Who Is Fethullah Gulen, and Why Is the US Considering Extraditing Him to Turkey?

Turkish Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pa., on Sept. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Selahattin Sevi)

For the past 2½ years, the United States and its NATO ally, Turkey, have been at odds over the fate of Fethullah Gulen, a relatively little-known Muslim cleric living in the mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania.

His followers believe he is a peaceful emissary of interreligious dialogue and secular education. The Turkish government maintains he is a traitor and terrorist, the mastermind behind a July 2016 coup attempt that resulted in the death of 265 Turkish civilians. They want him extradited back to his homeland.

This week, a delegation from the U.S. traveled to Turkey to discuss his fate, according to published reports.

The Turkish government has made Gulen’s extradition one of the central points of its foreign policy. The United States has demurred, claiming that Turkey has not presented sufficient evidence against Gulen to justify extradition proceedings.

Turkish officials welcomed the election of President Donald Trump, in part because they believed they had a better chance of seeing Gulen extradited under his administration.

They may be right.

On Dec. 16, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu seemed to claim victory, stating that at their recent meeting during the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, President Trump told Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the United States was “working on” Turkey’s request that the United States extradite Gulen to Turkey.

On Dec. 18, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters the president only said the U.S. would “take a look at it, but nothing committal in that process,” walking back but not completely refuting the Turkish foreign minister’s statement.

Now U.S. officials seem to be holding direct talks with Turkey about Gulen’s possible extradition.

President Trump welcomes Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he arrives at the entrance to the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 16, 2017. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Complicating matters are Turkey’s ongoing restrictions on religious groups, which caused “the state of religious freedom in Turkey” to worsen, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.  The country landed on USCIRF’s tier 2 watch list of countries where religious liberty is restricted.

Gulen’s status as a religious leader, and one with a significant network and following across the United States, raises questions of whether his potential extradition is an issue of religious freedom and what impact his extradition would have on his American followers.

The faith leader initially left Turkey for medical treatment in 1999 and remained in the United States after Turkey accused him — falsely, according to his supporters — of trying to undermine and overthrow the government.

Following the 2002 rise to power of the AKP, the party that still holds power in Turkey today, Gulen’s political fortunes turned. He and members of his movement became political allies of the AKP and Erdogan, who was then prime minister. In 2012 and 2013 the AKP and the Gulen Movement had a falling out, which culminated in what the Turkish government claims was a Gulen-instigated corruption investigation that reached all the way to Erdogan.

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Source: Religion News Service