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Turkey's Pennsylvania powerbroker Fethullah Gulen

AFP

Embroidered images (left to right) of the founder of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, Turkey's Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul in a shop in Gaziantep on January 17, 2014Embroidered images (left to right) of the founder of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, Turkey's Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul in a shop in Gaziantep on January 17, 2014

Embroidered images (left to right) of the founder of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, Turkey's Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul in a shop in Gaziantep on January 17, 2014Embroidered images (left to right) of the founder of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, Turkey's Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul in a shop in Gaziantep on January 17, 2014

It's a long way from Saylorsburg in rural Pennsylvania to practically anywhere. And it's a very long way to Turkey.

But it's from here, amid American woods and farmland, that a 72-year-old Muslim preacher is said to be pulling strings in the crisis gripping one of the word's most dynamic emerging powers.

Fethullah Gulen and his followers were key allies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the latter's post-Islamist conservative movement led Turkey's recent surge to strength.

Erdogan's AKP party and Gulen's Hizmet educational network worked hand-in-hand as the conservative pro-business middle class rose at the expense of the military and former secular elite.

Turkey prospered, incomes rose and the country became a regional power -- until the global financial crisis and subsequent slump.

Now growth is slowing, social unrest is on the rise and Erdogan and Gulen have fallen out spectacularly, the prime minister accusing Hizmet of acting as a state-within-the-state against his allies.

Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States but whose supporters promote a Turkish agenda, accuses his former ally of endangering the democratic gains they both pushed for.

And he denies Erdogan's claim that Hizmet supporters implanted in Turkey's police and judiciary are behind a recent series of corruption probes targeting the premier's allies.

So is Gulen a puppet-master behind a powerful secret network? Or the head of a moderate Islamist foundation dedicated to improving educational options for students around the world?

His property in Saylorsburg offers little in the way of clues. It's certainly private: a large house hidden by thick trees with a gate protected by guards and cameras that bears no outward signage.

Saylorsburg is home to only around 1,000 people, and the property -- or the "Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center" -- and apparently has no legal link to its most famous resident.

Alp Aslandogan, president of the Alliance for Shared Value, another Hizmet affiliate, said the center was "founded by Turkish-Americans living in the area" and run as a non-profit association.

Gulen, he explained, owns nothing and uses nothing more than a bedroom and a desk, leaving only for rare medical visits, he said.

All this to run a network of schools and colleges in Turkey, America and 150 nations around the world. Public pronouncements are rare, and he only occasionally gives interviews to the Turkish press.

This discretion, some would call it secrecy, feeds rumors. A waitress at the local Stenger's Bar says there have been three recent protests by outsiders against the center.

The local paper, the Pocono Record, reported the demonstrations as being by Turkish-American groups accusing Gulen of harboring a concealed hardline Islamist agenda.

But, if Gulen intrigues locals in Pennsylvania, he dominates debate in Turkey, where his long absence -- he fled in 1999 -- has done nothing to quell speculation over the extent of his influence.

The white haired, heavily-moustachioed imam officially traveled to the United States for medical attention, but is thought to have been avoiding trouble from Turkey's then government.

"Like many exiled leaders his influence has grown while he was away," explains Sam Brannen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a US think tank.

Hizmet, or "Service," publicly promotes a modern and tolerant Islam coupled with a fairly secular scientific curriculum. Its schools, many of them in Turkey, have millions of sometimes well-placed graduates.

Critics see these followers as a shadowy parallel government, capable of orchestrating the kinds of street protests and judicial investigations that have recently plagued Erdogan's rule.

But his defenders, like Aslandogan, insist his focus is on "education and dialogue" and not on politics.

They insist Gulen has never backed specific candidates, even if he supports "certain political figures," and accuse his critics of trying to stifle democratic debate.

Brannen draws an analogy between Gulen's religiously-inspired movement and Mormonism, which has its own influential members.

"They sponsor each other in business, they have a missionary mentality and a sense of entrepreneurship," he said.

In addition, like the Mormons, members of the movement are supposed to maintain their ties and support its activities after quitting its educational institutions.

Date created : 2014-02-11