ISTANBUL, Turkey — There doesn't seem to be much separating the politics of secular Turkey's leaders and an Islamic-oriented movement built around a preacher, author and mystic scholar named Fethullah Gulen.
Both promote Western-style enterprise and education. They denounce Muslim radicals and agree on Turkey's main goal: European Union membership.
So why has Gulen moved into self-exile in the United States after facing charges of seeking an Islamic-style regime in his homeland?
The answer is murky and reaches deep into Turkey's history-shaping drive to bring more than 70 million Muslims into Europe's inner circle. It also highlights some of the internal struggles in a nation where religion and the state have a tense cohabitation.
"This is a kind of culture clash," said John Esposito, a Georgetown University expert on Islam who has studied the Gulen community. "For certain secular-minded Turks, they believe in their bones that religion is backward and holds back society. Gulen is seen as offering a way to merge the two."
The ailing, 66-year-old Gulen — who's been described as a cross between missionary, mogul and freelance diplomat — says Turks can embrace Islam, Western values and nationalism. But he adds a twist that collides with Turkey's secular codes: Islamic culture and perspectives should be given equal weight and freedom of expression alongside Western-leaning views.
His teachings are not widely known outside Turkish circles — but that could change. Gulen's ideas may increasingly enter the debate during a long and pivotal period for the Muslim world: EU membership talks with Turkey scheduled to begin in October.
Gulen's supporters lead a strategic spectrum of media voices: a national television channel, more than a half-dozen radio stations, the Cihan news agency and one of Turkey's largest newspapers, Zaman. Each has good access to Gulen — who rarely gives interviews — and provide forums for his views.
But the backbone of the Gulen fellowship is its highly regarded elementary and high schools — more than 500 concentrated in Turkey and ethnically linked parts of Central Asia, with other sites from New York to China. Gulen's supporters also run six universities.
It's difficult to assess the number of dedicated followers of Gulen's teachings because there is no central organization and no clear picture of his network's inner financial working. But already tens of thousands of students have gone through the schools, and the Gulen-inspired media reach millions each day.
Gulen, who sometimes lives in a Turkish-American compound in Stroudsburg, Pa., was too ill from diabetes and other ailments to respond to questions from the Associated Press, said aide Kemal Ozgur. Other "friends" of the movement declined to provide financial details, but claimed each entity is independent and linked only by an attraction to Gulen's philosophy.
Those views include "modern Islam" that seeks dialogue with other faiths, an emphasis on education and quests for personal religious experiences similar to the Sufi tradition, Islam's mystic realm that includes the Whirling Dervishes. Gulen's main influence is Said Nursi, a warrior-scholar who fought to establish modern Turkey in 1923 but later claimed that the state limited religious freedom.
Gulen has been careful not to go that far. But some Turkish officials still believe he has crossed into territory reserved for the state. His international religious meetings have included a 1998 audience with Pope John Paul II. His movement also runs academic and policy conferences, including one in early December in Brussels on Turkey's EU aspirations.
"We don't have any political goals," insisted Cemal Usak, vice president of the Istanbul-based Journalists' and Writers' Foundation that helps organize Gulen-related events. "But some groups in Turkey see anything with growing power in a suspicious way."
The state turned its worries into an indictment, accusing Gulen of quietly plotting an Islamic groundswell by gaining followers in high places and "brainwashing" schoolchildren. In March 2003, Gulen was cleared under an amnesty but he had already left for medical treatment in the United States in 1999. He has no immediate plans to return, he has told Turkish media.
In a series of interviews with Zaman newspaper in March, Gulen claimed "a tiny oligarchic minority" was behind the charges.
"They blacken the future by sentencing the society into the confines of their own narrowness," he was quoted as saying.
Turkey's religious affairs minister, Mehmet Aydin, said he saw "no reason" blocking Gulen's return to Turkey. But the country's military and other groups still harbor doubts about Gulen's objectives.
They are not alone. Many researchers find inconsistencies between the movement's pro-Western views and its appeal among Turkey's many conservative Muslims.
"That is why reactions to the movement have concentrated on the issue of having double agendas: public face and private truth," said Hayrettin Yucesoy, a professor at Saint Louis University. "Many are not sure if they see the movement and its aims clearly.
"This is a conundrum that is not going to be solved soon."