The Gülen Movement in Germany and France

The Gülen Movement in Germany and France

Emre Demir

Despite the large Turkish population in Western Europe, the movement took hold relatively late from other Islamic organizations and they have been present in Europe since almost 10 years. After a research on Fethullah Gülen’s old sermon records, we learned that Fethullah Gülen frequently visited some French and German cities at the end of 1980s. But the institutionalization process of the movement started after mid-1990s. Contrary to the other Islamic movements, the Gülen community did not follow the Turkish migratory flow. We can explain this late arrival by two essential reasons:

1) The appearance of the Gülen movement in Turkey is relatively recent from the other mainstream Islamic movements such Milli Görüş and Suleymanci community. When Suleymanci community and Milli Görüş started to institutionalise their European affiliation in 1970s, Gülen movement was a little religious community in Izmir, a city located in the Aegean coast of Turkey. This religious- conservative community transformed to a transnational educational movement in the early 1990s.

2) After the demise of Soviet Union, Fethullah Gülen gave a priority to the Turkish world in Central Asia and other Post-Soviet countries. Thus he allocated a major part of social and economic capital of the community to these regions. Especially, Central Asia, as an unoccupied region by the other Islamic movements, was more attractive than Europe. In early 1990s, the Turkish diasporic Islam scene was largely dominated by Milli Görüş (National Outlook) movement.

However, in the last years, the followers of Gülen have disseminate their ideas in the Turkish Diaspora which live in the immigrant-populated cities such as Paris, Lyon, Strasbourg, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Berlin and Köln. In fact, the movement adapted its educational strategy to the European conditions by creating learning centres. Generally, the Gülen-led associations primarily prefer to establish private schools in Central Asia, Africa and Balkan countries. But, due to the difficult administrative procedure of establishment a private school, Gülen community adapted a different settlement strategy in Europe. The first arriving members found a learning centre, and after the institutionalization period, they took initiatives to found a private school. As a result of our observation, we suggest that the community considers the learning centres as a “preparative period” to reach the main goal, i.e. the private school. For instance, as we learned from the community members, the first learning centre “BIL Learning House” (Das Bildungshaus BIL) in Germany was established at Stuttgart in 1995. After the BIL learning centre gained a considerable popularity amongst Turkish families and developed good relations with the local administration, they transformed the BIL learning centre to a private school in 2003. (1)

Organisational Structure of the Gülen Movement in Europe

Discursive and organisational strategies of the Gülen movement differ from the other Turkish Islamic communities. Mainly, the associational organisation of Turkish Islam in Europe base on two axes: the construction and sponsoring of mosques and Quran schools. Contrary to two other settlement strategies of Islamic movements, the Gülen movement members in Europe insist on “the great importance of secular education” and they refuse to build or sponsor mosques. They also do not focus on Quran education for the youth like Suleymanci community. The mosques and Quran schools led by Turkish Islamic movements play an important role in transmission of religious and communitarian values to the new generation. Instead of trying to build mosques or Quran schools, the Gülen movement transposed the Islamic mobilisation in the educational, cultural and entrepreneurial field by forming new voluntary associations.

Gülen movement members in Europe have founded a variety of establishments which operate in the major European cities. Essentially, we observe three main types of establishments: 1) Learning centres which offer particular courses in after-school groups to the students of the primary school by the college and private schools 2) “Intercultural dialogue” associations which organise intercultural events and meetings in order to promote the cultural exchanges between the Turkish population and the native society 3) Entrepreneurial associations which assemble Turkish businessmen who financially support the movement. In this article, we especially focus on the educational activities of the movement.

Learning centres, intercultural centres, entrepreneurial establishments and high schools are typically governed by a registered association. The members of the association, typically Turkish immigrant members of the movement, choose a board of directors, generally consisting of seven members. (2)

These centres typically serve about a hundred students at a variety of levels from grades secondary school to college-preparatory class offering courses such as English, French, German, math, chemistry, physics and biology. In addition, the learning centres offer language courses for newcomer adults. Furthermore, the learning centres try to encounter the needs of the students primarily of Turkish background. The centres organise seminars for the student parents “to make them conscious about the importance of education”. The staff at learning centres is composed by paid French/German teachers and volunteer university students of Turkish descent. Although with some exceptions-such as the Horizon learning centre in Mulhouse, France-, the learning centres don’t receive direct financial support from the state and local administrative institutions. In the last years, administrative staff of the movement in Germany established good relations with the local and national political leaders. In France, the relations with the local political authorities are in the minimum level because of the secular context of France and modest visibility of the movement in the public sphere. But we observed that learning centres in Strasbourg and Colmar have close relationship with the deputies of their region and local administrative institutions.

Gülen inspired associations possess more than 100 learning centres in Germany and 16 learning centres in France. More recently, Gülen-led associations in Germany established three private high schools in Stuttgart, Berlin and Dortmund. The private schools offer a full college-preparatory curriculum to the students primarily of Turkish origin. These schools offer the same curriculum as public college preparatory high schools with the difference that they offer Turkish as the third language choice, after German and English. The Gülen movement doesn’t have any private school in France. Although the movement members express their eagerness to establish a private school in France, the community hasn’t reached a tangible size to realise their purpose. (3)

The Islamic organizations are usually managed by a head organization in Köln, the city which became “the capital of Turkish Diaspora in Europe”. Unlike the centralist organization of the other Turkish Islamic communities such as National Outlook Movement and Suleymanci community, inter- institutional relations between Gülen-led associations is loose and there is not any head organization or federation in Köln for assembling the Gülen educational associations. As a typical character of the movement, the Gülen community in Europe is highly decentralised. In Germany and France, each city or town is responsible for organising and maintaining its own schools and centres. Strasbourg Le Dialogue Learning Centre director Nihat Sarıer says:

We have no official relation with the other learning centres in France. Furthermore, we don’t have a common strategy. Maybe, we are all inspired by the ideas of Fethullah Gülen but we are not controlled by a top organisation which decides everything. Sometimes I discuss my problems with the directors of other centres in Paris, Metz etc. and we share our experiences. But everybody lives in a different region or country, in different social and political circumstances; so everybody works with his own method. (4)

Despite this decentralized structure of the movement, the movement developed a complicated network on country level, continental level and inter-continental level. Firstly, the European edition of Zaman Daily Newspaper (5), which is located at Offenbach, Germany plays a central role on the communication between the community members in different European countries. Every day, the journal publishes articles (particularly in the 17th page) about local activities of the Gülen-led associations, the educational achievement of private schools etc. By this way, a member of the movement in Paris gets informed about the activities in other French cities, or in Germany, Netherlands, and Belgium etc. Secondly, members of the movement constantly organise touristic voyages to the other countries in Europe, and even in Asia of Africa. In these touristic voyages, they also visit the Gülen-led educational establishments. For example, the local representatives of Zaman Daily Newspaper in Metz recently organised a visit to Turkmenistan and Kirgizstan for the Turkish origin entrepreneurs who financially support the local establishments of the community. They visited also the Gülen-led schools in these countries. Thirdly, according to information given by Hüseyin Gülerce, a columnist in Zaman and Fethullah Gülen’s close friend, every city or town in different European countries sponsors the Gülen inspired educational activities in the African countries. (6) As a result of these strategies, the members feel themselves not only as a participant of a local association in his city but also as a part of the worldwide educational movement.


  1. Aydın, Ali İhsan, “Dynamiques religieuses et logiques éducatives: Les Centres d’éducation du mouvement de Fethullah Gülen en France”, Unpublished M.Athesis, Instıtut d’Etudes Politiques de Strasbourg, Strasbourg, 2004, p.68
  2. Jill Irvine, “Gülen Movement and Turkish Integration” in RobertHunt and Yuksel Aslandogan, “ Muslim Citizens of the Globalized World: Contributions of the Gülen Movement” The Light Publicaition, 2006. pg.59
  3. When we compare the settlement degree of movement in Belgium, Denmark and Netherlands with France, we see a relative success of the movement due to the more liberal immigration policy of these countries. The first school of the movement in Europe was founded in Copenhagen, Denmark (HAY Skolen) in 1993. There are also five private schools in Belgium and two in Netherlands.
  4. Interview with Nihat Sarıer, 12.05.2007
  5. 491 The principal media organ of the community, Zaman (Time) daily newspaper publishes a special edition for Turkish diaspora in Europe. The European edition of Zaman is published in Offenbach (Close to Frankfurt). The newspaper is sold more than 45.000 in 12 European countries. Zaman organized a large campaign called as “Football Unites” during the World Cup 2006 in Germany. The daily newspaper made a call to the Turkish community to support the national team of Germany.
  6. Hüseyin Gülerce, “Gönüllüler Hareketi”, Zaman, 12.03.2005


Excerpted from the article: Demir, Emre. 2007. “New Religious Sociabilities In Euro-Islam: The Organizational Logics and Recognition Politics of Gülen Movement in France and Germany” in 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. 355-70.

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