Fenced properties are rare in the US, but the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Centre in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania has security at its entrance gates complete with metal detectors and a no-cellphone policy in the home of its main resident.
Turkey’s most wanted “terrorist”, Fethullah Gülen, lives in this summer camp 145km north of Philadelphia.
To his followers and the few pilgrims who come to the Turkish-language retreat a few days at a time, he is the head of a once-powerful movement preaching peace, democracy and education.
The network has roots in the country’s bureaucracy, the media and business, and there are schools around the world centred on Fethullah’s philosophy.
The 77-year-old had been sickly, suffering from heart disease and diabetes and many who had come to see him had been turned away disappointed.
Our group of six journalists bypassed his media channels and his mandatory team of Turkish-to-English translators and, after an uncertain all-day wait, landed a very rare interview last week after evening prayers, which take place in a large, domed room in the building where he lives with his all-male aides.
Even though his live-in doctor had advised against it, Fethullah was apparently already fasting in preparation for Ramadan, which started this week.
The tree-lined, winding road outside this rural retreat has of late seen protests by Turks who believe President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s accusations that Fethullah and his followers were behind the 2016 coup attempt.
Late last year there was also an alleged $15 million plan from former White House national security adviser Mike Flynn to abduct the imam, although the US has so far refused to extradite him for lack of solid evidence.
He’s always denied involvement.
“If they did an international inquiry and they find me guilty, I will buy my own ticket and stand trial in Turkey,” he said, “but they never did that.”
Shortly after the coup attempt he told media that, if anyone who claimed to be a follower was involved in the coup, they were betraying him.
During our interview Fethullah spoke through a translator even though he understands English.
About a dozen other men, a mix of aides and followers visiting the retreat, were present at the rare interview.
Fethullah is homesick. Asked if he wanted to go back to Turkey, he said: “Every single day. Turkey is my country and I miss it too much.”
He wouldn’t want to “ease the work of the oppressors”, however, by returning so that they could arrest him, but if there’s evidence of wrongdoing and he’s told to go back, “I will buy my own ticket and die in prison”.
“I question myself a lot whether I have done right”
Back home, his followers face exile or persecution as many have lost their jobs in a large-scale purge by the country’s bureaucracy.
According to a report released this week by the Gülen-aligned Journalists and Writers’ Foundation, 150 000 Turks were dismissed from their jobs last year for having links with the movement.
These include judges, prosecutors, teachers and journalists.
Countries, including Senegal, have also caved in to Turkish pressure and closed the local schools, but Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said this would not happen in South Africa because the schools were operating legally.
“We are guided by our own national interest, therefore Turkish battles cannot dictate our national interest,” she told City Press.
Fethullah said: “I would like to say I appreciate the show of solidarity” by countries like South Africa Germany, Canada and the US.
The movement in the US has, however, been mired in controversy about reports that teachers from its charter schools had been forced to give up 40% of their salaries to help fund the movement, in effect “laundering” tax money to fund activities.
Fethullah said he had heard about the practice, but giving was a teacher’s choice.
“Teachers are altruistic, it isn’t about working for yourself,” he said.
Fethullah went to the US in 1999 for medical treatment and stayed because of politics. Initially the secular Turkish government suspected him of wanting to establish an Islamic government and Fethullah found himself supporting Erdogan’s rise to power.
Washington, DC-based journalist Mahir Zeynalov, who had to leave Turkey because of a recent purge of Gülen-aligned journalists, said Erdogan’s government “had made pro-freedom political reforms in line with European standards, promised to curb the military’s role in politics and was a promising democratic leader”.
He also had support from the EU and the US, but “it was a gross miscalculation”, Zeynalov said.
The fall-out started when bureaucrats who were part of the Gülenist network refused to be loyal to Erdogan and when they investigated him for corruption in 2013, it was the last straw.
Fethullah said the Hizmet (“service”) movement aligned to him refused to do Erdogan’s bidding after he wanted Gülenist schools and foundations to “do his propaganda outside Turkey” and to portray him “as leader of the Muslim world”.
He said Erdogan was envious of Hizmet’s success. “Jealousy makes you do things which even the devil doesn’t do,” he said.
Erdogan, however, appears to have the support of more than half of Turkish voters and, after the coup attempt, allowed him to impose a state of emergency and strengthen his hand.
The early presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24 should see him re-elected.
Fethullah said that, with hindsight, “I question myself a lot whether I have done right. We could have done more to give them what they were after” and named one or two institutions after politicians, but he also said that might not have been enough for a materialist.
“What the prophet said about a man with that character, if he gets two mountains of gold, he will ask for a third and fourth,” he said.
When it comes to praise and especially criticism, however, Fethullah refuses to take responsibility for what is done in his name.
He said he merely put ideas out there and he wanted people to follow those ideas and not himself personally.
“I don’t like myself and I don’t like people who like me,” he said. “I just spoke about the things I believe. I don’t even know 0.1% of the people in this movement and what they do.”
He said he never told people to open schools, but hinted that he merely suggested it.
“Poverty and ignorance are the only two problems, so we set out to fight this,” he said.