Pillar of Society or Threat to Democracy?

Fethullah Gülen is Turkey's most famous preacher and its most controversial. His followers run schools, hospitals and a media empire - a boon for his supporters, but a horror scenario for his critics. Daniel Steinvorth sheds some light on a cleric who polarises opinion both at home and abroad

Fethullah Gülen (photo: AP)
Honoured by his supporters as "Hocaefendi", vilified by his opponents as an Islamist in disguise with a hidden agenda: Fethullah Gülen

​​What does an Islamic school actually look like? One might expect prayer rooms, single-sex tuition, and walls lined with suras from the Koran. The Güventas School in Konya, a city in Central Anatolia's industrial heartland, has nothing of the kind.

It is a clean, new building with a chemistry lab on the fourth floor, a lawn with a Chinese-style pavilion in front of the school, and a silver bust of Atatürk at its entrance. As is the case all around Turkey, girls wearing headscarves are turned away by the doorman.

There is nothing exaggeratedly or overtly pious about this freshly painted provincial school. "We consider Islam to be a personal matter," says the cheery headmaster, Adil Halid Alici. "There is one hour of religious tuition a week, no more than that." The syllabus is the one stipulated by the state, as is the daily oath of allegiance to the founder of the Republic, Atatürk, which is sworn every morning.

But there must be something shady about the "best school in Konya with the best school-leavers" as it is described by an enthusiastic father of a future female pupil.

However conventional it might appear, the Güventas School is no ordinary Turkish school. It is a private establishment, one of hundreds that belong to the world's largest Islamic movement, the Fethullah Gülen Movement - the very mention of which sets alarm bells ringing in secular Ankara.

A nuisance for the country's secular elite

Gülen's mysterious network is a nuisance for the country's secular elite. Some even consider the followers of the Muslim preacher, who are also known as "Fethullahcilar", to be the greatest threat to the Turkish Republic since its establishment. Websites such as irtica.org ("Regression") or vatanhainleri.wordpress.com ("Traitor to the fatherland") warn against a return to the Middle Ages, millions of veiled women, and courts meting out Sharia justice.

​​Commentators like Yusuf Kanli are asking whether the Fethullahcilar even intend to revive the caliphate, slowly, step by step, using methods of secret indoctrination via schools, universities and the media.

But it is not only in Turkey that people are raising the alarm; there have also been warnings from overseas. Michael Rubin, formerly of the Pentagon and now working for the Neo-Con American Enterprise Institute, has compared Gülen, who is currently living in exile in the United States, with another famous Muslim preacher, the deceased Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran.

"Istanbul in 2008 could end up like Teheran in 1979," says Rubin ominously. In view of the fact that, in his opinion, "never before has the secular order in Turkey been in such a precarious position," Rubin also cautions against allowing the Turkish cleric to return home.

Is Fethullah Gülen really a fundamentalist in disguise? If outward appearances are to be believed, it would appear not: he wears neither a turban nor a bushy beard and looks rather like a wistful grandfather. But could it be that he is a master of the Taqiyya, the Islamic concept that allows believers to conceal their true faith under certain circumstances? Or is he really a voice of reason, one of the most progressive Muslims of our time, as his followers claim?

Up until recently, the founder of the largest Islamic movement in Turkey was only known to his compatriots and a handful of Islamic experts abroad. Then the American magazine Foreign Policy and the British magazine Prospect published the results of a poll in which readers were asked to name the 100 most important intellectuals in the world. Fethullah Gülen topped the poll.

It was an unexpected result: a Muslim scholar, an Oriental, was able to overtake the West's intellectual giants, leading thinkers such as Noam Chomsky, Al Gore, Umberto Eco and (an also-ran in this poll) Jürgen Habermas!

An "avalanche of voters"

This surprise result is easy to explain. Most of the votes cast (over 500,000) were submitted shortly after the daily newspaper Zaman, which is associated with Gülen, called on its readers to vote for him. Foreign Policy wrote that while it had not expected such an "avalanche of voters", the result revealed something "quite unique" about the "influence of the men and women we selected for the survey".

Fethullah Gülen shaking hands with Pope John Paul II (photo: AP)
Travelling the world on an interreligious mission for his network: Fethullah Gülen during his audience with Pope John Paul II

​​For its part, Prospect quickly published an article about the winner entitled "A modern Ottoman" in which it wrote that the winner of the poll was "the modern face of the Sufi Ottoman tradition."

The phenomenon that is Fethullah Gülen began in Korucuk, a remote village in eastern Anatolia. The village is home to just under 600 people; the houses are made of clay and straw. Life is simple; prospects are bleak. In 1941 (according to some sources, in 1938), a son was born to the village imam, Ramiz Gülen.

The young Fethullah was eager to learn. Legend has it that he began to learn the Koran by heart at the age of five. By the age of ten he had completed his task, learned to speak fluent Arabic, and had familiarised himself with the teachings of the most important Muslim scholars. Just under four years later, he preached for the first time.

He began to learn "the correct reading of the Koran" from senior clerics and to study "Rislae-i Nur", the writings of the Muslim mystic Said Nursi.

Inspired by Nursi's writings, which would provide him with the logical and scientific foundation for his views on how to face the challenges of the modern era, Gülen began to take a critical look at orthodox Muslim law. He soon began adopting his own stance.

Although he considers the Islamic principles as revealed in the Koran to be unalterable, he is convinced that these principles must be adapted and reinterpreted in the light of the times we live in. The state order should be accepted as the framework for the individual's actions; modern science provides the means of rationally understanding God through the study of his creation.

Itinerant preacher on the path to spirituality

Gülen soon began moving around the country as a state-approved itinerant preacher. In an era rocked by political unrest and military coups, he called for peace and dialogue and condemned violence and terrorism, quoting the great masters of Islamic mysticism, Muhyiddin-i Ibn Arabi and Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, who showed the "path to true enlightenment through spirituality and love".

While preaching, Gülen often burst into tears, weeping for minutes at a time, a feature that would become a future trademark of the "Hocaefendi" (venerable teacher), as he is now called by his followers.

The charismatic preacher, whose following grew steadily, called for involvement instead of retreat. Society, says Gülen, can only be changed by the individuals in it, and the key to change is education. Gülen's motto: build new schools instead of new mosques!

For Gülen, whose advice by this time had taken on distinctly protestant overtones, work is also a key virtue. "For endurance and patience, we are rewarded with success; the punishment for lethargy is penury," wrote Gülen in his book Essentials of the Islamic Faith.

​​In the years that followed, the number of Gülen supporters from Anatolia's emerging middle class rocketed: the link between serving God and earning money appealed to what the European Scientific Institute, ESI, referred to as Turkey's "Islamic Calvinists".

But the man from Korucuk also preaches about the reprehensible nature of atheism and Darwin's theory of evolution, which he roundly rejects. Moreover, his texts do not deny the existence of angels and demons.

According to Bekim Agai, an expert in Islamic studies, these attitudes alone mean that Gülen could never don the mantle of the "Muslim reformer" so eagerly awaited by the West. Nor, says Agai, does Gülen stand for his own or any revolutionary new theology. On the contrary, his interpretation of Islam is closer to the conservative mainstream.

Cemal Usak, one of Gülen's close advisors and the vice president of the Istanbul-based Journalists and Writers Foundation, acknowledges that Gülen is not a theological reformer. "But he is a democrat and a great humanist, and that is what matters."

Gülen's educational mission

Countless private, state-recognised educational establishments, schools, universities, residences, and institutes of tuition were set up in the 1980s and 1990s after Gülen finished working as a state preacher.

He then focussed his efforts on the movement that bears his name. His standing with the people grew as the social activities of his sponsors filled a gap that the Turkish state either could not or would not fill: the standard of education in provincial Turkey and in the suburbs of the country's major cities is catastrophic.

The fact that the movement also established political and economic associations gave rise to mistrust. Not only that, but a media empire comprising publishing houses, magazines, a television channel and the second largest daily newspaper in Turkey, Zaman (Time) also emerged.

By the end of the 1980s at the very latest, Gülen had become a public figure. When he preached in Istanbul's famous Sultanahmet Mosque - "at the request of the people", as he himself says - people like the former prime minister Süleyman Demirel and his foreign minister, Ihsan Sabri Çaglayangil, came to hear him speak. Even Turgut Özal, one time prime minister and later president, maintains contact with the preacher.

Nevertheless, having clashed with the law on a number of occasions, Gülen soon found out that having friends in high places in the world of politics does not always guarantee immunity. In most cases, he was arrested on charges of "antisecular activities" and released a short time later.

In 1994 he founded the Journalists and Writers Foundation, of which he would later become honorary president. At this stage, he began giving regular interviews to all important newspapers and meeting members of the country's political elite, including the politician Tansu Çiller, with whom he opened Bank Asya in 1996.

While travelling abroad he was granted an audience with Pope John Paul II and met John O'Connor, archbishop of New York. His network continued to grow: schools and universities were founded in the countries of the former Soviet Union, the Turkic states of Central Asia, Europe and the USA. No-one, even the Fethullahcilar themselves, are able to say exactly how many have been opened.

Hidden agenda?

"How could they?" asks an exasperated Zaman journalist Selçuk Gütasli, who cannot understand the fuss surrounding the movement to which he belongs. "We are not an organisation that you can join as a member. We are a community of people who are all pursuing roughly the same objective!"

Shams Tabrizi as portrayed in a ca. 1503 painting in a page of a copy of Rumi's poem dedicated to Shams (photo: wikimedia commons)
Early 16th century miniature painting with a poem by Sufi mystic Rumi: According to Gülen, the great masters of Islamic mysticism showed the "path to true enlightenment through spirituality and love"

​​This, he continues, is why Necla Kelek, a German critic of Gülen, is so wrong when she describes the movement as a "non-transparent Islamist sect with a corporation structure". "Anybody who accuses us of having a hidden agenda, is welcome to come and quiz us. We have nothing to hide," says Gütasli.

The main sponsors of the network's charitable projects, including Gülen himself, are listed on a website of the aid organisation "Kimse Yok Mu" (Is no-one there?). Moreover, the fact that the majority of the 16 shareholders in Bank Asya, which gives interest-free credit to the country's most important entrepreneurs in line with Islamic principles, are closely associated with the Gülen network, is available for all to read on Gülen's own website.

The followers of the "Hocaefendi" invoke an organisational structure that dates back to the Ottoman Middle Ages, namely that of the religious Sufi brotherhoods.

Without ever gaining the status of a legal body, the orders continued to exist under the Kemalist system. Fethullah Gülen entered the Nurcu, the order of the mystic Said Nursi that distanced itself from radical Islam at an early stage. Gülen welcomed the toppling of the former Prime Minister and fundamentalist Necmettin Erbakan in 1997. He recommended that Turkey should look to Europe and not to Iran or Saudi Arabia.

In March 1999, the preacher paid a surprise visit to the USA. A short time later, a Turkish television channel broadcast a speech by Gülen that had obviously been secretly filmed. In the recording, Gülen is heard calling on his supporters to "work patiently and to creep silently into the institutions in order to seize power in the state".

The public prosecutor in Istanbul promptly demanded a ten-year sentence for Gülen for having "founded an organisation that sought to destroy the secular apparatus of state and establish a theocratic state".

Gülen claimed that the recording had been "manipulated"; his supporters claimed that a smear campaign was being waged against him. Nine years later, in June 2008, he was acquitted on all counts. However, he remains in exile in Pennsylvania - "for health reasons" by his own account.

His friends claim that they do not know when the hodja will return, but they hope it will be soon. "If I cannot see him, I will weep like a child; it would be as if I was prevented from seeing my beloved," says Ihsan Kalkavan of Bank Asya.

A renowned media entrepreneur, on the other hand, hopes that Gülen will stay away for a long time to come. "He won’t come back like Khomeini, but he will continue the Islamicization of Turkey," says the entrepreneur, who intends to fight to ensure that his daughter and her boyfriend "will be able to go on holding hands on the street in the future."

Irrational fears or a reliable instinct? Overcoming the mistrust of his opponents is likely to be the most important task Gülen will face for the rest of his life.

Daniel Steinvorth

© New York Times Syndicate / Qantara.de 2009

The author is Turkey correspondent for the German news magazine DER SPIEGEL.


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