How harmless cleric became the 'dog of Satan' for Turkey
Published 23/07/2016 | 02:30
These are difficult and dangerous days for Turkey. In the wake of the failed military coup last Friday week - which left 246 people dead and summoned ghosts of coups past - the country has been left reeling.
The Turkish government has declared a state of emergency and temporarily suspended the European Convention on Human Rights. President Erdogan, already heavily criticised for his increasingly authoritarian ways before the coup bid, seems hell-bent on a far-reaching purge.
Tens of thousands have already been detained or jailed over the past week, including judges, politicians, military personnel and journalists. Thousands of civil servants, mostly from the education and security sectors, were removed from their posts.
The sweeping cull, which has caused alarm both inside and outside Turkey, hinges on Erdogan's belief that a former ally, an Islamic scholar named Fethullah Gulen who built up a mass movement in Turkey from self-imposed exile in the US, is responsible for the attempted coup. Supporters of Erdogan and his AK party, which has governed Turkey since 2002, have coined a new acronym to refer to Gulen's movement: Feto (Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organisation). This week, the landmark Ataturk Cultural Centre on Istanbul's Taksim Square was draped with a huge banner that read chillingly: "Feto, dog of Satan, we will hang you and your dogs with your own leashes, with God's permission we'll wave the flag of democracy in the skies."
So who is the reclusive scholar that Turkey is now pushing to have extradited from Pennsylvania where he has lived since 1999? The septuagenarian Gulen initially gained a reputation as a preacher whose emphasis on melding Islam with education and science while encouraging inter-faith dialogue attracted many from Turkey's middle class, particularly those who formed the bedrock of the AK party's support.
His movement opened hundreds of schools across Turkey and later exported the model abroad, beginning in Central Asia and later expanding throughout other parts of the world, usually accompanying a Turkish investment push in a particular country. I remember visiting Gulen-affiliated 'Turkish Friendship' schools in Ethiopia, where idealistic young Turks who had given up comfortable lives back home taught local children the Turkish language and were adamant their curriculum did not include any proselytising. Their mission was altruistic only, they insisted, but they spoke wistfully of what they described as the golden era of the Ottoman empire.
In other countries, including Ireland, Gulenists established organisations aimed at promoting Turkish culture and bolstering bilateral links.
Back home, having initially enjoyed close relations with the AK party, Gulen and his movement started to divide even those who had previously viewed him as a rather harmless figure. While his supporters continued to portray Gulen as a benevolent leader, his critics accused him of encouraging his movement to infiltrate the various branches of the Turkish state with the aim of eventually taking over. Some spoke of Gulen creating a "state within a state" in Turkey, others said the movement was like some kind of Trojan horse.
The relationship between Erdogan and Gulen became increasingly strained, particularly after 2010, when the latter criticised the government for its handling of the Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine Turks were killed when Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish ship carrying aid to Gaza.
Later that year, I asked Turkey's then president Abdullah Gul, also of the AK party, about Gulen. He was clearly uncomfortable and kept repeating that it was a "very sensitive" issue. Tensions between Erdogan and the Gulenists intensified after 2013 when Erdogan's inner circle was targeted in anti-corruption investigations. Gulen supporters in various state entities, including the judiciary and police force, were rooted out, several were accused of spying.
In recent years, the Turkish authorities have shut down Gulen schools and affiliated companies and banks, as well as media outlets linked with the movement. The attempted coup last week, carried out by a faction within the military, swiftly unravelled as most of the security forces rallied to Erdogan who urged his supporters to take to the streets to show their opposition. Ankara has said it is preparing a formal request for Gulen's extradition from the US, suggesting that bilateral relations could be damaged if he is not returned to Turkey, where he could face a prison term of up to 34 years. Some hardline AK party supporters are calling for the reinstating of the death penalty - abolished as part of reforms required for Turkey's EU accession process - for those accused of plotting the coup. Whatever happens to the Gulen extradition request - Washington says Ankara must first provide firm evidence to back up their accusations - many in Turkey fear something close to a witchhunt taking place as Erdogan and his supporters vow to dislodge a movement that has put down deep roots in Turkish society .