Turkey’s most-wanted man shuffles into a spacious room that doubles as a prayer space in his rural Pennsylvania home-in-exile. The reclusive, 76-year-old Turkish cleric is ailing and notoriously averse to press coverage.
But ever since the Turkish government accused him of masterminding the failed July 15, 2016 coup bid, Gulen has been forced to grant a few interviews, to which he succumbs with gruff resignation.
Gulen has been living in a gated compound, called the “Golden Generation Retreat and Worship Center,” in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains since 1999, when he arrived in the US for medical treatment. Turkey has expressed dismay over what it views as a US failure to advance its demand for Gulen’s extradition.
But from his sprawling, verdant compound in Saylorsburg, located around 160 kilometres from Philadelphia, Gulen appeared fairly confident he will live out his days in the USA.
When asked if he fears the warming personal relations between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, could mean a fast-tracked extradition, Gulen replied, “I don’t think either him [Trump] or any other US president will risk tarnishing the reputation of the United States around the world and submit to these unreasonable demands by the Turkish president. So I’m not worried about that possibility.”
The septuagenarian cleric may be living 8,000 kilometres away from Turkey, but he was well-informed about the latest developments in his homeland.
A year after the ill-planned and executed attempt to oust Erdogan’s government, the focus of the investigation in Turkey appears to hinge on one mysterious, missing man: Adil Oksuz. The Turkish government says Oksuz, a cleric, is a Gulenist who instigated the coup bid. On the night of the coup attempt he was spotted near an Ankara military base, briefly detained, and then released. He has since gone missing. The government claims that before the July 2016 coup attempt, Oksuz travelled to the US, where he visited Gulen. Photographs of Oksuz and his child with Gulen in Pennsylvania have appeared in the Turkish press as proof of Gulen’s personal involvement in the putsch bid.
Gulen acknowledged that around 30 years ago, when Oksuz was a student, he was part of a study circle within the movement. “Adil Oksuz, at one time, I think when he was studying at school, he became part of our study circle,” he replied.
But while he acknowledged the Turkish government’s account that Oksuz had visited the Golden Generation Retreat and Recreation Center before the July 2016 coup bid, Gulen dismissed allegations that the visit constituted the smoking gun in the coup investigation. “A few years ago, he [Oksuz] came here once. I later saw in the media this picture with his child with me. This is something hundreds of people do. From taking a picture to making that kind of connection would be jumping to conclusions.”
‘There are photos of me with everyone’
Gulen went on to list a number of senior members of Erdogan’s AK Party who had visited him in Pennsylvania before the July 2016 coup bid. The Gulenists and the AK Party were allies before a 2013 falling out, after the Gulenists in the judiciary and civil services began unravelling corruption allegations against Erdogan’s inner circle.
He claimed the roster of visitors to Pennsylvania, back in the days when the Gulenists and the AK Party were allies, included former Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, and Hakan Fidan, current head of Turkey’s foreign spy agency, MIT (National Intelligence Organisation). The Turkish cleric proceeded to repeat allegations, circulating in some opposition circles, that Oksuz was linked to the Turkish intelligence services.
“Indeed former president Abdullah Gul visited me – before he became president or prime minister or something,” said Gulen. “When you consider Adil Oksuz, they found him somewhere, I don’t remember where it was, and then they released him, and then there turned out be a tie between him and Turkish intelligence. The chief of the intelligence service, Hakan Fidan, also visited here twice and he ate at my nephew’s house here twice. Everyone came here. There are photos of me with everyone. So, to make claims based on visiting me and taking pictures with me is just senseless.”
Oksuz’s alleged links to Turkish intelligence services have not been officially confirmed, and probably never will. The government says he was arrested at Akincilar military base in the early hours of July 16, 2016 and later appeared before a judge, who released Oksuz since the prosecution failed to supply incriminating evidence in the confused, immediate aftermath of the coup. Faced with no evidence, the judge ordered his release. Oksuz has since disappeared without a trace and Turkish security services are seeking the released Gulenist, the government says.
‘This movement…will continue’
A year after the failed coup, Turkey is still under a state of emergency that has seen a massive crackdown on opposition supporters, journalists and human rights defenders. More than 150,000 judges, civil servants and employees at state-run institutions have been fired for their alleged links to the proscribed PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) or FETO (Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organisation) – a term employed by the government for the Gulenist movement – or Hizmet, as followers of the Turkish cleric call their movement.
Among the victims of the purge, the Gulenists appear the hardest hit inside Turkey. On the international front, foreign governments have come under pressure from Turkish authorities to shut down the movement’s schools across the world.
Despite the crackdown, Gulen was adamant that his movement’s days were not over. “In 170 countries, our movement’s schools are still operating, including in the US, Brussels, Europe,” he said. “So I think this is a sign that this movement, whose core value is love, will continue. The politicians, their time is limited. They will go by democratic means. But this movement, which is anchored in love, will continue.”