Fethullah Gulen and Turkey today

Today, the government of Turkey asked the United States to detain Fethullah Gulen, a Sunni Muslim cleric who left Turkey in 1999 and currently lives in rural Pennsylvania. Gulen’s ongoing presence in the U.S., always a point of contention with Turkey, has been super-heated since the failed military coup in July. The government claims Gulen helped planned the coup, an allegation Gulen denies. Gulen also stands at the hub of conspiracy theories buzzing around the Turkish body politic.

Who is Gulen? Bilge Yesil sketches his career and the influence of the movement he inspired:

Notwithstanding the rise of Islamist media, the post-1980 era also witnessed the increasing prominence of Islamist social networks, especially that of the Gulen community (alternatively referred to as the Gulen movement, the Community or the Service). Led by the Sunni Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, this community had roots that could be traced back to the 1970s. According to Hakan Yavuz, in the 1980s Gulen’s adherents began to use the “religion-friendly political environment” and the new economic opportunity spaces to create a “golden generation” with “heightened patriotic and moral consciousness.” It was during this decade that they built a massive network of dormitories, schools, media outlets, charities, and cultural foundations and established close links with Anatolian businessmen. The following decade, the Gulen community expanded its education-business-charity-media network to the Balkans and the newly independent Central Asian republics. By the 2000s, it had become active in more than a hundred countries in Asia, Africa, and North America.

The Gulen community, as Joshua Hendrick points out, has often been mischaracterized as either a “radical Islamist group that is poised to overthrow the secular Republic” or a “Sufi-inspired benevolent organization that promotes interfaith, intercultural dialogue.” Instead, Hendrick offers a more nuanced analysis that describes the Gulen community as a Turkey-based transnational network, a Muslim religious community that synthesizes Islam, Turkish nationalism, social conservatism, and economic power. Another important point to note is that neither Gulen himself nor his loyalists have entered into active politics but instead established alliances with Islamist or center-right parties, depending on the conjuncture of the day. Despite its absence in formal politics, the Gulen community is nonetheless believed to exercise substantial influence over state affairs by having their supporters working in state organs as police officers and chiefs and as judges and prosecutors.