A decade of the Gülen Movement on WikiLeaks: More than meets the eye

ÖZGE BULUR @ozgebulurr
ISTANBUL
Published 02.08.2016 13:37
Updated 02.08.2016 13:57
A decade of the Gülen Movement on WikiLeaks: More than meets the eye

The Gülen Movement, which has been labeled a shadowy organization for constructing parallel societies in various countries, was increasingly a topic in WikiLeaks documents. Diplomatic cables regarding the movement soared in the years between 2003 and 2013 as well as questions and concerns about the movement due to its ambiguous intentions

shak Haleva, Istanbul's chief rabbi, 75, was asked 10 years ago by a local foundation to write a testimonial to address the U.S. government regarding the adjustment of the immigration status of "a Turkish-Muslim scholar and a spiritual leader of a global faith-based movement." In a farewell luncheon for the U.S. consul general in Turkey, however, Haleva noted that he was "wrestling" with that difficult request. In the draft text given to him to sign, Haleva supposedly ended the testimonial by thanking the U.S. government "for taking their time to talk to them about the mission of Mr. Gülen, who dedicated himself to the good of others regardless of their beliefs and opinions, and embraced them."

Nevertheless, Haleva did not have a "certainty of Gülen's ultimate intentions." But then, he could not just ignore the request because of the assistance Gülen Movement had provided in the past to Jewish Community of Turkey (JCT). Even though Haleva first decided to write a more limited letter for Fethullah Gülen, the wary rabbi told the consul general that he was rethinking whether even a limited letter would be appropriate, after he learned that the Ecumenical Patriarch and Armenian Patriarch had been asked likewise, yet had objected. In the end, Haleva did not sign it.

Haleva was not the only one who challenged such a dichotomy: The U.S. government's concerns about whether the Gülen Movement has a sinister and radical agenda has been in question since 2003, as a good number of original diplomatic Wikileaks cables show.Wikileaks is a self-described "not-for-profit media organization," launched in 2006 with the aim of releasing original documents or correspondences from anonymous informants and leakers. Within only nine years, the whistle-blowing website has released more than 10 million documents, mainly diplomatic cables. Claiming that "Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people," Wikileaks keeps on leaking successive disclosures of classified documents for the sake of its ideology of transparency. However, that may not please particularly the authors of the documents.

From 2003-2013, the number of cables regarding the Gülen Movement has increased with the accumulation of questions and concerns about the movement over time. Question marks began to appear among interlocutors more and more concerning the empowering of the Gülen Movement around the world by means of a) institutionalization with schools, b) infiltrating governmental organizations, c) mottos about inter-faith, dialogue and tolerance d) business associations e) media outlets.

A cable dated March 11, 2003, classified by Polcouns John Kunstadter, a U.S. political counselor in the Ankara Embassy, provides information about a verdict suspended in a case against Fethullah Gülen, who was portrayed as "much more militant in the early 1970s." Kunstadter reports that Gülen's harassment by the state seems to be based on "an unclear and arbitrarily-interpreted range of evidence." Nonetheless, Kunstadter emphasizes a few sentences later that the Gülen movement in Turkey has become enigmatic under the state's pressure, its representatives are cagier with them, and "its goals are therefore more difficult to read."Among those who tried to feel Fethullah Gülen and his movement's pulse are the Russian authorities. On Dec. 10, 2004, a cable states that "Russia is concerned by what it sees as the Gülenist lodge's insidious Islamist agenda." Moreover, a possible agreement scenario to put into practice is mentioned in the document: Gülenist "Writers and Journalists Foundation" director, Erkam Aytav, acknowledges the probability that Russia intends to use the threats to close the Gülenist schools in the country to control the lobbying power of Gülenists for Russian interests in Turkey. Aytav and daily Zaman's Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanlı admit that Zaman's coverage of Russia has intentionally been kept bland with an eye to mollifying the Putin regime (meaning that Gülenist media outlets are manipulated according to self-seeking interests.)

The Gülenists' penetration of the National Police (TNP), media outlets and their record of going after anyone who criticizes Gülen were among the items on the annual agenda of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara in 2005, when a decision by U.S. immigration authorities for the first time denied him the right to travel outside of the country. Stuart Smith, the U.S. vice consul general of the Intelligence Department in Ankara, reported that three ranking TNP asked for a meeting with the Istanbul legate as a means of asking whether the "FBI could provide some sort of clean bill of health" for Fethullah Gülen. Upon such a request, Smith juxtaposes some concerns about the Gülen Movement's actions: "Severe pressure on businessmen to continue to give money to support Gülenist schools or other activities," "using their school networks to cherry-pick students they think are susceptible to being molded as proselytizers and to indoctrinate boarding students," "the cult-like obedience and conformity" the movement insists on its substructures.

A cable, with a more suspicious and questioning tone, classified by Consul General Deborah K. Jones on May 23, 2006, clarifies that U.S. authorities in Turkey started to count Gülen Movement's institutions and academies in the U.S., Central Asia, Caucasus, Russia, the Balkans, Africa, South East Asia, the Far East, the Middle East and Europe. Furthermore, the cable shows that a profile recognition for those traveling to the U.S., particularly with the aim of visiting Fethullah Gülen, was also actively carried out by Consular officers. Compiling a list of Gülenist organizations as well as periodical meetings to discuss trends within the Gülenist applicant pool let Consular officers in Ankara and Istanbul notice "what appears to a purposeful 'shifting' of applicant profiles appearing for visa interviews in what may be an effort by Gülenists to identify 'successful' profiles." After giving the general features of applicants and visitors (the young exchange visitor; the married middle-aged male with no English and traveling alone; the middle-school-aged English student; the graduate student going for English), the Consul General Jones claims that "evasiveness of Gülenist applicants leaves Consular officers uneasy" although there seems to be "a benign humanitarian movement" on the surface.

Another leaked document on March 15, 2007, discusses Gülenist education in Central Asian countries, specifically in Turkmenistan. The cable signifies that the vision of the Gülenists to open schools in Central Asian countries just after the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was to show Central Asia the "smiling face of Islam," although the Gülenist "teachers' influence outside the classroom" made it controversial there. As for 2008, a cable dated July 21, classified by Deputy Principal Officer Sandra S. Oudkirk, revealed that the JCT "avoided being listed as a Gülen supporter in the Turkish media coverage of Gülen's acquittal in June by a Turkish court on charges of anti-secularist activities." Although the JCT and the Gülen Movement had "close ties," the JCT preferred not to show it in "public places."

U.S. Ankara Ambassador James Jeffrey, on Dec. 4, 2009, briefed in regards to Gülen's application for Permanent Residence status in the U.S., with a background about Gülen and his movement. Saying that Gülen faced charges in Turkey of plotting to overthrow the state, Jeffrey mentioned a sermon in 1986, where Gülen is heard declaring that "our friends, who have positions in legislative and administrative bodies, should learn its details and be vigilant all the time so they can transform it and be more fruitful on behalf of Islam in order to carry out a nationwide restoration." Holding a Green Card now and living in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, Fethullah Gülen was doubted to have infiltrated the TNP, and they "have found no one who disputes it."

Additionally, Jeffrey found out that the "TNP applicants who stay at Gülenist pensions are provided with the answers in advance of the TNP entrance exam." Apart from that, even more subtly, "Gülen's lack of transparency creates doubt about his motives and leads to suspicions about what lies ahead," Jeffrey says. As for the aspects of concern in the allegations that the U.S. government is somehow behind the Gülen Movement, Jeffrey concluded that "the U.S. is not 'sheltering' Mr. Gülen and his presence in the U.S. is not based on any political decision."

A document classified by Economic-Political Counselor J. Dean Yap on March 30, 2009, criticizes the Gülenists for establishing a kind of "parallel society" with their own schools and newspapers in Australia. Likewise, another set of correspondence between two employees of Stratfor, an American publisher and global intelligence company, dated Dec. 27, 2009, shows that "Turkish diplomatic circuits in D.C. are all extremely paranoid about Gülen." One of the employees, Reva Bhalla, a Middle East expert, claims in the very same year that in the U.S., "Gülen's message subsequently went through a significant transformation. He rejected some of his earlier rhetoric on dismantling the secular state, turning instead to emphasizing tolerance in Islam, as well as interfaith dialogue with Judaism and Christianity, and shunned violence.

In the late 1990s, he told his male followers that their wives could uncover their hair," with the aim of being approved by the U.S. FGC's three concentric circles (the outermost circle of sympathizers, the middle circle of businessmen, and the inner circle of workers such as teachers, journalists, lobbyists and executives), were also mentioned by Bhalla. More importantly, Bhalla claims on Nov. 18, 2009, that there is "one voice, two messages," concerning the Gülen Movement's stance in the West. For example, the two papers of the Gülenists diverged in their coverage of the 2008-2009 Israel-Gaza war. On Dec. 31, 2008, the movement's Turkish-language outlet, Zaman, ran a story with the headline:

"Children hauling garbage are being targeted with missiles," whereas such a headline or the story about it was entirely missing from Today's Zaman on the same day or after, in line with the Gülen Movement's position in the West.

Among other cables in 2010, one stands out as it contains direct quotes from a former 10-year hardcore Gülenist. It is noted in the document, dated March 22, 2010, that "the source wants to tell the inside story of Gülen, but it's too risky for him." When he was a high school student, the source was recruited and raised by the Gülen Movement to focus particularly on "military penetration." Since he came to know in time a great deal about Gülen and sensitive military matters, the movement has been careful not to alienate him. As to being trained on how to be an good Gülenist day by day, it is reported by the source in the document that one starts out visiting Gülenist homes "a couple times a week, then three times a week, then every day of the week, by the time you're done. They make it a gradual process and earn your trust." In return, the potential Gülenist is tested by being called late in the evening or on the weekend to carry out some task.

The Stratfor employee comments on the issue, saying it is "very much like a professional intelligence organization."In 2011, another Stratfor employee conspicuously claims that "Gülen-Washington ties are getting more strained," while a Gülenist crackdown carries on in spite of some investigations started by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) against "120 Gülenist schools in the U.S." Another source, or rather a target, expresses in a document dated June 5, 2013, that she was "an outspoken critic of Turkish charter schools in the U.S. that are run by supporters of the Gülen Movement," which is why she was targeted by Gülenists. Moreover, the woman believes that "the email was sent to an anonymous email address she uses in an attempt to identify her and gain access to her private data and communications in order to try to discredit her," as well as being warned of her criticisms.

Taking into consideration those Wikileaks cables, it is clear that questioning the possibility of the Gülen Movement's hidden agenda by the U.S. authorities over a decade was no delusion, yet it was well-justified. "Deep and widespread doubts," as vice consul general of the Intelligence Department in Ankara Stuart Smith once said in 2005, about the ultimate intentions of Gülen's movement still remain high.

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