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United States & World

Islamic Scholar In Pennsylvania Denies He's Behind Failed Coup In Turkey

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Turkey, some 6,000 people are under arrest after a failed coup attempt last week. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants one man in particular. He's an Islamic scholar with a large following in Turkey and around the world who now lives in exile in Pennsylvania's Poconos. Erdogan insists the aging scholar was behind the attempted coup in Turkey and wants him extradited. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: He has no mosque. The lectures Fethullah Gulen delivers are taped at his mountain retreat in northeast Pennsylvania. His lifestyle there is spartan. He has a single, small bedroom from which he emerges only occasionally to greet visitors. But the accusation that he was the mastermind behind last week's coup attempt in Turkey so angered Mr. Gulen that, over the weekend, he came out of his bedroom to face some reporters gathered in an adjoining prayer room with their cameras.

First, a doctor took Gulen's blood pressure. Now 75, he's in frail health. When he spoke, it was in a barely audible voice.

FETHULLAH GULEN: (Speaking Turkish).

GJELTEN: Asked whether any of his followers were behind the coup, Gulen said he doesn't even know who his followers are. In fact, they number in the millions. His movement is called Hizmet - in Turkish, service. It's heavily focused on education. He encourages his followers to prosper but then to share their wealth, supporting, for example, a network of Hizmet-affiliated schools. It's a moderate Islam. Here's one of his senior aides, Alp Aslandogan, describing Gulen's views in a presentation at a Washington think tank in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALP ASLANDOGAN: For instance, there should be no restriction on women becoming a president or judge in any society. Democracy is the best form of governance developed by mankind. On issues such as freedom of expression or other basic human rights, he has many progressive interpretations.

GJELTEN: The movement is extensive enough in Turkey that President Erdogan regards it as a threat to his own political base. The two were allies in Turkey before Gulen went into exile, but they are now bitter rivals.

ZEKI SARITOPRAK: Erdogan is much more coming from political Islam background. And Gulen is coming from Sufi background.

GJELTEN: Zeki Saritoprak is a professor of Islamic studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, having trained in Islamic studies in Turkey. Advocates of political Islam want a state based on Islam. Saritoprak says Gulen's Sufi tradition is less interested in politics.

SARITOPRAK: The Sufi tradition is much more focusing on the soul of human being, the spirit of human being, human beings' relationship with God from an inner side.

GJELTEN: But Gulen's movement has caught the attention of U.S. law enforcement, in part, because of all the money that passes through his network of schools and because his followers work hard to develop influence in the U.S. political system. Whether Gulenists in Turkey were behind last week's coup attempt is hard to say. The movement is reportedly well represented in the country's police establishment but not the military, and that's where the coup came from.

GULEN: (Speaking Turkish).

GJELTEN: In his brief conversation with reporters on Saturday, Gulen said he doesn't believe Erdogan's accusations. And I don't believe the world believes them either, he said. But the United States will now face an extradition request from Turkey, one of its closest allies. Secretary of State John Kerry said, yesterday, the United States will evaluate any evidence concerning Gulen that the Turkish government provides. But then he added, not allegations - evidence. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.