Unmasking Turkey’s most wanted man

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The collusion of President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani with the Turkish government made headlines over the past week. It is alleged that not only did Giuliani pressure Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rivals, but he had also pushed for the extradition of the Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen to Turkey – one of President Recep Tayip Erdogan’s top priorities. 

Erdogan has doggedly pressured the White House to extradite Gulen in order to try him on charges that he tried to instigate the failed coup of 2016 in Turkey. Giuliani has used inflammatory rhetoric calling Gulen a “dangerous extremist,” echoing the language of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who had written an oped for The Hill in 2016 attacking Gulen as a “radical Islamist.” 

After President Donald Trump’s election, US federal agents had investigated Flynn’s links to Turkey, and prosecutors looked into reports that Flynn had discussed kidnapping Gulen and forcibly returning him to Turkey. Flynn resigned after 24 days when it was exposed that he had lied about his contacts with the Russian Ambassador. He also admitted to lying about his role in the Turkish lobbying effort, which involved his former business partner lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government to get Gulen extradited.

Giuliani’s insistence on Gulen’s extradition raised suspicions among senior US officials that he too has been in collusion with the Turkish government. US Attorney General Jeff Sessions saw no merit in deporting Gulen to Turkey. 

All of the intrigue surrounding Giuliani’s double dealings has resulted in intense media scrutiny in which Gulen’s name has prominently featured. But Americans know very little about the Muslim cleric in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, and the worldwide movement that he has led over the past half century. It is also not understood why Erdogan is pursuing his extradition with such a vengeance, and how relations deteriorated since 2013 between Erdogan and the Gulen movement. 

Erdogan and Gulen were close in the late 1990s and Erdogan used to attend events hosted by the Gulen movement when he was Mayor of Istanbul. Erdogan had visited Gulen prior to launching the AKP party seeking his support, which Gulen gave given Erdogan’s initial pro-freedom rhetoric which was based on the promotion of democratic values. The Gulen movement was an important ally for Erdogan with its extensive network of millions of followers both within Turkey and around the world.

Many credit the massive following of the Gulen movement and their media empire with catapulting Erdogan to power in 2002. Both Erdogan and Gulen were in favour of shifting Turkey away from a secular state to one which was more religious and conservative. Erdogan used to call the Gulen movement’s top selling Turkish newspaper Zaman “the flower of democracy.” But Erdogan is also known to have described democracy and its necessity as a streetcar: “Democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.”

While the movement has no official membership, it is believed that its followers numbered between 2-5 million. Gulen has published over 50 books and delivered thousands of speeches. The Gulen movement is based on a philosophy of Islamic mysticism, (along the lines of the Sufi tradition) which teaches humanism and advocates education and democracy. The global movement has been dedicated to literacy, social enterprise and interreligious dialogue, and is motivated by a desire to alleviate suffering. In Turkey the followers had sought to bridge Islam and modern democracy. The movement became known as Hizmet – meaning ‘service.’ Over recent decades the Hizmet movement established over 2000 schools in over 170 countries, nine of which are in South Africa.

When Erdogan took power in 2002, Gulen was already in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, having been charged three times over different decades of military rule for establishing a secret religious organisation and trying to change the secular nature of the state. Gulen had been charged after the military coups in 1971 and 1980, and again in the late 1990s. Gulen was acquitted of the charges three times. In 2008 the Turkish Supreme Court of Appeal rejected the Chief Prosecutors’s objection to the acquittal of Gulen, which was upheld by the appeals court in March that year. The objection was soundly defeated by a 16 to 7 vote.

Gulen had first gone to the US in 1999 for medical treatment, and after being charged in Turkey in 1999, he decided to defect to the US where he set up a retreat an hour and a half drive outside New York city in Pennsylvania. Once Erdogan was in power he had personally asked Gulen to return to Turkey, although Gulen refused, citing ill-health. Erdogan publicly asked Gulen to return in June 2012. Turkish politicians regularly visited him in Pennsylvania in order to boost their popularity. Gulen’s influence peaked in 2009, when his movement ran publishing houses, banks, businesses, six TV stations, two radio stations, numerous magazines and newspapers. The famous Zaman newspaper at that time had six times the circulation of the Johannesburg Star. By 2013 Time magazine listed Gulen as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. 

While the movement enjoyed immense popularity in Turkey, and its followers held senior positions in the police, military, judiciary and other institutions of the state, there were those who depicted the movement as a third force or shadow state that wanted to control those institutions.

Up until late 2013 the Turkish embassy in South Africa were proud promoters of the Hizmet schools and its mosque in South Africa, with the Ambassador cutting ribbons at the opening of new schools and inviting South Africans for Eid breakfasts at the Nizamiye mosque. But  relations between the Turkish establishment and the movement quickly soured after Gulen criticised Erdogan’s handling of the anti-government protests which turned violent that year. 

By the end of 2013, Turkish police and prosecutors (a number of whom claimed to be affiliated with the Gulen movement) launched corruption investigations into government linked figures, some Ministers and their children. Erdogan retaliated by firing a few hundred police chiefs. At this point, Erdogan and Gulen virtually declared war on each other, which led to Erdogan spearheading a campaign to crush the Gulen movement in its entirety, perceiving it as a political threat that needed to be neutralised. 

By 2016 the state had started taking over TV stations and newspapers run by Gulenists, seizing the assets of Gulen associated businesses, and closing down or taking over Hizmet schools in the country. A month before the attempted coup in July 2016, Erdogan had decided to purge Gulenists and many of the NATO aligned officers from the military, particularly those opposed to getting into Syria. The actual coup attempt by some army officers and their loyalists on July 15th created a pretext for Erdogan to declare a state of emergency and start mass arrests and torture of Gulenists – anyone considered associated with the movement was dubbed a terrorist and the movement was referred to as FETO. The same Turkish Ambassador who had been cutting ribbons at Hizmet schools in South Africa started calling Gulen associated journalists in South Africa terrorists. 

In total 217,971 members of the Hizmet movement have been detained, 82,842 arrested by the Turkish state. 160,000 were fired from their jobs, and 1,500 NGOs were dissolved. Many of those arrested have not even been Gulen sympathisers but had some loose affiliation with the movement, including many women who have been incarcerated with their children. The Turkish state took billions of dollars worth of assets of Gulen affiliated businessmen. Ali Katirciolgu, the businessman who built the Nizamiye mosque complex and clinic in Midrand with the blessing of Nelson Mandela, had all his assets seized in Turkey, totalling US$4 billion. 

The worst has been the extent of the torture which the Turkish security establishment has meted out against those detained. The human rights abuses have included sexual torture, starvation, positional torture, sleep deprivation, electric shocks, nail extraction, suffocation, exposure to icy water, dripping of molten plastic on extremities, cold and high pressure water hosing, as well as sharp and blunt force trauma. 

Governments around the world have been pressured and bribed by Turkey to extradite Hizmet movement members – particularly teachers from Hizmet schools. Countries which have capitulated to Erdogan’s pressure are: Malaysia, Somalia, Myanmar, Thailand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Cambodia among others. In many countries Turkish intelligence has worked with local intelligence agencies to enact rendition, with Hizmet teachers being kidnapped from their homes at night and taken to waiting Turkish Airways flights. On arrival in Turkey they are detained and tortured. 

ANC politicians are currently being put under intense pressure by Turkey to agree to the extradition of Hizmet members and to close down their schools, which are some of the top performing schools in the country. But what Turkey needs to realise is that the rule of law is alive and well in South Africa, and that our government and intelligence agencies cannot be so easily bought in order to extradite or kidnap Hizmet members in order to detain and torture them in Turkey. Our constitution, government and judiciary will never allow it.

Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for the Independent Media Group.