* Deja Vue: 30 years ago a rather unknown Ayatollah Khomeini brought down the Shah of Iran and spearheaded the Islamic revolution. Are we seeing the same happening in Turkey?
Few U.S. policymakers have heard of Fethullah GÃ¼len, perhaps Turkey’s most prominent theologian and political thinker. Self-exiled for more than a decade, GÃ¼len lives a reclusive life outside Philadelphia, Pa. Within months, however, he may be as much a household a name in the United States as is Ayatollah Khomeini, a man who was as obscure to most Americans up until his triumphant return to Iran almost 30 years ago.
Istanbul 2008 may very well look like Tehran 1979.
Just as GÃ¼len’s supporters affirm his altruistic intentions and see no inconsistency between a secretive, cell-based movement and transparent governance, too many Western journalists also give GÃ¼len a free pass.
If this sounds familiar, it should: Three decades ago, the same phenomenon marked coverage of Iran. “I don’t want to be the leader of the Islamic Republic; I don’t want to have the government or power in my hands,” Khomeini told a credulous Austrian television reporter during the ayatollah’s brief sojourn in Paris. In November 1978, Steven Erlanger, the future New York Times foreign correspondent, penned a New Republic essay arguing that Khomeini’s vision for Iran was essentially a “Platonic Republic with a grand ayatollah as a philosopher-king,” and predicting the triumph of an independent liberal left worried more about labor conditions in Iran’s oil fields than pursuing any theological tendency.
In Tehran then as in Ankara now, U.S. ambassadors preferred garden parties with the political elite and maintained contacts with only a narrow segment of the population. They were blind. As the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency remained clueless or belittled concerns about Khomeini’s intentions, millions of Iranians turned out to greet their Imam at Tehran’s international airport. Turks now say that similar crowds might greet GÃ¼len when his plane touches down in Istanbul.
Many academics and journalists embrace GÃ¼len and applaud his stated vision welding Islam with tolerance and a pro-European outlook. Supporters describe him as progressive. In 2003, the University of Texas honored him as a “peaceful hero,” alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama. Last October, the British House of Lords and several British diplomats celebrated GÃ¼len at a high-profile London conference. Later this year, Georgetown University scholar John Esposito will host a conference dedicated to the movement. As in 2001, Esposito will cosponsor with the Rumi Forum, an organization GÃ¼len serves as honorary president.
The GÃ¼len movement controls charities, real estate, companies, and more than a thousand schools internationally. According to some estimates, the GÃ¼len Movement controls several billion dollars. The movement claims its own universities, unions, lobbies, student groups, radio and television stations, and the Zaman newspaper. Turkish officials concede that GÃ¼len’s followers in Turkey number more than a million; GÃ¼len’s backers claim that number is just the tip of the iceberg. Today, GÃ¼len members dominate the Turkish police and divisions within the interior ministry. Under the stewardship of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan, one of GÃ¼len’s most prominent sympathizers, tens of thousands of other GÃ¼len supporters have entered the Turkish bureaucracy.
While GÃ¼len supporters jealously guard his image in the West, he remains a controversial figure in Turkey. According to Cumhuriyet, a left-of-center establishment daily â€” Turkey’s New York Times â€” in 1973, the Izmir State Security Court convicted GÃ¼len of “attempting to destroy the state system and to establish a state system based on religion;” he received a pardon, though, and so never served time in prison. In 1986, the Turkish military â€” the constitutional guardians of the state’s secularism â€” purged a GÃ¼len cell from the military academy; the Turkish military has subsequently acted against a number of other alleged GÃ¼len cells who they say infiltrated military ranks.
In 1998, according to Turkish court transcripts cited in the Turkish Daily News, GÃ¼len urged followers in the judiciary and state bureaucracy to “work patiently to take control of the state.” The following year, the independent Turkish television station ATV broadcast a secretly taped GÃ¼len telling supporters, “If they . . . come out early, the world will squash their heads. They will make Muslims relive events in Algeria,” a reference to the Islamic Salvation Front’s overwhelming 1991 election victory in the North African state. After party leaders spoke of voiding the constitution and implementing Islamic law, the Algerian military staged a coup leading to a civil conflict that killed tens of thousands.