Guest Commentary

WikiLeaks cables show U.S. diplomats warned the government about Gulen

Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, sits at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pa. In a dispute between NATO allies, Turkey demands that the United States extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric, to face charges of engineering a coup attempt.
Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, sits at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pa. In a dispute between NATO allies, Turkey demands that the United States extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric, to face charges of engineering a coup attempt. The Associated Press

The bloody July 15 coup attempt in Turkey left more than 200 people dead. It has also created a huge gap between Turkey and the Western world.

There is a widespread assertion in Turkey that American and European media have underestimated the menace that almost demolished the country. Beyond it, many Turks believe that the United States was behind the failed effort to topple the government.

The U.S.-based cleric Fetullah Gulen, once the Turkish government’s ally, has been accused of plotting the failed coup in Turkey. Basically, there are strong statements against him.

According to Turkish Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar, the officers who took him hostage during the coup attempt offered to put Akar in contact with Gulen. His detained aide de camp Levent Turkkan also confessed that the putschists have direct links with Gulen.

U.S. Ambassador John Bass said, “As someone who is living here, talking with a lot of people, including people like General Akar, who has recounted what he experienced that night, I find it a very powerful testimony.”

How about the U.S. State Department?

According to confidential cables leaked in 2011 by WikiLeaks, the U.S. diplomat has focused on “The Gulen Issue” since 2003.

American diplomats’ thoughts and warnings about Gulen and his movement differ from time to time.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Pearson described the movement as “so gradualist” and his adherents are “so wary of being tarred as militants” in a cable on March 11, 2003. Their behaviors are difficult to read. Pearson ignored the Turkish secularists’ concerns and informed the U.S government that “the movement does not pose a clear and present danger to the State.”

Those were the early days of ruling AKP government in Turkey. The Gulen movement and the Turkish government were close because of their religious ties.

Cables show that Pearson’s perspective was not valid in Ambassador Eric Edelman’s (2003-2005) term. In a confidential note on April 7, 2005, Edelman focused on Gulenists’ infiltration into Turkish bureaucracy and warned the U.S. government: “The Gulen movement has also infiltrated hundreds of adherents into the national police, judiciary, and Sayistay (GAO equivalent) and also has made inroads into the AKP government, but more recently has signaled its dissatisfaction with the way Erdogan has tried to govern and appears to be distancing itself from him.”

This is important because Edelman realized the distant relationship between Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Gulen, while most of the Turkish journalists were clueless.

In 2006, Consul General Deborah K. Jones wrote her concerns about Gulenists’ visa applications: “Gulen supporters account for an increasing proportion of Mission Turkey’s nonimmigrant visa applicant pool.” She complained about “uniformly evasive” behaviors of the applicants and said “It leaves Consular officers uneasy.… Our unease is also shared by secular segments of Turkish society.”

Now we can easily see how U.S. diplomats differed in describing the Gulenist movement — initially as “not dangerous” — but three years later a concern.

Beyond it, a lot of questions exist about the Gulen movement, which stands out in some cables.

One was from Ambassador James Jeffrey on Dec. 4, 2009. He mentioned the circumspection of Gulen’s intentions and said it feeds conspiracy theories about U.S. somehow behind the Gulen movement.

Jeffrey recommended the U.S. government tell people “the U.S. is not ‘sheltering’ Gulen and his presence in the U.S. is not based on any political decision.”

WikiLeaks cables show that U.S. diplomats focused on Gulen and warned their government for years. And it also proves there will be difficulties between U.S. and its NATO ally about the extradition of Gulen.

Here are the thoughts and warnings of American diplomats about Gulen and his movement:

No clear danger

Ambassador Robert Pearson’s (2000-2003) cable on March 11, 2003:

Gulen's harassment by the State appears to us to be based on an unclear and arbitrarily-interpreted range of evidence, although in our experience the movement in Turkey has become secretive under the State's pressure, its representatives are cagier with us, and its goals are therefore more difficult to read. Yet based on extensive and continuing contacts with Gulenists, we conclude that Gulen's approach is so gradualist, and his chief lieutenants are so wary of being tarred as militants, that the movement does not pose a clear and present danger to the State.

Bureaucracy breached

Ambassador Eric Edelman’s (2003-2005) cable on April 7, 2005:

The Gulen cemaat (movement) has concentrated (with marked success) on building up a worldwide network of schools and Turkey-wide network of business and journalists/writers associations. It has also infiltrated hundreds of adherents into the national police, judiciary, and Sayistay (GAO equivalent) and also has made inroads into the AKP government, but more recently has signaled its dissatisfaction with the way Erdogan has tried to govern and appears to be distancing itself from him.

Travel inquiry

Consul General Deborah K. Jones’ (2005-2007) cable on May 23, 2006:

We estimate that they (Gulenist applicants) comprise three to five percent of Mission Turkey’s annual NIV caseload of approximately 75,000 applicants. While on the surface a benign humanitarian movement, the ubiquitous evasiveness of Gulenist applicants -- coupled with what appears to be a deliberate management of applicant profiles over the past several years -- leaves Consular officers uneasy, an uneasiness echoed within Turkey by those familiar with the Gulenists.…Our unease is also shared by secular segments of Turkish society.

They’re everywhere

Another cable from the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul on September 17, 2009:

Our contacts all agree they are everywhere in Turkish society, including the strongest bastion of Kemalism -- the military.

Many Kemalists and academics assume the Gulen Movement has already captured the police in Turkey (reftel B & C). Significant Gulen inroads into the military would lead many Kemalists to believe their last defensive perimeter against fundamental Islam has been breached.

Troubling allegations

Ambassador James Jeffrey’s (2008-2010) cable on December 4, 2009:

The assertion that the TNP (police) is controlled by Gulenists is impossible to confirm but we have found no one who disputes it, and we have heard accounts that TNP applicants who stay at Gulenist pensions are provided the answers in advance to the TNP entrance exam.

Given the current AKP-secularist schism in Turkey today, it should not be surprising that any Islamist movement in Turkey would choose to be circumspect about its intentions. Unfortunately, this simply feeds the reflexive tendency in Turkish society for conspiracy theories, and magnifies suspicions about the Gulen movement itself. While the purported Gulen goals of interfaith dialogue and tolerance are beyond reproach, we see aspects of concern in the allegations that the USG (government) is somehow behind the Gulen movement.

Accordingly, we would recommend the following standard press guidance:

Q: Why is the U.S. sheltering Fethullah Gulen and doesn't this mean that the US is promoting a non-secular Turkey?

The U.S. is not "sheltering" Mr. Gulen and his presence in the U.S. is not based on any political decision... As a Green Card holder, Mr. Gulen is entitled to all the privileges which that status entails. His presence in the U.S. should not be viewed as a reflection of US policy toward Turkey.

Gokce Aytulu is an Alfred Friendly Fellow from Turkey. The Star will be his host between April and September. Twitter: @GokceAytulu

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