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Turkish Cleric Tops List Of Intellectuals

RICHARD SIEGEL, host:

What would Fethullah Gulen do? Or more important, what would Fethullah Gulen say? Those must be significant questions, given the results of a poll that was organized by the British magazine Prospect and the American magazine Foreign Policy. They asked their readers to pick the world's top public intellectuals from among a list of 100 contenders, names like Noam Chomsky; Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa; Russian chess great Garry Kasparov, who challenged Vladimir Putin for the presidency of Russia; Al Gore. Well, forget about it.

When the votes were in, it was the decline of the West. The top 10 finishers were all of Muslim background, and Tom Nuttall of Prospect Magazine joins us now to talk about public intellectual number one, Fethullah Gulen. Who is he?

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Mr. TOM NUTTALL (Prospect Magazine): We at Prospect had barely heard of him at the time that we drew up this list, and in fact he was one of the last additions to the list. We drew up a long list of 100 names a couple of months ago, along with foreign policy. And Gulen, we wanted someone who represented contemporary Turkish Islamism.

He's Turkish and operated out of Turkey as a cleric for some decades in the '60s and '70s but was then forced into exile, and he wound up somewhere in - just outside Philadelphia, from where he's been operating his network.

His movement is, it's very pro-science. It's at home with globalization, with public relations. As we discovered with our poll, it's a very wired network. He was - once news of the poll reached Turkey, his network around the world was mobilized into action and was able to vote for him in absolutely vast numbers.

SIEGEL: Yes. Is what you have experienced here the digital equivalent of stuffing the ballot box?

(Soundbite of laughter)

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Mr. NUTTALL: When the votes for Gulen started to pour in, the voting numbers were rising so quickly that I was absolutely convinced that we'd been hacked, that a very determined (unintelligible), that's the name for his followers, hacked his way into the system and was sort of voting in hundreds of thousands for this guy. But no, it turned out not to be true. These were all legitimate votes inasmuch as each vote came from a specific individual.

SIEGEL: Evidently the tripwire event here was a newspaper wrote about this, and evidently that's where a lot of his supporters learned that they could vote for him as public intellectual number one.

Mr. NUTTALL: That's right. When Zaman published the story - Zaman is the top-selling newspaper in Turkey. It's got a circulation of 700,000 or so - when they published the story, that was the event that triggered it. Before then, Gulen was nowhere. He was languishing in the mid-table. After Zaman published this story, he rocketed to the top of the list.

SIEGEL: Now, some people may recall that when Time magazine was polling readers worldwide about the greatest figures of the 20th century, there was a Turkish campaign to vote for Kamal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, so successful that he was coming out at the top of the list of best entertainers of the 20th century, in addition to every other category. It seems to be something that goes on in Turkey (unintelligible)...

Mr. NUTTALL: That's absolutely right. He was also leading Albert Einstein in the scientist category at one point. One of our correspondents, I was talking to him when this was going on, he's based in Istanbul, and he told me that everyone was talking about it, at least in the - among the Istanbul chattering classes, and at the same time as we published our poll, around the same time, Time magazine did another one of its lists. I think it was the 100 most influential people of the year or whatever it was, and there were two Turks on that. I'd never heard of either of them.

So there's something, I don't know what it is, a great desire to be respected by, I don't know, authoritative institutions within the West or to have the achievements of great Turks recognized outside of Turkey.

SIEGEL: Well, is Prospect magazine - do you have many subscribers in Turkey at this point, or are you pushing to increase the number soon?

Mr. NUTTALL: We're hoping to get a lot more. I mean, we quite cleverly, we made it compulsory for people who were voting to enter an e-mail address into the system, so we now, our e-mail newsletter list is now made up of about 95 percent Turks, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And you'll have to beef up your Sufism coverage for the magazine from here on in.

Mr. NUTTALL: Yeah, that's right.

SIEGEL: Well, Tom Nuttall of Prospect magazine in London. Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. NUTTALL: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And you can find a link to the foreign policy magazine and Prospect magazine's list of the top 100 public intellectuals at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.