He’s 77, frail and lives in Pennsylvania. Turkey says he’s a coup mastermind.
U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pa. (Charles Mostoller /Reuters)
SAYLORSBURG, Pa. — It was a weekday night in the Poconos, quiet but for the sound of cicadas in the wooded hills of rural Pennsylvania. In the secluded compound where he preaches nonviolence, tolerance and the value of education, Fethullah Gulen sat in a well-lighted room, handing out candy to children.
Half a world away in his native Turkey, the 77-year-old Muslim cleric with a global following had just been accused of orchestrating the bloody July 15 coup attempt that left more than 200 people dead and a major U.S. ally in chaos.
Gulen’s many adherents and admirers have dismissed the allegations, which he has denied, as the ravings of a paranoid Turkish government and an attempt by its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to rid himself once and for all of a former ally whose popularity challenges his increasingly autocratic rule.
Critics say Gulen is a conniving leader of what Turkish government lawyer Robert Amsterdam calls a “cult,” bent on taking over Turkey. They charge that the international network of universities, hospitals, charities, business associations, news outlets and schools — more than 1,000 of them spread across more than 150 countries — over which, they say, he presides, is little more than a front for the spread of what Erdogan’s government has labeled a “deviant religious ideology.”
Since the coup attempt, the Turkish government has arrested more than 10,000 people and dismissed nearly 70,000 from their jobs. It has set up a hotline for people to call if they suspect someone of being a Gulenist.
Turkish officials have accused the United States of harboring Gulen and suggested U.S. involvement in the aborted coup. The government in Ankara has asked for Gulen’s extradition as both a legal matter and a profession of loyalty and respect.
A Justice Department team is sifting through what U.S. officials say are some 85 boxes of evidence that Turkey says describes the infiltration of Gulenists into every part of Turkish society, including the judiciary, the police and the military faction that launched the coup attempt, and proves Gulen’s direct role as mastermind of the plot.
Turkey sees the matter of Gulen’s extradition as one of trusting a NATO member and a leading partner in the fight against the Islamic State. “For God’s sake, we’re talking about a country that has been a loyal ally to the United States for 60 years,” Serdar Kilic, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview. “They have to give unreserved support to Turkey.
“Imagine if a group of generals had decided that Obama was not taking the right course of action in Syria or in Europe or wherever,” he said, and had commandeered aircraft to bomb Congress, ordered civilians to be shot at, taken the military chief of staff hostage, and come within 15 minutes of trying to kidnap or assassinate the president — all of which happened during the coup attempt. What, Kilic asked, would the immediate U.S. reaction be?
At the very least, he said, Turkey deserved the “benefit of the doubt” from the U.S. government.
The United States, which spent years trying to send Gulen home after his 1999 arrival here as a tourist before a court granted him a green card, says the process is a legal one in which politics — and alliances — have no role.
“President Erdogan and Turkey have a strong belief that Mr. Gulen, who is in Pennsylvania, who is a legal resident of the United States, is somehow behind some of these efforts,” President Obama said a week after the coup attempt.
“We have a process here in the United States for dealing with extradition requests made by foreign governments,” Obama said. “It’s governed by treaties, governed by laws, and it is not a decision that I make but rather a decision that our Justice Department and investigators and courts make alongside my administration in a very well-structured and well-established process.”