ISTANBUL // Praised by his followers as a representative of a modern and peaceful Islam and bedevilled by his critics as a fundamentalist bent on destroying Turkey's secular republic, the preacher Fethullah Gulen, one of the country's most controversial figures, may be about to return to his home-country after years in exile in the United States. The way for Mr Gulen's return was opened by Turkey's court of appeals, which cleared him of accusations of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism last week after a prolonged legal battle that went on for several years.
Mr Gulen, 67, welcomed the ruling and said he wants to come back to Turkey after almost a decade of exile in America. But it is unclear when he will return. "I will return to my country when the conditions are ripe," he said in an interview with the religious website www.herkul.org after the ruling was announced. "It is going to be in my own humble, modest way, without making a big deal out of it, without having any major public appearances."
As Mr Gulen is preparing for his return, reactions to the verdict in his case show that he remains a divisive figure in Turkey. His supporters have said Mr Gulen's philosophy offers a vision of an Islam that is at ease with the modern age. But Kemalists, who see themselves as guardians of the secular values of Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, view Mr Gulen as an Islamic fundamentalist. Born in a village near the eastern city of Erzurum in 1941, Mr Gulen became a follower of Said Nursi, an Islamic thinker who stood trial repeatedly for anti-secular activities during the early years of the Turkish republic. In the 1960s, Mr Gulen worked as an imam and began formulating his main religious-philosophical theme, which says that pious Muslims should play an active part in the modern world and embrace technology and education.
Mr Gulen founded hundreds of schools in Turkey as well as in South and Central Asia. Today, several respected Turkish media outlets, such as the Zaman newspaper, also belong to the Gulen movement. In the 1990s, Mr Gulen was known as a representative of a peaceful Islam, preaching inter-religious dialogue, conversing with high-ranking Turkish politicians and meeting Pope John Paul II. Many of his teachings stress tolerance, contradicting more conservative or militant interpretations of the Quran. "The headscarf isn't one of Islam's main principles or conditions," Mr Gulen said on his website. "Islam does not allow anarchy and terror" is another of his statements.
Still, Mr Gulen was viewed with suspicion by Turkey's army and judiciary. His legal troubles began in 1999, when a Turkish television channel broadcast one of his speeches in which he allegedly told his followers to patiently work their way through state institutions in Turkey to reach the highest levels of the republic. A prosecutor charged him with "creating an illegal organisation aimed at changing the secular structure of the state and introducing a state [system] based on religious rules" under Turkey's anti-terror laws.
Mr Gulen denied that he advocated an overthrow of the secular republic. He said his statements were taken out of context and that different parts of his speech had been edited in a way to make them appear like an attack on the secular state. Mr Gulen travelled to the United States, officially for health reasons, thus avoiding arrest, and continued fighting the accusations from there. The recent verdict by the court of appeals ended the long legal battle that ensued, but it is unlikely to put a stop to the controversy surrounding Mr Gulen, especially as the question of the relationship between the secular state and Islam is the hottest item on Ankara's political agenda.
Turkey's constitutional court is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether to ban the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister. Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, the chief prosecutor, accuses the AKP of anti-secular tendencies. Representatives of the party, led by Cemil Cicek, the deputy prime minister, delivered their final defence statement before the court yesterday.
Mr Yalcinkaya included a reference to Mr Gulen in his indictment against the AKP. He said that Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, in his former position as foreign minister, had called on Turkish embassies to support Mr Gulen's schools. Although Mr Gulen has been cleared of working to introduce a fundamentalist regime, Mr Yalcinkaya told the court in his final statement on the AKP case this week that he saw no reason why he should alter his accusations against Mr Gul. "The truth that Gulen is the leader of a religious community does not change. Therefore it is against secularism to support him," Mr Yalcinkaya told the court, according to media reports.
While such Kemalists as Mr Yalcinkaya see Mr Gulen as a threat to secularism, the preacher's followers said he played a key role in an age marked by a growing divide between the Islamic world and the West. Writing in Zaman after Mr Gulen's acquittal, columnist Abdulhamit Bilici called the legal case against the preacher "a trial of those who represent Islam's message of peace at a time when there are conspiracies against Islam everywhere and when the name of a Prophet who was sent to bring grace to humanity is being associated with terror".
Other observers said it is no coincidence that Mr Gulen has received support in the United States, where leading figures from the intelligence community are said to have backed his efforts to receive a green card for a permanent residence status. "At the moment, Fethullah Gulen is the Muslim most supported by America - against al Qa'eda," commentator Yalcin Dogan wrote in the Hurriyet newspaper. Mr Gulen is of great value to the United States, Mr Dogan wrote. "According to America, he pacifies Islam and capitalism."