Turkey crisis: Cleric Gulen condemns post-coup 'witch-hunt'

By Barbara Plett Usher
BBC News, Pennsylvania

Media caption,
Exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen condemned the coup attempt as treason

Rural Pennsylvania is not the sort of place you would think to look for someone accused of throwing the Middle East into further turmoil.

But this is where you find the alleged mastermind of Turkey's failed coup, the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.

And he has broken his customary seclusion to give rare interviews defending himself against the accusations levelled by his nemesis, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

We were greeted at the Golden Generation Worship & Retreat Center by polite, well-spoken men who serve as the first line of gate-keepers to the revered preacher and writer.

They belong to organisations inspired by Mr Gulen, not run by him, a testament to the strength of his personality and the appeal of his message. He advocates a Sufi-based Islam of tolerance that emphasises education and promotes business.

In Turkey, though, critics view this style of leadership as a threat, saying he wields much unelected political influence through followers who have heavily penetrated the bureaucracy and have links to media and business.

The retreat sprawls over 25 lush green acres (10 hectares) in the foothills of the Poconus Mountains. But the cleric, it was emphasised, occupies only a single, spartan bedroom in one of the buildings. We were shown a desk, a small bed and a small mat.

Image caption,
Mr Gulen's backers emphasise his spartan way of life

He met us in an adjacent room, seated beneath a framed admonition to "Continue to Love", written in Arabic calligraphy. He rose to greet us but his strength failed him and he fell back onto the sofa.

The real gatekeeper is Mr Gulen's doctor, who gave him medication so he could manage the interview.

Although his heart condition and diabetes have made him very frail, his language was anything but.

He condemned the coup attempt as treason, claiming that "even if at the helm of the country there are people who would like to replace me and suppress me and oppress me at the level of blood-sucking vampires, even then I do not want to remove them with anti-democratic means".

"This is my attitude toward any and even the idea of the consideration of a military coup."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
President Erdogan's supporters have little doubt that Mr Gulen played a role in the attempted coup

It may be that he sees President Erdogen as a vampire after his blood.

The two men once banded together to curb the power of Turkey's secular military.

But a few years ago Mr Erdogan became suspicious that Mr Gulen's followers were driving a corruption investigation that targeted his inner circle. He moved to stamp out any alternative power centre, even if it was another Islamic one.

Unfazed by extradition

Since then he has been purging them from state institutions. Mr Gulen called this a "witch-hunt" which accelerated after the failed coup.

"It's not possible to talk about democracy any more," he said of reported excesses. "This kind of regime resembles more of a clan and a tribal administration."

Without naming Mr Erdogan, he compared him to dictators such as Hitler and Saddam Hussein.

But he counselled his followers to remain peaceful because "society is already polarised enough, don't make it worse".

Ironically Mr Gulen fled to America in 1999 amid accusations of trying to overthrow the secular government. Now it is an Islamist one demanding that the US send him back.

He seemed unfazed by Mr Erdogan's plan to lodge a formal extradition request. He declared it would be politically motivated rather than legally sound, and therefore would not get much attention in a country where "the rule of law reigns supreme".

The issue, however, is getting much attention: already it's led to some sharp exchanges between Turkish and American officials. And it could create further headaches for the US government, especially if the evidence provided does not stand up in an American court.

Once again Mr Gulen sought to rise above the political to the spiritual.

"I will die one day," he said. "Whether I die in my bed or in prison I don't care."