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Fethullah Gulen and the Gulen Movement

Fethullah Gulen and the Gulen Movement

GulenBy Prof. A. R. Momin, 

Fathullah Gulen, 71, is one of the most charismatic and influential preachers, educationists and intellectuals in the contemporary Muslim world. The Gulen movement, inspired by his ideas, runs more than 800 schools in more than 100 countries and regions, including Turkey, Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, China, India, Russia, Germany, France, Cambodia, Australia and Singapore. The Gulen movement can be regarded as a transnational Islamic movement with a universal educational and interfaith agenda, which has influenced millions of Muslims in Turkey, Central Asia and other parts of the Muslim world.

Fethullah Gulen was born in 1941 in the village of Korucuk, near Erzurum, in Anatolia. His father, Ramiz Gulen, was an imam at a local mosque. He received his early education, including the elementary teachings of Islam and Arabic and Persian, from his father. Later he studied at a madrasa in Erzurum in eastern Turkey. As an adolescent he attended lectures on history, philosophy and literature. At the age of 20 he left his village to teach in a mosque at Edirne, and later joined the Kestanepazari Quran School at Izmir as a teacher. His sincerity, dedication and personal charisma drew a substantial number of students, teachers, professionals and businessmen to him. It was at Izmir that his ideas on education and religious philanthropy and on launching an Islam-inspired movement crystallized. He travelled to various parts of Anatolia to give lectures and discourses in mosques and public meeting places. Though his views and preaching were characterized by moderation, his activities were viewed with suspicion by the secularist regime. After the 1971 military coup, Gulen was arrested for clandestinely promoting religious activities, deemed illegal by the authorities, and was imprisoned for seven months.

In 1999 Gulen migrated to the United States for medical treatment. While he was in the US, he was charged with plotting to subvert Turkey’s secular constitution and to overthrow the government and to establish an Islamic state. The trial, in absentia, dragged on for many years, and he was finally acquitted of all charges in 2008. Since 1999 Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in a house in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania.

Social Context of the Gulen Movement

The perspective of sociology of knowledge emphasizes that social, political, cultural and existential conditions prevailing at a given point of time have a significant bearing on the germination and unfolding of ideas and intellectual and ideological orientations and on the genesis and career of social movements. It is therefore useful to examine the historical, social, political and cultural context in which Gulen’s ideas and his movement took root.

Gulen’s ideas and his philosophy reflect a critical and creative engagement with Turkey’s cultural and political heritage, which encompasses the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, the pervasive sway of Sufism on Turkish society, the influence of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, and the encounter with Western civilization. Guen’s thinking has also been shaped by the political and cultural scenario that unfolded in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the ascendancy of the Kemalist ideology and the tension between society and state.

The Legacy of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire, the largest empire in history, lasted for nearly five centuries, from the mid-15th century until the early 20th. Its boundaries straddled across three continents, encompassing a vast stretch of territory extending from North Africa to the Danube and from Western Asia to the Balkans. The Ottomans ruled over a multiethnic, heterogeneous population with a wide-ranging diversity of faiths, ethnicities, languages and cultural traditions.

Religious minorities in the Ottoman Empire, especially Jews and Christians, enjoyed substantial religious, judicial and cultural autonomy and freedom. Each religious group was designated as an autonomous community (millet) under the charge of its religious head, and had the freedom to manage its religious, legal, educational and cultural institutions. The Jews had a chief rabbi and the major Christian groups had a patriarch or bishop. No restrictions were placed on the construction of synagogues and churches. The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Gregorian communities were placed under the leadership of their patriarchs. The former included, in addition to ethnic Greeks, all the Slavs and Romanians living in southeastern Europe while the latter included not only Armenians but also Gypsies, Nestorians, Copts and other Eastern Christians.

A large number of Jews who were expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century found a hospitable refuge in Ottoman Turkey. Most of the Sephardic Jews settled in Salonica in the Balkans, where they formed a majority of its population. Salonica was taken by the Ottomans from Byzantine rulers in 1430. For nearly five centuries Salonica was under Ottoman rule and its multiethnic populace of Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in an atmosphere of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. It is significant to note that Ladino or Judaeo-Spanish, a dialect spoken by Sephardic Jews, survived only in the eastern Mediterranean lands which were part of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire provided a safe haven for Jewish communities from Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East. In addition to Sephardic Jews, Ashkenazis from Germany, France and Hungary and Sicilian Jews settled in Ottoman domains. During the last decades of the 19th century, Jews who faced persecution in Russia and Central Europe were invited to settle in Ottoman territories. Jewish engineers and technicians helped the Ottomans manufacture advanced artillery and sophisticated siege engines. They also made significant contributions to the modernization of agriculture, industry and trade in Ottoman Turkey.

Thousands of Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and Central Europe in the last decades of the 19th century were encouraged to settle in various Ottoman cities. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were nearly 100,000 Jewish in various Turkish cities. During World War II, some 15,000 Turkish Jews living in France were rescued by Turkey from Nazi persecution. Turkish diplomats in France organised train caravans to take Turkish Jews back to their homeland. In 1944, when France’s Vichy government was on the verge of deporting all 10,000 Turkish Jews living in France to Nazi Germany for extermination, the Turkish foreign minister intervened with the French government, warning that such an act on the part of the French government would lead to the snapping of diplomatic relations between France and Turkey. Vichy was forced to abandon his sinister move.

Turkey also helped thousands of East European Jews living in countries such as Greece, Lithuania, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria to escape Nazi persecution. After the war, the Turkish consul in Greece intervened with the Germans to spare the Turkish Jews living in the country and organised boats to carry them to safety in Turkey. The Turkish guards at the Greek-Turkish border allowed Jews coming from Greece and Bulgaria to enter Turkish territory. Camps were set up for the Jewish refugees at Edirne.

The Ottoman sultans welcomed and encouraged the immigration of Christians from western, eastern and southern Europe. Emperor Mehmet brought back Greeks to Constantinople from Trebizond and appointed a new patriarch for them. The Calvinists of Hungary, the Protestants of Siberia and the Cossack Old Believers of Russia sought refuge in Ottoman Turkey in their flight from Catholic and Orthodox persecution. The Greek Orthodox, Bosnian Franciscans and Armenian Christians were given substantial freedom and internal autonomy in respect of their beliefs, rites and churches. The predominantly Christian regions of Cyprus and the Peloponnesian Peninsula of Greece retained their religious and ethnic character even after they came under Ottoman control. As a result of the security, freedom and economic opportunities provided by the Ottoman rulers, the empire’s Christian population increased by three-fold. Interestingly, Martin Luther lauded the Ottoman Empire as an exemplar of religious tolerance. The Christian population of the Ottoman Empire made a significant contribution to the economy, defence and culture. A Hungarian engineer built for the Ottomans a gigantic canon which could only be moved by 100 oxen.

Gulen’s ideas on pluralism and multiculturalism and intercultural tolerance and understanding are significantly influenced by the legacy of the Ottoman Empire.

Sufism’s Pervasive Influence

For centuries the Sufi tradition has been deeply entrenched in the cultural consciousness of the Turkish people. The ideas of Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1273) and later the traditions of the Sufis of the Naqshbandiya order have continued to have a deep and enduring influence on Turkish society. Mawlana Rumi was born in Balkh, now in Afghanistan, in 1207. Following the sack of Balkh by the Mongol hordes, his family fled to Konya, which was then the capital of the Seljuk Empire. Mawlana Rumi received his spiritual and mystical training from Sayyid Burhanuddin and later from his spiritual mentor, Shams of Tabriz, who initiated him into the world of divine world and ecstasy. Mawlana Rumi’s magnum opus, the Mathnawi, is considered one of the greatest literary and mystic masterpieces of all times. His poetry is imbued with yearning for divine love, compassion and kindness for humanity regardless of the distinctions of caste, class or creed, and an exceptionally cosmopolitan and humane outlook.

Gulen, who has been deeply inspired by Rumi’s humanism and breadth of outlook, is the president of the Rumi Forum. A major inspiration for Gulen’s views on inter-faith dialogue has come from Mawlana Rumi’s ideas and teachings.

Naqshbandi Sufis in Turkey

The Naqshbandiya order, which originated in Central Asia in the late 14th century, has been one of the most widespread and influential Sufi orders in South Asia and Central Asia, particularly in India, Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Volga-Ural region. The most influential figure in the Naqshbandiya order was Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624), popularly known as Mujaddid Alf Thani. The distinctive features of the order include a strict adherence to Shariah, preference for silent invocation of God (dhikr), engagement with society, and avoidance of mystic music. The Sufis of the Naqshbandiya order played a central role in resisting the expansion of Russian conquest and hegemony and the spread of Russian Orthodox Christianity.

In the early 19th century, India was the intellectual and organizational hub of the Naqshbandiya order. The khanqah of Shah Ghulam Ali (d. 1824) in Delhi drew devotees and followers not only from large parts of the Indian subcontinent but also from Central Asia and the Middle East. In Makkah and Madinah, Shah Ghulam Ali’s successors, Shah Abu Said, Shah Ahmad Said and Muhammad Jan al-Makki, initiated many Turkish pilgrims into the order. In Madinah, Muhammad Mazhar, one of the prominent disciples and successors of Shah Ghulam Ali, attracted a large number of followers from Turkey, Daghestan, Kazan and Central Asia.

One of Shah Ghulam Ali’s disciples was Mawlana Khalid al-Baghdadi, who was born in southern Kurdistan in 1776. He spent a year with Shah Ghulam Ali in Delhi before returning to his homeland as his successor in 1811. He played a key role in the dissemination of the Naqshbandiya order in Turkey. His charismatic personality and teachings had a profound impact on Kurdistan. He set up a network of 116 representatives, each entrusted with the responsibility of a specific geographical region. His devotees and followers included members of the Ottoman religious hierarchy as well as provincial governors and military officials. His representative in Istanbul, Abd al-Wahhab al-Susi, initiated the Shaykh al-Islam of Turkey, Makkizada Mustafa Asim, into the Naqshbandiya order. Sultan Abdulhamid II was deeply influenced by the leading Naqshbandi Sufi of Istanbul, Ahmed Ziyauddin Gumushnevi (d. 1893).

Bediuzzaman Said Nursi

Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1878-1960) was born in the Kurdish village of Nurs in the province of Bitlis in eastern Anatolia, which had been greatly influenced by the Sufi tradition. He had a sharp mind and a prodigious memory and completed his religious studies at a young age. In his early years Nursi came under the influence of the Naqshbandiya order of Sufism. In the midst of the uncertainty and turmoil caused by the Young Turk movement of 1908, Nursi was temporarily exiled, but he later joined hands with the Young Turk regime. He fought as an Ottoman patriot on the Caucasus front during World War I and was taken prisoner by the Russians. After his release he returned to Turkey and joined the resistance movement of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. However, in the course of time he developed serious ideological differences with Ataturk, who charged him with complicity in the Kurdish uprising of 1925. He was perceived as a threat to the state and suffered persecution at the hands of the Kemalist regime. He was forced into exile in Bitlis and imprisoned several times between 1930 and 1949. Ataturk tried to buy his loyalty by offering to make him a minister of religious affairs, but he declined the offer.

Nursi lived during a tumultuous period of Turkish history, which witnessed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the establishment of a secular state by Ataturk and the ascendancy of Western values. He tried to resist the wave of Western culture and materialist outlook that seemed to overtake Turkey in the wake of Ataturk’s ascension to power. He was greatly influenced by the writings and ideas of Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi, Ahmad Ziyauddin Gumushaneli and Mawlana Khalid. Nursi wrote his best-known work Risale-i-Nur (The Epistle of Light) during 1926-1934.

Nursi’s writings are animated by three fundamental themes: to raise the consciousness of Muslims, to present a cogent critique and refutation of the prevailing intellectual discourse which was imbued with positivism and materialism, and to affirm Islam as the locus and source of collective identity. He emphasized the value of education, hard work and consensus to meet the challenges of ignorance, economic backwardness and communitarian fragmentation. He emphasized the central role of moral values in the regeneration of society and argued that a just society can be created only through virtuous men and women. He emphasized the compatibility of religion and reason and modernity and tradition. He believed that the gulf between religion and modern science could be bridged through a restructuring of the curriculum in both Islamic and modern educational institutions. Though Nursi was highly critical of the materialist philosophy that came under the impact of Western civilization, he was careful not to reject the whole baggage of Western civilization. He differentiated between the good and undesirable features of Western civilization and admired Western science and technology.

In the course of time, Nursi’s ideas and teachings attracted a large number of followers and the movement – which came to be known as Nurculuk – spread from the Anatolian countryside to towns and cities across the country. Today it has more than five million followers in Turkey and Central Asia and in the Turkish diaspora in Europe and North America. John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, USA has established a Bediuzzaman Said Nursi Chair in Islamic Studies. After Nursi’s death in 1960, the followers of Nursi fragmented into several factions. Gulen’s ideas and teachings, especially his moderation and his views on the compatibility between tradition and modernity and religion and science, have been greatly influenced by Nursi’s thoughts and writings. Nursi’s writings, especially his Risale-i-Nur, are regularly invoked and read in Gulen circles.

Gulen has selectively and critically appropriated elements and features from the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, the Sufi tradition, and the contemporary discourse on pluralism, democracy, human rights, globalisation and intercultural understanding, and synthesized and reinvented them in the context of modern Turkey. His thinking has also been shaped by the political and cultural context in post-Ottoman Turkey.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the establishment of Turkey as a secular, republican state in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the first president of the Turkish Republic, sought to make a radical break with the Islamic and cultural legacy of the Ottoman Empire and launched a state-sponsored project of modernization, Westernization and secularization. The project was inspired by what came to be known as Kemalism. The ideology of Kemalism was enunciated in terms of six core principles, which were set out in the ruling Republican People’s Party Statutes of 1935. These principles, which constitute the official creed of the Turkish state and are written into the constitution, are Republicanism, Nationalism, Populism, Statism, Secularism and Revolutionism. All social, religious, cultural and educational institutions were placed under the control and regulation of the government and all powers were concentrated in the hands of a centralized, Jacobin state, at the expense of local governments, NGOs, people’s rights and religious and ethnic minorities.

The ruling elite introduced a wide range of sweeping changes in Turkish society, with a view to make it a mirror-image of Western societies. The Islamic calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar and Islamic family laws were substituted by the Swiss Code. Turkish replaced Arabic as the liturgical language and calling the faithful to prayer (azan) was outlawed. The Quran was to be read not in Arabic but in its Turkish translation. Sufi orders were banned and madrasas and Sufi hospices (tekkes) and shrines were closed down. Sunday replaced Friday as the weekly public holiday. The Arabic script of the Turkish language was changed to Latin. The wearing of the traditional Turkish cap – fez — was prohibited and the wearing of veils and headscarves was banned in all public institutions, including schools, universities, government offices and public hospitals. Ataturk and his colleague Ismet Inonu introduced policies aimed at the forcible assimilation of the Kurdish minority into mainstream Turkish society. The teaching of Kurdish language in schools was banned and the ethnic identity of the Kurds was systematically denied and undermined. The ruling regime sought to nationalize and manipulate religion in order to make it subservient to the state ideology. Interestingly, the first state-run industry during the reign of Ataurk was a brewery.

The Kemalist ideology had a calamitous and insidious effect on Turkish polity, economy, society and culture. Under its influence, the state acquired absolute and tyrannical powers. The Turkish army, which considers itself the guardian of the state ideology, is not accountable to anyone. Kemalism was used as a pretext for repeated military interventions and takeovers in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997. The Kemalist ideology created a cleavage between the Westernised ruling elite, including the army and the courts, and the masses. Laicism or secularism became an official instrument for the control and manipulation of religion and for the suppression of people’s religious and cultural rights.

However, the Kemalist ideology never enjoyed an unchallenged sway, especially in the Anatolian countryside and in Kurdistan. From time to time there were strong and sometimes violent reactions against the government’s policies, especially from the Sufis of the Naqshbandiya order.

In many ways, the massive popular mandate received by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party in the 2002, 2007 and 2011 elections marks a departure from the country’s Kemalist legacy. Gulen supports the policies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

Gulen’s Worldview

Gulen’s ideas and teachings are essentially rooted in the mainstream Islamic tradition. He has authored 82 books, 65 in Turkish and 17 in English, and most of them have been translated into other languages. His followers have made an extensive use of modern information and communication technologies, including videos, the Internet and social networking sites, for the dissemination of his views and teachings.

Gulen’s views are marked by a conspicuous refrain of moderation and balance. He places immense emphasis on education, and considers it as the key to the unfolding of human potentialities and societal reconstruction and regeneration. Another salient feature of Gulen’s worldview is his emphasis on selfless service to humanity (hizmet). His idea of service, which draws on the Sufi tradition, is inclusive rather than exclusive in that it encompasses the community, the nation and the wider humanity.

Gulen has a cosmopolitan outlook, which is reflected in his recognition of the value of pluralism and multiculturalism, liberal democracy, science and technology, globalization and intercultural dialogue. He says, “In my opinion, this cultural richness should be used and evaluated in the future as an unmatched treasure and source of strength.” Drawing on the multicultural legacy of the Ottoman Empire, Gulen suggests that it is possible and desirable for people with different religious and ethnic heritages to live together in peace and harmony. He has a positive view of globalization and urges his followers to harness its resources, especially in respect of education, science and technology, and the media. In keeping with the Naqshbandiya tradition of Sufism, Gulen advises his followers to engage proactively with society and to deal with the challenges of time with conviction, courage and resoluteness.

Though Gulen’s approach is basically apolitical, he has clear views on political issues, including democracy, modernity, the secular state and economic policies. His views reflect a refreshing breadth of vision and flexibility. He writes: “Islam does not propose a certain unchangeable form of government or attempts to shape it. Instead, Islam establishes fundamental principles that orient a government’s general character, leaving it to people to choose the type and form of government according to time and circumstances.” Like Nursi, Gulen believes that there is no inherent contradiction between Islam and modernity and that the two are compatible. He has a positive view of Western civilization and admires many of its salient features, including the priority it accords to science and technology, liberal democracy, the rule of law, modernity and respect for human rights. Gulen supports the idea of a secular state but is wary of its misuse by the ruling elite. He draws a distinction between a liberal, accommodative and benign form of secularism and one that is tyrannical, doctrinaire and repressive. He says that a secular outlook is not inherently anti-religious. If it allows freedom of religion and conscience, it is compatible with Islam. Gulen says that the “top-down” imposition of a dogmatic form of secularism by the Kemalist regime alienated the large masses of Turkish people, especially in the countryside, from the state and the ruling elite. Gulen advises his followers to partake of the opportunities offered by the secular state.

Gulen has openly spoken against religious extremism and has condemned all kinds of violence and terrorism. He was the first Muslim leader to openly condemn the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. In an article in the Washington Post, written the day after the attack, he wrote that a Muslim could not be a terrorist nor could a terrorist be a true Muslim. He suggested that “one should seek Islam through its own sources and its own representatives throughout history, and not through the actions of a tiny minority that misrepresents it.”

The Gulen Movement

The Gulen movement, inspired by the ideas and teachings of Fethullah Gulen, has spawned a host of educational institutions, media, financial and philanthropic networks, and interfaith forums. Much of the support base for the Gulen movement comes from the educated middle classes, including teachers and professors, doctors, lawyers and other professionals, and from religious-minded businessmen. The followers of the Gulen movement are drawn from different walks of life, including academia, civil society, Parliament, media, bureaucracy and the police. The movement is loosely organized, with no formal structure or official membership. Rich Gulen sympathizers contribute a substantial portion of their income to support the various programmes of the movement.

The first Gulen school opened in 1982. Now there are more than 500 Gulen schools, spread across more than 100 countries around the world, including 150 in Turkey and 50 in 30 African countries. About half of these schools are located outside Turkey, mostly in the Turkic-speaking states of Central Asia. Gulen schools have been established in Russia, Armenia, Australia, China, Cambodia, India, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and the United States. These schools generally follow the curriculum prescribed by the host countries. In addition, they impart instruction in the Turkish language and inculcate moral values, such as respect for elders, tolerance and openness, in students. Gulen schools have a reputation for high academic standards, discipline, all-round personality development and inculcation of moral values. Deserving students are provided with scholarships. Teachers in Gulen schools are expected to present themselves as a role model and are prohibited from smoking and drinking. In addition to schools, the followers of Gulen run teaching and tutoring centres (dershane), which are generally dormitories where students are trained for university admission.

In addition to running 150 schools in Turkey, the followers of Gulen run the Fatih College in Istanbul. There are 30 Gulen high schools and a university in Kazakhstan, 11 high schools and a university in Kyrgyzstan, 14 high schools and a university in Turkmenistan, 18 high schools in Uzbekistan and a university in Georgia, all managed by the followers of Gulen. The Gulen community has started one of the largest chains of charter schools in the United States. There are an estimated 9 million people of Turkish descent in Europe. Germany has the largest concentration of Turkish Muslims (estimated at 3.5 million). The Gulen community runs more than 100 educational institutions, including schools and tutoring classes, in Germany. Though the Gulen movement has a transnational character, it has a distinctly Turkish flavor. Thus, portraits of Ataturk are displayed in classrooms in Gulen schools. The teaching of Turkish language is an essential part of the curriculum and the Turkish national anthem is sung in all Gulen schools.

In addition to educational institutions, the followers of Gulen have established a bank, Asya Finans, which operates on Islamic principles, a radio station (Burc FM), two TV channels (Samanyolu TV and Ebru TV), hospitals, an advertising agency, and two major mass-circulation newspapers in Turkey — Zaman in Turkish and Today’s Zaman in English. Today’s Zaman has a European edition which has 30,000 subscribers.

Gulen has a keen interest in promoting inter-religious dialogue. He met Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1998 to exchange notes on fostering a climate of mutual understanding between Muslims and Christians. He also met the Orthodox Patriarch, Bartholomeos, and Israel’s Israel’s Sephardic Head Rabbi, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron. The Forum for Intercultural Dialogue in Berlin and London’s Dialogue Society, which are inspired by Gulen’s ideas, holds conferences on inter-faith dialogue that bring together imams, rabbis and pastors.

During the past few years the Gulen movement and its multifaceted contributions have been recognized on a global scale. In a poll conducted jointly by Britain’s Prospect magazine and the US journal Foreign Policy in 2008, over half a million people voted Gulen as the world’s leading intellectual. The Economist described Gulen and his movement as “one of the most powerful and best-connected of the networks that are competing to influence Muslims round the globe.”

Belgium’s Catholic University of Leuven has established a Fethullah Gulen Chair for Intercultural Studies. An international conference on “Muslim World in Transition: Contributions of the Gulen Movement” was held in London on 25-27 October, 2007. The conference was jointly organized by the University of Birmingham, House of Lords, Dialogue Society, Leeds Metropolitan University, Middle East Institute and School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.