January 1, 2018
That summer, Keleş travelled to Izmir to meet Gülen, who invited him to attend his summer camp, free of charge. Keleş did, and returned for the next two summers. After he graduated from high school, Gülen asked him to run one of his “lighthouses”—student dormitories that doubled as religious discussion centers.
Many Gülenists—perhaps most of them—practice their leader’s ecumenical ideas earnestly. But as Keleş was pulled into the movement he came to understand that it had a clandestine goal. “The only way to protect Islam was to infiltrate the state with our followers and seize all the institutions of government,” he explained. “The legal way to do it was by election, by parliament—but you couldn’t do it that way, because the military would step in. The only way to do it was the illegal way—to infiltrate the state and change the institutions from within.”
From then on, Keleş told me, all his energies were dedicated to preserving the Gülen secret while maintaining a positive façade. “This is the dual structure—it is in the genetic code of the organization,” he said. Keleş rose through the ranks, taking on larger and larger tasks with growing pride. “Imagine—I am the son of a poor laborer and I am involved in this powerful organization,” he said. “I felt like a very important person.”
Keleş, who has since left the movement, said that while Gülen presented himself as a humble, self-denying cleric, in private he was entirely different: vain, megalomaniacal, demanding total obedience. The organization was hierarchical, divided into seven levels, with Gülen at the top. Keleş joined “level three”—a senior leadership assembly. “Level two” conducted covert operations, which he said he was never informed of. (Aslandoğan, the manager of Gülen’s Manhattan office, says that this characterization is misleading.)
In infiltrated police departments, each Gülenist officer had a code name, and each unit was overseen by an outside “imam,” regarded by the officers as a higher authority than the police chief. By the early nineties, Keleş said, he had become the movement’s “imam” in Central Anatolia, overseeing fifteen cities. By then, he estimated, forty per cent of the police in the region were followers, and about twenty per cent of the judges and prosecutors. “We controlled the hiring of the police, and the entrance exams, and we didn’t let anyone in who wasn’t a Gülenist,” he said.
Keleş told me that at first he rarely questioned Gülen, even when he started to speak of world domination. “My father’s only goal was to have his son working as a laborer,” he said. “And here was this man with a plan to manage the world.” Today, Keleş is astonished by how credulous he was; he attributes it in part to Gülen’s charisma. “The line between crazy and genius is very thin—with him, it was the same thing,” he said. “His knowledge, his theological views, his organizational skill—he is a genius. We were all crazy at that time.”
Inside the movement, Keleş and Alpsoy said, people often lost themselves in fantastical rituals. In one, a group of men gathered in a room would grab a comrade, pin his legs and arms, and remove his socks and shoes, often against his will. “They would hold him down, and everyone would kiss his feet,” Alpsoy said. “This I witnessed hundreds of times.”
It took years for Keleş to leave the movement. The turning point came in 1997, when Gülen publicly attacked Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey’s first Islamist Prime Minister, directing his followers in the media to undercut him. Under pressure from the military, Erbakan stepped down in 1997. “Erbakan and Gülen said they wanted the same things—an Islamic state—and yet Gülen destroyed him,” Keleş said. “Power was more important to him than religion.”
Not long after that, Keleş wrote a letter to Gülen, enumerating the ways in which he had drifted from Islam in the pursuit of power. Gülen expelled him from the movement. Keleş said that it was only after he left that he realized how cut off he had been. “I woke up to the real world,” he said.................