Fethullah Gülen is the reclusive but influential Turkish Islamist leader who resides in a well-guarded and, indeed, fortified compound in the Poconos, having fled Turkey in 1999, theoretically to get medical treatment but also to flee prosecution for remarks he made advocating for the overthrow of the system (he has since disputed the veracity of the recording of those remarks).
Five years ago, Rachel Sharon-Krespin, the director of the Turkish Media Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), penned probably the most comprehensive though critical study of Gülen. One needn’t go far to find far more glowing accounts of Gülen, although most of these come either from close associates or those like Georgetown Professor John Esposito, whose program has benefited from the Gülen movement’s largesse.
I have long been quite cynical about Gülen. I admit, I have wavered with time but whenever I began to consider that perhaps I had been too ungenerous in my interpretation of the movement and the man, either someone would dig up new statements by Gülen that raised questions about the sincerity of his interfaith tolerance, Gülen’s flagship paper Zaman would hint at some anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, or his followers would tweet their embrace for everything from an endorsement of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s dual loyalty accusations against various Jews to far more virulently anti-Semitic attacks on me personally. That said, to the movement’s credit, no matter how critical I might have been about Gülen, members of the movement or its constituent groups always kept the door open to dialogue and communication, an openness which I respect and appreciate.
That does not change my overall suspicion of the movement. While many have embraced the Gülenists as the potential saviors of Turkish democracy for blowing the whistle on the endemic corruption and megalomania of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the fact of the matter is they were for him before they were against him and did not expose his abuses until Erdoğan turned on them. I am happy that the movement has exposed the truth about Erdoğan, but that does not mean that the enemy of my enemy is always a friend.
Gülen and Erdoğan are now certainly enemies. Apoplectic about the Gülenists’ exposure of his abuses of power, Erdoğan has been on a rampage in recent weeks, purging Gülen’s followers without regard to law and engaging in rants that might lead dispassionate observers to question Erdoğan’s stability. Now Erdoğan is demanding Gülen’s extradition, in theory for constructing a parallel state, but in reality for the crime of exposing and embarrassing the prime minister and endangering his secret bank accounts.
Several years ago, I compared Gülen to Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. After all, when Khomeini was in exile, he spoke about his desire for democracy. When he returned to Iran, he consolidated power, eschewed the tolerance he once wove into his rhetoric, and showed his radicalism undiminished by time. I speculated that if Gülen returned to Turkey, he would be met by millions of adoring supporters who might let their ideological passion get the best of them.
Now, perhaps, it is time to make the opposite comparison: Fethullah Gülen to the shah.
When the shah fled Iran, he too came to the United States to seek medical treatment, and was granted entry. I am glad he was. Facing the ire of Khomeini and his radical students, Carter and senior diplomats plotted quite openly to force the ailing shah to depart. At one point, they even encouraged Panama to send the shah back to Iran, where he would have faced humiliation, torture, and execution. Whatever the Shah may have been, and whatever his faults, handing him over to appease a revolutionary madman would have been wrong both morally and from the standpoint of American national interests.
I admit, I wish that the United States had never given refuge to Gülen. There were many places he could have gone, and it was not an American interest to host him in the United States, let alone have him reside in such a heavily armed compound. At the very least, that decision taken during the Clinton administration poured gasoline onto the flames of already imaginative Turkish conspiracy theories.
But Gülen is here now, and he has been here for 15 years. I need not trust the man nor endorse his movement—indeed, I remain quite a critic—but that does not mean that the United States should follow the logic of callous diplomats who argued in the case of the shah that appeasing Khomeini was worth it. By no means should senior American officials consider Erdoğan’s demands for Gülen’s extradition. Gülen may not have consistently been a dissident before, but he is now. It is never wise for the White House or State Department to appease off-kilter authoritarians in their petty, personal vendettas.
The national security debate, especially with regard to Islamist thinkers, has long been polarized, and never more so than now. That said, perhaps out of the chaos in Turkey comes an opportunity for a real consensus: Let us hope that not only supporters of Fethullah Gülen, but also his skeptics and his detractors recognize that under no circumstance should the U.S. government accept Turkey’s extradition request.