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World & Nation

Turkey’s coup accusations cast spotlight on Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive cleric exiled in Pennsylvania

Fethullah Gulen
Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen is shown at his residence in Saylorsburg, Penn., in this Dec. 28, 2004, file photo. Gulen has been accused of being behind the failed coup in Turkey.
(File / Reuters)

In the wake of Friday’s deadly coup attempt in Turkey, that country’s president quickly laid blame on Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who has lived in exile in eastern Pennsylvania since 1999 and controls a massive religious and educational movement.

Dozens of Turkish immigrants chanted, sang and waved Turkey’s flag outside Gulen’s Ross Township home Saturday afternoon, celebrating the Turkish government’s quelling of the coup as Gulen’s private security force and half a dozen state police officers stood by.

“I’m so very proud of what they’ve done,” said Dr. Halil Mutlu, who drove more than 200 miles from Windsor, Conn., with a carload of friends, to protest outside Gulen’s house. “No one will take our democracy away from us." 

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In a televised speech Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the United States to extradite Gulen, saying Turkey had never turned back any extradition request for “terrorists” by the United States.

“I say if we are strategic partners then you should bring about our request,” Erdogan said.

Fethullah Gulen is the leader of a terrorist organization.
Benali Yildirim, prime minister of Turkey

Gulen, 75, who denied the charges in a statement and in a rare interview with a group of reporters, is a virtual recluse at the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center, constructed near Saylorsburg in the 1990s as a learning center for Turkish American children.

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Praised by some as a moderate who supports education and interreligious dialogue though his Hizmet movement, Gulen has also been accused of stealth efforts to topple the Turkish government and spread Islamic law, or sharia, in Turkey and abroad.

“Fethullah Gulen is the leader of a terrorist organization,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in a statement Saturday. “Especially after what happened yesterday, I don’t believe any country would support him. Whichever country supports him isn’t a friend of Turkey. It is practically at war with Turkey.”

Gulen rejected the claims and said he wasn’t concerned about being extradited.

“I don’t believe that the world takes the accusations made by President Erdogan [against me] seriously,” Gulen said, according to the Financial Times. “There is a possibility that it could be a staged coup [by Erdogan’s government] and it could be meant for further accusations” against Gulen’s allies and the military, he said.

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the Obama administration would entertain an extradition request for Gulen, but added that Turkey’s government would have to provide evidence pointing to his complicity.

In a statement released by his foundation, the Alliance for Shared Values, Gulen condemned the coup attempt, in which more than 250 people were killed and many were wounded. 

“Government should be won through a process of free and fair elections, not force,” Gulen said in the statement. “I pray to God for Turkey, for Turkish citizens, and for all those currently in Turkey that this situation is resolved peacefully and quickly. As someone who suffered under multiple military coups during the past five decades, it is especially insulting to be accused of having any link to such an attempt. I categorically deny such accusations.”

The 50 or so people gathered outside Gulen’s retreat Saturday afternoon believe Gulen instigated or orchestrated the upheaval. Murat Berk, president of the Turkish American Cultural Society in Bergen County, N.J., told the crowd Gulen should go to Turkey to answer for his actions.

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Hours before anti-Erdogan forces launched the coup attempt, Berk was in Turkey, saying goodbye to his wife and two small children who remained on vacation while he headed home to Palisades Park, N.J. Upon hearing the news of the attempted coup, he instructed his wife and children not to leave their house in Izmir.

“They didn’t listen. They went out to the street to protest,” he said. “But now I’m very proud of them.”

Berk said some of his friends oppose Erdogan’s politics, but stood firm against the coup plot.

“It doesn’t matter what you think of Erdogan,” he said. “This has become a matter of protecting democracy.”

Gulen has been accused of attempting to overthrow Erdogan’s government before. Earlier this year, he was put on trial in absentia in Istanbul, charged with 68 others, including former police chiefs, with “attempting to overthrow the Turkish republic through the use of violence,” leading a terrorist organization and “political espionage.”

In a video that surfaced after his departure from Turkey in 1999, Gulen allegedly ordered followers to infiltrate key government positions and prepare for a coup — allegations that mirror charges the government filed against him in 2014.

In a purge of Gulen sympathizers that year, Turkish police arrested the editor of the country’s largest daily newspaper, the head of a TV station and more than two dozen others.

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Turkey’s president says coup plotters ‘will pay a heavy price for their treason’ »

Gulen, who has permanent residency status in the United States, is said to maintain significant support among some members of Turkey’s military and mid-level bureaucrats. He and Erdogan only became estranged in recent years.

Gulen’s movement in Turkey began in the 1960s, emphasizing the importance of science and education to a moral society. He left in 1999, shortly before the start of a case against him on charges of plotting to destroy the secular state and establish Islamic law.

He has faced the same suspicions in the United States, but a 2013 congressional report on Turkey said Gulen promotes dialogue among religions and cross-cultural understanding and teaches that Islam is compatible with modern democratic societies.

In the Poconos Mountains, he has kept a low profile, mostly avoiding the media and the protesters who gather regularly outside his Golden Generation center. But Gulen has been hospitable to his neighbors on Mount Eaton Road, including Lillian Beers, who shared a meal with him a number of years ago.

“They invited us to dinner,” she said. “It was OK.”

The center has hired her son, a contractor, to do work, she said. Other than the swarm of police, protesters and reporters making a racket Saturday, the center has been a quiet neighbor, she said. "They don’t bother me and I don’t bother them.”

Not far from Beers’ home, Memis Yetim joined his Turkish countrymen in chanting, “Long live Turkey. We want democracy.” With his 4-year-old son in tow, Yetim rode from Connecticut with Mutlu to mark the occasion.

“It’s kind of a historic moment for the Turkish people,” he said.

Gulen has said that he would like to go back to his homeland but that his return might be used to stir political trouble, or that those who had persecuted him in the past might try to do so again.

His influence is chiefly felt through Hizmet, which includes think tanks, media enterprises and an international network of schools, including about 130 public charter schools in the United States. The schools, including Truebright Science Academy in Philadelphia and two others in Pennsylvania, teach no religion. All emphasize science, math and technology.

Still, suspicions linger. Four years ago, a Gulen-linked group unsuccessfully tried to open a charter school in Allentown, an hour north of Philadelphia. School directors cited the group’s evasiveness over its ties to Gulen as one of their concerns, though ultimately rejected the application on other grounds.

daniel.sheehan@mcall.com

Twitter: @LVStories

Sheehan and Wojcik write for the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa. The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

4:35 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional background and comments from protesters outside the home of Fethullah Gulen.

This article originally published at 10:55 a.m.


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