The reclusive imam whose crumbling political marriage of convenience with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened the stability of the West’s biggest ally in a turbulent region lashed out Monday at his one-time partner, the strongest sign yet of an irreparable split.
In comments he made to The Wall Street Journal, Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic cleric who preaches a message of tolerance to his millions of followers from his self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, accused Mr. Erdogan of abandoning the path of reform after more than a decade in power.
The Gulen movement says that it runs more than 2000 educational premises, including charter schools, university departments, language centers and religious courses, in 160 countries.
“Turkish people…are upset that in the last two years democratic progress is now being reversed,” Mr. Gulen said in emailed answers to questions—his first such exchange since a corruption probe plunged Mr. Erdogan’s government into crisis last month.
“Purges based on ideology, sympathy or world views was a practice of the past that the present ruling party promised to stop,” he wrote.
Mr. Gulen hinted that his movement—known internally as Hizmet, which means service, and externally as Cemaat, which means congregation—would like to see a challenge to Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
He didn’t rule out members of his flock shifting their support to the opposition Republican People’s Party—Mr. Erdogan’s secularist nemesis, which was established by modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Delegations from the two sides met in New York in early December, but no announcements resulted.
“When the opportunities come, Cemaat participants, just like any other citizen will make their choices based on their values,” the cleric said in the interview. “It is possible that people who share core values will make choices along the same lines.”
Mr. Gulen’s move appears to represent an unraveling of the broad, Islamist-rooted coalition that has governed Turkey since 2002—a decade during which the economy boomed, living standards rose and Ankara’s international influence grew.
Mr. Erdogan ushered in a rare period of stability for Turkey, reining in the military and pursuing membership in the European Union. The country was often cited as a model of how Western-style democracy could flourish in the Muslim world.
As the only majority Muslim member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with the largest land force after the U.S., Turkey also has acted as a bridgehead for Washington to retain influence as it scales back the U.S. military presence.
Now as Turkey approaches a series of elections, starting in March, that could set its political direction for the next decade, Mr. Erdogan has suddenly found himself in the midst of a corruption scandal that has ensnared dozens of his political allies.
He accuses Gulenists in the police and judiciary of trying to force him from power and creating what he calls a “parallel state” within the bureaucracy.
“This conspiracy eclipses all other coup attempts in Turkey. It is a virus bent on taking power,” Mr. Erdogan said to AKP lawmakers in Ankara last week. “Fortunately our body is healthy. We will triumph.”
Mr. Erdogan’s spokesman didn’t respond to messages left for comment Monday night.
The disarray is spooking investors and aggravating a glut of economic problems, threatening to undermine the premier’s chief political achievement: years of steady growth.
With the U.S. Federal Reserve winding down its stimulus efforts at the same time, the Turkish currency has sunk to record lows, borrowing costs have surged and stocks have slumped.
Private savings, foreign investment and exports are shrinking, meaning local businesses that prospered under Mr. Erdogan are taking a hit. The central bank—politically constrained by a prime minister who has decried raising interest rates as “un-Islamic”—has little room to stem the declines.
For years Cemaat was a crucial partner underpinning the AKP, even though the movement is officially nonaligned. “We have never formed an alliance or partnership with a political party or candidate,” Mr. Gulen said in the interview.
The outcome of their clash could dictate both Mr. Erdogan’s political future and the shape of political Islam in Turkey.
“Mr. Gulen’s statements confirm that this turf war has gone beyond the point of no return, and we are looking at the battleground which could shape the next generation of Turkish politics,” said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for the Study of Democracy, an Istanbul-based think tank.
Mr. Gulen, 72 years old, leads his flock from a leafy, 25-acre estate in the Poconos, where he landed more than a decade ago after seeking medical treatment in the U.S.
Known to cry during sermons, he preaches a Calvinist-style work ethic and has built a world-wide movement that operates charter schools in 160 countries, including the U.S., where Cemaat has forged ties with local and national political leaders, paying for congressional trips to Turkey.
Referred to as Hodjaefendi, or “honorable teacher,” Mr. Gulen has an estimated two million disciples and a further two million sympathizers at home and abroad. Many of them occupy senior jobs in government and law enforcement in Turkey.
His followers also run one of the biggest Turkish business organizations, Tuskon, which represents more than 55,000 companies, and publish Zaman, the largest-circulation daily.
Private rifts between Messrs. Gulen and Erdogan exploded into public view in December after the government announced a plan to shutter private schools that help students prepare for college exams. Many of the schools are owned by the Gulen movement, generating revenue and new members.
Less than two weeks later, authorities unveiled the corruption investigation, arresting dozens of people. The prime minister responded by shuffling his cabinet and shaking up the police and the judiciary.
Mr. Gulen has complained that his followers were targeted in the purges, and denies involvement in any conspiracy. “We will never be a part of any plot against those who are governing our country,” the imam said.
One of the biggest mysteries about Mr. Gulen is how much sway he holds over his followers and how his influence is transmitted through the movement’s nebulous hierarchy.
Members of Cemaat deny that they are seeking to take over state institutions, insisting that the structure is informal and they are merely “inspired” by Mr. Gulen’s teachings.
The imam gained a broad following for his moderate sermons in the 1960s and ’70s. He benefited from Turkey’s economic liberalization in the 1980s, which allowed his followers to found companies that have become among the country’s largest.
In 2000, a video surfaced showing Mr. Gulen saying: “You must move into the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing, until you reach all the power centers.” The military-backed government charged him with threatening the integrity of the Turkish state. Mr. Gulen denied the charges and claimed the video had been tampered with.
The following year, he left for the U.S., opting to convalesce on a sprawling Amishcountry estate in the town of Saylorsburg, Pa. In 2001 he secured a green card and remains on U.S. soil despite being acquitted in Turkey in 2006.
By then, the secular elites that had long dominated Turkish politics were being elbowed aside by the popular Mr. Erdogan. The Gulenists joined him, supplying his AKP with well-educated cadres to manage state institutions as well as a supportive media.
The government gave Gulenist schools, charities and companies access to opportunities at home and abroad. The army, a once-invincible secularist force and instigator of four coups since 1960, was brought to heel through a series of cases known as Sledgehammer and Ergenekon, spearheaded by Gulenist prosecutors and backed by the government.
Proponents of the trials saw them as the definitive break with military influence; opponents said they were selective justice based on weak or trumped-up evidence.
The confirmation of the split between the two men comes as the premier has appeared to gain the upper hand. Last week he blocked a new corruption probe implicating his son by reassigning more than 2,000 police commanders and seeking to seize control of judicial appointments.
“It is ironic that members of the police force and judiciary who were applauded as heroes a few months ago are now being shuffled in the middle of winter without any investigation,” Mr. Gulen said.
According to Mr. Gulen, government attacks on his business interests, including Bank Asya, a lender with some $20 billion in assets, are “already a reality.”
Senior AKP politicians say that forming an alliance with the Gulenists was a mistake that Mr. Erdogan is determined to correct.
“These purges should continue, because Cemaat members do not conform with the state hierarchy but take orders from the movement. They run their own political system inside the institutions within the state,” said Osman Can, a member of AKP’s executive board.
Mr. Gulen said it was Mr. Erdogan’s government that has changed. “Our values or stance have not changed,” he said. “Whether the stance or actions of the political actors are consistent with their earlier record should be decided by the Turkish people and unbiased observers.”