One of Turkey's most popular religious leaders, Fethullah Gulen, was charged yesterday with trying to undermine the secular system and set up an Islamic dictatorship.
Mr Gulen, who has hundreds of thousands of supporters, could face a prison sentence of up to 10 years if he is convicted.
The indictment against Mr Gulen alleges that he is the "strongest and most effective Islamic fundamentalist in Turkey" who "camouflages his methods with a democratic and moderate image".
Mr Gulen is currently in the United States for lengthy medical treatment, and will probably be tried in absentia.
The judicial move against such a prominent figure marks the beginning of a new phase in the Turkish establishment's long battle against what it regards as dangerous religious extremism. The charges were announced just a few hours after the head of the armed forces delivered a stern warning about the threat posed by "radical Islam", those Muslims who want to politicise the Islamic faith.
Speaking late on Wednesday night, the army chief of staff General Huseyin Kivrikoglu said that thousands of civil servants - some of them in senior positions - are trying to destroy the secular system.
"They are working against the state every day in order to overthrow it," he said. "They have spread everywhere."
The military has been leading a campaign against a political Islam since 1997, when it helped bring down Turkey's first Islamist-led government. Mr Gulen has become one of its highest profile targets.
A judicial investigation against him was launched last year after the release of video tapes in which Mr Gulen allegedly urged his supporters in the state bureaucracy to lie low and wait for his orders to undermine the system.
Mr Gulen has denied the charges against him, and said the tapes were a forgery. He portrays himself as a voice of tolerance, and he is widely admired and trusted by Turks.
He is the most influential leader of the Nur, or Holy Light, sect, which was founded by Said-i Nursi, who died in 1960 and was regarded by his followers as a messenger from God. Religious sects - tarikats - are illegal in Turkey, but they still flourish and have considerable influence.
Even politicians who rail against the Islamic threat are known to court the tarikats, because of the weight they carry during elections. The prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, who has made his reputation as a staunch secularist, is one of Mr Gulen's many fans.
In particular, Mr Ecevit has spoken of his admiration for the network of schools and colleges that Mr Gulen has established across Turkey, the Middle East and much of the former Soviet Union.
However, the indictment issued yesterday insisted that the schools are a front for a much more sinister plan.
"Mr Gulen was planning to use the young people whom he brainwashed at his own schools to set up his Islamic state," the indictment said.
The case could split Turkish society. Some will regard the allegations as the fruits of secularist paranoia, while others will insist the threat is real and immediate.
Gen Kivrikoglu has insisted that the government pass legislation as soon as possible which would allow the authorities to dismiss civil servants from their posts if they are suspected of supporting radical Islam.
Opinion polls consistently suggest that the majority of Turks support a clear division between religion and politics. But a crackdown on the tarikats would pit parts of the Turkish establishment against powerful forces which are deeply embedded in society.
Since modern Turkey was founded 77 years ago, it has struggled to resolve the question of how a robustly secular state can best manage the affairs of a deeply religious and conservative country.
The Guardian (Print Edition)
For the article's link please click here. (Date accessed: 12 March 2009)