Fethullah Gulen: Turkish Scholar, Cleric — And Conspirator?

Jan 8, 2014
Originally published on January 8, 2014 9:29 pm
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As we just heard from Peter, one of the most talked about figures in Turkish politics is the Islamic scholar, Fethullah Gulen. He's said to wield great influence in Turkey, especially among police and prosecutors. This, despite his self-imposed exile. He lives in a compound in the Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania. Fethullah Gulen doesn't grant a lot of interviews. His aides cite his poor health. But he occasionally does receive an inquiring journalist.

FETHULLAH GULEN: (Foreign language spoken)

SIEGEL: This was from an interview with Jamie Tarabay, formerly of NPR, now at Al Jazeera America. She went to Gulen's compound in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania last summer and interviewed Gulen for The Atlantic. When he asked about Islam and democracy, he recalled being punished as a child for praying in school. Those were in the days when the Turkish republic was militantly secular.

Well, Jamie Tarabay joins us. And welcome to the program once again.

JAMIE TARABAY: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And explain something about Fethullah Gulen. In the days before he left Turkey in the late 1990s, Muslim religious figures did run the risk of harassment or arrest in Turkey, but not in recent years. Why is he still in the U.S.?

TARABAY: Well, you know, he does say that - apart from his health - he is concerned that were he to return to Turkey that he would be the subject of harassment by the government. And he seems to enjoy being in his position here in the States, where you can speak to his followers through the Internet, without the risk of having any kind of physical retaliation against him were he to go back to Turkey.

SIEGEL: Secular Turks sometimes describe Gulen as the leader of a covert Islamist conspiracy. And there is a 1999 video of him telling followers to move in the arteries of the system, avoiding notice until you reach the power centers. But I've also seen him described as Sufi, a Muslim scholar who is very much involved in interfaith causes with Christian and Jewish clergy. How do you describe his orientation as a Muslim?

TARABAY: He's definitely one of the more moderate Islamic leaders that I have met. People - when it comes to Fethullah Gulen - either extremely in favor of him or they're extremely afraid of him. And yet, when it comes to him and his approach there really is so much gray there. When you go to a compound in the Poconos, there are so many people there. And they are really there because, you know, you don't want to say cult but you do kind of feel like they adore him.

SIEGEL: You asked him about statements he made in the past that had been taken by some as anti-Semitic. And he didn't say he was taken out of context. He said his thinking has evolved, is more or less what he told you.

TARABAY: You know, what I found about him is that he isn't someone who shies away from admitting when he thinks that he has said something wrong. And he's definitely a person of learning and intellect. He believes that women should have any position in politics, government, the military, and pushes education. That is really his big thing. So he doesn't inspire violence in any way whatsoever and actually speaks out against it.

SIEGEL: It is often said that he's very popular among police and prosecutors in Turkey. Did you come away understanding what the affinity is between his brand of Sufi Islam and the Turkish cops?


TARABAY: I really couldn't tell you about whether there, you know, there is a melding of the minds there. What I can tell you is that, given his experience as a Muslim in Turkey, he really wants to inspire people to be able to move up and become part of the forces for change in Turkey. So if that means that they're in the judiciary or they're in the police force or they're in the security elements and they're there instituting change, then I can see where the corollary would be.

SIEGEL: The notion of a compound in the Pocono Mountains, home to this most influential of Turkish Islamist scholars - I mean, it sounds like a premise for a bad novel, frankly.


SIEGEL: Is the mood of the place, is it Spartan? Is it luxurious? Isn't very secure? How would you describe Saylorsburg?

TARABAY: Oh, my goodness. Robert, it is bucolic. There's a creek. And apparently the kids who belong to, you know, the families, and they come and they can camp out there. He lives in an extremely Spartan, modest living quarters. He sleeps on a twin bed. But we went to the dining room and the dining room is full of gifts that he has received from everywhere - amazing swords and books and just incredible things that people have sent him from all around the world.

SIEGEL: Well, Jamie Tarabay, thank you very much for talking with us.

TARABAY: It's my pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Jamie Tarabay, whom you may recall from her NPR days. She's now a senior writer at Al Jazeera. And she spoke with us about her interview with Fethullah Gulen from New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.