Fethullah Gülen, the Muslim cleric that the Turkish government blames for the recent attempted coup, has long been reclusive, rarely granting interviews. But in the wake of the accusations against him, he’s sought to clear his name.
Gülen recently agreed to answer a handful of written questions from POLITICO. The exchange is here in full:
You insist your movement is peaceful, not political. But multiple sources tell me that Hizmet has a dark side — where individuals are carefully groomed to enter government and related professions with the intent of an ultimate takeover. Is this true? If not, is it possible that these sorts of activities are happening without your knowledge?
I have served as a preacher for nearly 30 years before coming to the U.S. and my friends continued to publish my talks after I settled here. There are over 70 books based on my articles and talks. It is natural that in Turkish government there are people who share some of my views just as there are those who don’t share them.
My teaching has always been to act within [the] law and in an ethical way. If anybody who follows my works acts illegally or unethically, or if they disobey the lawful orders of their superiors, that is a betrayal of my teachings and I fully support their being investigated and facing the consequences.
If there is no discrimination, government institutions reflect the colors and patterns of its society. We know that in Turkish government institutions there are people of various political and religious orientations, such as nationalists, neonationalists, Maoists, Kemalists, Alevis, leftists, sympathizers of Sufi orders and others. For decades, none of these groups could be transparent about their identities except the Kemalists because of political profiling and discrimination. And now, loyalty to Erdoğan is replacing loyalty to Ataturk as the criteria for acceptable identity.
It is the constitutional right of every Turkish citizen to serve in their government institutions if they are qualified to do so. To accuse anybody of having a nefarious goal without evidence is slander. If people are afraid to reveal their identity for fear of reprisals, it is the regime’s problem, not theirs.
As far as my discourse is concerned, I have never advocated for regime change in Turkey. To the contrary, 22 years ago, in 1994, I told publicly that there will be no return from democracy in Turkey or elsewhere in the world. This was both a prediction and a commitment to democracy. Publications who are allied with President Erdoğan now, criticized me severely then, nearly calling me an infidel. When the military was dominating the domestic politics during the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was charged in Turkish courts … but not a single piece of evidence could be brought to show that I supported any other regime but democracy.
What do you think the future holds for your movement in the wake of the attempted coup in Turkey and Turkish leaders’ demonization of your organization?
President Erdoğan appears determined to wipe all the institutions set up by Hizmetparticipants and prevent any future attempts to establish any new institutions. This is contrary to [the] Turkish constitution and all the international agreements Turkey is a party to. But unless world leaders take a stance with effective measures against this witch hunt, there is no internal dynamic in Turkey to stop the president.
Our friends have so far defended their rights through peaceful protests and in Turkish courts. Now even law offices are being raided and lawyers are being detained. People’s right to defend themselves in the court of law is taken away from them. [The] Erdoğan government is doing everything to push these people to violence. But so far they resisted and remained peaceful and I am confident that they will remain so. Some Hizmet participants have left the country to seek opportunities for investment or for professional work abroad.
This is a sad loss for Turkey but it is the only choice for some people. Private properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been confiscated. I hope and pray that this madness will not last for long.
If the U.S. government decides to extradite you to Turkey, will you agree to the decision?
The U.S. government has a long history of upholding the rule of law and respecting freedoms. Because of this, they have a respectable reputation around the world. I don’t consider it likely that they will abandon this tradition and undermine their reputation simply because President Erdoğan is so adamant about this issue. In the unlikely event that the extradition matter is decided on political grounds, I have already stated that they don’t need to force me out of the country, I will buy my own ticket and go on my own will without blinking an eye.
I am not worried about myself but I am worried about President Erdoğan’s insistence jeopardizing Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. and NATO. Both the U.S. and NATO played crucial roles in transforming Turkey from a single party regime to an imperfect democracy. If Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. and NATO are harmed, I don’t think it will benefit Turkish democracy in any way.
Is it true that you and President Erdoğan were once friends and allies? If so, what caused the tensions between you that have led to this situation today?
Many observers called our relationship an alliance but in truth, we were never very close. I met him two or three times, all before he ran for elections. When his party ran for elections I was already here, so I could not vote anyway, but Hizmetsympathizers supported his party through their votes and their voices in the media.
The reason for this support is not complicated. In going into elections in 2002 they [Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party] promised moving Turkey forward in its bid for EU membership by implementing democratic reforms; enhancing human rights and freedoms; better integrating Turkey with the world; ending public corruption, and government’s political profiling of people and their discriminatory measures. I and my friends supported them for these promises.
Leading into elections in 2011, they promised a democratic constitution that would be drafted by civilians without fear of military generals. But after winning that election they began to reverse every democratic reform they implemented before. The democratic constitution was first conditioned upon the inclusion of executive presidency and then completely forgotten.
In the past, I did support the idea of a presidential system if it is to be modeled after the U.S. or France or other countries where there are checks and balances against the president. But Mr Erdoğan’s proposal was akin to a sultan regime. I could not support such a system with a clear conscience.
Mr Erdoğan put pressure on me and Hizmet sympathizers to publicly support his idea of a presidential system. He increased the pressure by supporting government-funded alternatives to Hizmet institutions and then began threatening to close them down. If we complied with his demand and became loyalists, we would be enjoying the Turkish government’s favors now. But we declined and we have been facing their wrath for the last three years.
This might be called the price of independence. It is a heavy price indeed but I don’t have any regrets and I don’t believe any of my friends have any regrets. My only sorrow is that the country continues to suffer because nobody can stand against his uninhibited ambitions.
If you had the opportunity to speak to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Barack Obama now, what would you say to them?
I don’t think President Erdoğan would consider it worthwhile to speak with me. In the past, I made efforts to reach out to them via letters on the government’s profiling and discrimination, or on the issue of how to address the plight of Kurdish citizens. But none of those attempts were taken seriously. Now, I just pray that God gives him prudence so that he doesn’t jeopardize the future of this great nation.
I witnessed President Obama’s efforts to maintain the relationship with Turkey despite the challenges of dealing with an authoritarian leader. The U.S -Turkish relationship is very important for both countries but more vital for Turkey. I would be sad to see this relationship deteriorate. At the same time, President Erdoğan’s domestic actions are undermining core democratic values of U.S. and NATO.
I am worried that while trying to maintain the relationship, the ground on which this relationship is built upon is shifting. According to the media reports that I see, violent radical groups like ISIS are getting tacit support within Turkey, the handling of security concerns regarding the PKK [the Kurdistan Workers’ Party] is causing civilian casualties and suffering among Kurdish citizens and President Erdoğan’s ambitions to become a national hero is threatening to further destabilize the region. There is growing anti-Americanism and the media under President Erdoğan’s control is playing a leading role in this.
How to keep the relationship alive while preventing Turkey from turning into another Middle Eastern authoritarian regime is a very sensitive task and I hope that the president’s capable team of experts will lead him in the right direction in managing this challenge.