The puzzle of Turkey’s bogeyman
The mysterious summons to meet the ailing leader of a worldwide movement living in self-imposed exile was too good to turn down
Ilean over the wooden bridge and stare at my reflection in the clear water of the stream below. The sun is setting and shards of light are bouncing off the water’s surface, making the surroundings even more ethereal. I look at the time on my phone — 7.22pm. This interview is not going to happen, I think for the umpteenth time that day. Maybe the point was just to come here. It is a strange, beautiful place. This is rural Saylorsburg in Pennsylvania, deep in the Pocono Mountains. I am one of six South African journalists who have been granted a rare audience with the self-exiled Turkish scholar and spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen at the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center, his sanctuary since 1999.
I say “audience” because we are not sure whether, after a 16-hour flight from Johannesburg and a two-and-a-half-hour drive from New York, we will be granted an interview or just a meet-and-greet with the 77-year-old cleric. We knew little about where we are going or why we were chosen from journalists around the world who had requested face-time with the reclusive Islamic scholar.
Gulen is the leader of the Hizmet movement, a Sufi-inspired network of Turkish Muslims who dedicate themselves to promoting education, peace and interfaith dialogue. Gulen has never married and has no children but his teachings have mobilised a volunteer movement of millions globally.
Hizmet has a strong presence in South Africa, where several civil society organisations and schools have been running for many years. The Nizamiye Masjid in Midrand, believed to be the biggest mosque in the southern hemisphere, was constructed by Gulen’s friend, Ali Katircioglu, a prominent member of Hizmet now exiled in South Africa.
While Gulen and his movement might sound innocuous, they have been branded as terrorists by the Turkish government and blamed for the July 2016 coup attempt in that country. Long before the failed military uprising, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began a crackdown on Hizmet, arresting and detaining anyone associated with the movement.
The coup attempt prompted a total onslaught on Hizmet, with indiscriminate arrests and a rolling purge to financially cripple its members. It included a shutdown of newspapers, news agencies and TV stations.
Thousands of people, among them judges, prosecutors, civil servants, academics, teachers, doctors and journalists, are in Turkish prisons. Many thousands have fled around the world, including to South Africa.
Erdogan has been on a concerted campaign to close down Gulen schools, NGOs and businesses, trying to persuade governments that these are fronts for terrorist activity. His greatest desire, other than to be the caliph of the Islamic world, is to have Gulen extradited from the US to stand trial on terrorism charges.
Unable to return home
Our two escorts, journalist Turkmen Terzi and rights campaigner Attila Dag, both of whom live in South Africa and are unable to return to their home country, tell us that Gulen is ailing due to diabetes.
When we arrive at the compound around mid-morning, we are told that Gulen is poorly and resting. We will apparently see him around lunchtime.
We are allowed to wander around the leafy, manicured grounds, and encouraged to walk down to the pond below. As you would expect at a religious or spiritual sanctuary, people go about their business serenely. The tranquillity is almost unsettling.
Hizmet followers come from around the world to pray with and learn from their leader, who despite his ill health still delivers lectures.
We are invited to lunch in a communal dining hall where people bustle around to welcome and serve us. One of the elders says Gulen is doing poorly that day and we will only be able to see him when he comes to evening prayers.
After lunch we go to a small salon in the main building in the middle of the compound, which houses the prayer hall and Gulen’s private quarters. I keep looking at the door down the passage, willing it to open.
Bizarrely, Gulen’s doctor is the one serving us tea and passing around platters with dates, raisins and nuts.
‘Six of your children dying every day’
I decide to ask the doctor about Gulen’s condition. He explains, with Dag translating, that the combination of diabetes and high blood pressure has left Gulen very weak and that his condition is exacerbated by extreme stress.
Gulen told him that the trauma he feels when he hears about the suffering of his followers in Turkey is like “six of your children dying every day”.
I am now even more anxious to see him. There might not be another opportunity for him to speak publicly.
But the day drags on.
We are taken to the visitors’ quarters. I spend most the afternoon lying on a suede couch looking out at the thick woodland.
Because there is no internet connection, I cannot google topics on my mind like “David Koresh and Waco showdown” or “CIA surveillance of Turkish cleric”.
A political thriller could be set here, I think, with special ops storming through the forest and dropping from the air as the main character is rescued through a secret underground tunnel.
So it is with shock that I hear later that some months ago someone hired a chopper fly to over the compound to take aerial shots and the pictures were published in Turkish state-run media. Turkish nationals loyal to Erdogan then arrived at the gates and tried to storm the premises to get to Gulen.
Our hopes are waning
As the sun goes down, we are invited to witness the evening prayer. Gulen does not arrive and our hopes of seeing him are waning.
We troop to the dinner hall after being told there is a final chance Gulen might emerge for the last night-time prayer.
As dinner ends, a side door suddenly opens and two men speak hurriedly in Turkish. We are up in a flash — it appears the time has finally come.
But alas, we are taken back to the small reception room where the doctor is again serving us tea.
Then there is activity at the door, and people dart about.
We are told we can go in. We pass quickly through a foyer with a large picture of the Bosphorus River in Istanbul, into a big salon with couches right around.
I take a sharp breath when I see Gulen sitting alone.
He is clearly very ill, looking tired and drawn. There are heavy bags under his eyes and his face is etched with sorrow. He struggles to his feet as we walk in and moves to one of the couches on the side.
I sit directly across from Gulen and study him throughout the next hour.
Turkey’s two main protagonists could not be more different.
Last year, I had occasion to see Erdogan when he was on a visit to Mozambique. The president glared at me when we locked eyes, sending a wave of fear over me. He was boastful in his speech, trying to lure Mozambique’s political and business elite with massive infrastructure incentives in exchange for shutting down the Gulen schools and extraditing the Turkish teachers.
Mozambique gave him the cold shoulder.
Gulen has a quiet aura, speaks softly and his grandpa slippers and prayer hat add to his look of vulnerability. As the interview progresses, he appears to strengthen, speaking more animatedly and appearing less downcast.
He wants to know why we are there, apparently surprised that we made the journey from South Africa to see him.
I ask him what message he would want to transmit through us to the world. I am rather surprised that he does not take the bait, as any political player would.
“I shouldn’t tell you what to do and what not to do; you must write what you feel,” he says, watching me mildly.
He becomes more conversational as questions go around our group. Asked about whether he would want to return to Turkey, Gulen says he misses his country every single day.
“If the US tells me to leave and go back to Turkey, I will buy my own ticket and die in prison,” he says.
If the US tells me to leave and go back to Turkey, I will buy my own ticket and die in prison
Branded a terrorist organisation
It is apparent that Gulen did not expect such a massive movement to be built on his teachings. He is even more astounded that it has come to be branded as a terrorist organisation and blamed for two attempts to violently overthrow the Turkish government.
He says while he had no regrets, he occasionally wonders whether he could have done more to appease his opponents, like praising them or naming schools or universities after them. But he says he knew that Turkey’s rulers would never have been satisfied and would have continuously demanded more.
Gulen says he only ever had two encounters with Erdogan, one when the president wanted to establish his AKP party and the other at a fundraising football match for Bosnian children. He cannot fathom how the animosity arose and why Erdogan set out to destroy his movement and, according to him, even wanted him killed.
He says Erdogan wanted Hizmet to be part of his propaganda machinery and, when it refused, he became jealous of its influence.
Gulen seems to have made peace with the fact that he might not live much longer. He says his movement is not about him personally and that people should carry on with the philosophy and ideas on which it is built.
Clearly in charge
When Terzi tries to round off the interview, thinking Gulen might be growing weary, the old man gestures for him to sit down and continues talking. Despite his frailty, Gulen is clearly in charge of the room where a number of the elders and aides are sitting listening.
He worries that Dag, who is translating, might not remember everything he is saying and asks if he needs pen and paper to write notes. He also motions for us to eat the baklava and Turkish delight we have been served. At one point Gulen stands up suddenly and walks towards me. I think I might have done something to annoy him but he just wants to adjust the air-conditioner.
I try to draw him out again on how people should perceive him and the accusations that he was behind the coup attempt.
Gulen says there had been rumours about the coup for some time and some people naively fell for the ruse that there would be a genuine attempt to overthrow the government. Many of his followers believed the coup was staged.
Gulen says if there were to be an international inquiry to investigate whether it was a real coup, and he was found to have been behind it, he would return to Turkey to face the consequences. But the Turkish government has not allowed any credible investigation into the incident, he says.
Because of global politics, most nations are silent on Turkey’s human rights violations. He says history will reward nations like Canada and Germany for offering solidarity with the Turkish people. He thanked people in South Africa who have done the same.
There is clearly no prospect of a change of strategy from Hizmet to counter Erdogan’s onslaught. Since the coup, Gulen has made it clear that forceful resistance would be a betrayal of his principles.
When the interview ends, the elders invite us to view Gulen’s room. His bed is a mattress on the floor and a Qur’an with large script is on a table nearby. At the front of the room a Turkish flag is draped.
Although the circumstances are very different, I am reminded of South Africa’s freedom fighters and their agony at being away from home.
As we drive into the night, I think about Gulen’s words to me earlier: “You must write what you feel.”
But it was the eyes that spoke so much more