Followers of controversial Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen appear to be on the back foot globally. Is America one of their safer bets?
NEW YORK, United States – Gulenists have seen better days.
Followers of the Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of orchestrating a failed coup last year, are being arrested, prosecuted or sacked in Turkey as part of a crackdown that extends as far as Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.
That onslaught comes to the United States on 16 May, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet his United States counterpart, Donald Trump, at the White House and is expected to push for Gulen’s extradition during talks on Syria’s civil war.
Organisers in Gulen’s web of charities, schools and institutes are wary of Trump, who has a strong penchant for dealing with autocrats, but members of the group also speak of faith in the US Department of Justice following due process and shielding their spiritual leader.
An investigation by Middle East Eye reveals that bodies within the Gulen fold have scaled up their activities in the US in recent years – suggesting their network is expanding in the US as other parts of the world become more hostile to its cause.
“We are not worried about the US. We don’t believe that Erdogan’s government will be able to persuade the US government concerning any systematic action against the movement, because the US government follows the rule of law,” said Y Alp Aslandogan, director of the Alliance for Shared Values (AfSV), a New York-based Gulen charity.
“So far, the Erdogan government has been only successful with governments around the world that have considerable levels of corruption or where there is an authoritarian leader,” Aslandogan told MEE.
Stepping up the pressure
Since the botched July 2016 putsch, Erdogan’s government has purged Gulenists and other rivals, frozen their bank accounts, confiscated passports, detained 47,000 people and sacked or suspended 120,000 others from their jobs.
Last month, Erdogan declared victory in a referendum to grant him sweeping powers and conduct a major overhaul of Turkish politics. Overseas, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) has tracked down members of what it calls the Fetullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO).
Earlier this month, an MIT bust saw 16 alleged coup-plotters arrested while celebrating the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia and deported to Turkey, according to Anadolu Agency (AA), a state-run Turkish news service.
Malaysian police have recently arrested three Turks on the grounds of national security, while earlier this year, nine Turkish army colonels were nabbed in the Turkish Cypriot capital, Nicosia, and deported at Ankara’s behest, according to AA.
Erdogan has also urged the US, its NATO ally, to extradite Gulen, 75, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, and Ankara has supplied documents that it says show Gulen masterminded the coup – a charge the cleric denies.
Ahead of Erdogan’s visit, Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag this month asked US Attorney General Jeff Sessions to place Gulen under provisional arrest. Erdogan said he expected Trump to correct something his predecessor, Barack Obama, had “failed to do” by delivering the cleric.
Stepping up the pressure on multiple fronts, Turkish prosecutors have also launched a probe into 17 US officials, academics and others they suspect of being FETO-linked rebels. They include New York Senator Chuck Schumer and former CIA director John Brennan.
Meanwhile, a US-based reporter for state-run Turkish media, speaking on condition of anonymity, told MEE that his colleagues were routinely directed to knock on the doors of Turkish Americans who were wanted by Turkish prosecutors and ask whether they would turn themselves in.
Sezai Kalayci, a Turkish-American who lost his job when Zaman, a Gulen-linked Turkish newspaper that was shut by the government in March 2016, told MEE he could not find a new reporting gig and now drove Uber taxis.
His sister fled Turkey and now shares his New York apartment, he said. “Whoever can reach here” from Erdogan’s purge of Gulenists was heading to the US and Canada, Kalayci said, but many have had their passports confiscated or cannot get visas.
‘How Trump will react is anyone’s guess’
The US says Gulen’s extradition request is being assessed by the Department of Justice. But US-based Gulenists are mindful of revelations that Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, met with Turkish officials in 2016 and discussed plans to “whisk” Gulen back to Turkey.
“That conversation with Flynn was very, very troubling, shocking to us,” Aslandogan told MEE.
“It is important to note that the suggestion of extraordinary rendering came from the Turkish side, the Turkish foreign minister [Mevlut Cavusoglu], not from [General] Flynn. We don’t know if [General] Flynn actually entertained that idea, but if he did, we trust that the US government would not act based on the opinion of just any one individual.”
On Tuesday, the inner core of Gulenists at the cleric’s compound in Saylorsburg, in the Poconos Mountains of Pennsylvania, will doubtless be eyeing developments 266 kilometres away in Washington, during the Erdogan-Trump talks.
While Trump has bolstered Erdogan in the past, including his quick praise for the referendum result that independent monitors said was tainted, he is also willing to irk the Turkish leader.
On Tuesday, for instance, Trump approved arms supplies to Kurdish YPG fighters to support the retaking of the Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State group (IS). Ankara views them as a Syrian extension of Kurdish PKK militants, which have fought an insurgency in southeastern Turkey since 1984, and thus as enemies.
Arming Kurds and retaking Raqqa will likely dominate the first face-to-face talks between the US and Turkish leaders, but Gulen’s extradition is expected to come up and analysts are speculating whether the cleric could be a bargaining chip.
“How Trump will react is anyone’s guess,” Frank Rettenberg, a former US diplomat in Turkey, told MEE. “If he deports Gulen, the Gulenists in the US, who are pretty harmless, will lay even lower than they have since the coup. It doesn’t benefit them to act other than passively.”
Bob Olsen, a Kentucky University scholar, said he doubted Trump would “acquiesce in Gulen’s extradition”. More likely, the businessman-turned-politician would engage in “long, drawn out negotiations” that delay an awkward decision on the cleric.
Gulenist activities ramping up in the US?
By one estimate, some 10 percent of Turks support the Gulen movement, known as Hizmet – a hodgepodge of think tanks, businesses, schools and publications across the globe. His support extends among the estimated 500,000 Turkish-Americans in the US.
Erdogan has branded the Gulen movement a “parallel state” to Turkey’s formal government and now as a terrorist group that was behind the attempted coup that left 249 people dead and almost 2,200 injured.
Critics describe a wealthy, nefarious cult akin to an Islamic Opus Dei that pulls strings in Turkey’s army, police and judiciary. Though Gulen and Erdogan were once allies, they fell out in an increasingly bitter power struggle.
Facing pressure overseas, Gulenists have boosted their activities in the US in recent years.
The revenues of Golden Generation Foundation, a Hizmet worship centre in Pennsylvania, spiked from $1.6 million in 2014 to $5.3 million in 2015, according to the group’s tax returns.
Revenues of the group’s New Jersey-based charity, Embrace Relief, rose from $877,000 in 2014 to $2.7 million in 2015. The Illinois-based educational group Concept Schools boosted spending by $7.4 million in that same period.
But according to Aslandogan, the Gulenists are not ramping up their presence in the US, and Kalayci said frozen accounts in Turkey have left the global movement cash strapped.
Tax returns for 2016 - which would indicate revenue patterns after the failed coup - are not yet available.
For Olsen, Gulenists seek “as much refuge as they can get in the US” to coordinate projects in Africa, Asia and beyond. While the group faces pressure now, and its leader is elderly and increasingly frail, the Hizmet movement has a future, he added.
“Turkey’s move towards being a greedy dictatorship is influencing young people to sympathise with Gulenists. The organisation may wither temporarily under Erdogan’s ferocious attack, but the strength it has shown these past 40 years will be sustained,” he told MEE.