Is Fethullah Gülen a Threat to Democracy?

Is Fethullah Gülen a Threat to Democracy?

Tineke Peppinck

It was astonishing then that in 1999 tapes came in at the Turkish television broadcaster ATV, in which this universally esteemed and respected teacher (‘Hoca Efendi’) seems to call his disciples to wait for the right moment to seize power in Turkey. The public prosecutor opened a lawsuit to investigate Fethullah Gülen on the basis of the charge of ‘founding an illegal organization aiming to change the structure of the secular state, in order to found a state based on religious laws’. (1)

Were these well-founded accusations, or were they an act of hostility on the part of the Turkish state? There are arguments for the latter explanation, expressed by members of the Gülen community. In regard to the accusations it is only proper to note that the state has always had the monopoly on the definition of Islam, as well as of important concepts like democracy and secularism. Indeed, Hakan Yavuz argues that one of the reasons for the hostility on the part of the Turkish state may have been the establishment of the ‘Journalists and Writers Foundation’, which is traced back to the Gülen community. This Foundation seemed to have the potential to win over the Turkish cultural and commercial elite, through involvement in shared projects aiming at the formulation of a ‘social contract’. (2)

The importance of the ideas that the state favours — democracy, secularism and modernization — is recognized by Fethullah Gülen and he says he supports them. Why then is he being accused of being a threat to those ideas, and even accused of striving for an Islamic state? In the so called ‘Abant Declarations’ published by the Journalists and Writers Foundation subjects like ‘Islam and secularism’ are clearly presented and not in any way that contradicts the meaning or content of concepts like modernity, Islam and democracy, the definition of which the state monopolizes.

Now, Fethullah Gülen himself acknowledges the value of ideas like modernization, secularism and democracy, but he tries also to discuss their content and to give them a provenance and meaning different from that given by the ‘Kemalists’. Thus, for him ‘democracy’ is an idea, a value, that is inherent to Islam. According to him the Turkish people need a higher type of democracy than the present one; a democracy that offers more room to the spiritual (religious/Islamic) faculties, of which in his view the people are in need. ‘Secularism’ envisages that the state will not interfere in the religious experience of its citizens, so that it can ‘create a climate where everyone can sow his ideas unhindered and harvest its crop’. (3)

Fethullah Gülen’s vision is, in itself, an alternative form of modernization. As we said earlier, modernization seems to be a necessary condition for maintaining the right to sustain independent existence in this world, without being oppressed or taken advantage of by the so-called ‘civilized nations’, without having to relinquish one’s own identity in exchange for a ‘civilized culture’. It is interesting that this is the starting point as much of the Kemalist vision as it is of that of Fethullah Gülen. Both want to avoid dependency and being dominated, but at the same time their ideas about how to achieve that differ strongly. Fethullah Gülen has sharp criticisms of the results of the type of modernization that Atatürk strove for. He does not blame Atatürk for this, because according to him Atatürk had the same opinion as himself, only he was understood in a wrong way and it was presented to the people in a wrong way. (4)


(1) Nuh Mete Yüksel, Fethullah Gülen örgütu hakkında iddianame atülendava_04.html#1)

(2) Hakan Yavuz, (2004, July 21), Interview, “The Gülen Movement: a modern expression of Turkish Islam”, Religioscope. Pp. 42

(3) Reha Muhtar’s interview with Fethullah Gülen,12-09-2001 at http://tr.fGü 06-03-2007).

(4) Taha Akyol and Cengiz Çandar’s interview with Fethullah Gülen, 27-02-1998 for NTV, at http://tr.fGü


Excerpted from the article: Peppinck, Tineke. 2007. “From ‘New Man’ to ‘World Citizen’: The Replication of Fethullah Gülen’s Renewal Vision in the Dutch Context” in the proceedings of “The International Conference on Peaceful Coexistence: Fethullah Gülen’s initiatives for peace in the contemporary world,” Erasmus University, Rotterdam, 22-23 November 2007. pp. 419-30.

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