Who is Fethullah Gulen, the man Erdogan blames for coup attempt in Turkey?

In the wake of last week's failed military coup, the Turkish government wants the world to know there's a new name in terror: FETO (Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization). And Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claims an Islamic scholar living in Pennsylvania is its leader.

Charismatic scholar was once Turkish president's ally but has now been branded a terrorist

Fethullah Gulen is a Turkish Muslim cleric who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, blames him for last week's failed military coup. (Selahattin Sevi, Associated Press)

In the wake of last week's failed military coup, the Turkish government wants the world to know there's a new name in terror: FETO (Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization).

And Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claims an Islamic scholar living in a secluded, gated compound in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains is its leader. 

While most in the West were unfamiliar with Fethullah Gulen, the recent failed coup in Turkey, which left 246 people dead and around 9,000 arrested, has changed that.

Erdogan is adamant that Gulen, a former ally, is responsible for the rebellion, and the Turkish president's ambassadors around the world are spreading that message.

The Turkish Embassy in Ottawa, for example, sent out a news release earlier this week saying the coup attempt was staged "in no uncertain terms by the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization."

Erdogan supporters hold an effigy of Gulen during a pro-government demonstration in Taksim Square in Istanbul. Many Turks believe Erdogan's claim that Gulen runs a parallel state structure and wants to take power from the president. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

​Born in Erzurum, in eastern Turkey, in 1941, Gulen built up his reputation as a Sunni Muslim preacher with intense sermons. 

His movement, known as Hizmet, or "service" in Turkish, set up hundreds of schools and businesses in Turkey and later abroad, with an initial focus on post-Soviet Turkic-language-speaking Central Asia.
Gulen's philosophy stresses the need to embrace scientific progress, shun radicalism and build bridges to the West and other religious faiths.

The reclusive Muslim cleric has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, when, according to his website, he "went to the United States for medical treatment of an ailment." 

His departure from Turkey came at a time of turmoil for him, some observers have suggested.

"Having fled the country in 1999 as Turkey's old secular elite charged him with trying to overthrow the state, he landed in the United States, where a former CIA official helped him get a green card," the New York Times reported earlier this week.

Little information has emerged regarding his personal life. 

"Details about Gulen's personal life since his arrival in Pennsylvania and his organizations have remained obscure, giving rise to suspicions about his motives both in Turkey and the United States. He is said to be frail and in ill health, suffering from diabetes," reported late last week.

Erdogan accuses Gulen of running a "parallel" structure to the Turkish government with the hopes of overthrowing the president. He wants the United States to extradite him to Turkey, where he could face a prison sentence of up to 34 years.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said Turkey would have to produce "legitimate evidence that withstands scrutiny" before the United States would act on an extradition request.

Who is Gulen?

Gulen espouses a philosophy that blends a mystical form of Islam with democracy. Turks describe him as everything from a troublemaker to a scholar to a crook and a charismatic leader. One thing that is certain is that he is a polarizing figure in Turkey.

In the aftermath of Friday's failed coup, the normally reclusive cleric spoke out, denying any involvement.

"As someone who suffered under multiple military coups during the past five decades, it is especially insulting to be accused of having any link to such an attempt. I categorically deny such accusations," he said in a statement.

He didn't, however, rule out the possibility that his followers might have been involved, and Gulen's opponents say he has supporters in several key sectors of Turkish society. 

Erdogan (pictured) and Gulen were once allies, but fell out a few years ago. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

"His people have infiltrated the army, the justice ministry, the media — they're incredibly influential," Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer for the Turkish government, alleged on CBC Radio's As It Happens earlier this week.

"There is no part of the government that hasn't been infiltrated by Gulen. So, the evidence that will come out will be, as we've already seen on Turkish news, that the ringleaders have connections to him."

Distinguishing true supporters from scapegoats

The trouble for Erdogan is that it's not clear who is a follower of Gulen and who isn't, who might pose a threat to Erdogan's presidency and who might be accused of doing so even if they have nothing to do with Gulen.

"They're not really card-carrying members of an organization," Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at Waterloo's Centre for International Governance and Innovation, told The Current.

Demonstrators wave Turkish flags as they shout slogans demanding Gulen's extradition from the U.S. The U.S. has said it won't extradite the cleric without 'legitimate evidence' of his misdeeds. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

That makes it easy for Erdogan to cast a wide net. Some high-ranking people in fields of law, medicine and civil service are believed to be Gulenists.

There remains no evidence that Gulen played any role in the attempt to overthrow Erdogan, something the U.S. secretary of state reiterated on Monday.

But Momani says it's not surprising that Erdogan would blame the Gulenist movement.

"The vast majority of Turks, I would say in the order of 95 per cent or so, feel that the Gulenist movement is a parallel government," Momani said. "They dislike their so-called power. They feel as though that they are up to no good."

Erdogan tightens his grip

But in the wake of the failed coup, many worry Erdogan, who is already widely seen as an autocrat, will seize on the fact that his democratically elected government was threatened and clamp down even harder on elements who oppose him.

"It does give them a political upper hand in basically blaming opposition in any way, shape or form that they like," Sanem Guner, assistant director of the Hollings Centre for International Dialogue, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO, told The Current.

'What we're finding is that this is really just a witch hunt.- Bessma Momani

The government has already detained or jailed thousands of people following the rebellion, including judges, political figures, journalists and members of the military. Thousands of public sector employees, including those in education, law enforcement and government, were fired as part of the crackdown.

"There's a lot of fear," Momani said. "I think — and legitimately so — that [Erdogan] will call people Gulenist when they have nothing to do with the organization, just for the sake of jailing them. I think what we're finding is that this is really just a witch hunt."

Network of schools, culture organizations

​It's unclear how many members the Hizmet movement has, but Momani estimates it could be as high as five per cent of Turkey's population, or about four million.

For decades, Gulen's international network has built Turkish language schools and interfaith organizations around the world, including in Canada. They promote Turkish culture, education and faith, but most of all the movement itself.

Many in Turkey compare Hizmet to the Freemasons, a secretive network of fraternal organizations that operate in various countries.

Turkey's secularists have long been suspicious of Hizmet and its members, particularly because of what used to be Gulen's cozy relationship with Erdogan, who himself is seen by secularists as overly tolerant of religious intrusions into state affairs.

In the past, Erdogan even jailed journalists for publishing pieces critical of Gulen's growing power in every aspect of Turkish society. But that was before the allies became enemies.

The cracks in their relationship began to emerge in 2010, when Gulen commented publicly on the Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine Turks were killed when Israeli soldiers stormed a Turkish ship attempting to break a blockade.

But the big breakup came in 2013 when Gulen's pervasive, soft power became too much and Erdogan closed all of Gulen's preparatory schools across the country.

In the past two years, the Turkish government also seized and shut down the Gulen-affiliated Bank Asya, as well as newspapers and television stations linked with the movement. 

Now, both leaders, who rarely give interviews, are pointing the finger at each other.

Gulen says Erdogan staged the attempted coup himself while Erdogan says Gulen is a traitor to his country.

The Turkish people are, once again, caught in the middle of a fight. Only it's not about what so many think Turkey is always fighting about — religion versus secularism — but about power.


  • A previous version of this story stated that the Mavi Marmara carried humanitarian aid for Gaza. It did not.
    Jul 26, 2016 10:52 AM ET

With files from Nil Koksal, Shanifa Nasser, Reuters and The Associated Press