Who is Turkey’s “bogeyman” Fetullah Gulen?

Fetullah Gullen, a man often accused of wrongdoing by the AKP-led government was recently named as the top culprit for orchestrating the military coup, by the Turkish President Erdogan.

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Fetullah Gulen (Image by Diyar se/Flickr, Public domain)

Although Gulen strongly condemned the military coup attempt, and denied his involvement, Turkey still claims he is responsible and has requested his extradition from United States.

However, until the coup, many Westerners hadn’t heard of Fetullah Gulen; the Turkish government’s “go to guy” for allegations.  In 2012, Wiki Leaks started publishing “The Global Intelligence Files” by Texas based “intelligence” company Stratfor, which contained an internal report on Gulen and his movement. According to the report, Gulen’s influence in Turkey is great, but he is barely known in the West and keeps a low profile.

Wiki Leaks files of 2012 present Stratfor’s internal drafts of reports from 2009, which contain a detailed investigation into Gulen and his movement, his finances, hierarchy in the organization, assets, and ideology. According to the files: the Gulen movement controls “millions of dollars and has many organizations, including a network of high schools across the world that serve as signpost FCG (Fetullah Gulen Community) institutions. In addition, the FCG owns universities, banks, NGOs and television networks in Turkey, as well as other countries”.

The highlight of the Stratfor’s internal reports of 2009, published by Wiki Leaks, is certainly the claim that the Gulenist movement: “appears to have influence over the Turkish National Police, including the police’s powerful domestic intelligence wing.

Who is Fetullah Gulen?

Muhammed Fetullah Gulen was born in 1945 in Turkey, near the city of Erzurum, into a family of Muslim clerics. He finished his education in Erzurum madrasas where he was inspired by the ideas of Said Nursi: A Kurdish Sunni Muslim theologian who inspired a faith movement that was credited for revival of Islam in Turkey.

Gulen with Pope John Paul II (en.wikipedia.org)

Gulen with Pope John Paul II (Image by FID, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Gulen was a preacher until 1981, when he retired from his preaching duties. After a series of sermons from 1988 to 1991, he emigrated to US due to health issues that needed medical treatment. After he left Turkey, several Turkish television media outlets aired a recording of Gulen advocating overthrowing the government; Gulen responded by arguing his statements were taken out of context.  Gulen was tried in absentia in 2000, but was acquitted in 2008 by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

During 1990s, Gulen was praised for advocating inter-religious tolerance and dialogue as he personally met with the Pope John Paul II, the Israeli Head Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, and the Patriarch of the Greek Ortodox Church Bartholomeos.

Gulen movement

The Gulen movement branches into many organizations, and is most commonly called Hizmet (the Service), or Cemaat (the community). The movement is called “FETO/PDY” by the Turkish government, which considers it as a “terrorist organization”. The Alliance for Shared Values is the US based organization related to the Gulen movement.

Hizmet, meaning the “duty of service”, is one of the main components of Gulen’s theological teachings. According to Gulen, the Muslim community has a duty of service (Hizmet) to the common good of the nation, the community, and to Muslims and non-Muslims all over the world.

Although there was some criticism of the movement, with some critics even suggesting that the movement’s members exhibit a cult-like behavior, an investigation into the movement by the Dutch authorities in 2008 found nothing worrying.

The Stratfor report published by Wiki Leaks calls the Gulen movement “the third force” within Turkey, with AKP being the first and military being the second. “

Gulen – Erdogan relationship

Recep Tayyip Erdogan - The President of Turkey (Image: en.wikipedia.org)

Recep Tayyip Erdogan – The President of Turkey (Image by R4BIA.com/Public Domain)

Gulen and his movement have supported the Justice and development Party (AKP) since its establishment in 2001.

The Stratfor’s internal reports published by Wiki Leaks comment on the AKP and the Gulen movement ties saying :“While this has led many people to associate the movement with the AKP, that appears to be a false premise. Although the AKP and FGC both stand for socially conservative values and mix Islam and politics, they are competing political organizations.”

The year of 2013 marked the start of Gulen and AKP’s  leader Erdogan’s hostilities toward each other, following the corruption scandal involving many high ranking officials of the AKP Turkish government.

The investigation resulted in the arrests of 52 people affiliated with the ruling Justice and Development Party; Erdogan accused Gulen of orchestrating the investigation and fabricating the corruption charges, however, Gulen denied those claims.

Since 2013 corruption scandal, the Gulen movement was repeatedly accused by the AKP of having a “parallel structure” within the state’s institutions, and of trying to infiltrate any overthrow the government.

In 2014 and 2015, several journalists and media executives suspected of being involved with the Gulen movement were arrested on various charges. In October 2015, a Court in Istanbul issued an arrest warrant for Fetullah Gulen charging him with an “attempt to overthrow the government”.

Just few days before the military coup attempt, on July 13, Anadolu Agency reported the formal request to the US for the extradition of Fetullah Gullen had been prepared.

After the coup attempt, Turkish president Erdogan compared the Gulen movement with a medieval cult of assassins; Erdogan’s comparison is a reference to the 11th century Nizari Ismaili Islamic sect that practiced assassinations.

Although Gulen dismissed all accusations related to the military coup, Erdogan urged the US for his extradition.

Dejan Scepanovic

Based in Bosnia and Herzegovina. BA in political science. Columnist.