The rural town of Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, seems unfazed by the attempted military coup that rocked Turkey overnight on Friday, and threatened to destabilise the region.
At a little over 5,000 miles away from Istanbul – Turkey’s biggest city and the heart of the country’s failed putsch – that is hardly surprising, save for the fact that the uprising’s alleged mastermind, Fethullah Gülen, has made his home in Saylorsburg.
His presence causes commotion from time to time. When Turkey is sporadically plunged into political chaos, attention often turns towards his guarded compound. It was the same on Friday, when residents could hear helicopters circling over Gülen’s home.
Apart from mysterious choppers, there are also the occasional anti-Gülen protesters. Sometimes they drive up and down Mt Eaton Road, one of the main thoroughfares in the farming town, waving the Turkish flag out of their windows.
Apart from that, living next to the man who Recep Tayyip Erdoğan personally blames for trying to overthrow the government has few downsides. Indeed, it can have perks – invitations to Thanksgiving dinner, for example. Or, even, some claim, a trip to Turkey.
To the wider world, Gülen’s living arrangements are shrouded in secrecy. It is peculiar enough that the leader of the Hizmet movement, in self-exile from Turkey, lives in a small Pennsylvania town, nestled in the Poconos.
He sleeps in a small and spartan room in a sprawling complex, the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center, where his movement offers religious instruction. At any given time, there are up to 80 visitors undergoing religious retreats. For a man widely described as reclusive, he has many guests, including Saylorsburg residents.
Chuck Parker, who lives down the road from Gülen, said: “When we have the traditional Thanksgiving, he has a dinner then. He also has a dinner for Ramadan.” He and many other residents have received invitations, which often come with a personal touch. “They usually hand-deliver it, or one of the guys brings it over.”
The dinners arouse much interest among some of the residents. One elderly man, who asked not to be named, said: “I went to a dinner four years ago. My mother was 97. She always wanted to go, because other neighbors from the area went. And then we went.”
The man, who was taking a break from picking cucumbers from his vegetable patch, said: “I’ve been to his dinners a couple of times. They treat you nice. You don’t see him,” he said, referring to Gülen. “They escort you to the building. They tell you where to park. There is an escort there, and an escort back.”
Residents agree that the warm welcome and hospitality that Gülen offers residents is a defining feature of the group’s presence in the town. Holly Parker, a stained-glass artist who has received invitations to the dinners, said: “According to the Muslim culture, they invite the neighbors for things … They do it to extend themselves out into the community a little bit. I think they realize that there might be a few people in the community who might be wary.”
Though none of the people the Guardian met in Saylorsburg had anything bad to say about the neighborliness of Gülen, Parker suggested that some residents might “feel iffy” about the group being headquartered in their town. “Some people are a little wary, and have questions like: why are they here? Why are they in the country?” But, she insists, she has no complains to make of them. “They’ve been very nice.”
Some residents have gotten very close to Gülen. “Some of the neighbors have had more personal and close contact,” Parker said. “A friend of ours, whose mother lives next door to the camp, he’s a contractor in the area. He did a lot of building for them, when they were building the resort situation back there.”
The Guardian was not able to reach the contractor, Howard Beers Jr, but two residents confirmed that he had worked for Gülen. “Several years ago, they offered to take him and his wife to tour Turkey,” said Parker. Beers wasn’t the only resident to have been invited to Turkey by the organization. “At the time, they offered to take our pastor as well. He didn’t go.” Parker added that, back then, the members of the movement, which often promotes interfaith dialogue, would visit her non-denominational church “every once in a while”.
Some locals see the presence of the well-funded Hizmet movement as a business opportunity. “When I am ready to sell this house, I am going to go to the Turks, and see if they want to buy it,” said the elderly neighbor who was taking a break from the vegetable patch. He added that a contractor, presumably Beers, had “made his millions” working for Gülen.
Others in the area are catering to the movement in different ways. Parker recalled: “It’s interesting, the local K-Mart for a while was playing what I think was popular Turkish music down at [the nearby town of] Wind Gap. There are a lot of Turkish families moving in. You see them in the local stores sometimes.”
Fleeting glimpses of the Turkish community prompts different responses among longtime residents. “If you drive early in the morning, you see moms standing out with their children along the road waiting for the bus. I look and think, I just hope there is enough of a community ... It must be very lonely to be a mom and isolated in this area.” Chuck Parker, her husband, added: “I always wave to the ladies. Sometimes they are a little shy.”
If Gülen is extending a hand of friendship to his neighbors, many are returning the gesture. “We’re all immigrants here,” said Parker. “In my family, we’re part French, Hungarian, English. This is what America is about. We weren’t liked when we arrived either. But we’re Americans now.”
Published on The Guardian, 17 July 2016, Sunday