25 April 2012
By DAN BILEFSKY and SEBNEM ARSU / The New York Times
ISTANBUL — When Ahmet Sik was jailed last year on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, he had little doubt that a secretive movement linked to a reclusive imam living in the United States was behind his arrest.
“If you touch them you get burned,” a gaunt and defiant Mr. Sik said in an interview in March at his apartment here, just days after being released from more than a year in jail. “Whether you are a journalist, an intellectual or a human rights activist, if you dare to criticize them you are accused of being a drug dealer or a terrorist.”
Mr. Sik’s transgression, he said, was to write a book, “The Army of the Imam.” It chronicles how the followers of the imam, Fethullah Gulen, have proliferated within the police and the judiciary, working behind the scenes to become one of Turkey’s most powerful political forces — and, he contends, one of its most ruthless, smearing opponents and silencing dissenters.
The case quickly became among the most prominent of dozens of prosecutions that critics say are being driven by the followers of Mr. Gulen, 70, a charismatic preacher who leads one of the most influential Islamic movements in the world, with millions of followers and schools in 140 countries. He has long advocated tolerance, peace and interfaith dialogue, drawing on the traditions of Sufism, a mystical strain of Islam generally viewed as being moderate.
But the movement’s stealthy expansion of power — as well as its tactics and lack of transparency — is now drawing accusations that Mr. Gulen’s supporters are using their influence in Turkey’s courts and police and intelligence services to engage in witch hunts against opponents with the aim of creating a more conservative Islamic Turkey. Critics say the agenda is threatening the government’s democratic credentials just as Turkey steps forward as a regional power.
“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.”
The movement has strong affiliations or sympathy in powerful parts of Turkey’s news media, including the country’s largest daily newspaper, Zaman, and, Turkish analysts say, among at least several dozen members of its 550-seat Parliament, with support extending to the highest levels of government.
With its extensive influence in the media and a small army of grass-roots supporters, the Gulen movement has provided indispensable support to the conservative, Islam-inspired government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Some officials and analysts suspect that some elements within the Gulen movement have served as a stalking-horse for the government, which has benefited, too, as the Gulen-affiliated media have attacked common opponents and backed trials that Mr. Erdogan has publicly supported.
But the relationship between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen has sometimes been tense, with the prime minster, a mercurial and populist leader, sensitive to any challenges to his authority. Analysts say that in recent months Mr. Erdogan and other members of his Justice and Development Party have grown increasingly wary, as high-profile arrests of critics of the Gulen movement have embarrassed the government. There is growing talk of a power struggle.
A culture of fear surrounding the so-called Gulenists, however exaggerated, is so endemic that few here will talk openly about them on the telephone, fearing that their conversations are being recorded and that there will be reprisals.
Ayse Bohurler, a founding member of the Justice and Development Party, said that the lack of transparency and clear organizational structure made it impossible to hold the group accountable. “There is no reference point; they are kicking in the shadows,” Ms. Bohurler said. “They are everywhere and nowhere.”
Mr. Gulen rarely gives interviews, and he declined a request for this article. But Mustafa Yesil, president of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, a group based in Istanbul that is affiliated with the movement, described the Gulenists as a “civic movement” with no political aspirations. If sympathizers of the movement are well represented in Turkey’s state bureaucracy and the police, Mr. Yesil said, their presence is based on merit.
“The old guard feel squeezed because their space is getting smaller, and they are sending the bill to the movement,” Mr. Yesil said.
His words were reinforced by a rare public statement posted on a leading Gulen community Web site this month. The statement said it was a “violation of human rights” to accuse Gulenists in the state bureaucracy of “infiltration” when they were actually upholding the rule of law and serving their country.
The movement is well known for running a network of schools lauded for their academic rigor and commitment to spreading Turkish language and culture. Gulen followers have been involved in starting one of the largest collections of charter schools in the United States. With their neatly trimmed mustaches, suits and ties, and their missionary zeal, supporters here convey the earnestness of Mormon missionaries or Muslim Peace Corps volunteers. Their eyes moisten at the mention of Mr. Gulen’s name, which is invoked with utmost reverence.
Sympathizers say the notion of Mr. Gulen as a cultish puppet master is a malicious caricature. The group consists of an informal network of followers and has no formal organization or official membership, they say. Mr. Gulen communicates in essays and videotaped sermons, which are posted on the Internet and appear in other Gulen-related media outlets.
His sympathizers say his goal is the creation of a “golden generation” that would embrace humanism, science and Islam and serve the Turkish state. He has publicly affirmed the importance of complying with Turkey’s secular laws, and mathematics and science competitions at Gulen schools overshadow religious expression, which takes place quietly in “relaxation rooms” that double as prayer spaces.
But some critics say that outward appearances belie the true agenda of a movement working behind the scenes to expand the role of Islam in Turkey. They say that, ultimately, the community aims to bring Mr. Gulen, who is ailing, back to Turkey. Supporters say Mr. Gulen has resisted returning home, mindful that he could polarize the country.
Mr. Sik, the author, accused Mr. Gulen’s followers of misusing their positions of power. Once arrested, he was accused of links to a shadowy network called Ergenekon, which prosecutors contend planned to engage in civil unrest, assassinations and terrorism to create chaos for Mr. Erdogan’s Muslim-inspired government as a prelude for a coup by the military, which has long regarded itself as the guardian of the secular state.
Even some of Mr. Sik’s staunchest critics say the charges against him appeared ludicrous. A longtime critic of the military, he had written a book on the Ergenekon case arguing about ways prosecutors could better investigate the coup plot he is now accused of abetting.
The Ergenekon trials have been a watershed for Turkey, as prosecution of the matter has swept up dozens of journalists, intellectuals and current and former military service members.
The ascent of Mr. Erdogan’s government since 2002 has radically shifted the balance of power, and analysts say the Gulenists have seized the opportunity to settle old scores and tame their former rivals, including the military.
“Hard-core activists within the Gulen movement are driving the arrests,” said Gareth Jenkins, an expert on Turkey at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, affiliated with Johns Hopkins University. “It is revenge for the 1990s, when the military oppressed Muslim conservatives.”
Gulen supporters argue that the Ergenekon trials are a long-overdue historical reckoning aimed at bringing to account a murky group of ultranationalist operatives, linked to the military, that has fought against perceived enemies of the state, including pro-Islamists.
Few here doubt that there is some truth to the conspiracy: the police say they have uncovered stashes of weapons linked to retired officers, and the military has intervened four times to overthrow democratically elected governments.
Mr. Gulen lives in self-imposed exile on a 25-acre haven in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. In 1999, he fled Turkey amid accusations of plotting to overthrow the secular government. Around that time, a taped sermon emerged in the media in which Mr. Gulen was heard advising his followers to “move within the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers.”
He has said his words were manipulated, and he was acquitted of all charges in 2008.
Mr. Gulen, who has preached openly against fundamentalism and terrorism, was embraced in Washington after Sept. 11, 2001, as a welcome face of moderate Islam, analysts say. His green card application shows that his request to remain in the United States was endorsed by a former official of the Central Intelligence Agency. His movement’s events have been attended by luminaries like former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general.
A 2009 cable by the United States ambassador to Turkey at the time, James F. Jeffrey, made public by WikiLeaks, noted that the Gulen movement was strong within the police force and in conflict with the military. It said that the assertion that the Turkish national police is controlled by Gulenists “is impossible to confirm, but we have found no one who disputes it.”
The cable goes on to say that the Gulen-controlled media are supporting the investigation into Ergenekon and have helped put many opponents of the governing Justice and Development Party behind bars.
But the interests of the movement and the government appear increasingly to be diverging, as prosecutions of opponents widen.
In February a prosecutor asked the leader of the National Intelligence Agency, Hakan Fidan, a close ally of Mr. Erdogan, to testify in a court case widely backed by Gulen supporters over secret links between the agency and the P.K.K., a Kurdish group that Turkey, the United States and the European Union classify as a terrorist organization. The government moved swiftly to block the questioning, and the prosecutor was removed from the case.
It was not the first case in which tensions with the government have surfaced, or the first case of allegations with murky origins.
In September 2010, Hanefi Avci, a former police chief and Gulen sympathizer, was arrested and accused of being part of the Ergenekon plot after publishing a book alleging that a network of Gulenists in the police was manipulating judicial processes.
In another case, in 2009, three noncommissioned officers confessed to planting forged documents implicating the commander of their air force base in the central city of Kayseri, according to Serkan Gunel, a lawyer familiar with the case. One of the documents asked army personnel to assist an officer jailed on charges of plotting to overthrow the government.
The officers told investigators they had planted the forged documents at the request of their Gulenist mentor. Soon afterward, articles appeared in the Gulen-affiliated media saying that their confessions had been extracted with the use of hypnosis. The military prosecutor who carried out the investigation, Col. Ahmet Zeki Ucok, was accused of cavorting with Russian prostitutes as part of a smear campaign, the lawyer said.
The officers recanted their confessions and were restored to their posts. A forensic medical report, obtained 18 months after the officers were interviewed, said they could have been hypnotized. Colonel Ucok was convicted April 17 on charges of torture related to his questioning of the officers and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.
Mr. Sik, who remains out of prison, pending trial, has not been silenced. The police seized the manuscript to his book, but it was nevertheless published by a group of supporters on the Internet. Mr. Sik says he hopes to return to writing books, assuming he is not put back in jail.
“My only wish is for my children to read about these events as dirt from the past,” he said. “I want it to be buried.”