Albeit, since arriving in the United States (US) in the late 1990s, Mr. Fethullah Gulen, now aged 74, has not given a single broadcast interview yet, recently, the BBC was able to have an exclusive interview of the Turkish cleric. Undoubtedly, Mr. Gulen is one of the most influential and powerful persons in today’s Turkey. An American ambassador calls him– as Turkey’s second most powerful man. Gulen, a Muslim cleric, leads a movement known as Hizmet (Service) started by himself in the late 1970s. At present, this movement is believed to have millions of followers both, in and outside the Turkey. It is deeply involved in a various entrepreneurial activities that include banking, finance, media and educational institutions. It is worth perhaps billions of dollars and has a presence, often through its high-achieving schools, scattered throughout 150 countries in the world.
In his BBC interview, Mr. Gulen attempted to clarify, some of the accusations and criticisms leveled on him and his movement. One of the issues that make him a subject of criticism in Turkey was his stance towards the Mavi Marmara incidence or the Gaza flotilla raid, a brutal and bloody military operation by Israel against six ships of the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” on 31 May 2010 in the international waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The flotilla, organized by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İHH), was carrying humanitarian aid and construction materials, with the intention of breaking the illegal and inhumane Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip. During the raid, nine activists were killed including eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish American, and many more were wounded.
In an interview to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), just after the Gaza flotilla raid, Mr. Gulen took a very controversial stance on the approach of the organizers and Turkish Government. Moreover, his followers recently try to portray the involvement of Mavi Marmara in the Flotilla as a form of “jihadism”, or radical militant İslamist action. Therefore, the stance of Mr. Gulen and his movement vis-à-vis the flotilla has been and still is a subject of criticism in Turkey.
Most recently, Fethullah Gulen’s controversial remarks in his interview with BBC indeed intensified the criticisms towards Gulen regarding the issue. In this interview, Gülen said:
"They asked me two questions after the interview (with the WSJ in 2010), "how would you evaluate this (the Mavi Marmara incident)? I said: "I wish the organizers of the flotilla used diplomacy as much as possible instead of resorting to brute force (violence). Such actions would result in different problems; social problems and complications. I would say the same thing over again today. In my opinion, diplomacy should be used to its fullest extent. You should not shed blood, sacrifice people or bring them at the forefront of violence. What they (the IHH) did in Mavi Marmara was very inconsiderate and irresponsible".
In his interview with the WSJ in 2010, in summary Gulen expressed that the organizers (which also includes IHH) should not have rebelled against the 'authority' of Israel and should have asked for Israel's permission before attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. He and his followers continuously reiterate that the humanitarian aid organization affiliated with the Gulen movement was not sent to Palestine without getting Israel's permission.
With his criticism towards the Mavi Marmara incidence, it seems that Mr. Gulen is both, ignorant of the ground realities in Palestine and not sincere at all and even not truthful to himself. Let’s start with analyzing his words first, and later move to why he preferred to speak in this direction.
Gulen, briefly said that the organizers of the flotilla did not prefer to use diplomacy that must be used to its fullest extent and, opted for violence, shedding blood, and sacrificing people for a confrontation with the authorities whose permission was required for bringing any humanitarian aid to the Occupied Territories, or West Bank and Gaza.
First of all, although he preaches democracy and human rights in every occasion, Gulen missed a very important point regarding the flotilla and Mavi Marmara. This was not an ordinary humanitarian aid mission subject to many restrictions including many items of basic needs. This is a practice of civil disobedience against an abusive power, illegally preventing a people’s access to their basic needs.
Before the beginning of Israeli blockade on Gaza, nearly 400 trucks daily used to enter Gaza to supply the food-stuff needed in the Strip. Since the blockade, the Israeli military allowed only 67 trucks loaded with food supply. On the other hand, according to calculation of the Israeli health ministry, in order to avoid malnutrition problem, at least 170 trucks carrying food must be allowed to pass to Gaza every day.
Moreover, the blockade destroyed the Gazan agriculture and fishing sector, which further contributed to the crisis in Gaza. Of course, what was (and is still) needed in Gaza was (is) not only limited with food. Israel has been doing everything to make the life miserable inside Gaza and other Occupied Territories. We don’t hear these facts from Gulen when he speaks about Palestine and Israel. We also don’t read them from the media outlets that his group controls. There are many books written on the realities of daily life under the Israeli occupation and there are hundreds of reports published about them. It seems neither Gulen nor his followers had read them. And, his humanitarian aid organization operating there prefers to remain silent on that, as we don’t hear anything from them as well.
What Gulen and his followers do not want to see that the participants on the flotilla included artists and academics, doctors and lawyers, activists and journalists, and lawmakers from dozens of countries, including parliamentarians from Israel, Egypt, and Sweden, and two members of the German Bundestag. Volunteers had come from over forty countries, united by the simplicity of their mission: to publicly deliver aid to Gaza in order to challenge Israel’s illegal blockade on small, densely populated Gaza strip. These were not thugs, brutes, or terrorists. Rather, these were ordinary people whose only purpose was to help other ordinary people.
Former American president Jimmy Carter considers the administration of the Israeli occupation forces in the Occupied Territories, an Apartheid regime. But Gulen does not think so, and thinks that diplomacy is a method to deal with Israel. If Gulen is not trying to justify the Israeli thuggery by comparing a regular humanitarian aid and, what Gaza flotilla was trying to do, then he certainly shows the lack of aptitude by comparing apples with oranges. If not trying to mislead people, he is ignorant of the facts that Israel is the country who either refused to use diplomacy for problem solving or violated every diplomatic agreement or treaty it signed for. There are at least 77 UN Resolutions passed condemning Israel’s actions because of Israel’s repeated violations of international law.
The Freedom Flotilla consisted of the Mavi Marmara, was the ninth and biggest attempt till that time to break the siege of Gaza by the sea. The first five endeavors were successful in reaching Gaza. However, the Israeli navy attempted to prevent all of them. On board the flotilla was 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid, all of that was desperately needed and cruelly disallowed by Israel’s blockade of the Strip, which includes medical equipment such as ultrasound scanners, X-ray machines, electric patient beds, dentistry units, Doppler echocardiography devices, wheelchairs, electric mobility scooters for the disabled, stretchers, mammography equipment, microscopes, dialysis machines, radiology monitors, crutches, ENT Units, operating beds, and gynecological couches and many more.
By saying that “I wish the organizers of the flotilla used diplomacy as much as possible instead of resorting to brute force (violence)”, Gülen is not only totally ignoring history of Israeli occupation and bullying on a daily bases on the people under its occupation, but also insulting and slandering a purely democratic action of civil disobedience by the elements of global civil society. He also ignored the video shoot by film crew of Iara Lee, a filmmaker and director.
There was (and still is) a serious humanitarian crisis in Gaza due to the siege and the Mavi Marmara's main aim was to break this siege. Gülen's baseless criticism of the Flotilla, unfortunately justifies the Israeli raid on the flotilla by disregarding the humanitarian crisis and the civil disobedience of global civil society against the apartheid regime.
A closer review of the movement’s media will immediately reveal that a reader can hardly find the word “occupation” in any news or op-ed it published about Israel. If done at all, any criticism of Israel in the movement’s media is handled in a very carefully constructed mild language, which usually accompanies a harsher criticism of the Palestinian side. If anyone who is not familiar with the Palestinian question reads the movement’s media, s/he will get the impression that Palestinians are the main obstacle behind the decades old conflict in the region.
Here, I don’t mean that the Gulen movement is a pro-Israel, Muslim formation. But, it is very clear that it does not want to antagonize Israel at the expense of ignoring the plight of the Palestinians. And, it also does not want to be perceived as being anti-Israel. Moreover, it believes that not antagonizing Israel strengthens its moderate image in the eyes of the US and Europe, which is the key to movement’s survival and expansion on a global scale.
Mr. Huseyin Gulerce, a veteran journalist who writes for the movement’s daily Zaman, recently told the New York Times “it was the Mavi Marmara crisis in 2010 that created the first cracks, in their relationship” referring to relationship between the Erdogan government and the Gulen Movement. He also added, “Mr. Gulen’s attitude was very clear, as he always suggested that Turkey should not be adventurous in its foreign policy and stay oriented to the West, and that it should resolve its foreign policy issues through dialogue”. Nevertheless, Gulerce ignores the fact that the movement and, the daily he works for have objected a dialogue approach regarding the Syrian crisis and wanted to use it for a confrontation with Iran. Secondly, Gulerce, like Gulen, totally ignores the nature of the Palestinian question and Israel’s very well documented history of brutal occupation in Palestine.
What Gulen and his followers must understand that the criticism directed toward them will not end as long as they maintain their present outlook towards Israel and its occupation on Palestine. As Amnesty international said in a Public Statement issued with respect to the Palmer report by the panel investigated the Israeli raid on the Fredoom Flotilla:
“Gaza’s 1.5 million residents should not simply be seen as recipients of humanitarian assistance, but as people with rights to health, education, work, an adequate standard of living, and freedom of movement, all of which continue to be violated by the Israeli-imposed siege. Israel should completely lift its illegal siege on Gaza, which violates the prohibition on collective punishment in the Fourth Geneva Convention.
This means allowing exports as well as imports, fully opening all the crossing points under Israeli control, allowing Gazans to use arable land inside the Strip currently off limits due to the open-fire rules employed by the IDF [Israeli military] in the “buffer zone”, allowing Palestinian fishermen access to their coastal waters, and allowing travel between Gaza and the West Bank, which are considered as one territory under the Oslo Accords and international humanitarian law.”