A new problem in Turkish-American relations: Fethullah Gülen

A new problem in Turkish-American relations: Fethullah Gülen

If a movement led by a religious leader who has chosen to live outside his country becomes one of the strongest power groups in the politics and administration of his home country, and if it starts openly conflicting with the elected government, how would this case affect the relationship between the host foreign country and the home country?

This sounds like an international law examination question, but in reality this question has been hanging over dialogue between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Barack Obama for some time.

Since Gülen settled in the U.S. in 1999, he has been a factor in the equation of the Turkish-American relationship. Within a short time of 10 to 15 years, his community has became organized in almost every U.S. state and integrated into the American system to a great extent with the associations it formed and the schools it founded.

As an extension of this process, it is possible to say that Gülen’s strong shadow has been dominating the U.S. perception in Turkey. In foreign policy matters, the community has always taken a closer stance to the U.S. side. For example, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government was conflicting with Israel, Gülen suggested not clashing. When the government was getting closer to Iran, the community stayed at a distance.

A big problem experienced throughout this process stemmed from the fact that Gülen was living in the U.S. This is because every position the community took in foreign policy or domestic matters was perceived by a substantial portion of the public in Turkey as directly the message of the U.S. Likewise, when the extensions of the community in the police and the judiciary started major operations, such as the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer) cases, a significant portion of the victims attributed the real responsibility to America.

This is just the same as right after Dec. 17, when Prime Minister Erdoğan thought the U.S. was behind the whole business. In several of his statements, the prime minister openly accuses Gülen of working on behalf of another country. However, the stage reached today has exceeded the dimensions of perception; it now sits as a hot issue on the agenda of Turkey-U.S. relations.

The issue is now on Obama’s agenda too, after Erdoğan’s strong pronouncements during their phone conversation on Feb. 19. Erdoğan presented Gülen as a “national security threat” to Obama in this conversation. Dealing with a thousand issues across the world, Obama now has an extradition request for Gülen in front of him.

In an interview Erdoğan gave to PBS recently, he said he had expectations from Washington: Either “deportation” or “handing over.” But there has been no request yet through official channels.

 However, is possible in the coming days for Ankara to submit an official application within the framework of agreements between the two states. The topic is likely to become a thorny issue that will spread through many years with objections filed and possible interventions from the domestic dynamics of the American system. It is a signal of this situation that the New York Times has started publishing editorials on this subject with critical content.

So, the tough new issue in Turkish-American relations is the Fethullah Gülen file, which has already staged several difficult issues.