September 8, 2011
Contextualizing the Gülen Movement
— Baqar Syed
A variety of fears have been expressed regarding "Gülen" charter schools in Texas, from possible financial irregularities to indoctrination of children in Islam. However, neither official state inquiries nor academic studies have found any evidence to such effect. A look at the history of the movement can help us understand it as an attempt by Muslims to contribute positively to modern life while maintaining their beliefs and values.
In line with the founder's vision of reaching out to the world and being inclusive of everyone, the movement has grown to become truly global: in addition to more than 1,000 schools in 130 countries, the movement is linked to think tanks, newspapers, TV and radio stations, as well as universities and financial institutions. Ten to fifteen percent of the entire Turkish population is estimated to belong to the movement, and with each member contributing five to twenty percent of their income, it has become one of the most well funded modern religious movements in the world.
Emerging over the latter half of the twentieth century in Turkey, the Gülen movement is quite unique and hard to define. It lacks any overarching organizational hierarchy or bureaucracy, and can be described as an alliance of loosely affiliated grassroots-based institutions. The usual model is for religiously motivated professionals--businessmen, doctors, engineers, teachers and the like, inspired by the life and teachings of a charismatic Turkish Imam called Fethullah Gülen--to organize local circles (based either on location and neighborhood or education and profession) to discuss local needs and plan investments in education and other community projects. Meetings are held weekly and include readings from the Quran, the Prophetic tradition, Mr. Gülen's writings or other inspirational materials.
Referring to the movement as Hizmet (meaning "service" in Turkish), members of the movement are united by their shared goals of spreading modern education, contributing towards charity, and promoting inter-faith harmony.
Fethullah Gülen was born in 1941 in a small village in eastern Turkey. He received an informal religious education and grew up amongst pious individuals constantly exploring spirituality and its relevance in the modern world. Strongly influenced by the Sufi preacher Said Nursi who taught an embrace of modernity grounded in sacred texts, Mr. Gülen educated himself in science, philosophy, literature and history alongside his study of Islam. In 1966 he was appointed Imam to Izmir, Turkey's third largest city. Living an ascetic life and refusing to take wages for his services, it was here that his ideas on education and service to the community began to develop. By the 1970s Mr. Gülen had become extremely popular, finding special favor amongst Izmir's business and professional middle class, who appreciated his commitment to the free market and his emphasis on business growth.
The growing power and influence of the movement has aroused a fair share of suspicion from a wide array of critics both inside and outside of Turkey. Essentially, much of the criticism centers on the question of motivation: what are the members of the movement really motivated by? What explains the inordinate commitment of its members, their sacrifices in time and money? Is it secular at heart or slowly but surely laying the foundations for an "Islamic" state in Turkey?
Turkey's particular political history is at the root of apprehensions regarding the movement. Ever since Kemal Ataturk's abolition of the caliphate and the proclamation of the secular republic in 1923, the military and political elite often referred to as the Kemalists have tried to force Islam out of public life, dreading the specter of irtica (reactionary Islam vying for an Islamic state). In 1997, the military acted on these fears and reaffirmed Ataturk's vision for a secular Turkey, forcing the government to resign, closing the Islamically oriented Welfare Party and taking other measures such as banning certain religious organizations and the wearing of headscarves in universities. The heightening of this same tension forced Mr. Gülen to leave for the US in 1999. He currently resides in Pennsylvania in self-imposed exile.
It was in the backdrop of such developments that an international conference on the Gülen Movement was organized at the University of Chicago's International House in November 2010. Many of the speakers addressed these fears and the maligning of the movement in Turkey, pointing to the growing insecurity felt by the old Kemalist elite in the face of a rising "Anatolian" elite amongst whom the movement is popular. The latter have risen to prominence gradually as education, wealth and political power came to individuals hailing from Turkish regions away from the big cities. This polarization of today's Turks is quite stark, readily visible everywhere Turkish communities exist, not only inside Turkey.
The development of this schism between Kemalist and non-Kemalist Turks goes back more than half a century. A trend that caught impetus in the 1950s in Turkey was the increasing visibility of Turks from traditional backgrounds in more and more of Turkey's major cities such as Ankara. Periodicals and dailies from this period expressed the distress this caused the urban elite, who depicted ugly, dark-faced, bearded men with prayer beads wearing baggy trousers (salvar) and women wearing a baggy outer garment (carsaf) as fanatics and relics of a superstitious past. In fact these men and women were immigrants to the bigger cities seeking better opportunities in education and livelihood and represented a much larger section of the population than the urban elite imagined. The active offensive taken against them by the urban elite only served to sharpen their religious identities and made them search for ways to reconcile traditional Islamic religiosity with modern life in Turkey. Over time, guided by the teachings of Mr. Gülen, the Gülen movement grew to offer working models to this effect.
Fatma Disli, a member of the movement, commenting on her reasons for joining the movement, said that had she worked in a non-Gülen company, she would have been asked to take off her headscarf. "Most of the companies would have asked me to take off my headscarf. They only allow cleaning women to wear headscarves... [What attracted me to the movement was that] the people I saw there were really hardworking, virtuous people who were practicing their religion, but at the same time had important jobs. I realized that it's possible to be religious and to have a career."
Gulen Institute, "A Brief Biography of Fethullah Gülen."
Azak, Umut. Islam and Secularism in Turkey: Kemalism, Religion and the Nation State. I. B. Tauris, 2010.
Ebaugh, Helen Rose. The Gülen Movement: A Sociological Analysis of a Civic Movement Rooted in Moderate Islam. Springer, 2009.
"Islam Inc." BBC Radio 4, May 29, 2011.
Stourton, Edward.. "What is Islam's Gulen movement?" BBC, May 24, 2011.
"Gülen: Society not divided into Kemalists, Muslims in Turkey." Today's Zaman, June 17, 2011.
Baqar Syed is an MA student in the History of Religions at the Divinity school. His main interests lie in Weberian sociology and South Asian Sufism.