By Yazeed Kamaldien
Muslim countries should cut ties with Turkey to halt its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s oppression of any opposition, believes one of his influential critics Fethullah Gülen. The frail Islamic cleric, Gülen, 81, recently offered an interview at his retreat in Pennsylvania, United States. He said the Turkish government’s oppression of his Hizmet Movement and its millions of followers would otherwise have no end in sight.
Turkey has also been criticised in recent weeks for its military attacks on Kurdish fighters opposing Islamic State fighters across its border in Syria, angering some Arab nations.
“The change will only come from outside. The US government is thinking of sanctions against Turkey,” Gülen warned.
“And some Muslim countries will consider cutting ties with Turkey. This will corner him (Erdogan).”
Gülen, who founded Hizmet based on educational and social cohesion principles, has been accused of leading a failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15 2016.
He and Hizmet members have been labelled terrorists, with many jailed and others fleeing elsewhere to avoid Turkish government persecution. Hizmet has operations in South Africa too, where under its Turquoise Harmony Institute runs private schools and interfaith events.
Elif Çomoğlu Ülgen, the Turkish ambassador in South Africa, called Hizmet the “Fethullahist Terror Organisation (FETO)” which was peddling “misleading propaganda”. Gülen has been in exile in the US since 1999 when he travelled to that country for medical assistance. He stayed in the US after the Turkish government branded him a terrorist and it wants him extradited. The US has refused, asking for evidence of his alleged involvement in the coup. Gülen said he felt safe in the US and that country’s president Donald Trump would “not extradite” him.
“I didn’t meet Trump, but Americans have a positive view of Hizmet and me,” said Gülen.
“Erdogan also used to have a positive reputation as a Muslim among the (Turkish) public. Hizmet questioned his leadership and he didn’t like that. He then started a witch-hunt against us.
“I had a good relationship with Erdogan. He came to me and asked for suggestions when he started his party. But throughout the years there was enmity in his heart.
“He believed we are a threat. But that’s not our goal.”
Gülen’s influence in Turkey is widespread, especially through his movement’s members who are business leaders. Gulenists, as they are called, have previously also held various government positions but most have now been arrested and fired from those jobs. Gülen said their goal was never to interfere in politics but focus on humanitarian matters, even though he had been arrested.
“My only wish is to earn the pleasure of God. That’s the path of the prophets,” he said.
Aydin Inal, director of the Turquoise Harmony Institute in Cape Town, said numerous Hizmet members have traveled via South Africa to seek asylum elsewhere since the 2016 clampdown.
“The Turkish government has gone to different countries to convince them to close down our operations. Our institutions are still running in South Africa. There are no problems,” said Inal.
“But if I had to go to Turkey I would be arrested and I don’t know what else could happen. As a family, we have not been back to Turkey for more than four years. My family and my wife’s family all still live in Turkey. Our children cry to see their grandparents, uncles and aunts.”
“Until recently the Turkish embassy did not offer us or our families any consular services. We still can’t get passports but our children can. If any of our passports expire then we will not be able to renew it,” Inal added.
“They (Turkish government) have not told us why. They just say our passports have been cancelled. They say the security department cancelled it and we have to go to Turley to get a new one. They want us to go back to Turkey so they can do whatever they want to us.”
Ülgen said their government wanted to clear out a “rogue faction, consisting of FETO members”.
“Within Turkey’s military, (they) attempted to suspend the constitution, impose martial law and enforce a nationwide curfew,” she said.
“The heaviest toll, led by Gülen who cunningly poses as a moderate, tolerant, non-violent, was the death of 251 people, while 2,195 people were injured.”
“Against this backdrop, the image of ‘innocent Turkish citizens’ suffering under an ‘unjust regime’ is a dangerously fictional story,” Ülgen added.
“Over the years, this shadowy cult had infiltrated our government structures. FETO’s modus operandi specifically targeted the strategic institutions of Turkey including law enforcement, the judiciary and eventually the military, in order to manipulate the highest echelons of decision-making.
“This is precisely why Turkey had to go through a process of weeding out the elements of this cult.”
Ülgen accused Hizmet of “meddling in business transactions and government tender processes”.
“Laundering enormous sums of money, arranging illegal transfers of cash and other financial crimes became business as usual,” she said.
“In the past three years since the coup attempt, we have brought many of the perpetrators to justice.
“Our fight against FETO is not an endeavour to suppress ‘political opposition’, nor is it built on our president’s personal feud (with Gülen), like they claim.”
David Shinn, adjunct professor of the practice of international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs, meanwhile said his research showed that Hizmet was “not about interfering in politics”.
Shinn writes in his book, Hizmet in Africa, that the movement instead was linked more to economics. He visited 40 of its schools in various African countries.
“Their operations in other countries follow a business community. They usually open schools and that keeps them alive. A lot of elite Africans wanted to send their children to these schools because they were good schools,” said Shinn.
“I found there was a desire from Hizmet to have good relations with government officials, as that would allow them to operate. And I met government ministers who had good relations with Hizmet.
“The goal was to have a good relationship so they could have a safe space in that country. Anyone needs to have those relationships to have an organisation approved.”