Tuesday 24 April 2018

Who is Fethullah Gulen, the reclusive imam being blamed by the Turkish president for plot attempt?

Exiled Turkish Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania.
Exiled Turkish Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. SELAHATTIN SEVI/AFP/Getty Images

Zia Weise in Istanbul

For Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there was never any question about who to blame for Friday night's attempted coup: Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic but reclusive Islamist preacher living in the United States.

The Turkish president has frequently accused Gulen and his supporters of trying to undermine the country's elected government by infiltrating the judiciary, intelligence and security forces.

Only three years ago, the cleric was a close ally of Erdogan and supported his rise to power. But the two became arch-rivals after the president and his ruling AKP blamed Gulen for choreographing the damaging corruption allegations that targeted senior ministers as well as Erdogan's son Bilal in 2013.

Following the corruption case, the government embarked on a wide-ranging purge to remove suspected Gulenists from the army, police and judiciary. Government trustees took over media outlets that were perceived to have links to Gulen, including the country's largest newspaper, Zaman.

Erdogan's critics accuse him of using the supposed threat of a "parallel state" to launch a witch-hunt against his fiercest opponents and anti-government media outlets. Others, however, point to a video from 1999 that appears to show Gulen instructing his supporters to infiltrate Turkish institutions.

"You must move within the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centres… You must wait until such time as you have got all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institution in Turkey," he is heard saying. He later claimed the tapes had been "manipulated".

Gulen, who began his career as an imam in the secular city of Izmir in the 1960s, favours a moderate interpretation of Islam, advocating inter-faith dialogue and democracy.

Although few outside of Turkey have heard him, Gulen's cult-like movement has built up an influential network of schools, think-tanks and media spanning the globe. Erdogan has attempted to dismantle this influence - for instance calling on African leaders to close down Gulenist schools - but his demands for the cleric's extradition have fallen on deaf ears in Washington.

Yesterday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim put pressure on the US to extradite Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.

"Any state that protects Gulen will be considered as hostile to Turkey," he said.

But the cleric was quick to deny any involvement in yesterday's coup.

In a statement released just before midnight, he said it was "insulting" to be linked to an attempt to overthrow the government.

"I condemn, in the strongest terms, the attempted military coup in Turkey," he added. "Government should be won through a process of free and fair elections, not force."



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