Charter schools in the United States are publicly funded, so legally they cannot offer religious classes, and Gulen discourages his followers from proselytizing. But his charter school network is under fire for hiring primarily Turkish teachers and staff who arrive in the United States on H1B work visas (see “Soft sell,” Aug. 27, 2011) and for discriminating against women.
Yilmaz, an education consultant, has observed the movement’s segregation of women in Turkey. Teachers from the Turkish Gulen schools are required to meet every Saturday morning for training on a variety of educational topics. Yilmaz says the most interesting aspect of these meetings is that “ladies sit at the back rows, almost all of them with scarves, and men in the front. Ladies hardly ask questions and never shake hands with men.”
The school sometimes requires him to give two separate seminars for men and women on the same topic. That wouldn’t be unusual in most Muslim countries, but Turkey has operated on strict secular principles. For example, the government traditionally bans headscarves in the public sector.
“The Gulen Movement controls a vast area in Turkey, and one thing that I will never understand is why the U.S. is covering this guy’s back,” said Yilmaz. Gulen’s network of charter schools in the United States is currently under federal investigation for an alleged kickback scheme involving Hizmet, another organization founded by Gulen, but Gulen continues to work from and reside freely in Pennsylvania.
That’s in spite of what U.S. officials in Turkey have been saying. A 2009 cable from former U.S. Ambassador James F. Jeffrey (released by WikiLeaks) described President Abdullah Gul as a Gulen loyalist and said that the Gulen movement controls Turkey’s government and dictates Turkish policy. “It is not possible to confirm that the Turkish police are under the control of the Gulen community members, but we have not met anybody who denies it,” a cable read.
Americans would do well to take note of Gulen-related activities in Turkey as well as in the United States, along with the praise and criticism heaped upon its influential leader. If he’s truly a model for moderate Muslims to follow, his schools, newspapers, businesses, and the majority of his followers should reflect his democratic ideals. But if his movement is—as Gulen’s critics allege—the Big Brother behind media muzzling and trumped-up charges in Turkey, a closer examination of his stateside activities is warranted.