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Chasing Gulen in the Poconos

December 29, 2016

A road trip through Pennsylvania's Poconos Mountains leads to one of the world's most hated people: Fethullah Gulen. Turkey vilifies the charismatic preacher as the instigator of the failed coup in July.

A "no trespassing" sign on a fence in front of a field
Image: DW/S.Sanderson

Pennsylvania's Poconos Mountains are renowned for offering ample opportunities for urbanites to enjoy the great outdoors. But tucked away on a back road in the small Poconos hamlet of Saylorsburg, less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) away from Philadelphia, one septuagenarian prefers staying indoors, as a political scandal of international significance has descended onto his doorstep.

Exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen resides at the "Golden Generation Retreat and Worship Center" in Saylorsburg, 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) away from his native Turkey. Also known as the "Chestnut Camp Retreat Center," this rural location looks like a camping resort for fishing enthusiasts rather than the lair of a global terrorism mastermind, which is how the Turkish government describes Gulen.

Cars idle at a guarded gateway for vehicles to enter the compund
The entrance to Gulen's compound in Saylorsburg is located along a heavily guarded drivewayImage: DW/S.Sanderson

Turkey accuses Gulen of having plotted the coup attempt on July 15. At least 270 people were killed that night, as about 10,000 breakaway soldiers tried to overthrow the government.

Gulen has always denied any involvement in those events, but his words have fallen on deaf ears in Turkey, as thousands of his followers have been detained or suspended from work under the ongoing purge of dissidents.

But in the crisp country air of Saylorsburg, eight time zones away from Turkey, there's not a hint of oppression.

Youth camp turned exile home

Y. Alp Aslandogan, who runs a Gulen-affiliated organization in New York and acts as the cleric's spokesman, says the center in Saylorsburg is a place of contemplation and education, and not the secret headquarters of a parallel state structure that Turkey says is behind the failed coup.

Y. Alp Aslandogan
Y. Alp Aslandogan says Gulenists in Turkey face severe persecutionImage: Alliance for Shared Values

"We had nothing to do with that terrible episode. [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan keeps pointing at Pennsylvania in his accusations, but this retreat center was started as a youth center in 1992. It expanded over the years, and Mr Gulen decided in 1999 to stay there when he came to the United States. Mr Gulen leads prayer groups for visitors and students, and sometimes he holds short talks. That's really all," he told DW in an interview.

Aslandogan says he visits Gulen about once a week. From his office in New York, Aslandogan can get to Gulen's estate in about 90 minutes - a world away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, yet within convenient reach for Aslandogan to perform damage control whenever the Turkish media publishes new allegations against the much-reviled preacher.

Thanksgiving with Gulen

With a population of less than 1,200 people, Saylorsburg is pretty much a one-road town; the local bikers' bar is about the most happening place there. It is therefore quite easy to obtain the address of Gulen's compound; not only is it referenced in numerous news stories but the local gas-station staff will be happy to help you find it.

A sign reads Chesnut Camp Retreat Center
Without an invitation, there's no accessImage: DW/S.Sanderson

Gaining access to the home of the man that most Turks consider to be the architect of the plot against the government is, however, more difficult. Numerous phone calls with a representative from Gulen's movement to organize a tour of the complex have failed "because of the Thanksgiving holiday."

Does Turkey's favorite pariah-cum-scapegoat celebrate Thanksgiving in the Poconos?

"We used to invite the neighbors for Thanksgiving," the aide told DW, asking to remain anonymous. "But things have been more difficult this year, and we've had to be more careful."

A bit of Turkey in Pennsylvania

Aslandogan, meanwhile, stresses that, despite ongoing problems, Gulen's so-called "Hizmet" (service) movement continues to pursue its objectives, at least outside Turkey. His "Alliance for Shared Values" says it is engaged in promoting Gulen's ideas by "bringing together citizens of diverse backgrounds around shared values of humanity."

These values appear to come at a high cost these days: "We have been pushed to become an underground movement since the coup. In this current political climate, I cannot even think about going back to Turkey to see my family. It is heartbreaking," Aslandogan said.

A road sign next to a bridge indicates that it is two miles to Saylorsburg
The 50 permanent staff and residents on the compound, Gulen included, make up about 5 percent of Saylorsburg's populationImage: DW/S.Sanderson

"There is no freedom there. It is going in the direction of an elected autocracy. I risk being arrested if I go back. So Erdogan is forcing me to make the US my home."

Perhaps to prevent getting homesick the organization brought a bit of Turkey to Pennsylvania instead: Turkish-language signs tell visitors where not to park. A security supervisor slurps Turkish tea inside a gazebo. Women in black headscarves tied under their chins drive out of the compound.

Gulen's Ottoman Empire

This is about as much insight into Gulen's mysterious compound as one can gather based on observations from across the street from the fortified gates of 1857 Mount Eaton Road.

The perimeter of the 27-acre compound is under constant surveillance by Gulen's private security guards, whose firearms seem glaringly out of place against the backdrop of Pennsylvania barns on rolling hills.

A "no parking" sign in English and Turkish
The "no parking" sign at the entrance to the complex in Saylorsburg features Turkish instructions as wellImage: DW/S.Sanderson

One of the guards says that after numerous demonstrations held by Turkish-born protestors in the wake of the failed coup, security was beefed up. Even taking pictures of the gate is frowned upon. In a cordial but firm manner the man stresses that only invited guests are welcome.

Drone images reveal that there are at least nine houses on the grounds as well as a larger three-story building spanning across two perpendicular wings. The structure has been described as being inspired by Ottoman-style architecture, but the comparison requires a stretch of the imagination.

All around the outer limits of the compound, a row of "no trespassing" signs make an invitation to Turkish tea seem unlikely.

A power feud at the highest level

Somewhere inside one of the buildings on this generous piece of land, Fethullah Gulen spends his days, reportedly instructing his faithful followers in the teachings of Islam. Little else is known about him: The elusive preacher left Turkey for Pennsylvania in 1998, out of fear of persecution from the then-powerful military elite. Already back then, Gulen was accused of plotting to overthrow the military-backed government and scheming against the secular order of the country, setting the stage for his self-imposed exile.

Fethullah Gulen
Turkish President Erdogan accuses Gulen of running a terror organization and instigating the July 15 coup attemptImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Smith

Five years later, Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister and found a willing and eager partner in Gulen. For several years, the pair worked together on reforming the country along Islamic principles. But the friendship went sour after the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, when Gulen turned on Erdogan.

One year later, Erdogan became president and vowed to alienate Gulen from Turkish politics for good. Since the July 2016 coup attempt it has become virtually impossible in Turkey to say a single good word about the man who used to be Erdogan's chief ally.

Fethullah Gulen is likely to spend the rest of his days on his Pennsylvania compound despite professing to feel an "intense desire" and "yearning to return" to Turkey. To this day, Gulen reportedly has never learned any English, and given his age of 77 years and reports of a frail state of health, he probably doesn't intend to venture out and speak to people outside the estate.

Still, Gulen was once quoted as saying that the Poconos gave him the "peace" that he couldn't find in Turkey.

"Here, I am away from such harassment and I am less affected by them. I find this place more tranquil," he told the "Atlantic" in 2013.

"I have enjoyed my freedom here."

A street sign in front of a house marks Mount Eaton Road
Image: DW/S.Sanderson