I’m in a Sydney taxi, on my way to meet local supporters of Fethullah Gulen. He is the US-based Muslim scholar who, if we are to believe Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a fugitive terrorist and the mastermind behind the attempted coup that flared and fizzled in Istanbul and Ankara last Friday.
By coincidence, my taxi driver is Turkish, and he believes Erdogan. Unsolicited, the driver raises the subject of Gulen. Not only does he believe the 75-year-old poet, intellectual and peace activist is behind the coup, but that the United States plotted with the Pennsylvania-based Gulen and gave him financial support.
Gulen’s supporters in Australia, and they are many, think this is absurd. They have considerable support among Australian politicians. Only last month, during Ramadan, the Gulen-inspired Affinity Intercultural Foundation co-hosted a “friendship and dialogue” iftar dinner at Parliament House in NSW with the Minister for Multicultural Affairs, John Ajaka, and the shadow minister, Sophie Cotsis.
Guests included the Police Commissioner. The Governor, David Hurley, addressed the gathering about the importance of encouraging dialogue to avoid a clash of civilisations.
A week earlier, about 100 New Zealand politicians had ignored a warning from the Turkish Embassy about attending a similar dinner, given that “Gulen is a fugitive and on Turkey’s most-wanted terrorist list”.
Turkey’s Ambassador to Australia, Ahmet Vakur Gokdenizler, confirmed that similar warnings were sent to NSW politicians – and have been delivered to federal and state authorities for a few years – telling SBS: "Of course, the decision needs to be made by the Australian authorities concerning the people who are affiliated with a terrorist group in an allied country”.
But if Gulen’s supporters in Australia present any security risk, it will be news to local authorities. They have been building schools here since 1996. About 5000 children attend 16 non-denominational schools across the country that follow the principles espoused by the Hizmet Movement, which Gulen founded in the 1970s to promote secular democracy, religious freedom, tolerance between faiths, multiculturalism, pluralism and peaceful civil society. The movement claims to have established roots in more than 160 countries.
Supporters here say Gulen is a scapegoat and has been since December 2013 when Erdogan, implicated with his ministers in a graft scandal, blamed the scholar who had once lent him political support.
One of the local Gulen backers I meet quotes a much-touted conspiracy theory to counter the taxi driver's: that Erdogan staged the coup as an excuse to tighten his grip of authoritarian rule, to embolden his own craven path away from secular democracy and towards “political Islam”. Hence, they say, he has sacked more than 2700 judges, 15,000 teachers and education officials since Friday.
The cab driver and the men I’m meting are an illustration of how polarised the Turkish people have become in the aftermath of Friday’s brief but bloody emergency. In Australia, I’m assured, friends and neighbours, fathers and sons, are suddenly divided.
Organisations that evolved in Australia from the Hizmet Movement are acutely aware of the divisions. Affinity in Sydney and the Australian Intercultural Society, based in Melbourne, decline the invitation for interviews on camera – lest their remarks be misinterpreted and inflame the tensions.
SBS contacted the Turkish Ambassador to see whether the embassy here had issued similar warnings to politicians as had been delivered in New Zealand. In both countries, MPs on either side of the political fence did not heed the embassy’s advice last month. They attended the iftar dinners.
Ambassador Gokdenizler tells SBS: “Of course we are concerned, and of course we warned both federal and state authorities about how we approach these groups. This is not something new. We have been doing it for a few years.”
But he concedes: “The things is, I have no way of knowing whether there are some terrorist activities in Australia. But since the government of NSW is [hosting the iftar dinner], they’re not seen as such.”
"The risk is, as we see it, it is a terrorist organisation and they are staging a coup in their own country. So I can’t be sure what they may be doing here in Australia."
Gulen is a Sunni whose scholarship extends to the deeper mystical practice of Sufism. But he advocates secular democracy and the separation of religious and political powers.
He has categorically denied being behind Friday’s coup and he has challenged Erdogan to produce any evidence. US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is awaiting an extradition request from Turkey, likewise suggests he will need to see any evidence.
SBS asks the ambassador: Where is the proof?
“As an ambassador in Canberra, I don’t have the details of the evidence,” Gokdenizler says. “But the information or the instruction I receive from Ankara is that all the evidence will be presented to the US government as a legal matter.”
And what evidence is there that Australian supporters of Gulen present any security threat?
“The risk is, as we see it, it is a terrorist organisation and they are staging a coup in their own country. So I can’t be sure what they may be doing here in Australia.
“Of course, you are aware of developments in the region. We have IS [Islamic State]. We have many other terrorist groups. And we have foreign terrorist fighters of Australian origin.
“We have to get rid of the idea that 'Your terrorist is bad, my terrorist is a freedom fighter' sort of thing. At this stage they may not be a threat to Australian society, but you can never be sure because it happened in Turkey.”
While declining to be interviewed, Affinity has released a statement condemning the attempted military coup, saying “there is no place for military interventions in a democracy”.
But it says Erdogan was too quick to lay blame on the Hizmet Movement.
“This is not surprising as President Erdogan has previously blamed oppositional developments in Turkey on the Hizmet Movement and, as a pretext to purging state and civil society, claims that the Hizmet is acting as a ‘parallel state’ aiming to take over the country.
Hizmet-affiliated or supporting organisations and persons have been targeted as a result with media organisations and schools being shut down, journalists jailed and many others arrested without sufficient evidence.”
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