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The Political Future Of Turkey May Be Decided On This Quiet Road In Rural Pennsylvania

Fethullah Gulen Penslyvania

Before it’s even begun, Turkey’s 2014 is already looking rocky. For the first time, the country will hold direct presidential elections, and there is widespread speculation that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will run in a bid to extend his power beyond his term limits.

Erdogan has spent 10 years as Prime Minister and 12 as chairman of the religious right wing Justice and Development Party (AK), but his tenure has become rocky, with Istanbul hit by serious anti-government protests earlier this year.

Analysts believe his latest threat doesn’t come from within Turkey though. It appears to comes from rural Pennsylvania; 1857 Mt. Eaton Road, Saylorsburg, to be precise.

Fethullah Gulen TurkeyIslamic preacher Fethullah Gulen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania in this December 28, 2004 file photo.

That secluded address is reported to be the home of Fethullah Gulen, an enigmatic Islamic preacher who has lived in self-imposed exile from Turkey since 1999. Gulen was trained as an iman and eventually rose to become the leader of a movement that espoused a modern version of Islam focusing on pacifism and business.

Gulen and his influential supporters in Turkey, including key members of the police and judiciary, supported Erdogan for three successive elections.

Recently, however, there have been signs that the informal coalition is crumbling, which could be a major problem for Erdogan in the next election — or sooner.

Case in point was yesterday, when
at least 52 people, including the sons of three Cabinet members, businessmen, officials, and a mayor detained in investigations of real estate fraud and other corruption. Gulenists have been accused of instigating the scandal, using their covert influence to gather evidence against Erdogan’s followers, reports The Economist.

The response from opposition politicians has been dramatic. “The prime minister has become the biggest real estate agent in the world,” Oktay Vural, a politician of the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) said, while Engin Altay of the secular opposition party Republican People’s Party (CHP) called on Erdogan to resign.

Some say the supposed schism occured because Gulenists were upset by a perceived shift to conservatism by AK. Others say Erdogan’s crackdown on private schools, many of which were funded by the Gulen movement, prompted retaliation.

Critics of the Gulen movement say the group’s vast influence and lack of clear structure are a threat to democracy — earlier this year the New York Times wrote a “culture of fear” surrounding the group led to many to refuse to be interviewed about them for fear of reprisals (one reporter who wrote a book on Gulen later found himself in jail). Either way, “this is a nasty and bloody divorce,” as Kadri Gursel, a columnist for the broadly pro-Erdogan Milliyet daily wrote this week.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear if the people of Saylorsburg (population: 1,126) know that Mt. Eaton Road has become a matter of geographical importance. While the street has been a sight of protests against the Gulen movement, Gulen himself is reclusive and rarely seen in public outside his 25-acre compound, which also houses a spiritual retreat center.

Fethullah Gulen SaylorsburgAn aerial view of the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center in rural Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, is seen in this picture taken July 9, 2013.

In a rare interview with the Atlantic earlier this year, Gulen said he wasn’t planning a return to Turkey as he was concerned about possible “harassment.”

“I find this place more tranquil,” he explained.

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