Dec 20, 2015

In Sunni 'Cult' Fight, Turkey Guns For America's Richest And Most Politically Connected Cleric

Kenneth Rapoza , CONTRIBUTOR
December 20, 2015

The Turkish government wants revenge against a group of Sunni “conspirators” that tried to overthrow it. It thinks it can find it in a court house in the Poconos.

On center stage is one Muhammed Fethullah Gulen, a 75 year old Turk who has been living and preaching his brand of Islam from a multi-million dollar 26-acre compound in Saylorsburg, Pa since the late 1990s. Gulen isn’t the type of cleric Americans get the shivers about. He’s more peace and love than Shariah law vigilante. At least here.

A year ago, The Los Angles Times visited him and couldn’t get a word out of him. Now, American attorneys for three Turkey citizens with help from the government want to pry something out of him using the long arm of the law. And the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who used to trust Gulen, wants him extradited where he will surely face conspiracy charges. It’s a tricky call. The legal battle really pits one man, Gulen who is deemed the best type of Muslim — a tolerant one — with Erdogan by default. And Erdogan, while outwardly important to Washington’s battle with jihadis in Syria, is also a supporter.

Erdogan used to view Gulen in a more positive light. He was a promoter of good things in Turkey. Now the official view is that Gulen is out to promote his own, more-Islamist vision of Turkey and is using his collection of media outlets –TV, radio, newspapers, magazine – to do it. He has used them to challenge a small, rag-tag group of Sunnis who have taken him to task. Gulen doesn’t like the competition.

Some within his group of 10 million followers orchestrated a witch hunt against Erdogan’s government and anti-Gulen Sunnis all the way from the United States, according to a team of lawyers going after the man from Washington.

A case was filed against Gulen on Dec. 7 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania under a statute allowing foreigners allegedly harmed by individuals residing in the U.S. to face civil trial.

Gulen is no slouch. But he is a man of mystery. And in these times, a man of mystery of the Muslim faith is a man of interest.

According to the case filing, Gulen affiliated businesses are valued between $20 billion to $50 billion worldwide. It’s not that he owns them. It’s more likely that he does not, but that his followers do, or are in director positions there. His U.S. based organizations, most of them philanthropic, are donors to or initial backers of 120 charter schools spread out across the U.S.

FORBES reached out to two of them in Massachusetts. One responded. Harun Celik from the Hampden Charter School of Science in Chicopee said, the school “has no connection whatsoever to the Gulen movement. There are no financial connections, and no influence on our curriculum.” He did not want to discuss Gulen with me.

Since the lawsuit was filed last week, the charter schools have been all over the news, generally being investigated for the misuse of public funds. Anaheim put a temporary ban on new charters because the California city is investigating a Gulen funded one called Magnolia Science Academy. The schools are not part of the suit. Most are squeaky clean and high performers, according to local media articles by education reporters.

His non-profits, including the schools, also make political donations. If they do not do so directly, then movement followers do instead, including to presidential campaigns on the Democratic side.

Many politicians have been on the receiving end of funds and free trips to Turkey. It made sense. Gulen was viewed by Ankara and Washington as Turkey’s biggest adman, trying his best to win hearts and minds, some say for nefarious ends.

Gulen is pragmatically pro-American. He has been quoted saying he wouldn’t do anything to undermine America’s interests in the Middle East, or its relationship with Turkey. He is suspicious of Russians and Iranians, which makes him an automatic friend of both parties in Congress. Moreover, his religious followers hold positions of power in Turkey. On one hand, it is plausible that some in the U.S. government see him as a person of interest, not a loner in the Pennsylvania mountains. On the other hand, Erdogan is the leader of Turkey. These two don’t like each other.

Turkey’s Most Wanted?

Here is the story. When it comes to Turkey politics, peace and love Gulen is no live-and-let-live Sunni Muslim, if there is such a thing. Gulen is a Sunni guru from the so-called Nur Movement, named after the long deceased anti-communist, anti-secular cleric Said Nursi. Nursi was a Kurd by the way, not an ethnic Turk, which for Turkey watchers says a lot because Erdogan is decisively anti-Kurd, a population the U.S. military counts as allies in Iraq.

The Nur movement splintered in the 1970s and 1980s, with Gulen’s branch being the most popular and “cult-like.” They run the organizations and businesses. They have one religious opponent, a 70 year old blind man named Mehmet Dogan and his followers which number in the few hundreds.

A former Gulen movement follower who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity likened the group to a cross between Islam and Scientology. He said he was part of the group since Middle School but left it in college because he was too busy to adhere to the group’s objectives of volunteerism and fund-raiser events.

“They’re goal is to indoctrinate the best and the brightest who will eventually get careers in law, or in the military, or in politics. They’re too new in the United States to have gotten that far,” he told me, adding that he feels Gulen is non-threatening.

But in Turkey, the Gulen movement is a force to be reckoned with. His most vocal opponents with the Dogan movement have been hounded, rounded up, and jailed. Three of them, including media owner Bunyamin Ates, spent up to 20 months in jail for allegedly being part of a terrorist organization. They were arrested by Gulen followers in the police. They were recently freed from trumped up charges against them.

Lawyers for Ates, Turgut Yildrim and Murat Ozturk claim that Gulen used his media powers to call them Al Qaeda terrorists. He got his followers inside the judicial system in Turkey to launch the so-called Sledgehammer trials of 2010-12. Back then, judges charged military officers with planning a coup. Gulen had already been formally charged and acquitted back in 2008 for infiltrating key state institutions in order to overthrow the government; an innocent man. But Turkey isn’t giving up on him.

Erdogan wants the U.S. to hand him over to face trial. This lawsuit is like a campaign in making that happen, but it will be hard to imagine the U.S. shipping a political fundraiser and “moderate Muslim” to Turkey. They know he would be getting thrown to the wolves.

According to the case file, Gulen and as many as 50 other John Does not named in the docket, are being accused of six counts of persecution, unlawful arrests and one civil conspiracy charge.

“I can’t read the man’s mind, but it is clear that Gulen is after power in Turkey,” says Andrew Durkovic, an attorney with Amsterdam & Partners in Washington. Durkovic was in Turkey last week meeting with the plaintiffs when he spoke with me.

The cult-like status of Gulen is problematic for Turkey’s ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP). The AKP, of which Erdogan is the star power, is moderate Islamic, but Gulen is not as moderate, according to them. That doesn’t make him a jihadi. It just makes him not as open to Erdogan’s interpretations of the separation of church and state. To Gulen’s followers, the man might be the “12th Imam” – basically the Second Coming that will unite all of Islam. If Gulen’s words weren’t so peaceful, the wealthy businessman-preacher would be just as much as a worry here as he is in Erdogan’s Turkey.

The FBI said it could not confirm nor deny investigations into Gulen or his movement, which is standard.

“Money is also a motivation. In 2013, the Texas charter schools alone Gulen’s groups over $200 million in revenue,” says Durkovic, who will try to convince a judge that that money is used, in part, to bribe and coerce a sovereign nation from here.

“It’s hard to say precisely what Gulen thinks of Erdogan, except that the two men are at political odds. He would like to overthrow Erdogan,” says Durkovic. “The recent seizure of purported Turkish weapons at the Syrian border, for example, was orchestrated by Gulenists inside the Turkish government, and begs the question of how the entire confrontation was caught on video.”

Judge Robert Mariani said he would meet with the lawyers on both sides within four months to decide where the case goes from there. No trial date has been set, if this ever goes to trial.

Banned in Russia

Gulen has operations in over 100 countries. They have been watched closely by the militant jihadi-fearing Russian government for over 10 years.

In Russian Chechnya and Dagestan regions, both locations of fanatical Muslims since 1991, Gulen-backed schools were banned by Putin.

The Russian government also banned Gulen schools and the activities of the Gulen-linked Nurcu sect in Russia, devotees of Said Nursi’s teachings on Islam. Over 20 Turkish followers of Gulen were deported from Russia in 2002-2004. Pakistan is now watching it closely, reported the secularist Hurriyet newspaper.

Like Nursi, who was persecuted and jailed most of his life for advocating against secularism, and a kindler, gentler Islam, one where power is taken slowly and not by force, millions of Turks have found Gulen to be a hero.

The problem is he is being accused of trying to overthrow a sovereign state at a time when the U.S. seems convinced Turkey is a partner in its fight against terrorism.

Erdogan likes to think he has Obama fully on his side. In some respects, he does.

“I told Obama that the person who is responsible for the unrest in Turkey lives in your country, in Pennsylvania,” Erdoğan said during an interview on private broadcaster ATV in March of 2014. “I told him ‘I expect what’s necessary to be done.’ You have to take the necessary stance if someone threatens my country’s security,” Erdogan reportedly said. He put Gulen on Turkey’s most-wanted and terrorist watch list in October. Regarding Obama and Gulen: “He looked at it positively,” Erdogan said, adding Obama’s reply was, “We got the message.”

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