Gülen’s Rethinking of Islamic Pattern and Its Socio-Political Effects

Gülen’s Rethinking of Islamic Pattern and Its Socio-Political Effects

Fabio Vicini

Over recent decades Islamic traditions have emerged in new forms in different parts of the Muslim world, interacting differently with secular and neo-liberal patterns of thought and action. In Turkey Fethullah Gülen’s community has been a powerful player in the national debate about the place of Islam in individual and collective life. Through emphasis on the importance of ‘secular education’ and a commitment to the defense of both democratic principles and international human rights, Gülen has diffused a new and appealing version of how a ‘good Muslim’ should act in contemporary society. In particular he has defended the role of Islam in the formation of individuals as ethically-responsible moral subjects, a project that overlaps significantly with the ‘secular’ one of forming responsible citizens.

Concomitantly, he has shifted the Sufi emphasis on self-discipline/self-denial towards an active, socially-oriented service of others – a form of religious effort that implies a strongly ‘secular’ faith in the human ability to make this world better. This paper looks at the lives of some members of the community to show how this pattern of conduct has affected them. They say that

teaching and learning ‘secular’ scientific subjects, combined with total dedication to the project of the movement, constitute, for them, ways to accomplish Islamic deeds and come closer to God.

This leads to a consideration of how such a rethinking of Islamic activism has influenced political and sociological transition in Turkey, and a discussion of the potential contribution of the movement towards the development of a more human society in contemporary Europe.

From the 1920s onwards, in the context offered by the decline and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Islamic thinkers, associations and social movements have proliferated their efforts in order to suggest ways to live a good “Muslim life” under newly emerging conditions. Prior to this period, different generations of Muslim Reformers had already argued the compatibility of Islam with ‘reason’ and ‘modernity,’ claiming for the need to renew Islamic tradition recurring to ijtihad (independent reasoning). Yet until the end of the XIX century, traditional educational systems, public forms of Islam and models of government had not been dismissed. Only with the dismantlement of the Empire and the constitution of national governments in its different regions, Islamic intellectuals had to face the problem of arranging new patterns of action for Muslim people.

With the establishment of multiple nation-states in the so-called Middle East, Islamic intellectuals had to cope with secular conceptions about the subject and its place and space for action in society. They had to come to terms with the definitive affirmation of secularism and the consequent process of reconfiguration of local sensibilities, forms of social organization, and modes of action. As a consequence of these processes, Islamic thinkers started to place emphasis over believers’ individual choice and responsibility both in maintaining an Islamic conduct daily and in realizing the values of Islamic society. While under the Ottoman rule to be part of the Islamic ummah was considered an implicit consequence of being a subject of the empire.

Not many scientific works have looked at contemporary forms of Islam from this perspective. Usually Islamic instances are considered the outcome of an enduring and unchanging tradition, which try to reproduce itself in opposition to outer-imposed secular practices. Rarely present-day forms of Islamic reasoning and practice have been considered as the result of a process of adjustment to new styles of governance under the modern state. Instead, I argue that new Islamic patterns of action depend on a history of practical and conceptual revision they undertake under different and locally specific versions of secularism.

From this perspective I deal with the specific case of Fethullah Gülen, the head of one of the most famous and influent “renewalist” Islamic movements of contemporary Turkey. From the 1980s this Islamic leader has been able to weave a powerful network of invisible social ties from which he gets both economic and cultural capital. Yet what interests me most in this paper, is that with his open-minded and moderate arguments, Gülen has inspired many people in Turkey to live Islam in a new way. Recurring to ijtihad and drawing from secular epistemology specific ideas about moral agency, he has proposed to a wide public a very attractive path for being “good Muslims” in their daily conduct.

After the failure of explicitly “anti-Western” forms of radical Islamism, such as pan Arabism and Islamic nationalism, only a part of the Muslim world continues to see the necessary condition for the constitution of a more fair and good society in the establishment of an Islamic state. Instead, nowadays most Islamic intellectuals underline the need for a bottom-up kind of society reform. Indeed according to them the decline of Islamic values does not depend on modern forms of governance in themselves, but on the spreading of commodity values, new styles of life, and hedonism that accompany them. The emphasis they place over the need of reforming society, starting from the individual, seems to be the result of a kind of anxiety in face of such a situation.

Consequently Muslim intellectuals’ first aim has became that of offering patterns of action, which permit Muslim people both to revive and maintain Islamic virtues and to be not affected by deviating forces of modernity. Such patterns have the declared common scope of aiming at regenerating traditional Islamic values, but they have different local applications. Indeed how they interact with the dominant secular discourse and have been affected by it, differs from context to context.

Fethullah Gülen has been able to propose a path that does not startle secular sensibilities. Adherents are not required to bring any outward sign that marks their Islamic inclination. In places linked to movement’s activities – from schools to dormitories, to administrative centers of foundations – no sign of Muslim faith is present. Rather, there we can find – at least in Turkey – Atatürk busts and Turkish flags. From this point of view Gülen has given to Islam a public form that is suitable for secular rules of appearance.

Indeed if at the beginning Gülen’s primary scope was that of protecting Muslims in Turkey against the prominence of hedonistic values, then he has elaborated a path, which shares many values with ‘modernity’. It seems that proceeding along his own way, Gülen has discovered he has more things in common with universal values elaborated within Western tradition, than with other expressions of Islam. Then, inspired by such arguments, he has re-elaborated his thinking in order to offer an Islam that intends to contribute to the building of a more human society.

From this perspective I suggest Gülen is not simply offering an alternative kind of modernity. Rather he wants to take part in the construction of this modernity. And, in line with his anxieties and those in general of the religious world, he intends to contribute to the modern project by re-evaluating its moral basis. By putting emphasis over the moral aspects of religion and recalling to civic principles, he is claiming a specific role in society for Islam. That is, of addressing the progress of human beings without lose of their moral dimension. Thus, he cuts a specific space to religion and attributes it a role of guide for society.

Clearly, here I am not stating religion should and could aim at this role in the contemporary world. This is a problem that concerns more our personal believes and convictions than scientific analysis. Yet it seems to me, in Western contexts religions are acquiring a medialized form. Even there they are progressively dismissing their practical aspects to become something more close to morality. Indeed eminent figures from the Christian and Orthodox world are making efforts to go beyond the boundaries of their traditions and to agree on some common basilar points. Even Gülen has made significant steps in this direction. I think beyond these changes we can see common anxieties about moral decline in the contemporary world. These anxieties are the common basis on which religions seems to agree on claiming more voice over global moral issues.

I think the secularist discourses should be able to renew themselves in order to face the challenges that renewed religious discourses on modernity pose to it. From this perspective, I argue Gülen’s example opens up the possibility for such a rethinking. Indeed it permits of reconsidering the basilar dichotomy on which the secularists have founded their discourse on modernity. Looking at compatibilities between Gülen’s project and the modern one should lead us to refuse the aprioristic secularists’ exclusion of Islam from the modernist project. I think that if religion continues to be marginalized inside modernity it is not because of an intrinsic incompatibility with it, but because the secularists’ have founded their idea of modernity on this opposition.


Summarized from “Gülen’s Rethinking of Islamic Pattern and Its Socio-Political Effects” by Fabio Vicini. This paper was presented at the conference titled “Muslim world in transition: Contributions of the Gulen Movement”, 25-27 October 2007, London

Click here to visit the conference web page.

Fabio Vicini (MA in anthropology, University of Milano-Bicocca, Milan, 2006 on the Gülen movement; BA in social sciences, University of Modena e Reggio Emilia, Modena, 2003): On the editorial board of ACHAB, Rivista Italiana di Antropologia. Research interests: anthropology of Islam, with a focus on human agency, ethics and emotions; and, secondarily, anthropology of secularism in Ottoman and Turkish history.

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