Our interview with Fethullah Gulen is off to an ominous start. As our team approaches the destination in our car, a dark brown Honda drives straight towards us in the wrong lane. The driver yells, “Leave!” before veering off.
We are in the rural hamlet of Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, a two-hour drive from New York City. This is the home of the man the Turkish government regards as Turkey’s chief villain, preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is currently sought by the Turkish authorities for alleged involvement in the 2016 attempted coup. The coup attempt cost the lives of some 300 people, many of them civilians.
Gulen was once referred to in some circles as the second most powerful man in his home country, right after the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now most of his influence is gone.
He has lived in self-imposed exile in the quiet Pennsylvania countryside since 1999.
After the failed coup d’état in Turkey I have reported on the detentions and persecution of Gulen’s supporters in Turkey. This is perhaps why we are allowed this rare interview, one of a handful that has been granted after the violent incidents of almost two years ago.
Before we met Gulen himself, we ask some local townspeople about their neighbour.
Mysterious “man from the Middle East”
Residents of the tiny hamlet of Saylorsburg (population: 1,126) are aware of their famous recluse, and are curious about the goings-on at his 10-hectare estate. We ran into Frank Newman, a local holiday resort worker, at the town’s only petrol station.
“When I moved up here my cousin, who is a lifelong Pennsylvanian, told me that there is a guy up here from the Middle East somewhere. She told me I should watch going around his place because there are armed sentries and a lot of crazy stuff going on,” he says.
Newman says some people think the mysterious man is a terrorist, but he has also heard others saying that such notions are rooted in propaganda spread from Turkey.
Linda Breitlauch works at a veterinarian’s office along the town’s main road. She has met some of Gulen’s followers.
“His followers are very friendly people. Several times a year they invite our community – people of all denominations: Jewish, Lutheran – to come out to a dinner. They have that outreach and that’s actually how we met several of his followers,” she says
Nestled safely in the Poconos
The guarded estate of Fethullah Gulen is just a short trip from the village centre, surrounded by the green forests and popular hiking areas in the Pennsylvania countryside. We are shown around the premises while we wait to meet Gulen.
The compound is owned by a foundation. About 30 people live and work here, in addition to Gulen himself. Some are close long-time associates. There are also students, who stay for extended periods of time.
A gardener who has served Gulen for years is also among the compound’s year-round residents.
The grounds include several two-storey homes for visiting guests and students, along with a cafeteria, mosques and Gulen’s residence. Gulen greets us in a house that is a gift from a businessman who supports the Gulen movement, which is known as Hizmet (service) in Turkish.
Many Turks accept the view of their country’s leadership and believe that the soft-spoken old man who sits before us was the mastermind behind the failed Turkish uprising.
“Were there any phone conversations? Has anyone come forward to say that I had told him to do anything? Or has anyone said that the idea originated with me?” Gulen asks.
Gulen has requested an international investigation be launched into the claims against him. He assures us that he has very different things on his mind.
“The most important pursuit is to be of benefit to humanity. That is the core of our educational training. Our largest problems are poverty, a lack of education and disputes among each other,” the cleric says.
An educational, religious and business alliance
Gulen’s movement, Hizmet, presents itself as an organisation promoting a moderate Islamic faith, education, and interfaith dialogue. Trained as an imam in Turkey as a young man, Fethullah Gulen and his followers have built up a religious empire influencing millions of people the world over.
In Turkey, however, Hizmet has been classified as a terrorist organisation since December 2015, forcing its supporters underground.
Gulen and his followers – known as Gulenists – focus on education, in addition to religion. They started by establishing evening classes and summer youth camps in Turkey in the 1960s. These learning opportunities often supplemented the inadequate education supplied in Turkish schools, and the evening courses led to private schools, which quickly earned a good reputation for their high standards.
The movement also founded several private universities. These educational institutions provided good recruitment opportunities for the Gulen movement, even if their tuition was not religious in nature.
The movement grew and spread abroad. In the 1990s TV channels, and newspapers supportive of the cause and even a major commercial bank were born.
In the last few years, the Turkish government has boarded up or assumed control of all of the Gulenist movement’s schools and media outlets, as well as companies considered close to it. The movement’s heyday is now a distant memory.
A businessman on the run in Saylorsburg
In one of the compound’s guesthouses in Saylorsburg, we met a prominent Turkish businessman who did not wish to show his face. The Turkish authorities do not know that he is there. He has sought refuge at the centre, trading in a busy and comfortable life in his home country for a small room in Pennsylvania.
Gulen’s supporters are now being ruthlessly tracked down in Turkey and every corner of the globe. An estimated 150,000 people have lost their jobs, and over 50,000 have been arrested since the coup attempt, most of whom are considered Gulenists.
The man who inspired the movement says he lies awake at night and thinks about his supporters’ fate. He compares the developments in Turkey today to Germany under Hitler.
“Things like this once happened in Germany. We have seen similar things in our recent history in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, modern-day Yemen, and in Libya under Gaddafi,” Gulen says.
As he speaks, Gulen sometimes reverts to an older, more archaic version of the Turkish language, and he mostly refuses to refer to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by name. Nevertheless, his message is clear: a paranoid dictator is now ruling Turkey. And he is not alone in this belief. Opposition parties in Turkey also accuse Erdogan of a zealous power grab.
But Erdogan was not always an enemy of Fethullah Gulen.
The shared history of Gulen and Erdogan
Before travelling to meet Gulen, I stopped in England to meet with Caroline Tee, a social anthropologist at Cambridge University. Having spent time with teachers and students in the movement’s schools and interviewing some of the leaders, she is familiar with the inner workings of the Gulen movement.
Tee says that Gulen was Erdogan’s primary ally, although the two men hardly ever appeared together in public. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) had joined forces with Gulen to give Islam a bigger role in Turkish public life.
“We have known for a long time that whilst the AKP was running as the democratically elected government in parliament, the Gulenists were accruing power with a similar ultimate goal to the AKP in the other branches of state,” Tee says.
Erdogan became Turkey’s prime minister in 2003, and it is said the Gulenists were busy securing their position in the police forces and judiciary of the country. But the dual forces were facing resistance from the Turkish military, which felt they were undermining the country’s secularism.
In 2008, a series of trials began in which hundreds of military officers were accused of plotting against the government. The charges were seen by many to be based on false premises, and the men on trial were eventually released. Also a number of journalists who had been investigating the activities of Gulen supporters in the judiciary and police were arrested.
The soldiers were weakened but Gulen and Erdogan soon found themselves in the middle of a power struggle.
The two leaders collide
Gulen denies ever cooperating with Erdogan. He bristles at even the mention of such a thought.
“I swear to you that I have not discussed such matters with anyone. I believe the best way forward is democracy, and I have said this on several occasions,” he says.
Calculating the total number of Gulen movement supporters is difficult, as there is no official membership register and it’s a movement with many layers. Cambridge researcher Caroline Tee estimates that in 2013 there were between half-a-million and two million core supporters in Turkey.
Rank and file members of the movement who worked for example in schools associated with the Gulenist movement probably had no idea of what was going on at a higher level in the movement to do with the planning of the coup.
“These are people who are genuinely and totally sold out on Gulen’s teachings and totally committed to them,” Tee says.
“I think for them the attraction was being a part of something that was contributing to the greater good, that was using their skills for the betterment of Turkish society. They were building up dialogue opportunities with people from other countries and other religions,” she says.
It is unlikely that Gulen supporters in the military would have attempted a coup without their leader’s approval, Caroline Tee says. But what was the actual extent of Gulenist involvement and Mr Gulen’s role as an instigator of the coup attempt? Tee won’t take a position as she hasn’t researched the subject.
Dangerous days in Saylorsburg
Turkey is on a mission to force key Gulenists in the movement to come home and face charges in the Turkish courts. Most western countries have not cooperated. There are even claims that Turkish authorities have gone so far as to abduct Gulen supporters in foreign countries.
Human rights organisations point to the inhumane prison conditions in Turkey and a gristly track record of torture and other human rights violations.
The country’s leadership is also demanding that the US extradite Fethullah Gulen. Turkey claims it has provided the US authorities with boxfuls of evidence of the cleric’s involvement in the 2016 coup attempt.
US press sources have reported that President Donald Trump’s former security advisor Michael Flynn was in negotiations to send Gulen back to Turkey in return for a supposed 15 million dollar reward. The alleged deal was discussed before Flynn’s short-lived career at the White House. Gulen’s enclave in sleepy Pennsylvania has started to prepare for the worst.
Things could get violent
Fethullah Gulen used to live in a large wooden house closer to the guardhouse at the entrance of his compound. For some time now, he has been sleeping in a different location because his advisors say his previous home is unsafe.
“I was told that I could be killed by a bomb attack in my house of wood. Turkey could do that,” he says.
We make a visit to his temporarily vacant abode, which is full of religious books and gifts borne by visitors. His narrow bed peaks out from behind a bookshelf in his study.
Government media in Turkey has reported on Gulen’s luxurious life in America from time to time, but there are no signs of this here. The 79-year-old Gulen, who has never married, says he takes several different kinds of medication daily to help him cope with his many health-related issues.
His supporters have started to discuss the next era of the movement; the one that will begin once their leader has departed.
The movement’s future outside Turkey
“The future is in God’s hands. People who believe in our cause will continue our work. The world feels sympathy for our movement,” says Gulen.
He adds that almost all of the Gulenists who have come to Finland seeking asylum have been allowed to stay. He feels that this is representative of the fact that his movement’s spirit of brotherhood has made its mark.
Since the failed coup in 2016, a few dozen Gulenist movement supporters have travelled to Finland to seek asylum. Three men from Finland are visiting Saylorsburg while we are there. They have brought a reindeer hide from Finland as a gift.
We ask if we can film Gulen’s participation in Friday worship the next day, and so we are invited to spend the night in one of the guesthouses.
By the time the midday call to prayers rolls around, the mosque is almost full. Gulen supporters from nearby areas have travelled to the centre to take part.
Gulen arrives last and enters the hall from the rear. He stumbles a bit, and several people rush to assist him.
Out in the yard we see a familiar brown Honda. This means the angry man we encountered upon our arrival here came from inside Gulen’s compound. Perhaps he thought we were members of the Turkish government’s media.
A resident of Saylorsburg had told us earlier that at least one Turkish TV crew had been on the lookout for people in the town that had something bad to say about Fethullah Gulen.