Fethullah Gülen, the Gülen Movement, and Turkish Politics

Fethullah Gülen, the Gülen Movement, and Turkish Politics

James Harrington

Gülen has not involved himself directly in partisan Turkish politics, although his message clearly has political ramifications. He believes in addressing issues and values through the democratic system, but not in aligning with a specific parliamentary party.

He has always opposed political Islam, helping to put a halt to its rise in Turkey. Gülen argues that religion is about private piety, not political ideology. In fact, he has worked to help people better understand democracy and the need for secular government. He supports democracy, but, like Thomas Jefferson, admits to the need for its periodic renewal and reform.

He was a strong public critic of Necmettin Erbakan, the pro-Islamic leader of the Welfare party, who in the late 1990s briefly led a coalition government with the conservative True Path Party. Gillen, in fact, seems to be helping push Turkey toward greater democracy.

After an initial period of tension between them, Gülen and the governing Justice and Development (AK) Party leaders have come closer in their approach to common issues, although they have different social bases: AK’s base is the urban poor; and Gülen’s, the provincial middle class. Encouraged by Gülen, the AK party softened a tendency toward Qur’anic literalism and embraced the need of expanding human rights. This, in turn, let Gülen become more critical of the role of the regressive elements of the Turkish military. Gülen -related media outlets, especially the best-selling newspaper Zaman, tend to give their backing to the legislative initiatives of the current AK government.

Gülen always has supported publicly the established order and its organs of state. However, many Kemalists do not trust him, and see his oft-times support for the AK government as vindication of their stance that he is a Trojan horse for political Islam. In fact, many people inspired by Gülen who work in government or civil service have undergone discrimination or termination from employment. Even though these workers have not shown any overt political agenda and even though all Gülen has done is exhort them to be good public stewards, a certain segment of society is preoccupied about them.

What actually may be going on sociologically is that economic and social integration is increasing and that growing numbers of less-well-off people, as they become educated, seek secure and better-paying employment in the police and military.

Gülen’s ideas will live on through his books, DVDs, publications, recordings, and websites in a score of languages. They will live on not because they are unique in and of themselves, but because they powerfully and profoundly articulate an Ottoman cultural tradition deeply rooted in Turkey and, in many respects, the soul of the Turkish people.


Summarized from Wrestling with free speech. Religious freedom, and democracy in Turkey by James Harrington, 2011, University Press of America. Pages 16-17

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