Fethullah Gülen and his followers are a source of controversy and mystery in Turkey. Gülenists are accused of being a cult-like group that holds sway over Erdoğan and the AKP, and there is plenty of evidence that Gülenists in the judiciary and police force are responsible for the Ergenekon investigation, among other things. Much like with the power of Turkey’s deep state, I am of the view that the reality is a mixture of truth and legend, which benefits both sides since the Gülenists get the benefit of being feared and awed while their opponents can chalk up much of their misfortune to shadowy figures with unfathomable behind-the-scenes power.
While Gülen lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, his followers have not been much of an issue in the U.S. until recently. The New York Times last summer ran a series of articles on Gülenist charter schools in Texas that raised questions about immigration law violations and misuse of tax dollars. Yesterday, Tennessee’s legislature passed a law aimed at Gülenist schools that limits the number of foreign teachers a charter school may employ, which is bound to draw increased scrutiny of Gülen’s aims. Then today, the International Herald Tribune published a long front page article on Gülenists in Turkey that rehashed many of the claims about them and included the following sentences: ‘‘We are troubled by the secretive nature of the Gulen movement, all the smoke and mirrors,” said a senior American official, who requested anonymity to avoid breaching diplomatic protocol. “It is clear they want influence and power. We are concerned there is a hidden agenda to challenge secular Turkey and guide the country in a more Islamic direction.” Strangely, the article is nowhere to be found on the IHT website, despite it appearing on the front page of the print edition.
I am not entirely sure what is going on here – possibly it is a simple oversight, possibly the story was retracted for one reason or another, or possibly the Times was threatened with legal action after last summer’s investigatory journalism and thinks that keeping the story in print rather than digital form will not raise any red flags with Gülenists. The bigger issue here is what implications will follow from this “senior American official” calling out the Gülen movement so forcefully and publicly. Nobody questions that Gülenists are powerful in Turkey, and while there is evidence that Erdoğan has begun to push back against their more overt displays of power, the AKP and the Gülenists have a tacit alliance. If the Obama administration actually views Gülen and his acolytes as such a big problem – and to my ears, the quote is a strange one that sounds more like something a House GOPer would say – and it raises the issue with Turkey, there is bound to be some pushback. This is all very mysterious for now, but it definitely bears some close watching down the road.