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

Sunday Times - - Insight | Exile - By RANJENI MUNUSAMY — both Er­do­gan’s and Gulen’s.

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

Pic­ture: Reuters

HUM­BLE LEADER Fethul­lah Gulen seems sur­prised at the size of his global move­ment, known as Hizmet.

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