In Turkey, The Man To Blame For Most Everything Is A U.S.-Based Cleric

Sep 4, 2016
Originally published on September 5, 2016 9:27 am

Since Turkey's government survived a violent coup attempt on July 15, it has pointed the finger at followers of an elderly, U.S.-based cleric. His name is Fethullah Gulen, and he denies any involvement. Turkey is demanding his extradition from the U.S., where he's lived in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s.

Gulen moved to America in 1999, amid worries that Turkey's secular and military elite was after him. Gulen became a close ally of Erdogan and his AKP party when the party came to power, but the two had a falling out several years later.

But it isn't just last month's attempted coup that the Gulen movement is being blamed for. Everything from suicide bomb attacks to past mine disasters are being laid at the cleric's doorstep.

Remember last November's Turkish shootdown of a Russian fighter jet? The two pilots involved were arrested last month for taking part in the coup effort. The Ankara mayor declared they were Gulen followers — and the shootdown was their fault, too.

In 2014, an explosion at a coal mine in Soma led to an underground fire that killed 301 people. The owners came under criticism for safety conditions at the mine. But a mine manager emerged to declare terrorists were somehow involved — and he specifically blamed the Gulenists.

More recently, a horrific suicide bombing at a wedding in Gaziantep killed dozens in August. Most signs pointed to the Islamic State as the culprit. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said maybe so — but, he insisted, the Gulen movement had a hand in the carnage as well.

"Created by the CIA"

Some of the Gulen-related accusations go back years. When Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was murdered back in 2007, few believed his death came only at the hands of the 17-year-old nationalist originally convicted for the killing. Now the case is back open, and Gulen-linked police chiefs are to stand trial for their alleged involvement.

A few of the claims against the Gulen movement incorporate anti-American themes, some of them quite extreme. Turkish media have quoted an indictment written by a Turkish prosecutor that declares the Gulen movement was "created by the CIA" — just like "the Mormon Church and the Church of Scientology."

Every day, in fact, the Turkish public is exposed to a barrage of anti-Gulen attacks in the pro-government media. Most media don't even call it the Gulen movement anymore. It's now referred to as "FETO," which stands for "Fethullah Terrorist Organization," and it's commonly referred to as a "terror-cult."

There haven't been reliable opinion surveys, but Turks seem prepared to accept that at least some Gulen followers may have been behind the coup attempt. Pro-Gulen sentiment has been largely driven underground in the current climate, as Turkey remains under a state of emergency. There are varying degrees of skepticism about the other allegations.

Strategic accusations?

Some Turks see the current anti-Gulen rhetoric as a strategy for Turkey to gain leverage in its extradition request with the U.S. If Gulen is really guilty of so many crimes, this theory goes, not extraditing him might be politically painful for Washington, as it tries to maintain smooth relations with a key ally in a volatile region.

Gulen has denied any involvement in the coup attempt, and his lawyers in Washington say Turkey's government has a track record of making allegations against perceived enemies that don't bear scrutiny. The extradition process is also likely to turn on the quality of the evidence presented against the cleric.

During Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Turkey last week, Erdogan acknowledged something American officials have been saying, but most Turks haven't heard — that the many boxes of documents asserting Gulen's guilt already sent to Washington weren't even about his alleged involvement in the coup. They were about prior allegations of wrongdoing from years ago.

Now the Turks are compiling coup-related evidence against him, after meeting with a U.S. technical team from the Justice Department. Whatever the extradition decision eventually is, it's certain to take a long time.

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Turkey is adding even more charges to the crimes it blames on a cleric - a cleric who lives in the United States. The Turkish government already blamed Fethullah Gulen of orchestrating a failed coup in Turkey from his home in Pennsylvania. Now, the government says he's to blame for everything from a mining disaster to traffic accidents. NPR's Peter Kenyon is covering this story from Istanbul. Hi, Peter.


INSKEEP: So what did this man do, according to the Turkish government?

KENYON: Well, it's a pretty impressive list. You know, these come out day after day over a number of weeks, but when you stop and add them up, it's kind of amazing. You remember the shoot-down of the Russian fighter jet last November?


KENYON: Well, the two Turkish pilots who were involved in that were arrested last month, charged with taking part in the coup effort. And then the Ankara mayor decided that the plane shoot-down was their fault, too, as opposed to anyone else's mainly because of this cleric, Fethullah Gulen. There was a terrible mining disaster in 2014, 300 people killed. Company had a questionable track record on safety.

But then, after the coup, a mine manager comes out and says, well, I think terrorists were involved, and he specifically mentioned the Gulenists. And then, just recently, there was that really horrific bombing at the wedding in Gaziantep - dozens killed, most signs pointing at the Islamic State. And then President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, maybe it was ISIS, but the Gulen movement could have had a hand, too; don't forget that. So they just keep coming.

INSKEEP: And when you say a movement, I guess that reminds us this guy is a leader of a large group. And it's alleged that different followers of his might have been involved with - well, it sounds like with just about everything.

KENYON: That's right. And it does - it's not just recent stuff. There was an infamous murder of a Turkish-Armenian journalist. That's 2007. Few believed it was only the teenager originally accused, but now the case is open, and two Gulen-linked police chiefs are back in the picture. And then, when you get down to the local level, media is accusing him of everything from mysterious heart-attack deaths to suspicious traffic accidents. So it's all coming. And some of the claims do get quite extreme. Turkish media are quoting an indictment written by a Turkish prosecutor, and it declares the Gulen movement was created by the CIA, as were, quote, "the Mormon Church and the Church of Scientology."

INSKEEP: And we should also mention that Fethullah Gulen has denied any wrongdoing in case after case after case. Do you have any sense about whether ordinary Turks believe all these accusations?

KENYON: Well, that's actually an interesting question. The public is getting barraged with anti-Gulen attacks in the pro-government media every day. And most media don't even call it the Gulen movement, by the way. It's now FETO, and that stands for Fethullah Terrorist Organization. And it's also commonly called a terror cult. It's hard to know how it's all being received. But from talking to Turks, my impression is they could see how some Gulen followers might have been behind the coup attempt. But you bring up these other things, and then there's a fair bit of skepticism.

INSKEEP: Why is the government piling so many charges on this man?

KENYON: Well, some Turks see it as a strategic move with this extradition request going on. If, in other words, there's so many things he's accused of, it becomes politically hard for Washington to say no. As we mentioned, Gulen denies any involvement. His lawyers say the government's allegations have a history of not bearing up under scrutiny. And there's this question of evidence that remains. It's only now that evidence that is coup-related is being compiled to be sent to Washington. So this extradition could well be a long process.

INSKEEP: A reminder that that is going on now. Turkey is trying to get its hands on this man. Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.