Rumors are flying that aides to President Donald Trump recently tried to browbeat the State Department into an unsavory deal to send the exiled cleric, Fethullah Gulen, a permanent resident of the United States, back to Turkey. The idea was to appease Turkish dictator Recep Erdogan in order for him to go easy on Saudi Arabia after their gruesome murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Fortunately, the career diplomats in the State Department didn’t go for it. And the howl of public outcries over the rumors made it clear that there would be legal challenges and a huge public backlash if Trump tried to push it through. On Sunday he relented and claimed he had never intended to return Gulen to Turkey. Despite the fact that Trump’s trial balloon went down in flames, the very idea that the deal was even discussed should be cause for alarm.
The deal was sinister on at least two levels. It would send to imprisonment or death a person for whom no evidence of crimes has been provided. And it would offer him as a sacrificial lamb in order to make life easier for Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who, according to the CIA, ordered the murder of Khashoggi. The United States should be doing everything it can to distance itself from Salman and his autocratic Saudi regime, not get him off the hook—especially not through a deal that amounts to nothing more than human trafficking.
In a 2017 interview with Fethullah Gulen for Religion Dispatches, I observed that he appeared to be what he said he was, a spiritual leader for a movement of reformed Islam aimed at social service and interfaith understanding. I also know the movement has played a political role in Turkey. But was it involved in the attempted 2016 coup against Erdogan? As I said then, I have no way of knowing whether Gulen or any members of his Hizmet movement were complicit in any way. I still don’t have any evidence of that one way or another. But more importantly, no one else seems to know either. There’s been no evidence released publicly that would clearly implicate Gulen in the coup attempt. If the Turkish government has some evidence of his involvement, they’ve been unwilling to make it public in a way that would convince the U.S. State Department that Gulen should be extradited.
So there’s no grounds for Gulen to be extradited. Any attempt to do so would clearly be immoral and quite likely illegal, since extraditions are based on legal reviews of the validity of criminal accusations. If there’s no evidence, this creates a dangerous precedent of denying justice to permanent residents of the United States. If this deal went through as allegedly planned, anyone could be extradited simply because some dictator somewhere didn’t like them, and the U.S. president wanted to give them a sacrificial lamb.
Though the possibility of Gulen’s involvement in the coup attempt isn’t clear, what is evident is that Erdogan has used the allegations of this involvement as the pretext for rounding up Gulen supporters. Tens of thousands of journalists, professors, students, administrators, lawyers, judges, and many more have been interrogated and imprisoned, often with no more evidence of their leanings towards Gulen than having one of his books on their shelves.
Clearly all of these people could not have been involved in a coup even if a few Gulen supporters were engaged in it. A coup is by nature a secretive cabal carried out by a small number of high-ranking military and political leaders. Hundreds of high school principals and newspaper columnists are unlikely to have been in the inner circles of such conspiracies.
They are, however, likely to have been Erdogan’s political opponents. In the years leading up to the coup, Erdogan lost the initial support of the Gulen movement as news of corruption within his administration came to light and Gulen-leaning newspapers and public officials began criticizing him and exposing the corruption. It became a convenient foil to blame Gulen for the coup and then round up the potential political opposition in the name of cleaning up the conspiratorial Gulen movement.
What Erdogan would like to do is to bring Gulen himself back to Turkey for a widely publicized public mock trial where imagined charges would be brought in a travesty of justice. If he were able to use the pressure on Saudi Arabia from the Khashoggi killing to lure the Trump administration into complicity with this plan, his cunning plot would have become complete.