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Imam who lives in rural Pennsylvania arouses praise, concerns

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Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010
 

SAYLORSBURG — Just a short drive on a two-lane road from the Dunkin' Donuts here, the Golden Generation Retreat Center hardly seems like the home of one of the world's leading Islamic thinkers.

A metal gate at the driveway stands open, and no fences or walls protect the 25-acre property from suburban homes and rolling hillsides nearby. Officials recently invited their neighbors to celebrate the opening of a three-story meeting center and share a Thanksgiving feast.

"They're friendly people," said Rod Schreck, 74, who lives within walking distance.

"Put it this way," his wife, Maxine, 69, said, "they're better to us than we are to them."

Still, mystery surrounds the center's most famous guest, Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam who has lived here for 11 years after arriving in the United States for medical treatments. Gulen practices Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that requires strict religious observation, austerity and abstinence, according to one of his more than 60 books.

"We are for one thing: peace and prosperity in the world for everyone," said Bekir Aksoy, president of the retreat center. "There is no 'them' for us. All humanity is one."

After coming here, Gulen was tried — and then acquitted — in Turkey on charges related to inciting an overthrow of the government. He might face criminal charges again if he returned home, a supporter in Istanbul said. And that could trigger chaos.

So Gulen remains in this rural community about 30 miles northeast of Allentown and less than a two-hour drive from Manhattan. He lives alone in one room of the large main house and owns only the toiletries and small possessions in his bedroom, Aksoy said.

Debilitated by health issues — he has heart, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure problems — Gulen, 69, was not well enough to meet with a reporter during a recent visit, Aksoy said.

The ongoing mystery around Gulen breeds suspicion, particularly since the 9/11 terror attacks added to Americans' unease with Islam. Some research groups raise questions about Gulen's real intentions. Yet, some contend he is no different from any other religious leader.

Concerns in the United States about Gulen and the spread of Islam are rooted in ignorance and misunderstanding, said Terry Rey, chair of the Department of Religion at Temple University, which co-hosted a conference on Gulen with his supporters this month.

"Any religious movement that begins to draw people is a threat to someone," Rey said. "As a scholar of religion, I can contextualize it, and I cannot see it as anything fundamentally different from what has always gone on."

An enigma

Internet rumors say the retreat center was used as a militia training ground and schools started by Gulen's admirers are brainwashing children.

An article published last year by the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based policy group, suggested Gulen's supporters control $25 billion and could be plotting a religious takeover of Turkey's government, a secular republic.

Daniel Pipes, the nonprofit's director, called Gulen dangerous. Pipes said he could be "perhaps the most sophisticated Islamist leader in the world" for eschewing violence and extremism but still seeking to apply Islamic religious law.

"He's a bit of a mystery," said Steven Emerson, an expert on Islamic extremists. "The question is, is he a radical or not?"

Michael Werz, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, described Gulen as a moderate who spoke out against terrorism and supported interfaith dialogue.

"He's a pretty middle-of-the-road guy," said Werz, who plans to speak Tuesday at an event hosted by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.

The government allowed Gulen to remain in the country as an alien worker with "extraordinary ability" since he won a court ruling in 2008 that overturned an initial denial by immigration officials.

Rumors that the retreat center is being used to create an army are unfounded, said Howard Beers Jr., chairman of the board of supervisors in Ross Township in Monroe County, home of Golden Generation. His construction company built the retreat center's facility.

"That's so far-fetched," he said. "People love to make up crap, and they know if they make that up, someone will believe them."

A state police supervisor in nearby Lehighton said the retreat center has not created problems or generated emergency calls. Gulen cooperates during FBI visits, said J.J. Klaver, spokesman in the agency's Philadelphia field office.

"We have no reason to believe anything other than what he says is going on there, is going on," Klaver said.

Nothing obvious about the retreat center suggests that it could be a training ground for militants, either.

Newly constructed guest houses surround the meeting center. The houses hold up to 80 visitors, who come from around the world and stay for days at a time, said Steve Sablak, vice president of the retreat center.

The buildings appear clean and modern, with a granite countertop and plastic furniture in one kitchen. Visitors' clothes spilled out of small suitcases in a room lined with Turkish futons, and children's toys, including a Bob the Builder doll and a plastic ball, sat on the floor.

'Fantastically disorganized'

The understated campus belies the wide reach of Gulen's teachings.

Readers of Foreign Policy magazine voted Gulen the world's leading public intellectual in 2008. A report by Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst last year called him a polarizing figure in Turkey.

The number of people inspired by Gulen is estimated at more than 5 million.

Gulen's supporters belong to a "fantastically disorganized organization," said the Rev. Walter Wagner, a Lutheran minister and adjunct professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. They do not report to a central authority or maintain membership lists.

These people often refer to themselves as "volunteers" rather than followers. The movement — another term they shun — is typically known in the United States as hizmet, for the Turkish word for service. Turks refer to the group as cemaat, the word for a religious community.

Gulen's influence emanates from the schools founded by those inspired by his words, said Yvonne Haddad, a professor at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in Washington. The schools, located in 120 countries, typically emphasize math and science over religion, with the goal of educating young people in poor areas.

"Conspiracy theories are everywhere," Haddad said. "I have looked at the material and interviewed people. As far as I know, it's no different than any other" school connected to a religious group.

Huseyin Gulerce, a columnist in Istanbul with the pro-Gulen Turkish newspaper Zaman, said the movement stresses three points: education, dialogue and communication.

"The first thing when I think about Fethullah Gulen and his movement is their schools," said Emin Kahveci, 25, a graphic designer in Istanbul.

Gulen's admirers started a school in Monroeville, called the Snowdrop Science Academy, in 2005. But the school closed four years later because it did not have enough students, a former administrator said.

Americans, like all people, could learn from Gulen's sermons, said Mahmut Demir, president of the Turkish Cultural Center Pittsburgh in Dormont. The center typically draws 100 to 200 people for dinners and events related to Turkey and interfaith communication.

"(Gulen) is open to all different ideas," said Demir, a doctoral candidate in physics at the University of Pittsburgh. "He respects people's choices. ... Everybody can learn something from this man who teaches nothing but peace and tolerance."

Free-lance writer Ali Abaday in Turkey contributed to this report.

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