Leader of controversial religi

Leader of controversial religious movement seeks SA asylum

Where exactly in the Middle East is South Africa? If President Zuma doesn’t watch his step, SA might soon be embroiled politically right in the heart of it

Leader of controversial religi

Government sources in Turkey claim that the leader of a global religious and political Islamist movement, Fethullah Gülen, is seeking asylum in South Africa using nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) as channels to lobby with SA President Jacob Zuma. Gülen is facing serious charges of trying to orchestrate a coup d’etat against Turkey’s government last year, which has been led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) with much unwavering support since 2002.

The context of this diplomatic confrontation is rather complex, dragging South Africa into the heart of the uneasy narratives of the Middle East if necessary precautions are not taken.

Turkey’s reigning AKP, which is equally steeped in the Islamist tradition as the Gülen movement is, has been trying to find an Achilles’ heel on Fethullah Gülen for a while, as his devout following has been growing steadily over the years, turning scores of influential people against the AKP’s own plans for Turkey’s future while also chasing away a considerable amount of potential voters, who never used to question the AKP’s authority in the past.

Ultimately, rather than disagreeing on particularities of religious duties, the two movements carry significant personality cults each in their own rights, which have gradually started clashing over the past few years, reaching the highest possible levels of government and leading to egregious amounts of corruption throughout Turkey’s political and economic elites, while also fueling a narrative filled with narcissism and envy. Controlling its own media empire, the Gülen movement has been antagonising the AKP on a constant drip, with misinformation being at the heart of the movement’s modus operandi, while the AKP itself has also been using its own control over the country’s state-owned media to paint Gülen in a negative light all the same.

Gülen, who has been living in the United States of America since 1999, now fears that he may be tried in-absentia or may be extradited to Turkey to be silenced for good for his ill attempts at staging a coup last year, which are yet to be proven in a court-of-law. But with current tensions in the Middle East tightening, Gülen and his supporters may also fear that he could be extradited without prior trial as a favour to Turkey, so the US can use Gülen as a bargaining tool to make a stronger case for the growing US military presence in the region once more before expanding its troop numbers stationed in south-eastern Turkey in order to gain control over the crisis in Syria and in Iraq under the current ISIS-led insurgency.

Fethullah Gülen, known for always strategising several steps ahead of time, wants to avoid capture by turning to his allies elsewhere, especially Africa, where he enjoys a growing level of popularity on account of his charitable projects. With SA keeping an open dialogue with many Islamist states, including Iran, he is hopeful that his plea will not land on dead ears.

It was reported last week that South Africa’s Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) became involved in the Gülenists’ endeavours to secure amnesty for their leader. However, the meetings between the two bodies did not result in much success, as the Gülen movement reportedly tried to overcompensate its position by slandering Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan’s name during the meetings, attributing him with un-Islamic tendencies, which allegedly bordered on the capital sin of apostasy.

But despite failing to make great headway (or impressions) with the MJC itself, the Gülen movement still holds a strong positioning within South Africa’s Muslim population and is often represented both at Islamic and cross-cultural events, such as last week’s Cape Town Book Fair, always trying to market itself as an interfaith, mystical gateway to Islam.

With a firm emphasis on internationalism and investing in education, Gülen and his followers enjoy positive regard in many developing countries, and have even managed domestically to rival many of the public service offerings of the Turkish government itself under the AKP rule, giving Erdoğan further reason to want to put a stop to this movement.

At the same time, Gülen schools have been shut down in Azerbaijan and raided in the US, with evidence hinting at an increasing threat of radicalisation within the movement. The tide may be turning against this charismatic leader, especially if any damning evidence against him is found in any of these raids, but he may still escape to South Africa or elsewhere before facing justice if he manages to call in the right favours.

In the meantime, Turkey’s secular middle classes, who tend to hold close links to the country’s powerful but waning military, consider either of the religiously conceived movements as threats to national integrity and to the Turkish constitution. They often portray the ultimate intentions of such Islamic movements as barely stopping short of creating a Caliphate with Sharia law at its centre, and regard the involvement of the Gülen movement abroad as “experiments” performed in other countries to prepare for an Islamist future in Turkey. But despite rarely ever siding with the AKP, Turkey’s secularists on this occasion also demand Gülen’s extradition alongside the AKP, and want to hinder his asylum request in SA in order to stop his cause from furthering.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, there’s President Jacob Zuma, whose post-reelection laundry list is not prone to hold any urgent items on it which would likely tamper with the delicate balance of the Middle East. Yet all it takes is his absent-minded signature or a misleading briefing or a successful lobbyist, and SA could be on the forefront of another international relations crisis, which it frankly cannot afford to have.

However, going on the principle of precedence, it would not be an entirely unlikely scenario, as this is not the first time that South Africa was dragged into a diplomatic standoff with Turkey:

Abdullah Öcalan, the erstwhile leader of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was arrested en route to South Africa in 1999, where he had sought political asylum. Taken back to Turkey, he was tried and initially given the death penalty for his involvement in the country’s decades-long war against Kurdish insurgents, which was later commuted to a life sentence, when Turkey went on to abolish capital punishment.

South Africa’s involvement back then in what is still considered a matter of national security of the highest order within Turkey continues to cast a long shadow over international relations between the two countries.

But cases like Öcalan’s and Gülen’s also underscore the role that South Africa’s can play in the world, as SA’s twenty-year history of democracy is still trying to cement the country’s unique diplomatic position against the backdrop of an ever-growing threat of religious extremism posed by various Islamist groups, including al Shabaab.

Despite the Gülen movement’s ostensibly peaceful objectives, South African links to Islamist terror cells have been shown on more than one occasion, with growing evidence pointing towards increasing terrorist organisation activities within SA itself.

The Cape Times reported last year that former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had warned the SA government back in 2009 already that al Shabaab was recruiting suicide bombers in South Africa. The lines between granting asylum to a narcissistic religious leader and facilitating terrorist havoc may quickly blur if the President does not put his foot down on this occasion and stay out of it.

By Sertan Sanderson, 2014