Saylorsburg in rural Pennsylvania is an unlikely base for a Turkish cleric who wants to expand his influence back home. Yet, from his gated compound between Allentown and Scranton, 71-year-old Fethullah Gulen, founder of one of the world’s largest Islamic networks, is embroiled in a match-fixing scandal involving Fenerbahce, Turkey’s most popular soccer team.
Gulen hasn’t been in Turkey since receiving asylum in the United States in the late 1990s. His lengthy stay could be related to his reported links to the Central Intelligence Agency. But his followers contend that he hasn’t returned home because he doesn’t want to inflame the culture wars raging in his country. “Some people might use his being in Turkey as a pretext to their violence, and Turkey again might lose long-awaited stability,” said Mustafa Yesil, chairman of the Istanbul-based Journalist and Writers Foundation, an organization allied with Gulen.
Distance has never stopped Gulen from stirring controversy in Turkey, however. Gulen’s so-called “movement” — sometimes called Cemaat, which means community in Turkish, or Hizmet, meaning service — has been implicated in many scandals over the years.
Publicly, the Cemaat espouses interfaith dialogue and a respect for science and education. Gulen wants to create a “golden generation” of Muslims via the movement’s schools in 140 countries, including the US, where the University of Houston hosts the Gulen Institute, an academic research center.
But critics say the preacher has also engineered the arrests of Turkish journalists, misused U.S. funds for charter schools and forged documents to assist his ally, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party — known by its Turkish acronym, AKP — in their goal of reducing the military’s role in Turkish society.
Against the generals
Turkey’s powerful generals have overthrown four democratic governments since 1960, often to preserve secularism in the Muslim country. Gulen, Erdogan and the AKP want Islam to exert greater influence. Gulen has told his followers to support the pro-religious AKP at the polls, including during a 2010 referendum on constitutional amendments to make the military more accountable.
Now, Gulen’s followers in Turkey’s judiciary and police force have been accused of launching a match fixing investigation into Fenerbahce in order to exert influence on the high-profile Istanbul club. Last year, the probe resulted in the arrest of club president Aziz Yildirim, a noted friend of the Turkish military. The accusations were recently splashed across Twitter, opposition media outlets and blogs. Yildrim’s trial is ongoing. If convicted, he faces more than 13 years in jail.
Erdogan is rumored to have approved the match fixing investigation because his son-in-law’s employer, the Calik Group, wanted to win military contracts usually awarded to Yildirim, who controls numerous business interests, reports said.
Like the Yankees in New York or the Red Sox in Boston, Fenerbahce is a cultural lodestone that could help expand Gulen’s message throughout Turkey. “It does seem like a bad joke. doesn’t it?” said Andrew Finkel, author of Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know. “Fenerbahce is a prize to be captured.”
Indeed, Fenerbahce’s prestige is so great, even some Gulen followers are unwilling to mess with the team. “If true it would divide the Cemaat,” according to Cemil, 36, a follower of Gulen and a self-described Fenerbahce fanatic who asked that his surname not be published. “If the movement tried to attack Yildirim, it would split because of the number of Fenerbahce fans within the movement. There is no way the Cemaat would benefit from this.”
Experts agreed that Gulen was treading on thin ice.
“It was a show of force to demonstrate that even the popular chairman of a popular club is not safe,” said Istanbul-based analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners, a New York research firm. “I think it backfired. It was proof that the Gulenists would not stop at ending the military’s influence over Turkish society. Since then they suddenly emerged from the darkness and everyone is discussing the Gulen community and I don’t think he wanted that.”
But the match fixing probe might have already loosened Yildirim’s grip on power. On May 20, Yildirim was reelected as president of Fenerbahce. But four individuals close to the AKP were also elected to the club’s board.
Gulen and the CIA
Meanwhile, Gulen appears to be allied to powerful interests in the US, too.
Considered “an alien of extraordinary ability,” Gulen received a U.S. green card in 2008. Such green cards are given to foreign artists, scholars, athletes and others.
During the ten years Gulen waited for his green card, Turkish authorities were investigating him for allegedly attempting to place followers in government offices. He denied the charges and was acquitted in 2006.
During the investigations, Turkey asked the US to extradite Gulen back home. But former Central Intelligence Agency officials reportedly intervened on his behalf.
“I do not at all consider Gulen a radical or dangerous,” former CIA agent Graham Fuller told the Washington Post after reportedly lobbying for Gulen to be allowed to remain in the US. “Indeed in my view — and I have studied a lot of Islamist movements worldwide — his movement is perhaps one of the most encouraging in terms of the evolution of contemporary Islamic political and social thinking.”
The Post story reports that Gulen’s schools might have given cover to CIA agents spying in countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
But his followers depict Gulen’s life in the US as exile. “His stay in US now is basically a personal sacrifice,” said Yesil. “Especially for a person who loves his country very much.”