Inside the secretive religious movement that is being blamed for Turkey’s attempted coup

For The Los Angeles Times:

Istanbul, Turkey —

For much of the last month, in squares across Turkey, hundreds of thousands gathered for a “democracy watch” — part celebration of the failure of a bloody coup attempt that killed hundreds, and part an expression of determination to find and punish those responsible.

But not everyone poured into the streets. “It’s right to be proud of what is achieved against the failed coup and traitors,” said Orhan, a middle-aged teacher from Istanbul who asked that his full name not be used for his safety. “But on the other hand, a witch hunt started, and looking at my friends now I feel like a Jew under Hitler’s rule.”

Orhan belongs to Hizmet, a movement of millions of Turks inspired by the teachings of Fethullah Gulen, a 75-year-old cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania. Although Gulen’s public teachings center on a moderate form of Sufi Islam, his critics say he is the head of a cult that has masked a plan to infiltrate much of Turkey’s government and military infrastructure.

The Turkish government this month formally asked the U.S. to arrest and extradite Gulen, alleging he used followers in the military to engineer an uprising that threatened to plunge the country back into the cycle of military intervention that has beset the nation since 1960.

An English teacher and translator who joined Hizmet more than 30 years ago, Orhan has watched from his Istanbul home as a steady stream of government officials, television commentators and newspapers now call for Gulen and his followers to be executed for treason.

The grapevine brings troubling news: A friend of a friend, the head of a Hizmet school, found a job abroad and tried to leave Turkey, only to have his passport taken away at the airport. This month, Orhan lost his job at a school, one of thousands affiliated with Hizmet that have been shut down.

Thousands of soldiers and tens of thousands of government workers have been suspended, many detained pending an investigation. Many Hizmet schools and affiliated organizations have been shut down. In some cases, Orhan said, those detained have been outed as members of Hizmet by their spouses and close relatives.

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