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Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Who is Fethullah Gülen?

with 5 comments

Countless websites sing the praises of Fethullah Gülen. Some of them take out ads.

I have, of late, begun to realize the absurdity of authoring a blog on Turkish politics, religion, and culture without significant attention (save an ominous reference) to what I will call the “Gülen movement” (sometimes called the Hizmet [service] movement).

From what I understand, Gülenism—a questionably apolitical movement within the Sufi strand of Islam—is the paradigmatic expression of Anatolian Islam. Though it has a distinctly Turkish pedigree, with roots in the late Ottoman Nur (Light) movement of Said Nursî (1878–1960), it by no means limits itself geographically. The movement has become notable more recently for its support of non-religious as well as religious education through an international school system, and an overarching attitude of tolerance—especially toward other religions.

Gülen (en.fgulen.com)

Muhammad Fethullah Gülen, after whom the movement is named, is an adequately interesting character to lead what has become a globally significant phenomenon. Born in 1941 near Erzurum, Gülen seems to have been a largely self-taught scholar, knowledgeable in subjects ranging from Qur’anic exegesis to Western existentialism. After a long preaching career in Turkey, which was met with great success since the ’80s (when Islam was seen by the state as a tool to fight socialism), Gülen eventually fled to Pennsylvania, of all places, in 1999. The overt reason for his flight was a legitimate fear of arrest for challenging the “secular nature” of the state.

He currently resides somewhere in the Poconos (in a “compound,” as some call it), issuing statements through an enormous, sophisticated (and easily recognizable) network of media outlets. Here is how a recent NYT article describes Fethullah Gülen:

… a charismatic preacher who leads one of the most influential Islamic movements in the world, with millions of followers and schools in 140 countries. He has long advocated tolerance, peace and interfaith dialogue, drawing on the traditions of Sufism, a mystical strain of Islam generally viewed as being moderate.

But this is where the concerns spring up. With a network of media outlets, millions of dedicated followers, a vast associated system of private schools, and the simple fact that most people have never heard of the movement, the Gülenists—to those who have heard of them—face some well-deserved suspicion.

But the movement’s stealthy expansion of power — as well as its tactics and lack of transparency — is now drawing accusations that Mr. Gulen’s supporters are using their influence in Turkey’s courts and police and intelligence services to engage in witch hunts against opponents with the aim of creating a more conservative Islamic Turkey. Critics say the agenda is threatening the government’s democratic credentials just as Turkey steps forward as a regional power.

“We are troubled by the secretive nature of the Gulen movement, all the smoke and mirrors,” said a senior American official, who requested anonymity to avoid breaching diplomatic protocol. “It is clear they want influence and power. We are concerned there is a hidden agenda to challenge secular Turkey and guide the country in a more Islamic direction.”

The culmination of these concerns, the possible Islamic political agenda, inevitably finds its justification in this oft-cited excerpt from a speech by Gülen (though Gülen maintains that the footage, which was aired on Turkish television [atv] in 1999, was tampered with):

You must move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers … until the conditions are ripe, they [the followers] must continue like this. If they do something prematurely, the world will crush our heads, and Muslims will suffer everywhere, like in the tragedies in Algeria, like in 1982 [in] Syria … like in the yearly disasters and tragedies in Egypt. The time is not yet right. You must wait for the time when you are complete and conditions are ripe, until we can shoulder the entire world and carry it … You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey … Until that time, any step taken would be too early—like breaking an egg without waiting the full forty days for it to hatch. It would be like killing the chick inside. The work to be done is [in] confronting the world. Now, I have expressed my feelings and thoughts to you all—in confidence … trusting your loyalty and secrecy. I know that when you leave here—[just] as you discard your empty juice boxes, you must discard the thoughts and the feelings that I expressed here.

Gülenists often respond to criticism, but not always with the best English (gulenschools.org).

This is undoubtedly taqiyya, the principle of concealing one’s faith under duress. If this excerpt accurately portrays the Gülenists’ methods, we can be sure that one of the ends of the movement is to overthrow the Kemalist state and its claim to “secularism.” Its subsequent intentions are harder to discern. For many, this apparent subterfuge is the last straw for Gülenism and—along with concerns about Gülenist schools (“Won’t anyone think of the children?”)—is ample fuel for angry blogging and the like.

But this doesn’t stop the U.S. government from courting Gülen, who is not only the leader of a “moderate” Islamic movement but also “the leader of a … political movement with immense commercial holdings,” both of which are good reasons for a good relationship (“Fethullah Gulen v. Michael Chertoff, Secretary, U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, et al,”). In the wake of the Arab Spring especially, as Arab nations struggle to rebuild their economies, the business clout possessed by Gülenist Anatolian businessmen cannot be underestimated. From Abu Dhabi’s The National in September 2011 (here):

Turkey has staked a claim in the rebuilding of Arab Spring economies, signing a flurry of lucrative contracts and seeking to secure multibillion dollars of deals.

Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and scores of businessmen from the country visited Egypt, Tunisia and Libya last week. The aim was to cement new political and commercial ties with post-revolution regimes in the three countries.

Turkey signed agreements with Egypt to cooperate on a wide range of issues from technology to energy and pledged to raise trade from the existing level of US$3.7 billion (Dh13.5bn) to $10bn.

In Libya, Turkey said it planned to resume work on six Libyan oil wells on October 1 and also offered to build a new parliament as well as restore schools, police stations and judiciary buildings.

But the trip was about securing existing interests too. At stake is $18.5bn worth of contracts Turkish companies were involved with in Libya that have remained suspended since the civil war flared nearly seven months ago.

Sitting on the apron of the Middle East, Turkey has a long history of commercial ties with the region. In recent times these links have accelerated as Turkey has emerged as a rising economic power.

You don’t have to wonder for too long who is footing the bill for “restor[ing] schools” in Libya. And with this in mind, it’s no wonder that the AKP was reluctant to support NATO’s Libyan incursion.

But this brings up another, final issue, and a critical one: What is the Gülen movement’s relationship—with their “apolitical” anti-Kemalist stance—with the AKP government? To be sure, the relationship is, at least now, a symbiotic one; but is that all it will ever be? I, for one, cannot yet answer that question, but suffice it to say that they have similar goals: Today’s Zaman, a Gülenist English news outlet, has proven very supportive of—and no doubt very useful to—the AKP. In return, the AKP’s diplomacy has favored the movement’s business and expansion interests, especially in northern Africa.

I suspect that answering this question (Do they have the same goals?) would answer a lot of questions about Turkey’s near future. For now, though, I can only say that there is no doubt that the Gülen movement is at the forefront of an Islamic revival in Turkey—and there is some suggestion that its effects will be felt far beyond its base in Anatolia.

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Written by M. James

May 16, 2012 at 2:48 am

5 Responses

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  1. I do not agree with this blog. The author just quoted all the negative stuff. There are lots of nice opinions and analysis on Gulen. I would recommend this web site: http://www.gulenmovement.us/

    Levent Koc

    May 19, 2012 at 6:22 pm

  2. Well, I was attempting to be fair, not nice.

    Why don’t you agree?

    M. James

    May 20, 2012 at 2:57 am

  3. well, you could make reference, at least, to recent statements on behalf of Gulen by the Journalists and Writers Foundation whose honorary president is Gulen. You can find them at http://gyv.org.tr/.
    http://www.hizmetnews.com/ may be another source. It publishes news from all around the globe on the Gulen movement.

    in my opinion, anyone who writes about Gulen these days must make reference to official statements on his behalf. this one is especially important: “Important Clarifications Concerning Current Debates”

    Levent Koc

    May 20, 2012 at 9:18 am

  4. The last statement (“Important Clarifications…”) is very concise and would prove very useful to anyone trying to understand the movement in a nutshell. I will call attention to that statement in a forthcoming post.

    But meanwhile, I hope that you will allow me to retain a healthy dose of skepticism on this blog. I cannot, in good faith, recommend these resources to my readers as impartial—I will have to call attention to the fact that they appear to support Gülen and his ideas. That is not to say that they should be ignored; only that they should be read with a critical eye.

    So thank you for the input—please don’t hesitate to clarify, correct, or add to my posts in the future.

    M. James

    May 20, 2012 at 9:54 pm

  5. Thanks. I understand you like I understand others who has questions about the movement. Unless the movement is attacked inhumanely, without any ground or proof, skepticism/questions are fine.

    Levent Koc

    May 21, 2012 at 1:14 pm


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