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Fethullah Gulen: Threat, Benefactor, or Both?

June 16, 2008


By Mehmet Kalyoncu*

Turkey is a country where there is seemingly no end to oddities. As the majority of Turks (and foreign observers of Turkey) ponder how it is possible to shut down a ruling political party that has been more pro-European, reformist and economically successful than any other party in the history of the republic, the case of Fethullah Gulen adds another to many such oddities. Gulen has been prosecuted in his own country for alleged attempts to destroy the current state system and replace it with a government centered on religion. Yet Gulen is widely revered both home and abroad for his ideas and the work that inspired a world-wide civic movement focused on education and intercultural dialogue.

The Economist magazine has recently drawn attention to Gulen and the schools across the world that his vision has inspired. A New York Times article suggested that these Turkish schools inspired by Gulen offer such countries as Pakistan a gentler vision of Islam. Various Western scholars have argued that Gulen is a bridge between Islam and the West. Foreign Policy Magazine considers him one of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals. Few marginal commentators view him as a grave threat. Finally, a Reuters report described Gulen as an advocate of moderate Islam rooted in modern life and asked whether he is a threat or benefactor.

What is he really? Is he a threat or benefactor? As a matter of fact, Fethullah Gulen – and the world-wide movement he has inspired – is neither a threat nor a benefactor, but both. After all, both descriptions are relative and depend on where one stands.

Why Gulen May Look Like a Threat to Status-quo Protectionists

Fethullah Gulen enjoys unprecedented popularity in Turkey, and increasingly abroad. He has touched the lives of the last three generations of Turks and continues to do so through writings and speeches broadcast through mass media and the Internet. The Gulen phenomenon, later developing into a broad non-contentious civic movement, had its origins in the early 1960s when Gulen began preaching at mosques and delivering open-to-the-public conferences throughout Turkey. His audience consisted primarily of middle-aged conservatives and older teenagers (both high school and university students). The former of these two groups later opened and financed university preparatory courses and private secondary-high schools, and the latter ran and taught at these schools. These courses met with unparalleled success in preparing students both for national university entrance exams and for successful competition in international science contests, thus attracting more and more pupils to schools and more and more volunteers to the movement’s service projects. Though none of Gulen’s teachings have literally been taught at these institutions, the morals of the teachers were telling all about who has inspired them and these schools.

Gulen’s early teachings are generally characterized by his emphasis on religion and science as complementary, not contradictory. In addition to the extensive number of books he authored directly, many more have been compiled from his lectures and made available to public. Audio and video cassettes of his lectures have reached an even wider audience. Through putting into practice what Gulen has preached, the schools have achieved national and international success. This has convinced the majority Turkish public that while preserving their Islamic values they can aim high. Those of the majority Turkish public who have been stuck in the periphery ever since the induction of a strictly secularist regime have realized that people can indeed remain observant Muslims and simultaneously become bureaucrats, judges, diplomats, or even generals, prime ministers and presidents.

It would certainly be an overestimation of Gulen’s influence to attribute the entire social transformation in Turkey to the Gulen movement. Nevertheless, its impact cannot be denied. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute argues that so-called “Gulen members dominate the Turkish police and divisions within the interior ministry. Under the stewardship of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of Gulen’s most prominent sympathizers, tens of thousands of other Gulen supporters have entered the Turkish bureaucracy.” It may be a real challenge for thousands (or millions) of Turks to prove that they are not foot-soldiers of Gulen just because they admire him. In the meantime, they continue to pose a threat to both Turkey’s exclusivist elite – who have traditionally occupied political, economic and judicial space – and to the vested interest abroad who have enjoyed the freedom of influencing, if not manipulating, Turkey through that elite.

Why Gulen May Look Like a Benefactor

Given the operation of schools all across the globe and the ongoing interfaith-intercultural dialogue he has inspired, Gulen may well be seen as a benefactor. He is seen so mostly by those who have benefited from his work and inspiration one way or another. For example, Kerim Balci of Turkey, a prominent columnist at Turkish newspaper Zaman, notes that the movement took him from his village and made him what he could not even dream of becoming then. Muid Rasul of Kenya, graduate of Nairobi’s Light Academy (founded by Gulen movement volunteers), mentions the role of his dedicated teachers in his success, when he proudly notes that he has accepted a full-scholarship from Harvard University while declining the same offer from Yale. A Ugandan businessman in Kampala thanks his Gulen-inspired Turkish counterparts for setting an example for him and his Ugandan colleagues of how to open schools with their own resources and without expecting help from the state or other donors. Similarly, an ethnic Kurdish mother from a distant village in southeastern Turkey who cannot even speak Turkish expresses her gratitude to Gulen because his admirers helped her teenaged daughter go to school: “I did not have any say even during my marriage arrangement, let alone my childhood. But, my husband asks my daughter’s opinion frequently on issues and she is able to influence his decisions.”

Moreover, Gulen has touched lives through the massive interfaith dialogue that, initiated in Turkey, now spans through continents. An Assyrian Christian man in Mardin says, “Up until Fethullah Gulen and the Journalists and Writers Foundation started the interfaith dialogue process in the mid 1990s, people around us used to merely view us as ‘unbelievers’. After Gulen initiated dialogue with the Christian and Jewish leaders, people started to respect us as ‘People of the Book.'” Gulen may seem like a benefactor to this Christian man and many others who have had a similar experience. In addition, Gulen may seem a benefactor to a Jew who heard him publicly denouncing suicide bombings.

On the question of power, it is hard to make a convincing argument that Gulen is after political power given the fact that there does not seem to be any tangible attempt in his seventy-odd year lifetime to establish a political organization or take over the government. However, one can reasonably argue that Gulen may be seeking influence, for he advocates moderate Islam rooted in modern life, freedom of speech, and freedom of individual practice of faiths. In the final analysis, it is only normal that Gulen may be seen as a threat by some while a benefactor by others. What matters really is where one stands and how he or she perceives Gulen and the world-wide civic movement he has inspired.


* Mehmet Kalyoncu is a political analyst and author of A Civilian Response to Ethno-Religious Conflict: the Gulen Movement in Southeast Turkey.

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