Reclusive preacher Fethullah Gülen holds sway over Turkish politics

August 16, 2013

(Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania in this December 28, 2004 file photo. REUTERS/Selahattin Sevi/Zaman Daily )

A rare defense from a secretive Islamic movement of its role in Turkish political life has exposed a rift with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan that could weaken one of modern Turkey’s most powerful leaders.

The spell of Fethullah Gülen, a 72-year-old U.S.-based Islamic preacher with a global network of schools, whose supporters say they number in the millions, has long loomed large over Turkey’s constitutionally-secular state.

His sympathizers, largely drawn from the same religiously-minded professional class which helped sweep Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party to power in 2002, revere Gülen as an enlightened, pro-Western face of progressive Islam.

Secularist Turks see a more sinister agenda, suspecting followers of the reclusive theologian of infiltrating government and cultural institutions, exerting influence over organizations from the police and judiciary to the central bank and media.

Gülen’s followers form a strong constituency at the heart of the AK Party, but their relationship with Erdogan – an autocratic figure who has centralized power around himself over the past decade – is showing signs of strain.

After accusations on social media that it was behind anti-government protests in June, a foundation representing Gülen’s Hizmet movement spoke out to deny any such role.

But in a rare political commentary, it also tacitly chided Erdogan, throwing its weight instead behind President Abdullah Gul, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc and others who took a markedly more conciliatory tone with the demonstrators.

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