Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he will ask the United States to extradite Islamic spiritual leader Fetullah Gulen back to Turkey to face accusations of trying to topple his government. The cleric moved to the U.S. in 1999, at a time when Turkey was ruled by an aggressively secularist military establishment who deemed Gulen's movement a threat. But Gulen was once a close ally of Erdogan’s ruling AK Party (AKP), whose roots lie in political Islam, and the growing antagonism between them underscores the depth of the current political crisis in Turkey.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Erdogan confirmed comments he’d made in an interview with Charlie Rose, aired Monday, in which he said he wanted Gulen and his followers either extradited or expelled from the U.S.
“They can be delivered or they can be expelled. It’s as simple as that,” Erdogan told Rose in the PBS interview. “If for example someone is a threat to the U.S. and we get that information and we catch them, we deliver them. I would expect the same thing from our strategic partners in the United States because these actions have been attempts to threaten our national security.”
The U.S. has an extradition treaty with Turkey, but the Department of Justice told Al Jazeera that as a matter of policy it will neither confirm nor deny whether an extradition request has been made.
This action against Gulen and his Hizmet movement, an organization that spans the globe and runs charter schools in 90 countries around the world, including more than 100 in the U.S., is the latest chapter in the political drama unfolding in Turkey.
Since last year, Erdogan has faced mounting criticism over heavy-handed responses to popular protests and inquiries over corruption allegations. He has denounced the upheaval as a plot by Gulen and others to thwart his government ahead of the 2014 national elections. At least 24 people have been charged in corruption investigations, two of them sons of ministers in Erdogan’s cabinet. Still, the AKP handily won the local elections last month with over 45 percent of the vote, and Erdogan is now expected to run for president in August.
“It’s a vote of confidence,” he said in the PBS interview. “We’ll convene next week and consult, and by mid-May we’ll announce our decision [to run].”
Despite Erdogan’s claims that Gulen’s influence was tantamount to creating a “parallel state” in Turkey, the party backed by Gulenists trailed the AKP with only 27 percent of the vote in the March elections.
Gulen and his group, whose followers include many members of the judiciary and the police force, have denied engineering the corruption probe, in which three cabinet ministers have already quit. Gulen, along with European leaders and Washington, has criticized Erdogan for his response to the investigation, which has included firing thousands of police officers, judges and prosecutors, shutting down Twitter and YouTube, and expanding the powers of the intelligence service.
Representatives for Gulen's movement in the U.S. said they place "trust in the U.S. tradition of democracy and the rule of law, and believe that Mr. Erdogan's move will ultimately be seen as yet another alarming attempt by his government to suppress the freedom of their citizens and silence their critics."
The statement from the Alliance for Shared Values, a Hizmet-affiliated non-profit organization that is close to Gulen, said Erdogan's extradition attempt was clear political harassment.
"There are no charges or legal case against him [Gulen]," the statement provided to Al Jazeera said. "Mr. Gulen is a proud Turkish national and a law-abiding U.S. resident who has devoted his life to democracy, human rights and freedoms."
In the Monday interview Erdogan defended his actions. He said Twitter doesn’t have an office in Turkey, has been evading paying taxes and ignores lawsuits filed by his government to have offending accounts suspended. He claimed that recent leaked phone conversations, including one in which he allegedly told his son to get rid of cash hidden in their home, were doctored by his opponents.
“Technology is so advanced, you can listen to people’s conversations and you can edit a few sentences,” Erdogan said, adding: “We will continue to follow this up, and those who threaten our national security will be subject to due legal process.”
It’s an acrimonious end to what was once a fruitful and mutually beneficial partnership between Erdogan and Gulen. Once allies, the men and their groups were instrumental in removing Turkish military influence from the government. Gulenist newspapers supported Erdogan and his policies wholeheartedly, while Erdogan reciprocated by placing Gulen loyalists in key government positions.
Now, those media outlets openly criticize Erdogan and publish leaked documents while Gulen tells his followers: “If the Pharaoh is against you, if Croesus is against you, then you are walking on the right path.” Erdogan has responded by shutting down private schools, nearly a quarter of them run by Gulen’s followers.
It’s unclear whether the U.S. will extradite Gulen if it receives the arrest warrant and request. The spiritual leader has been living in exile in his compound in Saylorsburg, Pa., for more than a decade, and is sickly. He recently suffered a respiratory infection, and requires constant medication.
While claiming to have little political influence in Turkey, Gulen gives regular lectures on the Internet to his followers around the world. Despite Erdogan saying he has canceled Gulen’s passport, Gulen said, “there are no legal obstacles for my return to Turkey,” in a rare interview with The Atlantic last year. But he did voice concern that if he did return, it could be used as an opportunity for some to “reverse the democratic reforms that were started in the early 1990s.”
“I have to sacrifice my intense desire to return to my homeland in the interest of both Turkey and the good work of volunteers of the [Gulen] movement around the world,” he said. “Additionally, while in Turkey, I would seek corrections and possible legal actions against libel and slander. Here, I am away from such harassment, and I am less affected by them. I find this place more tranquil.”