December 21, 2014

Embattled Turkish cleric's influence felt in Tulsa

Fethullah Gulen is not exactly a household name in Tulsa.

But the influence of the Turkish Muslim cleric — who is living in self-imposed exile in the United States — is felt here and in cities around the world.

And his followers here fear that the arrest this week of two dozen law enforcement and media leaders who are part of the influential Gulen movement in Turkey may signal a dangerous shift of the Turkish government away from democracy and the West, and toward autocracy and Russia.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Gulen’s followers of seeking to create a parallel power structure within the state, intent on overthrowing his government.

But Omer Akdeniz, a Broken Arrow businessman and native of Turkey, said Gulen’s followers consider him a moderate apolitical author and educator who teaches that interfaith dialogue and education are the only ways to end the cycle of violence and hatred plaguing the world.

Akdeniz is a spokesman for the Tulsa chapter of the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest and also of the Raindrop Turkish House, a sister organization. Both are associated with the Gulen movement.

Akdeniz said Gulen’s informal network of followers, which some estimate at 15 million people, has created thousands of schools in Turkey and 160 other nations, including some in the United States, as well as colleges, hospitals, humanitarian organizations and media outlets. Gulen was among Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people last year. He has been called the second most powerful man in Turkey.

And Gulen followers have been active in Tulsa.

The Dialogue Institute of the Southwest has sent some 300 Oklahoma leaders and educators on two-week study trips to Turkey over the past several years and has sponsored variety of interfaith programs. The Raindrop Turkish House built a Turkish cultural center in Broken Arrow and has sponsored Turkish educational and cultural programs.

Akdeniz said two Tulsa charter public schools — Discovery School of Tulsa and Dove Science Academy — are not directly connected to the Gulen movement, but that some of their educators are Turks who are part of the local Gulen community.

Yusuf Dundar, executive director of the Tulsa chapter of the Dialogue Institute, said local Turks are concerned about the arrests this week that included the editor in chief of Zaman, a pro-Gulen newspaper with the largest circulation in the nation, key people at a major television broadcasting group and others.

“We have concerns that we are getting away from democracy and Western values,” Dundar said, speaking about the president of Turkey. “We think Erdogan is breaking ties with the West and with Europe and is strengthening ties with Russia and China. That is a very big concern for us, that he is leading our country into autocracy.”

Adkeniz said the Gulen movement is the most influential social movement in Turkey today and is the only group in Turkey with enough power to stand up to the government’s shift away from democracy.

He said the government’s arrest of key Gulen movement leaders in the media was an effort to silence its critics, who had published reports about corruption in the Erdogan government.

Erdogan has accused Gulen of ordering his followers in the media, law enforcement and the judiciary to investigate and falsely accuse some of his top governmental officials of corruption.

In a rare interview with the BBC News, Gulen denied he used his influence to initiate the corruption investigations.

Akdeniz said that when Erdogan talks to Turks and to others in the Middle East, he accuses Gulen followers of working with the United States and the Central Intelligence Agency, and when he is talking to Western audiences, he calls them dangerous Muslim extremists.

Gulen, who is 73, left Turkey for the United States in 1999 after falling out of favor with the Turkish government. He was later cleared of accusations of wrongdoing but remains in the United States, living in Pennsylvania.

The Associated Press reported that the government of Turkey now wants to extradite Gulen from the United States to Turkey.

Editor’s note: Hizmet Movement Blog reaffirms its non-endorsement policy of the various viewpoints expressed throughout the articles that are solely shared for the convenience of the readers.

Published on Tulsa World, 20 December 2014, Saturday