SAYLORSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA // A wooded retreat deep in the hinterlands of rural Pennsylvania is an unlikely setting for a conspiracy to topple a government thousands of kilometres away on another continent.
And yet, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is adamant that a 77-year-old imam with heart problems and high blood pressure used this 26-acre compound to plot a failed coup in Turkey last week.
Fethullah Gulen, the man drawing Mr Erdogan’s ire, interrupted his self-imposed hermitic life-style here on Sunday to meet a group of journalists and respond to the president’s accusations. During the one-hour meeting, Mr Gulen appeared frail but determined to defend himself against the charges brought by his former political ally in Ankara.
“There is no evil that this man is not capable of,” Mr Gulen said of Mr Erdogan. He suggested the coup attempt, which involved parts of the Turkish armed forces and included air force and tank units, might have been staged by Mr Erdogan’s administration.
“What other explanation is there for arrest warrants for thousands of judges, prosecutors and police officers being ready within hours of a coup attempt?” he asked.
Mr Gulen’s bitterness is all the more poignant because he used to be a close ally of Mr Erdogan. When the cleric fell ill several years ago, Mr Erdogan was among the first politicians to call him from Turkey and wish him a speedy recovery. The two even prayed together on the telephone, according to news reports.
As leader of the Hizmet movement with an estimated one million followers in Turkey, Mr Gulen was a key supporter to Mr Erdogan when his religiously conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. It was Mr Gulen who stood by Mr Erdogan when the secularist military and judiciary moved to ban the AKP in 2008.
The cleric’s world view mixes a strong Turkish-Muslim nationalism and Ottoman nostalgia with progressive elements like a call on members to strive for the best and most modern education possible. The movement runs hundreds of charter schools around the world including some in Germany, Australia, several African and Asian countries and most Central Asian republics. There are also about a hundred of these schools in the US.
Mr Gulen, who hails from the eastern Anatolian province of Erzurum, made a name for himself in the late 1950s and 1960s as a rhetorically brilliant imam in Turkey. His movement later gained influence in Ankara because Hizmet’s model was seen as an antidote against communism and political Islam.
But in 1999, Mr Gulen fell out with the Turkish military and fled to the US, where he has lived ever since.
In Turkey, Hizmet followers moved into leading positions in the state apparatus and ran businesses, media outlets and schools.
It was when Gulenist prosecutors accused ministers from Mr Erdogan’s cabinet and members of his family of corruption, that the then-prime minister hit back by firing thousands of Gulen supporters from the judiciary and the police.
Mr Erdogan, who became president in 2014, accuses the Gulen movement of building up “parallel structures” within the state with the aim of taking control. Mr Gulen denies this.
Today, all bridges are burnt.
Mr Gulen said the Erdogan administration’s wanted to use last week’s coup attempt to purge the military of all members who were not one hundred per cent loyal to the AKP.
The Gulenci, as followers of Mr Gulen are called in Turkish, were not the only ones in the regime’s cross hairs, he said.
“The witch hunt on the Gulenci is a pretext to eliminate all dissidents,” he charged.
Mr Gulen also had strong words for Mr Erdogan and his supporters, whom he called “drunk with power and obscene wealth”. Mr Erdogan himself was an “upstart from the slums who is now lording it in the presidential palace”, he said.
Between answering questions, Mr Gulen leaned back, breathing heavily, as members of his staff took his blood pressure.
The old preacher accused Mr Erdogan of trying to boost the influence of radical Islam in Turkey, the only Muslim Nato member, by having the police clamp down on the Hizmet movement.
“While the doors of peaceful people are bashed in, fighters of the Islamic State walk the Turkish streets unhindered,” he said.
He claimed the Turkish government was pretending to be fighting ISIL, but that it was not true. “In reality, they are the biggest ISIS supporters in the world,” he insisted.
Mr Gulen said on Sunday he did not expect the US to extradite him, as Mr Erdogan has demanded. US officials say that any extradition request must include solid evidence for an unlawful conduct by Mr Gulen and that the decision lay with the US judicial system.
On Tuesday, Turkey’s justice ministry submitted four dossiers to the US, calling for the extradition of Mr Gulen.
During the meeting in Saylorsburg, Mr Gulen said he was “not concerned” about a possible extradition as the US is a country under the rule of law. Mr Erdogan would not be able to come up with evidence “because there isn’t any”, he said.
But while Mr Gulen is confident that he can stay in Saylorsburg despite Mr Erdogan’s efforts to bring him back to Turkey to face treason charges, members of his movement here worry about the cleric’s safety.
Last year, one Hizmet official said, Mr Gulen moved from a villa to a newly erected concrete building within the Saylorsburg compound “for security reasons”.
“I have been told that people in the presidential palace are even trying black magic to bring about my death,” Mr Gulen said.