Exiled imam Fethullah Gulen, blamed by the Turkish government for masterminding last July’s coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, penned an op-ed for the Washington Post on the eve of Erdogan’s visit to the Trump White House in which he described his nemesis as an aspiring dictator.
Gulen writes that the Turkey he “once knew as a hope-inspiring country on its way to consolidating its democracy and a moderate form of secularism” has instead become “the dominion of a president who is doing everything he can to amass power and subjugate dissent.”
He refers to the July 15 coup attempt as “deplorable” but says Erdogan has “systematically persecuted innocent people,” using the coup and his antipathy to Gulen’s “Hizmet” movement as an excuse.
“As the coup attempt unfolded, I fiercely denounced it and denied any involvement. Furthermore, I said that anyone who participated in the putsch betrayed my ideals. Nevertheless, and without evidence, Erdogan immediately accused me of orchestrating it from 5,000 miles away,” Gulen maintains.
He mentions the Erdogan government’s zeal to extract people associated with Hizmet, and therefore accused of participating in the coup effort, from countries such as Malaysia and warns that they face “imprisonment and likely torture” if they fall into the clutches of the Turkish government.
Curiously, Gulen does not mention two of the highest-profile Turkish extradition demands, which have roiled its diplomatic relationships. Turkey’s demands for Gulen’s own extradition from the United States have been a sore spot with both the Obama and Trump administrations, while Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on Tuesday accused Germany of aligning itself with terrorists and “putschists” by granting asylum to several accused coup plotters.
The New York Daily News anticipates that Erdogan will push for Gulen’s extradition during his visit to Washington and may offer improved Turkish cooperation against the Islamic State in exchange for the 76-year-old cleric. Erdogan did mention his concern regarding Gulen’s freedom during a joint press conference with President Donald Trump Tuesday. Gulen lives in a highly-secured 27-acre compound in rural Pennsylvania.
In the Washington Post, Gulen warns that Turkey has entered a “new stage of authoritarianism” with Erdogan’s successful referendum to gain more power, coupled with “purges and corruption” that already made him too powerful. He lists several previous examples of Erdogan subverting or suppressing Turkish media and political dissenters. He also accuses the Erdogan government of persecuting Kurdish citizens of Turkey under the guise of combating the violent separatists of the PKK organization.
The Erdogan government arrested Oguz Guven, editor of the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper’s online edition, the day after Gulen’s op-ed was published. Guven was held legally responsible for a Cumhuriyet tweet that used what the Associated Press describes as “an unsavory choice of words” to describe the death of prosecutor Mustafa Alper in a traffic accident.
Specifically, Guven was arrested because a tweet from his paper said Alper was “mowed down” by a truck, and that language was interpreted as a veiled threat to prosecutors working on cases related to the Gulen organization. Alper filed the first indictments against the Gulen network after the July 15 coup. The tweet that got him arrested was online for a total of 55 seconds.
In his op-ed, Gulen calls on NATO to demand democratic reforms in Turkey, particularly the creation of a new constitution that is “on par with international legal and humanitarian norms,” and a school curriculum that “emphasizes democratic and pluralistic values and encourages critical thinking.”
“Before either of those things can happen, however, the Turkish government must stop the repression of its people and redress the rights of individuals who have been wronged by Erdogan without due process,” Gulen adds.
He concludes that he “probably will not live to see Turkey become an exemplary democracy,” but prays “the downward authoritarian drift can be stopped before it is too late.”
Gulen’s piece for the Washington Post was countered by a broadside from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at Foreign Policy on Monday.
Cavusoglu stresses the tension of the July coup attempt, noting 249 Turks were killed and over 2,000 wounded. He claims there is “irrefutable evidence” that Gulen’s group, which the Erdogan government invariably refers to as the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” or FETO, was responsible.
He goes on to name a few accused coup plotters who visited the United States days before the coup attempt, implying they were visiting with Gulen before the insurrection was launched. The U.S. government, under both the current and previous administrations, has been politely skeptical of Turkey’s evidence that Gulen masterminded the operation or met with coup leaders in July.
Cavusoglu describes the Gulenist network as “hydra-like” and says it has a presence in over 160 countries around the world.
“With its nerve center in Pennsylvania, its tentacles reach far and wide, exploiting poverty, fear, democratic deficits, and corruption. The responsibility for collecting evidence regarding these nefarious activities falls largely on the U.S. authorities, since Gülen and his close circle remain untouched in the United States,” he writes. The latter remark could be taken as a jab at the American government’s insistence that Turkey produce more compelling evidence against some of the individuals it wishes to extradite, including Gulen himself.
The Turkish foreign minister mentions Gulen’s network of charter schools, accusing the Gulenists of using them to help cult members immigrate to the United States and spread Gulen’s propaganda with U.S. federal, state, and local funding. Gulen’s schools have been criticized on similar grounds by American observers, including some U.S. government officials.
Cavusoglu insists his government has provided Washington with more than enough evidence to justify extraditing Gulen. He cites the “heavy costs” incurred by Turkey to stand beside the U.S. against “grave threats to its national security” as a reason for the Trump administration to honor Turkey’s request.
“For many decades, Turkey and the United States stood shoulder-to-shoulder in combating terrorism and organized crime. We are fighting against al Qaeda and Daesh in Syria and Iraq, and countering extremism of all kinds across the globe together,” he writes. “Fetjullah Gülen, who was declared by his cult as the “Imam of the Universe,” has attempted to destroy democracy in Turkey. The people of Turkey expect the U.S. authorities to take effective legal measures against this threat to our security and democracy, as an ally should.”