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Imam Whose Foes Go to Jail Blamed by Erdogan in Turk Probe

A Banner Depicts Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen
A protester holds up a banner with pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen during a demonstration against the goverment in Istanbul. Photographer: Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen is in poor health and hasn’t set foot in his homeland this millennium, yet he directs a movement that tends to win its battles and has rattled its latest opponent, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan’s government blames the U.S.-based Gulen, 75, for a corruption inquiry that led three cabinet ministers to quit, saying the preacher’s supporters in the police and judiciary instigated the probe. The premier has purged hundreds of top officials as he vows to hit back.

For most of his 11 years in power, the Islamist-rooted Erdogan enjoyed support from Gulen’s movement, sharing goals such as curbing the power of the secular army. In that period a series of generals and journalists and a senior police chief who clashed with Gulen supporters or objected to their influence in the Turkish state ended up in jail. Now it’s Erdogan who’s under pressure as the investigation exposes allies and roils markets.

Gulen “has a network covering the whole country,” Erdogan’s former deputy premier Abdullatif Sener, who resigned in 2007, said in a phone interview. “The government is going after the movement’s members in the judiciary and police.”

The two rivals are attacking each other in coded language. Without naming Gulen, Erdogan said on his Twitter account on Dec. 18 that a “state within a state” is behind the graft probe that targeted his ministers and their family members.

‘Wreck Their Homes’

Gulen said his “whole community, people who devoted themselves to God,” is coming under attack, and accused the government of shooting the messenger.

“Those who go after the people who catch the thieves, without seeing the thieves themselves, may God send fire upon their houses and wreck their homes,” the cleric said in a sermon posted on the Herkul website, operated by followers who live with him on his retreat in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania.

Gulen doesn’t have the “slightest involvement in or knowledge about” the graft inquiry, his lawyer Orhan Erdemli said. Allegations that the cleric influences court decisions through followers in the judiciary are “part of a black propaganda” campaign conducted against him, according to Nurullah Albayrak, another Gulen lawyer. The cleric’s health problems mean he’s not able to discuss the issue, affiliated organizations, including the Journalists and Writers Foundation and the Alliance for Shared Values, said in response to e-mailed questions.

Rhetorical Style

Gulen developed his rhetorical style and won a following while employed as an imam, or preacher, by the Turkish state. He worked in the country’s wealthier west, where he persuaded businessmen to set up dormitories for needy students, according to a 2008 biography by journalist Faruk Mercan. Those later turned into schools that form a key part of his organization, helping to train teachers and volunteers for schools run by the group around the world, according to the book.

Gulen left Turkey in 1999 after tapes that showed him telling followers to infiltrate government institutions were broadcast on television. A year later, he was charged with forming a terrorist group to undermine the secular state. He was acquitted by the top appeals court in 2008.

Since then, Gulen’s health has deteriorated. He has diabetes and was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat in October, according to Herkul.

Deterioriating Ties

Relations between his movement and the government have worsened. After an Israeli raid on a Turkish aid ship killed nine people in 2010, Erdogan blamed Israel while Gulen criticized organizers for defying Israeli curbs on shipments to Gaza. Tensions resurfaced a year later, when prosecutors in the Gulen-backed probe of army officers attempted to question Turkey’s intelligence chief, a close Erdogan ally.

In June 2012, Erdogan invited Gulen to return to Turkey, again without naming him. “Those who are absent from their home, those who yearn for their country’s soil, we would like to see them among us,” he said.

Gulen stayed in Pennsylvania. Two months later, he told The Atlantic magazine that his return would give groups he didn’t identify an opportunity to “reverse democratic reforms.”

This year, Gulen has chided the government for suppressing protests that spread through the country in June. The conflict burst into the open in November, when Erdogan proposed to shut down prep schools that coach students for university entrance exams, a source of revenue and followers for Gulen’s movement.

Billions in Revenue

The schools take in $2 billion a year and employ about 100,000 teachers, according to an industry group cited by Gulen-linked newspaper Zaman. About a quarter of them have ties to the Gulen movement, Erdogan said last month.

The influence extends into manufacturing. The Gulen-affiliated group Tuskon, set up in 2005 by industrialists from central Turkey, now has about 50,000 members. It takes advantage of the movement’s network in countries from Africa to Southeast Asia, Chairman Rizanur Meral told Le Monde Diplomatique two years ago.

“Turkey’s export markets expanded and diversified over the last decade,” with companies from outside the big cities playing a growing part, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Ankara, in a phone interview. “Some of this is related to the activities of businessmen close to the Gulen movement.”

Operations Halted

Koza Altin, a Tuskon member mining for gold in western Turkey, stopped operations at one of its mines today after saying a local government body declared it didn’t have the necessary permits, an allegation it denied. Its shares plunged as much as 9.2 percent.

Gulen’s strength lies not in numbers but in the influential posts its members occupy, said Bekir Agirdir, director of Istanbul-based research and consultancy firm Konda.

“They’ve always tried to be within the circles of power,” Agirdir said in a phone interview.

Many Turks who have tried to document Gulen’s influence have been targeted. Journalist Ahmet Sik was jailed for a year on charges of involvement in a coup plot. He’d been working on a book about Gulen called “The Imam’s Army” when police raided his house and a publishing company in Istanbul. The book was later published online.

Former police chief Hanefi Avci was arrested in 2010 after publishing a best-selling book arguing that Gulenists had infiltrated the force. He was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison in July on terrorism charges.

In Tandem

During years of inquiries into alleged coup plots, as hundreds of active and retired generals were arrested and jailed on various charges, there were few signs of tensions between Erdogan and Gulen. “They appeared inseparable, like the nail and the finger,” said the Marshall Fund’s Unluhisarcikli.

Gulen’s Journalists and Writers Foundation said yesterday that there’s been a “significant change in the way Erdogan and his ruling party governs” since its third election win in 2011. It cited the slowdown in European Union membership talks and erosion of media freedoms.

The Gulen movement’s criticisms are focused personally on the prime minister, according to Mahmut Akpinar, a professor of political science at Ankara’s Turgut Ozal University. Other leading Turkish politicians, including President Abdullah Gul, are said by local media to have better relations with the group.

“The problem is not so much about the ruling party,” Akpinar said. “It’s about Erdogan.”

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