Interview with German Newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung ‘Charge of the Preacher’, dated 13th December 2014
Interviewers: Tim Neshitov and Christiane Schlötzer
Question: The Turkish government demands your extradition from Barack Obama. Do you still feel safe in the US?
The US is a democratic country with the rule of law. No one can be convicted arbitrarily and without due process here. There is no legal basis for the Turkish president’s extradition request. By doing so however, the only thing that is being is achieved is the violation of international law and the degradation of Turkey’s international standing and reputation.
Question: Once you supported of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative-Islamic AKP party. What has changed since then?
AKP was founded on the promise of democracy, human rights, EU-membership, an end to corruption and stigmatization of ‘others’, and economic development. In the first years they undertook steps in accordance with these promises and accordingly participants of the Hizmet movement supported them. However, after coming to power for the third time in 2011, the AKP government started to govern in ways that was completely contrary to the democratic steps they had taken in their first two terms.
For example, the political pressure on the media, the granting of super powers to the intelligence services (MIT), the use of Stasi-like methods, the disregard and contempt of judicial decisions, the mistreatment of protestors and many other such measures and steps all prove how far we have gone back on our democratic gains. To cover up their corruption and to form an authoritarian system, the government has declared me an enemy of the state. But there is a saying that fits well in this context and that is: ‘a liar’s candle only burns till sunset.’
Question: Together with Erdogan you have forced back the influence of the army on Turkish politics. Is this all forgotten?
In the past Turkey has experienced four different military coups. Governments have been brought down, ten thousands of people have been interrogated and arrested, and many of them got tortured. In Turkey terrible things have happened which are not imaginable in the EU (which we want to join). In a 2010 referendum 58% of the Turkish population voted for a change in the law. This constitutional change allowed bringing officers who had attempted a military coup to a civil court. If the AKP hadn’t politicized the referendum so much, maybe 70% would have approved it. For the first time in my life I made a recommendation on a matter of public vote (i.e. the referendum). I had said, ‘even the dead should rise and take part in this referendum’. After the country had been freed from the repression by the military, the AKP connected all state bodies to the executive and thus made institutions that supervise and keep illegal activities in check completely dysfunctional. As a result, the judiciary was no longer independent, creating a tutelage of a political party. Just as we took a stance against military tutelage in the past, we are against a political party’s tutelage today. That is why we have been labelled as traitors.
Question: Where is Turkey heading for?
During the recent period, the Turkish Republic gives the impression that it is no longer a social, laic, constitutional democracy. It has rather become a one-party state; even a one-man state. The separation of powers has been suppressed except for the constitutional court which is still putting up resistance. Today, Turkey is experiencing an internal polarization and is losing any international reputation it has. Turkey is getting lonelier. I am saddened by the current situation that my country finds itself in.
Question: Erdogan says that he wants to raise religious youth. Don’t you want the same thing?
The objective of the state cannot be to raise religious youth. Otherwise, the state would be imposing one worldview on its citizens. Freedom of religion and belief is a basic human right. It is the state’s responsibility to create an environment in which its citizen are able to freely practice and teach their faith and religion, whatever that might be.
What was expected of Erdogan, who has been in power for over 12 years, was to pass laws that protected and provided this freedom for religious minorities in Turkey as well. Whether this has been done or not is a matter of debate. What’s more, a religious person should not compromise upholding people’s rights and justice. In this sense I wish for a religious generation. But if you mean a generation which has no idea of its own religion that sows division and hatred in the society, then my answer is very clear: No.
Question: Recently you published statements in five major US newspapers taking a stand against Isis. How dangerous Isis?
In the history of Islam radical groups have come up. In fact, these groups suppressed other communities, murdered people and hereby betrayed their religion. A few years ago there was Al-Qaida. Now there is Isis; that’s all we needed! Isis defiles the image of Islam. What they are doing is nothing but barbarism. Whoever was prejudiced against Islam feels vindicated now. The situation is dire and scares our sleep away.
Unfortunately, the Islamic World has not taken an unequivocal stand on this matter including the Islamic scholars of Mecca, Medina, Egypt and Turkey.
Question: Did you expect more protests?
Sadly I haven’t seen any large demonstrations. Furthermore it is alleged that Isis is being supported from other countries with weaponry and logistics. If these claims are true, world peace and the future of Islam are in danger.
Question: Are Isis fighters Muslim?
They are victims of a mass psychosis. In Europe this phenomenon is well known. People followed movements, which were responsible for massacres. Isis members are ignorant people who don’t know their own religion in the least. They made up a ‘holy war’. It is a system of madness.
Question: How can young Europeans be protected from this madness?
Although this might appear to contradict the ideals of freedom in the Western world but we need to better control our youth. They should be better educated through seminars and conferences. The responsibilities of the countries that these young people come from should not be forgotten, too.
Question: What do you recommend to the politicians of the Turkish government on this subject?
I cannot recommend them anything. They will not listen to me. They have brilliant minds and know everything.
Question: How do you like Erdogan’s palace?
Every state needs prestigious buildings. However, instead of erecting a palace with 1000 rooms, they could have renewed the existing buildings. There was a court order to even freeze all work on the new constructon. The Prime Minister ignored it. Such behaviour shakes the citizens’ respect for the rule of law. In the Ottoman Empire the most splendid palaces were built during the time of their decadence and decline. Today many heads of states work in modest buildings. That’s why this magnificent building has in fact harmed Turkey’s reputation. 60% of the Turkish people regard it as wasteful. From a religious perspective this is “haram” (sinful and forbidden).
Question: Erdogan accuses your movement of infiltrating the judiciary and the police.
A citizen cannot infiltrate the institutions of his own country, he serves them. Anybody who has the necessary qualifications can be a public employee. I wonder whether what is disturbing these people is that such employees or civil servants have not sworn allegiance to their particular party. The current political practice does not only stigmatize Hizmet sympathisers, but anyone who keeps themselves at arms length from the governing party. They see everyone within this spectrum as harmful elements in the state. This is called a witch-hunt.
Question: Thousands of civil servants have been moved and dismissed. How many of them were Hizmet members?
I don’t even know a tenth of the people who feel connected to this movement. After a certain time it will be recognized that many of the concerned prosecutors, police officers and teachers that have been dismissed have nothing to do wit the Hizmet movement. It is possible that they are doing all these things with two things in mind. On the one hand, they try to present us as a big threat by stigmatizing so many people. On the other hand, they want to get rid of everybody who keeps him or herself at arms length from the AKP. Most recently a leading member of AKP has also admitted to this strategy as well.
Question: The officials had collected corruption allegations against sons of ministers and pro-government businessmen. What do you think about these allegations?
No one has been able to get to the bottom of the matter now that the judicial investigations have been derailed. Had this happened in a western democracy, the government would have resigned. Ankara went so far to portray the investigations as an international conspiracy – again, a typical strategy in authoritarian regimes.
Question: Has the Hizmet Movement been weakened?
Indeed, it cannot be denied that the propaganda by the state-controlled media has tarnished the image of Hizmet. People who send their children to our schools and support us with donations are being scared. But some day these lies and propaganda will eventually turn against those that manufacture them.
Question: The government plans to close down all your schools in Turkey.
These schools have won high praise and many awards. If Turkey is a state of law, we expect that nothing will happen to these schools. Otherwise, Turkey will lose.
Question: Recently Gülen Schools have been closed down in Central Asia. Is the Turkish government’s influence responsible for that?
The Turkish government tries to find different arguments against us in every country. In the republics of the former Soviet Union they say we are American spies. In the US they call us religious fundamentalists and in Islamic countries they allege that we are luring their children away from religion. They are pragmatists. Yet, in this way Turkey is breaking down bridges of friendship and is harming its international standing. In this way, Turkish paranoia is being transported abroad.
Question: A former US ambassador once described you as second most powerful man in Turkey. How do you see yourself?
I seek refuge from God of such entitlements. Anyone who knows me a little can confirm that I do not want to be known or famous. I have never tried to obtain spiritual or material gain by being known. My life of 76 years attests to this. If there is any success worth applauding in this movement that should be directed towards the many voluntary participants of it.
Question: Will this movement exist after Fethullah Gülen?
People who do not necessarily share my worldview have supported this movement. Our view has always been universal values. People in Africa whom I have never met co-financed the schools and hospitals there. These were people from whom we were not expecting anything. Every night when I go to bed I doubt whether I might wake up again. But I do not have the least amount of doubt about the future of the movement.
Question: Do you think about returning to Turkey?
I miss my country very much. I am an emotional person. I have got family and friends. Recently my brother passed away and I wasn’t able to attend his funeral. This was also the case with other relatives. I have spent 60 years of my life in Turkey. I feel very connected to places and even to objects; the village I was born in, the graves of my father and my grandparents, the neighbourhood in Izmir where I lived for many years, the books in my library there… All of these are always in my mind and I can’t hold back my tears when I recall them. If I returned to Turkey today, some people working at the highest levels of the state would abuse this for their ill intentions.
Question: Can you imagine reconciliation with Erdogan?
We didn’t start a fight. That’s why they have to make the first move for reconciliation. If some day Erdogan confesses to everyone that everything he said at his rallies and meetings against the movement were nothing more than lies and slander, then I will be I will be content with such efforts. [In a later comment, Gulen says “provided that they are allow for an independent judicial process to take its course and adjudicate on the corruption allegations”.]
Question: Is there anything which makes you happy nowadays despite all difficulties?
I have never been happy for a long time. After each military coup I was persecuted. But what I experience today is even worse. Still, on the bright side ‘coals and diamonds are now separated’ (Turkish saying). The world is now recognizing the meaning of this movement.
Question: Many in America were amused about Erdogan’s recent statement that Muslims had discovered America before Christopher Columbus. What are your comments on this?
It is up to researchers and scientists to discuss when something is first discovered. There are people who say: “Who is Einstein anyway? And who is this Edison?” They argue that Muslims knew all about this in the 5th century. It is not right to say ’only Muslims could have done’ a certain thing.