Is the Gülen Movement a Cult?

When looking at the evidence, it’s clear the Gülen movement is the furthest thing from a cult. It is a mainstream Islamic movement, its practices rooted deeply in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, but also confident to engage with members of other rich religious and intellectual traditions of many other cultures. Whereas cults generally disengage from wider society, the Gülen movement has gone out of its way to engage with the world through its schools, dialogue efforts, and businesses.

Is the Gülen Movement a Cult?

Sage Chen

Even though the meaning of cult has shifted, and the term has acquired differing meanings over time, it is generally and publicly used in a derogatory way to refer to movements that are regarded as socially deviant due to their unorthodox beliefs and practices. During the 1930’s, anti-cult movements usually viewed cults as a disparate form of heresy. Similarly, Christian scholar Walter Martin defined a cult as a movement that applies, and relies solely upon, personal interpretations of the Bible, in denial of mainstream beliefs such as the Trinity, the Second Coming of Christ, the ministry and personality of Jesus, and the like. Accordingly, new religious movements that were not a part of, or splintered from, pre-existing sects – such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists – have been considered cults. From a sociological point of view, Max Weber ascribed the emergence of a cult to the routinization of the charisma of a self-proclaimed religious leader. Cults have also long been accused of applying unorthodox measures such as mind control and abusive sex to govern their members, and of having secretive organizational structures to accomplish their objectives. A great variety of cults exist today—doomsday cults, political cults, destructive cults, racist cults, polygamist cults, and terrorist cults.

Any attempt to draw a distinction between a cult and a mainstream religious movement is an utterly value-laden endeavor, as it requires one to assume a position of authority and judge what is an orthodox or unorthodox practice or interpretation of a religion. Also, it is analytically impossible to determine how much deviation or what sorts of differences render a movement deviant and cause it to be labeled a cult, because even sects of the very same religion sometimes are predicated upon utterly distinct theological positions. For example, consider the God conceptualizations of two Christian traditions, Unitarians and Catholics. Whereas the former believe in the physical and spiritual unity of God and reject the idea of the incarnation of God in human form, the latter hold to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, which states that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are divine manifestations of God. Or, in a similar vein, consider the example of the Alawites and Sunni Muslims. Some groups of the former consider Ali, the cousin of Muhammad, to be the incarnation of the God, while the latter view him only as the third rightly guided Caliph and as totally human in nature.

Despite this opaque and slippery conceptual ground, we can still systematically consider whether the Gülen movement is a cult and possesses any of the general characteristics and features attributed to cults. The Gülen movement has been given different names, which rely on and point to divergent underlying ontologies and understandings. Cemaat (Community), Hizmet (Service), Gönüllüler Hareketi, (Volunteers’ Movement), and Gülenciler (Gülenists) are just a selection of terms often used to refer to the movement. Nowadays, people have come to view the movement in diametrically opposing ways, due to the recent political history of Turkey. On one hand, some praise it for its virtues, claiming that it is a movement promoting and prioritizing democratic values and standards and standing against a corrupt government, at a very high cost. On the other hand, others criticize it for its vices, claiming that the movement interferes in politics and even plots coups against democratically elected governments. Therefore, there are likely to be major differences between how a sympathizer of the movement sees and defines it, and how an outsider sees and defines it. Current developments in Turkey have pushed the public to the edges and have led to increased polarization, such that individuals view things only in white and black. Thus, in order to apprehend whether the Gülen movement is a cult or not, one has to remove himself or herself from political polemics and try to be critical and strike a balance between how the movement perceives itself and how it is perceived by the outside world.

We can say, generally, that the following criteria are used to determine whether a group is a cult or not—deviancy (unorthodox religious rituals), unorthodox means of control (mind control, abusive sex), and the presence of a charismatic leader. We can use these criteria to determine whether the Gülen movement is a cult, as some have claimed.

  1. Deviancy

Even though the movement has often laid great emphasis on the spiritual resurrection of Muslims and humanity, it has not attempted to reject or change the pillars of faith and essentials of religion in Islam. It has not proposed theologically novel conceptions of divinity or prophecy. Quite the opposite — the movement intellectually and theologically associates itself with the established mainstream of Muslim scholars, thinkers, and movements and derives its legitimacy from its embeddedness in classical Islam. The criticisms leveled at the movement have mostly involved matters relating to the interpretation of religious texts. Accordingly, the movement has been criticized for its strong promotion of intimate relations with the members of other Abrahamic religions, for its willingness to engage in open dialogue, and for its support of democratization, which is often labeled as pro-Western by other religious movements in the country. Hence, the movement’s existing practices and theological dispositions are not “cultish,” as they do not exhibit patterns of divergence and differentiation from mainstream Islamic rituals and practices.

  1. Unorthodox means of control

The movement has been accused of interfering in politics and having a secret agenda, but no proof has ever been presented to indicate the use of unorthodox means to control members or the movement or accomplish a secret agenda. Even the recent purge in Turkey, which resulted in the removal of hundreds of thousands of people from their positions as well as the imprisonment of a large percentage of them, has not led to the disclosure of evidence verifying the use of unorthodox methods by the movement.

  1. Charismatic leadership

There is no doubt that Gülen’s charismatic and strong leadership has been appealing to the masses. However, his leadership has not been grounded in any divine status claims, such as those of a prophetic or messianic character. His charisma has rather been derived from his expertise and erudition in respect to the religious sciences and his intuitive leadership skills. Ahmadiyya and Bahaism can be seen as cult-like Islamic movements; their leaders have made actual divine claims. For example, the leader of the former openly claimed messiahship and introduced unorthodox beliefs and organizational structures in the nineteenth century, and the leader of the latter identified himself as the last Prophet, which openly contradicted the mainstream belief of Muslims that the Prophet Muhammad was the last Prophet and Messenger of God. Gülen is neither seen as a supernatural human being by his followers nor does he claim prophecy or messiahship. His charisma is derived from his super-spiritual personality – and this personality stems from the immense amount of knowledge he has acquired in the religious sciences, which he has combined with successful practice.

When looking at the evidence, it’s clear the Gülen movement is the furthest thing from a cult. It is a mainstream Islamic movement, its practices rooted deeply in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, but also confident to engage with members of other rich religious and intellectual traditions of many other cultures. Whereas cults generally disengage from wider society, the Gülen movement has gone out of its way to engage with the world through its schools, dialogue efforts, and businesses.

 

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