News / Europe

US-Based Muslim Preacher Leverages Influence Back in Turkey

US-Based Muslim Preacher Leverages Influence Back in Turkeyi
January 18, 2014 12:56 AM
A 72-year-old Muslim preacher was accused of plotting against Turkey’s secular government. His followers are now reported to be in a power struggle with Turkey's current Islamist government. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky went to the preacher’s base in Pennsylvania and reports.
In 1999, a Turkish preacher who ran afoul of the military-backed secular government in Ankara left and sought refuge across the ocean in what was then a camp for Turkish-American children in the eastern U.S. state of Pennsylvania.

The ailing 72-year-old Fethullah Gulen has remained influential in Turkey, however, and the nation's increasingly polarized politics have followed him to his retreat in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.

Earlier this month, I visited the Golden Age Generation Retreat and Worship Center,  in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, about an hour and a half’s drive from New York City.

Alp Aslandogan, a Turkish-American businessman who is Gulen’s main spokesman, said I was not permitted to talk to the cleric nor film visitors who come from Turkey to study and pray with him.

“He’s extra careful about interviews with the Western media because, unfortunately, in Turkey people are very fond of conspiracy theories,” Aslandogan said. “So even an appearance in a foreign media organization is interpreted in Turkey as being part of an international conspiracy.”

Faced with anti-government protests and corruption investigations, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s has blamed his problems on the U.S., Israel and Gulen’s followers, who are reportedly influential within Turkey's judiciary and police.

“International powers are behind this," Erdogan said last month. “Dissemination propaganda has been launched against us. There is a gang, a cabal organizing within the state.”

Aslandogan said the preacher also is avoiding the spotlight because of his diabetes and other worsening ailments.

But in his own messages, Gulen has said Erdogan suffers from “decayed thinking” and denied the prime minister’s accusations.

For his part, Aslandogan said police and prosecutors pursuing the corruption cases are being “profiled” because of their “orientations and sympathies” with the Gulen movement.

While critics characterize the Gulen movement as a cult of personality, admirers prefer the term Hizmet movement, after the Turkish word for ‘service.’ And Aslandogan compared Gulen to U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

“The civil rights movement advocated equal rights for all citizens," said Aslandogan. "Similarly, in Turkey, Gulen advocated for equality and equal opportunity for all citizens - observant Muslims, and others who historically had been discriminated against.

“The civil rights movement abstained from violence. Similarly, Gulen throughout his life always criticized and rejected violence,” Aslandogan said. After the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, he said Gulen called Osama bin Laden “a monster.”

As an imam in Turkey, Gulen encouraged his followers to become educated, and the movement spread beyond Turkish borders, with hundreds of schools and charities established in other countries.

Aslandogan himself heads the New York-based Alliance For Shared Values.

“One of the core premises of this movement is that if we can agree on certain shared values, we can collaborate around them, even if people come from different backgrounds to those values," said Aslandogan.

Gulen’s messages of peace tolerance have won him praise from luminaries in the United States. Former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and James Baker, and former President Bill Clinton have all spoken at Gulen foundations.

Loyola University Maryland Professor Joshua Hendrick said the Gulen movement is more akin to the Moral Majority, an American evangelical movement that became politically active in the 1980s in favor of conservative politics.

Hendrick, who recently published a study of the Gulen movement, said the prime minister’s accusations are not implausible.

“What we’re dealing with is a very influential, very powerful social organization that is very effective at achieving its goals, such as influencing an investigation,” he said.

Since the preacher’s run-in with Turkey’s secular leadership in the 1990s, he added, one of the key aims of its international activities abroad has been to leverage its international clout back in Turkey.

“If you are being criticized as being a parallel state, if you are criticized for moving into the upper echelons of state power in order to seize control and Islamicize the republic from the top down, it’s very helpful to show a video of Madeleine Albright and James Baker, Bill Clinton, speaking on your behalf,” said Hendrick.

In the U.S. there has been increasing scrutiny of a group of about 145 charter schools that are affiliated with the movement. Hizmet-linked schools in Texas are being accused of visa fraud and misuse of taxpayer money, and the FBI is investigating allegations of sexual misconduct at a charter school in New Orleans.

In the town just down the road from the Pennsylvania retreat, restaurant owner Joyce McGarry had never heard of Fethullah Gulen and chuckled at her own difficulty pronouncing his name.

After holding a protest here a few months ago, though, some of Gulen’s Turkish-American opponents stopped at her restaurant. They told her about the movement’s involvement in U.S. charter schools and gave her a printout of a website that tars Gulen as an extremist.

“They said I should be aware of who my neighbors are,” said McGarry.

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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Comment Sorting
by: ahmet from: istanbul
January 18, 2014 9:33 PM
watch out!!! amerıcan' friends.. They are very dangerous ..fethullah gulen ,recep tayyıp erdogan ,abdullah gul ..our presıdents and hodja.. ı am ın turkey we hate them and you have to rıd of fethullah gulen .
In Response

by: Buğra from: İstanbul
January 20, 2014 8:50 AM
Unfortunately secular ideology in Turkey is based on “Otherization”, that this comment shows how some people supporting secularism in Turkey react to others. In this comment the subject of “ We” does not include completely the view of Turkish people, it ( We) may cover just a small part of minority because above those people ( Mr.Abdullah Gul, Mr. Tayyip Erdogan and Mr.Fethullah Gulen) who are said to be hatred have many supporters and millions of lovers. It is enough to come to Turkey to see how people think of these leaders and this preacher.

by: Tamer Kirac from: Colville, WA
January 18, 2014 12:51 PM
As a Turkish-American, these news of the breakdown of sincere and constructive dialog and at times partnership, between a respected religious leader and political leadership, is extremely disturbing. The lesson here to all should be the absolute separation of state affairs and those of its citizens religion(s).

In the current case, its short term economic impacts is estimated as being $100 - $200 billion of market value loss, as well as creating an unstable longer term investment environment.

It is hoped that the current debacle is handled more diplomatically, openly and legally, as it unfolds. As a democracy and a rapidly developing nation, as well as a candidate for European Union membership, a legacy is being formed, based on a pattern of behavior that discards compromise and chooses confrontation instead.

Its leaders, political and spiritual, need to recognize what they will be leaving behind for the next generation of Turks.
In Response

by: Abbas from: Istanbul
January 19, 2014 10:37 AM
This comment is interesting that it openly acknowledges that there has been a coalition between the Gulen movement and the ruling party in Turkey (since Dec 17 they are in an all out war against each other). How and why would a democratically elected government of a secular country form a hidden coalition with a religious group?

The members of this group never acknowledge their ties to it. When asked, they often claim that they only admire Gulen and find his ideas wise. See where a Gulenist school director does exactly this. See also,

Gulen movement is arguably the most powerful political, economical and social entity in Turkey. The judiciary and the police force belong to them (the same rhetoric continues here and no police officer, judge, public prosecutor, government employee, journalist, etc. will ever acknowledge that they are Gulenists). After December 17, a number of newspapers in Turkey have been able to dare to openly write about this organization, so you can find out in detail about them by reading the Turkish media. Unfortunately most of the information is available only in Turkish. The 2010 book by Hanefi Avci explains in detail the organization of the Gulen movement in the Turkish police force:

Avci is a former police chief, now in jail, put there by gulenist courts and police (and with the tacit approval of the current government) based on fake charges and evidence, for writing this very book.

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