ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A rare defense from a secretive Islamic movement of its role in Turkish political life has exposed a rift with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan that could weaken one of modern Turkey’s most powerful leaders.
The spell of Fethullah Gulen, a 72-year-old U.S.-based Islamic preacher with a global network of schools, whose supporters say they number in the millions, has long loomed large over Turkey’s constitutionally-secular state.
His sympathizers, largely drawn from the same religiously-minded professional class which helped sweep Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party to power in 2002, revere Gulen as an enlightened, pro-Western face of progressive Islam.
Secularist Turks see a more sinister agenda, suspecting followers of the reclusive theologian of infiltrating government and cultural institutions, exerting influence over organizations from the police and judiciary to the central bank and media.
Gulen’s followers form a strong constituency at the heart of the AK Party, but their relationship with Erdogan - an autocratic figure who has centralized power around himself over the past decade - is showing signs of strain.
After accusations on social media that it was behind anti-government protests in June, a foundation representing Gulen’s Hizmet movement spoke out to deny any such role.
But in a rare political commentary, it also tacitly chided Erdogan, throwing its weight instead behind President Abdullah Gul, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc and others who took a markedly more conciliatory tone with the demonstrators.
It said Gul’s comments that democracy was about more than victory at the ballot box, Arinc’s apology for police violence, and a report by AK deputy Idris Bal acknowledging “strategic mistakes” in the government response were “not significantly different from the Hizmet Movement’s views”.
In a speech during the unrest, Gulen himself said protesters should not be dismissed as “capulcu”, which loosely translates as “riff-raff”, a term repeatedly used by Erdogan.
“When the protest first began, it was completely peaceful and solely about the environment,” the Journalists and Writers Foundation, which has Gulen as its honorary leader, said.
“At this early stage, some people sympathetic to the Hizmet Movement may have looked supportively on the protests out of personal choice,” it said, adding this in no way suggested it was “involved in a conspiracy” supporting the demonstrations.
Viewed by his followers as a tolerant, moderating force in global Islam, Gulen is also spreading the influence of a country strategically positioned between Europe and Asia, promoting Turkish language and culture through his network of schools.
His influence over politics at home is a constant source of speculation in Turkish society.
Erdogan himself made clear his relationship with the Gulen movement was an issue he preferred to keep out of the public eye. Asked about this week’s statement at a news conference on Thursday, he said: “I believe conducting these matters via the media is wrong, and I’m not saying anything else.”
Erdogan has won three elections in a row and presided over an economic boom. On the electoral map nearly all of the country - apart from the Aegean coast, the mainly Kurdish southeast corner and a small region on the European continent - is AK Party orange and he is expected to run for president in 2015.
But the protests, which began as a bid to stop development of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, exposed chinks in his armor, not least his delicate relations with the Gulen movement.
“We’ve seen that figures ‘close to the movement’ adopted a critical stance, predominantly if not entirely, on the Gezi incidents,” columnist Oral Calislar wrote in the liberal Radikal daily, noting that Gulen could be influential in a cycle of local, presidential and general elections starting next year.
Turkish media reports have cited surveys commissioned by the AK Party in recent days as putting the level of voters the Gulen movement could sway at around 3 percent of the electorate, while other sources have suggested they control up to 8 percent.
On the face of it, enough to swing a close-run contest but not a huge support base. But Gulen’s real power lies within the AK Party bureaucracy and his ability to rally support for or against Erdogan should he decide to run for the presidency.
“The movement holds a trump card,” Calislar said.
It seems an improbable reach of influence for a reclusive theologian who left for the United States in 1999, shortly before the start of a case against him on charges of plotting to destroy the secular state and establish Islamic law.
He was acquitted but has lived there ever since, saying he would like to go back to Turkey but that his return might be used to stir political trouble, or that those who had persecuted him in the past might try to do so again.
He lives on the private Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center, constructed in the 1990s as a center for Turkish-American children in thick forest in Pennsylvania’s Pocono mountains, some 90 miles west of New York city.
Gulen, who has met Pope John Paul II and other religious leaders, advocates a faith rooted in modern life, and his teachings have inspired millions of Turks to dedicate their time and money to education.
Gulen-inspired groups have built a network of some 500 private schools around the world, from West Africa to Central Asia, the United States and Europe, teaching a full curriculum including Turkish and offering extensive scholarships.
Some Turkish secularists maintain Gulen wants to train a cadre of followers to run a future Islamic state, a charge his supporters vigorously deny.
“There are many people from different social backgrounds who have internalized the principles and ideals of the Hizmet Movement,” the Writers Foundation statement said.
“It is natural that there are those with Hizmet sympathies who exercise their basic rights as citizens in a democratic country to arrive at certain positions within the civil service through their own merits and achievements.”
Whether Gulen leads a benign movement whose soft power is furthering Turkish interests in remote corners of the globe, or is playing a long game by exerting ever deeper influence over the Turkish state, the government acknowledges its importance.
Ministers turned out en masse for the 11th Turkish Language Olympics in June, at which children from Gulen schools around the world sing Turkish songs and recite poems in a public celebration of Gulen ideals.
“There is no lessening in the warm relations between us. If there weren’t warm relations would our Prime Minister go to Turkish Language Olympics. Almost all ministers went to the finals. When we go abroad we visit the schools,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag told the Radikal newspaper.
“There are people and groups trying to damage warm relations between the AK Party and the Gulen community and we know who they are. What they are doing is futile. It is a vain effort.”
Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker in Ankara, Daren Butler, Ece Toksabay and Seda Sezer in Istanbul, Edith Honan in New York; editing by Philippa Fletcher