Fethullah Gulen, who lives in semi-seclusion in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, has been accused by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of masterminding the July 15 attempt to overthrow him.
Erdogan called the failed military coup a “clear crime of treason” and intimated that the plotters should receive the death penalty, a practice abolished in 2004 as part of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.
Turkey announced it had seized more than 2,250 social, educational, or health-care institutions and facilities that it claims pose a threat to national security.
The government has now either purged or detained some 35,000 members of the military, security forces, judiciary, and teaching profession, in an effort to remove Gulen loyalists.
More than 1,000 members of the Turkish military, including 127 generals and 32 admirals, were also dismissed, charged with involvement in the plot — about a third of the country’s top military officers.
Almost 1,600 university deans have also been ordered to resign and half a dozen university presidents have been fired or detained. Turkey also issued a blanket travel ban on all academics.
Altogether, the purges have left at least 10,000 people in jail and about 50,000 fired or suspended.
Among those detained were two Canadian imams — Ilhan Erdem of Ottawa and Davud Hanci of Calgary — accused of ties to Hizmet.
The Turkish government ordered the closing of more than 100 media outlets, including newspapers, publishing companies and television channels, and detention warrants have been issued for at least 80 journalists suspected of having ties to Gulen.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim likened Gulen’s followers to a “parallel terrorist organization” and urged Washington not to “harbour this terrorist any longer. He is of no benefit to humanity, he is of no benefit to Islam.”
Gulen has denied any involvement in the coup.
The 75-year-old imam began preaching in the Aegean city of Izmir in the 1970s, and soon began urging his followers to “move in the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers.”
In 2000, Turkey’s authorities, under the secular government of Bulent Ecevit, charged him with plotting to overthrow the government but he had moved to United States two years earlier. A Turkish court acquitted the preacher of the charges in 2003, but he remained in the U.S.
The Gulen movement contends that it runs more than 2,000 educational premises, including charter schools, university departments, language centers and religious courses, in 160 countries.
It also controls billion-dollar business interests such as media companies, banks and construction firms.
As a fellow moderate Islamist, Gulen at first backed Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party, helping it to its electoral victories after 2002.
But in 2013 the alliance began to come apart, as police investigations into government corruption that implicated members of Erdogan’s cabinet and other close associates were blamed by Erdogan on Gulan.
Gulen’s supporters describe him as a moderate Muslim cleric who champions interfaith tolerance and dialogue and espouses a philosophy that blends a mystical form of Islam with democracy.
In an interview with the Atlantic magazine in August 2013, Gulen said, “I had a chance to get to know practitioners of non-Muslim faiths better, and I felt a need to revise my expressions from earlier periods.”
He told journalist Jamie Tarabay, “I have not done anything that I did not believe to be in the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed.”
No matter. As Brian Klaas, a Fellow in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, wrote in Foreign Affairs, Erdogan will continue to use the failed plot “as a pretext to accelerate his relentless despotic practice of jailing journalists, silencing dissent, and ruling with a hardening fist.”
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.