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Why an American pastor has become central to America’s relationship with Turkey

REUTERS/Charles Mostoller
Fethullah Gulen preaches a version of Islam that stresses education and is comfortable with modern science.

In late July, as President Trump first raised the idea of imposing sanctions on Turkey for detaining an American evangelical pastor, the Turks seemed to be attempting a bit of score-settling of their own with a Turkish cleric who lives in the United States.

Far from either country, masked men reportedly bundled the administrator of a network of international schools linked to cleric Fethullah Gulen into a minivan on the streets of Mongolia’s capital. Meanwhile, a mysterious Turkish-chartered jet landed at Ulan Bator’s airport.

Friends and supporters of the administrator, Veysel Akcay, rushed to the airport. The Mongolian government grounded the plane. It eventually left, and Akcay was freed. While Turkey angrily denies that it was trying to abduct Akcay, the government is on many fronts trying to squeeze the aging, reclusive Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999.

Gulen preaches a version of Islam that stresses education and is comfortable with modern science. A global education network run by supporters includes charter schools across the U.S. that specialize in math and science. But Turkey accuses him of also planting loyalists throughout the Turkish military, police, civil administration and business community who launched a coup attempt two years ago against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former Islamist ally. The coup failed, but more than 200 people were killed. Turkish authorities regard Gulen as the head of a terrorist organization; Gulen’s movement denies having anything to do with the coup.

In its aftermath, more than 100,000 people – including soldiers, police officers, judges and teachers – have been dismissed from their jobs. An estimated 50,000 have been detained pending trial. Among those the Turkish authorities swept up is Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for 20 years. They have accused him of spying and having terrorist connections.

Trump and Erdogan met last fall and proclaimed themselves close friends. But relations between the NATO allies are strained. They disagree over Syria, and Erdogan has been edging closer to Iran and Russia. After being re-elected in June, Erdogan assumed broad powers to intervene in the judicial system, impose a state of emergency and appoint senior government officials.

Brunson’s plight has gained a high profile among U.S. evangelicals, and warnings from both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were probably aimed, at least in part, at bolstering domestic political support. Trump and Pence said a Turkish court decision to release Brunson to house arrest is insufficient. On Aug. 1, the White House authorized sanctions against Turkey’s justice and interior ministers.

Andrew Brunson
Demiroren News Agency, DHA via REUTERS
Pastor Andrew Brunson arriving at his home after being released from the prison in Izmir, Turkey, on July 25.

Erdogan insists his country won’t bow to the threat of sanctions, but the dispute over Brunson complicates his campaign to shut down the movement and persuade the United States to send Gulen back to Turkey.

Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has acknowledged that while advising the Trump presidential campaign he also was being paid to discredit Gulen. On the same day Trump won election as president, Flynn published an op-ed branding Gulen a “radical Islamist,” and declaring that “the stamp of terror is all over” his statements.

A deputy Turkish prime minister said in April that 80 people had been returned to Turkey from 18 countries. A government spokesman says everything has been done legally, but the circumstances in many cases are unclear. In Kosovo, the prime minister said he hadn’t been informed of the deportation of six Turks. He fired the interior minister and head of his secret service. The New York Times cited unconfirmed Turkish media reports of similar cases in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan.

Gulen and Erdogan once were allies in the struggle between Islamists and Turkey’s established secular order. In 1998, the military forced Turkey’s first Islamist governing party to shut down, and the next year Gulen left for the U.S. The increasingly authoritarian Erdogan became enmeshed in a corruption scandal in 2011 that officials accused Gulen of instigating; things got worse after Erdogan crushed protests in Istanbul two years later.

During Gulen’s nearly two decades in the U.S., the educational network associated with him has expanded to more than 2,000 schools in 160 countries, including at least 120 in the U.S., according to a lengthy profile by the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins in 2016. The New Yorker also detailed reports of cult-like behavior by Gulen’s followers: One former follower described an instance in which a group obtained one of Gulen’s shoes, stripped it of leather, boiled the leather and ate it.

Gulen’s network has faced more scrutiny as the pressure mounts. An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that at least 150 state legislators from 29 states made trips to Turkey subsidized by nonprofits associated with Gulen.

CBS reported that the FBI was investigating whether Gulen’s organizations were skimming money from charter schools funded by U.S. taxpayers, using it to finance activities in Turkey. Many of the schools serve underprivileged and show good results. But CBS quoted several teachers sent from Turkey as saying they were pressured to return a portion of their salary to administrators. Senior officials of Gulen’s movement say if that happened, it was wrong and they condemn it.

It’s hard to predict where the shadow conflict between Gulen and Erdogan goes from here. But it does seem pretty clear that the fate of one evangelical pastor has gotten mixed up in something bigger and far more complicated.

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