Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pressuring the White House to extradite Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen to Turkey. Picture: Reuters
The collusion of President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani with the Turkish government made headlines in the past week.

It is alleged that not only did Giuliani pressure Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rivals, but he also pushed for the extradition of the Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen to Turkey - one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s priorities.

Erdogan has doggedly pressured the White House to extradite Gülen to try him on charges that he tried to instigate the failed coup of 2016 in Turkey.

Giuliani has used inflammatory rhetoric, calling Gülen a “dangerous extremist”, echoing the language of former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who had written an oped for The Hill in 2016, attacking Gülen as a “radical Islamist”.

After Trump’s election, US federal agents investigated Flynn’s links to Turkey, and prosecutors looked into reports that Flynn had discussed kidnapping Gülen and forcibly returning him to Turkey. Flynn resigned after 24 days when it was exposed that he had lied about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. He also admitted to lying about his role in the Turkish lobbying effort, which involved his former business partner lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government to get Gülen extradited.

Giuliani’s insistence on Gülen’s extradition raised suspicions among senior US officials that he, too, has been in collusion with the Turkish government. US Attorney General Jeff Sessions saw no merit in deporting Gülen to Turkey.

All the intrigue surrounding Giuliani’s double dealings has resulted in intense media scrutiny in which Gülen’s name has prominently featured. But Americans know little about the Muslim cleric in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, and the worldwide movement he has led over the past half century. It is also not understood why Erdogan is pursuing his extradition with a vengeance, and how relations deteriorated since 2013 between Erdogan and the Gülen movement.

Erdogan and Gülen were close in the 1990s and Erdogan used to attend events hosted by the Gülen movement when he was Istanbul mayor.

Erdogan had visited him before launching the AKP party seeking his support, which Gülen gave, given Erdogan’s initial pro-freedom rhetoric, which was based on the promotion of democratic values. The Gülen movement, with its extensive network of millions of followers within Turkey and across the world, was an important ally for Erdogan.

Many credit the massive following of the Gülen movement and its media empire with catapulting Erdogan to power in 2002. Erdogan and Gülen were in favour of shifting Turkey from a secular state to one which was more religious and conservative. Erdogan used to call the Gülen movement’s top-selling Turkish newspaper Zaman “the flower of democracy”. But he is also known to have described democracy and its necessity as a streetcar: “Democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.”

While the movement has no official membership, it is believed that its followers numbered between two and five million. Gülen has published more than 50 books. The Gülen movement is based on a philosophy of Islamic mysticism, (along the lines of the Sufi tradition) which teaches humanism and advocates education and democracy. The global movement has been dedicated to literacy, social enterprise and inter-religious dialogue, and is motivated by a desire to alleviate suffering. In Turkey, the followers had sought to bridge Islam and modern democracy. The movement became known as Hizmet, meaning "service".

Over recent decades the Hizmet movement established more than 2000 schools in more than 170 countries, nine of which are in South Africa.

When Erdogan took power in 2002, Gülen was in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, having been charged three times over different decades of military rule for establishing a secret religious organisation and trying to change the secular nature of the state.

He had been charged after the military coups in 1971 and 1980, and again in the late 1990s. Gülen was acquitted of the charges three times.

In 2008, the Turkish Supreme Court of Appeal rejected the chief prosecutor’s objection to the acquittal, which was upheld by the appeals court in March that year. The objection was soundly defeated by a 16 to seven vote.

Gülen had first gone to the US in 1999 for medical treatment, and after being charged in Turkey in 1999, he defected to the US where he set up a retreat an hour-and-a-half drive outside New York city in Pennsylvania.

Once Erdogan was in power he had personally asked Gülen to return to Turkey. Gülen refused, citing ill-health.

Erdogan publicly asked him to return, in June 2012. Turkish politicians regularly visited him in Pennsylvania to boost their popularity. Gülen’s influence peaked in 2009, when his movement ran publishing houses, banks, businesses, six TV stations, two radio stations, and numerous magazines and newspapers. The Zaman newspaper at the time had six times the circulation of The Star in Johannesburg. By 2013, Time magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

While the movement enjoyed immense popularity in Turkey, and its followers held senior positions in the police, military, judiciary and other institutions of the state, there were those who depicted the movement as a third force or shadow state that wanted to control those institutions.

Up until late 2013, the Turkish embassy in South Africa was a proud promoter of the Hizmet schools and its mosque in South Africa, with the ambassador cutting ribbons at the opening of new schools and inviting South Africans for Eid breakfasts at the Nizamiye Mosque.

Relations between the Turkish establishment and the movement soured after Gülen criticised Erdogan’s handling of the anti-government protests, which turned violent that year.

By the end of 2013, Turkish police and prosecutors (many of whom claimed to be affiliated to the Gülen movement) launched corruption investigations into government-linked figures, some ministers and their children.

Erdogan retaliated by firing a few hundred police chiefs. At that point, Erdogan and Gülen virtually declared war on each other, which led to Erdogan spearheading a campaign to crush the Gülen movement, perceiving it as a political threat that needed to be neutralised.

By 2016, the state had started taking over TV stations and newspapers run by Gülenists, seizing the assets of Gülen-associated businesses, and closing or taking over Hizmet schools in the country.

A month before the attempted coup in July 2016, Erdogan had decided to purge Gülenists and many of the Nato-aligned officers from the military, particularly those opposed to getting into Syria. The coup attempt by some army officers and their loyalists on July 15 created a pretext for Erdogan to declare a state of emergency and start mass arrests and torture of Gülenists. Anyone considered to be associated with the movement was dubbed a terrorist. The movement was referred to as Feto. The Turkish ambassador who had been cutting ribbons at Hizmet schools in South Africa started calling Gülen-associated journalists in South Africa terrorists.

In total 217 971 members of the Hizmet movement have been detained, 82 842 arrested by the Turkish state. About 160 000 were fired from their jobs, and 1500 NGOs dissolved. Many of those arrested had some loose affiliation with the movement, including many women who have been incarcerated with their children.

The Turkish state took assets worth billions of dollars from Gülen-affiliated businessmen. Ali Katirciolgu, the businessman who built the Nizamiye mosque complex and clinic in Midrand with the blessing of Nelson Mandela, had all his assets seized in Turkey, totalling $4bn (about R58.6bn).

The worst has been the extent of the torture which the Turkish security establishment has meted out against those detained.

The human rights abuses have included sexual torture, starvation, sleep deprivation, electric shocks, nail extraction, suffocation, exposure to icy water, dripping of molten plastic on extremities, cold and high pressure water hosing, as well as sharp and blunt-force trauma.

Governments across the world have been pressured and bribed by Turkey to extradite Hizmet movement members, particularly teachers at Hizmet schools. Countries that have capitulated under Erdogan’s pressure include Malaysia, Somalia, Myanmar, Thailand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Sudan, Afghanistan and Cambodia, among others. In many countries, Turkish intelligence has worked with local intelligence agencies to enact rendition, with Hizmet teachers being kidnapped from their homes at night and taken to waiting Turkish Airways flights. On arrival in Turkey they are detained and tortured.

ANC politicians are being put under intense pressure by Turkey to agree to the extradition of Hizmet members and to close their schools, which are some of the top-performing schools in the country.

What Turkey needs to realise is that the rule of law is alive and well in South Africa, and our government and intelligence agencies cannot be easily bought in order to extradite or kidnap Hizmet members so that they can be detained and tortured in Turkey. Our constitution, government and judiciary will never allow it.