Rules Are for Schmucks: Who Is Fethullah Gülen?

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The images flooding out of Turkey three weekends ago were startling. Tanks rolled down streets and jets screamed overhead in an attempted military coup that looked like it belonged in a twentieth-century banana republic rather than in a twenty-first century power that boasts the second largest army in Europe.

Not surprisingly, even before it succeeded in restoring order, the Turkish government began pinning blame for the coup on its public enemy #1: a man named Fethullah Gülen, who hasn’t even set foot in Turkey since 1999.

So who is this guy? A New Republic story a few years back called him “the Turkish Billy Graham.” Cryptic, mainstream press reports generally describe him as a “Muslim cleric.” Some like to insert the adjective “moderate.” We’re told, over and over ad nauseam, that what the world needs is more “moderate Islam,” or its close cousin a “Muslim Reformation,” to squeeze out the terrorists. And we know that the Erdogan regime in Turkey, even before the appalling repression we’re witnessing now, is nobody’s vision of a kinder, gentler Islam worth fawning over. So is Gülen someone we ought to be backing?

Short answer: no.

Exhibit A for how “moderate” Gülen is supposed to be is that he publicly condemned the attacks of September 11, 2001. That was nice of him. But then again, so did the Taliban, which most people don’t consider too warm and fuzzy.

Exhibit B is that Gülen’s “Hizmet” movement puts a great stress on education, specifically science education. Science education sounds good—until you dig a little deeper, and discover that Gülen-style “science” flatly rejects Darwinian evolution. They teach instead that Allah created everything just as it is, all at once. Gülen’s international network of schools that promote this nonsense includes a number of taxpayer-funded charter schools here in the United States—your tax dollars at work. According to Gülenite educator Erkam Aytav, “Without religion, science is blind and brings the world to danger.”

One of the biggest raps on Islam is its abysmal treatment of women. How does Gülen fare there? Dandy—so long as women cover themselves up with headscarves or better yet, full-body tents. Women need to be strictly segregated from men, especially in the workplace where they should only do “woman’s work,”, lest men lose all control. Women serving as judges? Ok—but only if all the litigants involved are other women. You wouldn’t want women ordering men around. Taking more than one wife? Fine—for rich men who can afford it. How about rich women taking more than one husband? Nope—not in the Koran. At the pinnacle of the Gülen hierarchy are the indoctrination classes he himself teaches at his compound in the Poconos— women need not apply. (Erdogan, by the way, calls contraception “treason,” because Muslims need to multiply.)

Another beef people have with Islam is its intolerance, as evidenced by its treatment of blasphemy, which is defined as anything less than cringing deference to folks like Gülen and Erdogan who know all about God. In England, a Fireman Sam cartoon was just banned because it depicts a character slipping on papers on the floor. One of the papers flying in the air shows some squiggles that appear to some like Arabic writing. Desecration of the Koran! That’s what blasphemy means. Gülen demands strict international laws as part of a “relentless campaign” against all blasphemy. (Erdogan imprisons blasphemers, by the way.)

So here’s the puzzle. You’ve got two hardline Muslim God experts, standing rock-solid against the humanist trend that’s been spreading since the Enlightenment. Why are they fighting each other? Why not just link arms? Here’s your clue—a five-letter word that starts with “M.”

Turkish government spending on its official religious bureaucracy, the Diyanet, has quadrupled since 2006, now amounting to over $2 billion a year. Turkish bureaucrats, like most bureaucrats, insist on absolute control—every sermon in every Turkish mosque every week is recited verbatim from a text issued by the Diyanet. Then along comes Gülen, who says he knows more about God than the deputy assistant chief muckety-muck of the Diyanet does. From his comfy base in the Poconos, he builds an alternative network, which has been compared to the Opus Dei network in the Catholic Church, though proportionally, it’s a lot bigger.

The bureaucrats can’t stand this upstart any more than Pope Leo could stand Martin Luther or Martin Luther could stand John Calvin or John Calvin could stand Michael Servetus. The money flowing to Gülen from his enormous “service” network should be flowing to them, damn it. Gülen has rather the same point of view about the $2 billion of taxpayer money these ignorant pencil-pushers get every year. When the tension between the two camps reached the point where Gülen started accusing Erdogan family members of corruption, things spiraled out of control. Next thing, we start seeing tanks in the streets and among other atrocities, Erdogan’s arrest of sixty-two children for treason.

Erdogan’s record is appalling. If I started listing highlights of what a monster he is, this article would go on forever and you’d become too bored and depressed to finish it. Here’s a little gem that’s my favorite. Last spring, long before the coup, a woman journalist published a story he didn’t like. So he responded by taking away legal custody of her children. Nice guy, huh?

There is a huge secular movement in Turkey. Sometimes it’s been a bit ham-handed, because it’s had to be so closely allied with the military. But the opposition they’ve fought against has been a little rougher than the Southern Baptists and Catholic bishops that American humanists have to deal with. Erdogan, for example, shuts down atheist websites—that doesn’t happen here. These secular folks, ultimately, are our friends in Turkey. Gülen isn’t. In fact, if we extradite Gülen as Erdogan is demanding so that he can finish the job of exterminating Gülen’s movement, then there will be only one dangerous religious element in Turkey to combat—a hidebound, bureaucratic one at that—rather than two.

Bad as Erdogan is, things could always be worse. And they may well be, if the Gülen clique ever takes power. Some of us are old enough to remember a time when the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini was thought to be an oppressed good guy, fighting against the tyranny of Iran’s shah. That didn’t turn out well, did it? Even if Gülen himself is meek as a lamb—which I doubt— remember that he has thousands of followers of varying degrees of gentility. At Gülen’s behest, they are driven not by thoughtful analysis of what leads to the greatest human happiness but by the “correct” interpretation of seventh-century texts—texts which are routinely used to justify the most horrific atrocities. He is not our friend.