Fethullah Gulen: A Man Loved and Feared in Turkey
Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat – In contrast to Necmettin Erbakan, who is considered the father of political Islam in Turkey, Fethullah Gulen is the father of social Islam. He is the founder and leader of the Gulen Movement. This religious movement has hundreds of religious schools within and outside of Turkey from the republics of Central Asia, Russia, Morocco, Kenya, Uganda, to the Balkans and the Caucasus.
Moreover, the movement has its own newspapers, magazines, television channels, businesses and charitable institutions. It has established its own cultural centres in a large number of countries around the world, holding annual conferences in Britain, the European Union (EU) and the United States in cooperation with the biggest international universities for the purpose of studying the movement, its influence and its cultural and social roots.
What characterizes the Gulen Movement from other Islamic movements in the region and the world is that it is welcomed by the West. It is regarded as an example that “should be followed by virtue of its openness” to the world and its ideological discourse. For example, whilst Erbakan maintains that the United States is an enemy to the Islamic world due to its hegemony of “international Zionism” in the decision-making process, Gulen maintains that there is a need to cooperate with the US and the West in general as global powers.
Moreover, whilst Erbakan believes that unity within the Islamic world is imperative an idea that he crystallized when he founded the Developing Eight, Gulen does not consider the Arab world and Iran vital to Turkey; rather he regards the Caucasus, the republics of Central Asia and the Balkans as important as these countries since they are home to significant Turkish minorities. He also argues that if Turkey wants to restore its position as one of the world’s most important countries as it was during the Ottoman Empire, it must have a strong influence upon Turks the world over.
But, Gulen is too pragmatic and intelligent to use the term “Turkish leadership in the region”. He has not called for the independence of Turkish minorities in these countries or for his movement to practice educational activities in the countries where Turkish minorities might be subjected to problems at the hands of the ruling regimes, such as in China, Russia or Greece, for example.
Gulen has not called for the application of Islamic law (Shariah) in Turkey. In this regard, he stated that the majority Shariah rulings relate to people’s private lives, whilst only a small number relate to the administration of the state and its affairs. Therefore, he sees that there is no need to apply the rules of Shariah to public affairs. Accordingly, Gulen believes that democracy is the best solution; and thus dislikes the totalitarian regimes in the Islamic world. Although Erbakan is considered as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mentor; the Justice and Development Party’s [AKP] experience in power indicates that Gulen is Erdogan’s real professor.
The Gulen Movement is frequently mentioned whether one is referring to secularists or Islamists. Jutshaka Gul, a young Turkish woman who complains about the difficulties of securing a good job after graduating from university, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “If you have good ties with the Gulen Movement and have worked with it or volunteered to take part in some of its activities then many doors will be opened for you in Turkey and you could manage to get one of the best jobs.”
Turkish intellectual and academic Serif Mardin told Asharq Al-Awsat: It is not possible to predict exactly what the movement wants; only time can do that. Despite the various activities carried out by the movement and its work in the public domain, it still remains ambiguous to some and is obscure especially regarding its long-term intentions.
The Gulen Movement has flourished within the framework of the revival of religious movements and schools in Turkey in the 1980s. In the wake of Kenan Evren’s 1980 coup and the decisions that were made by the military government regarding economy openness, the privatization of media and the provision of more freedom for civil organizations, including religious groups, religious schools began to flourish. One of these schools was the ‘Nur’ tariqa that was set up by the Turkish Sufi Said Nursi (1873-1960), from which the Gulen Movement emerged and was later influenced by it. The spirit of this school’s philosophy was to create a committed Islamic society but at the same time one that is eager to increase its knowledge and contribute to modern technology since the Western world had advanced ahead of the Islamic world.
Today, Fethullah Gulen is associated with the term “enlightened or moderate Turkish Islam” whereby Gulen and his supporters have tried to institute a religious, political, social and modern movement that mixes modernity with religiousness, nationalism, tolerance and democracy. Furthermore, he has sought to place Islam, nationalism and liberalism in one melting pot. Many Western newspapers have written about Gulen depicting him as a pro-Western leader of a national Islamic social movement and the face of the future of social Islam in the Middle East. However, Gulen’s opponents have described him as a real danger to Turkish secularism accusing him of trying to undermine Turkish secularism by “Islamizing” the social practices of the Turks.
Merve Petek Gurbuz, from the Turkish Republican People’s Party stated that the “Gulen Movement exploited its standing in society to achieve political objectives in the future, indicating that the movement’s supporters, like many followers of religious schools in Turkey, vote collectively for the party that they agree on; even the movement’s female supporters wear the hijab in a different way to other veiled women”.
However, Kasim Mustafa Kasim, a young Turkish activist from the Gulen Movement and a student at the University of Birmingham, UK, denied that there are hidden political agendas: “It is impossible to have political objectives or a hidden agenda, as some may claim without any proof. Our objectives are purely educational. Fethullah Gulen went on trial a number of times based on claims that there was a hidden Islamic agenda to Islamize Turkish society, but every time he was proven innocent because these are merely allegations.”
The Gulen Movement has spread extensively around the world and has a vast network owning approximately 300 schools in Turkey and another 200 in various countries including Tanzania, China, Turkmenistan, Morocco, Egypt and the Philippines. Most of these schools however are located in the republics of the former Soviet Union where there are large Turkish ethnic minorities. As for the philosophical and intellectual model presented by Gulen through his schools, it is composed of several elements such as “the Ottoman inheritance, the secular inheritance, the market economy and democracy,” explained Turkish analyst Sahin Bey.
“What is noteworthy is that the students at these schools are graduating to occupy high positions in different fields that they specialize in, in the republics of Central Asia, the Balkans, China etc, where Gulen wants the elites of these countries to have Turkey as their example,” he said.
However, these schools that belong to the Gulen Movement in Turkey are subjected to the supervision of Turkish authorities. Although they are similar to other Turkish schools with respect to curricula and term times, they focus more on public moralities and religion and their teachers are graduates from top Turkish universities.
These schools find no difficulty in gaining finance as Turkish businessmen and other individuals provide funding. Moreover, such schools enjoy an excellent reputation for education, enrol Muslim and non-Muslim students, teach in English and attract the children of the elite. However, Gulen has frequently stressed that he does not own these schools, meaning that they are part of the movement’s activities rather than owned by him.
The objective behind the Gulen Movement opening schools in Central Asia is to spread Turkish culture and Islamic values. In this respect, Mustafa Kasim told Asharq Al-Awsat, “We do have schools in Central Asia, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus and in northern Morocco. We also have cultural centres in many countries around the world including Asia, Europe, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These centres are not called ‘Gulen’s’ rather they are named after local or prominent Islamic figures. But our objectives are obvious: Teaching the values of Islam and Turkish culture. Nonetheless, nothing is compulsory. Our schools teach in three languages: English, the language of the respective country and an optional third language. Turkish is one of the optional languages.” Mustafa Kasim highlighted that the Gulen Movement’s schools charge fees and only offer scholarships to exceptional students.
Due to the fact that Gulen is interested in Turkish nationalism throughout the world, along with 16 other people, he set up an investment bank called Asya Finance, which is a non-profit bank and where borrowers do not pay interest. The goal of this bank, the capital of which is estimated at $125 million, is to encourage foreign investment in the republics of the former Soviet Union. However, because the authorities of the Islamic republics of Central Asia are not tolerant towards any organizations or movements exploiting Islam for political reasons, Gulen’s schools and organizations act with much caution and are keen not to raise the religious or political sensitive points.
Mustafa Kasim told Asharq Al-Awsat, “Yes, we sometimes have differences with local authorities in some country or another but we work within the framework of the local laws of each country, which we respect.” Despite the insistence of the movement that its aims are purely educational, Sinan Tavshan, a Turkish journalist who works for the Japanese ‘Nikkei’ newspaper told Asharq Al-Awsat that the real reason behind Gulen’s departure from Turkey to the United States is the videotape in which he talked to his supporters about slowly moving towards changing the nature of the Turkish system. Sinan said that the videotape, which was posted on the YouTube website, caused much controversy in Turkey and it tightened its grip on Gulen’s movements.
There has been no official reason for Gulen leaving Turkey for the United States. Trouble with the Turkish authorities began for Gulen on 18 June, 1999, when he delivered a speech on Turkish television and made statements that were considered by some to include implicit criticism of state institutions. An investigation was launched regarding Gulen’s statements. Bulent Ecevit, then Turkish Prime Minister, intervened and called upon the state to tackle the matter in a calm manner.
Ecevit showed his support to Gulen and his educational institutions by saying, “His schools promote Turkish culture all over the world and introduce Turkey to the world. These schools are subject to continuous supervision by the authorities.”
Gulen publicly apologised for his comments, however, some secularists have remained sceptical about his objectives. At a later stage, there were claims that Gulen was seeking to achieve political gains at the expense of the state, including the military. A week after the broadcast of the program, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel sent a warning to Gulen saying; “I think that religious figures should not have political aspirations. To be a religious figure is, intrinsically, a difficult matter. But to be a respected religious figure, it is necessary to proceed according to the teachings of our religion. This can be achieved by giving good advice to humanity.”
Gulen also talked about the spread of Turkish culture in Uzbekistan, causing outrage in the Turkish military and other secular institutions in the country. It further led to a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Uzbekistan that caused Bulent Ecevit to intervene in an attempt to resolve the matter.
Ecevit stated, “The Uzbek president has unjustifiable fears of Turkey. Turkey does not interfere in Uzbekistan’s internal affairs. We would never tolerate any harm being done to relations between the two countries because of unnecessary fears.” However, Uzbekistan decided to close a number of schools belonging to Gulen. During that time, the Turkish secular institution felt increasing anxiety towards Gulen and his educational institutions and this led to Turkish education authorities to issue a resolution that it would not recognise educational certificates provided by Gulen’s schools. However, this decision was only temporary.
Gulen refused to speak to Asharq Al-Awsat about his movement’s activities at present and stated that by virtue of being in the US and due to the conditions in Turkey, he does not want to issue statements that could be misinterpreted.
Nowadays, Gulen enjoys excellent ties with many Turkish politicians. Since 1994, he has met Turkish presidents, prime ministers, leaders of political parties and influential clerics. In addition, important Turkish newspapers have conducted interviews with him. In 1997, Turkish president Suleyman Demirel accepted a prize from Fethullah Gulen’s educational institution. Gulen does not object to meeting religious figures from different faiths and has met in the past with Jewish figures from Israel, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church and the former Pope John Paul II, much to the disappointment of some religious figures in Turkey. Some of these critics have claimed that Gulen believes that he is more important than the state whilst others claim that he seeks to act as the mouthpiece for Islam in Turkey.
Furthermore, Gulen has connections with newspapers, magazines, television channels and businessmen. Mustafa Kasim told Asharq Al-Awsat, “We have a standard television channel (STV) and four other channels: an around-the-clock news channel, a children’s channel, a cultural channel and general channel. We also have an English-language television channel in America. We produce our own shows, which are bought by many local Turkish channels. Moreover, we have newspapers such as the popular daily ‘Zaman’ and magazines. However, the Gulen Movement does not own ‘Zaman’ newspaper,” explained Kasim, “the newspaper is owned by friends and individuals that can be trusted,” he added.
It is for this reason that many Turks, such as Oya Akgonenc, a prominent leading figure from the Islamic Felicity Party, are concerned. She told Asharq Al-Awsat, “Nobody knows the exact ties that the Gulen Movement has within Turkey. There are many [parts of the] mass media and businessmen that work with it, support it or sympathize with it.”
Perhaps one of the reasons behind Gulen’s strong support the world over is that he believes in the importance of communication, media, direct and personal dialogue and in giving opportunities. Gulen’s website is available in 12 languages, including English, Azeri, French, Polish, Spanish, Turkish and Arabic. Gulen is an eloquent preacher and has delivered sermons from the age of 14.
He memorized the Holy Quran at a young age and left school when his family left his hometown and began to focus on learning about religion from home. He travelled around Turkish villages giving religious lessons in mosques as a teenager. From the outset, Gulen has focused on secondary and university students, who make up the majority of his audiences. Many of them have worked as part of his movement after graduating from university, while those who have not worked directly with him have contributed to promoting his ideologies. The topics of these religious sermons delivered by Gulen differ to those delivered by other Turkish preachers. He dealt with the theory of evolution, the modern methods of education, sciences, economy and social justice. He is said to deliver his classes enthusiastically, emotionally and eloquently. He has been known to shed tears whilst giving some talks.
In his lessons, Gulen combines between classic religious knowledge and Western philosophy and would particularly quote the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example. Gulen is a tactful speaker and an excellent writer and is the author of a number of best-selling books in Turkey.
In the 1970s, Gulen’s popularity cost him three years of imprisonment based on charges of promoting activities that threaten the foundations of the Turkish state; a charge that has been levelled against him frequently ever since. But Gulen’s response has always been that he is also a secular Muslim and that he wants to give Islam in Turkey a Turkish essence rather than establish an Islamic state. In other words, Gulen aspires to restore ties between the state and religion in Turkey, as was the case during the Ottoman Empire where people were free to practice their religion without any constraint.
Gulen believes that there is a particularity of Turkish Islam or as he calls it “Anatolian Islam” that distinguishes Islam in Turkey from Islam in Arab and non-Muslim countries. He also maintains that Turkish Islam is a mixture of Islam and Turkish nationalism. With respect to Turkish Islam, the principle is not mainly about practicing the rituals of religion; rather, it is about one’s behaviour according to the values and principles that Islam has contributed to humanity.
Gulen does not oppose secularists or non-believers [in religion] in Turkey and believes that maintaining these elements preserves Turkey’s Ottoman inheritance that is characterized by ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity.
Gulen’s stance towards women is less controversial as he regards hijab as a “minor detail” in Islamic history and believes that no one should be judged according to how they are dressed.
As for education in Islamic states, Gulen believes that it should facilitate integration in the modern world. He advocates the need for a strong presence of Muslims in the international economic and political systems. He is very enthusiastic about Turkey joining the EU and is one of the strongest opponents to the politicization of Islam.
He categorically rejects mixing religion with state affairs so that both aspects may be preserved. However, Gulen’s secular opponents do not believe that he is that far from politics and have indicated that the political influence of his movement has surfaced over the past five years via electoral support for the AKP.
However, Mustafa Kasim told Asharq Al-Awsat, “As an organization, we do not support any political party as our members vote for any party or person they want, although it is true that the majority of us voted for the AKP in the recent elections.”