History of the Hizmet movement and Fethullah Gülen’s philosophy revisited

Gülen’s personal charisma goes hand-in-hand with good organization by his followers and an appealing message that one can be at home in the modern world and still embrace traditional values like faith in God and community responsibility. He often notes that 95 percent of religion is about one’s personal life and that community advancement comes through progress in one’s spiritual life.

History of the Hizmet movement and Fethullah Gülen’s philosophy revisited

James C. Harrington

The Hizmet movement began gradually in the 1960s under the guidance of Fethullah Gülen and took on public legitimacy with Turgut Özal’s official recognition and blessing when he was in office. “Hizmet” generally means “service,” as in community service.

Much has been published about Hizmet and Mr. Gülen. The salient aspects of the movement are important to consider insofar as they bear on its underlying philosophy and impact on politics and civil society, and help explain why Hizmet movement (aka Gülen movement) has gained political traction in Turkey and why Erdoğan came to view it as his nemesis.

Gülen, born in 1941 in eastern Turkey, is the movement’s spiritual “soul.” A self-educated, widely read, prolific writer, he is respected as an intellectual and spiritual leader. Gülen comes out of the Turkish Sufi tradition of Islam. He has attracted a sizeable following in Turkey. Although he has lived in the United States since March 1999, when he came for medical attention and eventually took up residence in a rural retreat in Pennsylvania, his relocation did not diminish his influence. TIME magazine named him as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2013.

The thought of Kurdish scholar Said Nursî on accommodating Islam to modern life and harmonizing science and religion greatly influenced Gülen, although he rejected Nursî’s intense nationalism. Nursî’s understanding of Islam, upon which Gülen built, combined Islamic values with advocacy of human rights, democracy, the rule of law, secularism and respect of religious rights for all, regard for cultural diversity, science, and ecumenical dialog. Nursî himself suffered decades of arrest, imprisonment, and harassment for his modern views.

Science and technology are important to Gülen. He views the underdeveloped condition of many Islamic countries as a result of their neglecting contemporary scientific knowledge. Gülen sees no conflict between reason and revelation. For him, the Qur’an does not contain all that is necessary for scientific understanding, but each informs the other.

Gülen’s personal charisma goes hand-in-hand with good organization by his followers and an appealing message that one can be at home in the modern world and still embrace traditional values like faith in God and community responsibility. He often notes that 95 percent of religion is about one’s personal life and that community advancement comes through progress in one’s spiritual life. Social leadership—civil society—is more important than political leadership. Gülen is a maverick with a heart, rooted in compassion and spirituality.

Gülen, a former imam, has attempted to present a moderate Islam to Jews and Christians, and, in turn, present them to Muslims. He was the first Islamic leader to have formal discussions with the Alevi, Christians, and Jews in Turkey, and weathered fierce criticism from hardline co-religionists for doing so.

Gülen is credited with more than seventy books, tapes and videos of an estimated 4,000 talks and sermons (most privately recorded), and a science and spirituality magazine translated into various languages. (1)

Gülen’s social thinking supports democratization, civil liberty, and separation between secular and religious spheres. Because his social justice values, however, did not play well with the deep-rooted, pro- authoritarian establishment that resisted the country’s expanding pluralism and mobilization of the middle class, Gülen underwent political prosecution twice.

The second, and most significant, trial, in absentia, lasted from 2000-2008, amid a blistering media campaign against him. He was acquitted, and won on appeal, thanks in part to changes in Turkey’s legal system, which the European Union helped bring about, as discussed later. The trial and appellate judges summarily rejected the myriad charges alleging he was undermining the Republic. (2)

An advocate of non-violence, Gülen was the first Islamic leader to publicly condemn the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 in the United States, taking out advertisements in the New York Times and Washington Post immediately afterwards and giving interviews to major newspapers. He recently received the Gandhi- King-Ikeda Peace Award from Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Those who consider themselves inspired by Gülen or his followers refer to themselves as part of Hizmet. They believe in educating youth, fostering interfaith and intercultural dialog, earning money to assist the less well-off in society, contributing to global peace, and promoting humanitarian projects. Gülen and Hizmet’s dialog endeavors have been underway since the 1990’s.

Gülen also fosters intra-faith dialog, an example being between Alevi and Sunni Muslims in Turkey. Many Sunnis do not recognize Alevis as true Muslims, and have persecuted and discriminated against them. The result of the dialog is that Alevi cemevis (worship houses) and mosques were built side-by-side in Istanbul, Ankara, and Tokat. The one in Ankara also has a jointly-operated public soup kitchen and other facilities. (3)

The movement draws support from all walks of life: intellectuals, political leaders and government officials from every shade of the political spectrum, academicians, working people, business entrepreneurs, writers, professionals, and even members of the military.

Hizmet followers tend to be from Turkey’s aspiring middle class in the Anatolia region. Gülen reassures his compatriots they can merge the goals of Atatürk’s republic with traditional, but flexible, Islamic faith and adds that financial success is a worthy endeavor since it allows individuals to support good causes. Gülen appeals to well-off people to assist the poor, for the benefit of all. Society improves as people lead good lives and help others, rather than just themselves. The movement springs from, and helps expand, the rising middle class, which has led to democratization and economic opportunity.

For all their emphasis on individual integrity, Hizmet participants are forbearing of others and nonjudgmental. Although personally religious, they do not see themselves as a formal religious community, but firm subscribers to a democratic secular society that promotes traditional civil liberties, including freedom of religion. Gülen himself famously commented that society needed more schools, not more mosques.

Hizmet followers seek greater equity in society. Education is one of their main tools; and they are at home with technology, financial markets, multinational business, and modern communications, which they adeptly use to “spread the word.”

Over the years, people in Hizmet have established some 1500 educational institutions, such as elementary and secondary schools and universities around the world, though many are in Turkey. They are high-performing schools, recognized for academic achievement. For them, education and literacy are “levelers” in society, a way to bridge the rich-poor gap. These endeavors, underway since the 1960s, hold themselves out as alternatives to the more dogmatic, sometimes radical, and educationally-limited religious madrasah schools.

Hizmet schools have been particularly important for less fortunate youth in southern Turkey and the Kurdish region because of the shortage of educational facilities there and the opportunity they provide. Many schools have dormitories for poorer students from outlying areas so that they can attend.

In southeast Turkey, the schools offer an alternative to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its violent activities. They also furnish an opportunity for young women where traditional culture reinforces early marriage and child-bearing duties. They help students who speak Arabic or Kurdish develop facility with Turkish, which they need for university and employment.

These schools, which emphasize science, mathematics, and related disciplines are non- religious and supported by entrepreneurs in Turkey and the Turkish diaspora in other countries. They are expected to become self- sufficient eventually, supported by those whom they educate as they themselves graduate and enter business. The schools contribute to the movement’s credibility and popularity.

In addition, the
movement has long underwritten college preparatory schools, and set up about one thousand such centers (dershanes), regarded as a means to help children of middle and lower income do well on the country’s highly competitive entrance exam for an affordable price. The universities can accommodate only about half of those who take the test. The dershanes had a successful record in preparing students for the exam; they were also places that sometimes inspired young people to become part of Hizmet.

The movement also sponsors Houses of Light at university campuses, study centers for students where they can be with others of similar cultural and religious sympathies— some of whom became new Hizmet participants.

Since 2003, the movement has sponsored the International Turkish Language Olympiads, a competitive event for high school students worldwide, culminating with the final event in Istanbul. Romania hosted the event in

2014, renamed as the International Language and Cultural Festival, representing 150 countries, after Erdoğan prohibited the Olympiads in Turkey. The annual event now draws about 2,000 student participants and more than 100,000 spectators.

Hizmet doctors and business people are also known to set up hospitals and bring medical services to underserved countries, such as Nigeria and in central Africa and northern Iraq. Sometimes, these ventures occur in partnership with the Kimse Yok Mu (“Isn’t There Anyone?”) Solidarity and Aid Association. It currently is sponsoring clean water well projects in eighteen countries across the globe.

Established in 2002, Kimse Yok Mu is one of the world’s most respected humanitarian aid programs and ranks within the top one hundred of the world’s non-government organizations (NGOs).(4) It has consultative status with the United Nations (ECOSOC) and a $71 million annual budget.

Kimse Yok Mu has helped victims of natural calamities around the world and established potable water projects in Africa, among other worthy endeavors. It has provided humanitarian aid in 113 countries and assisted millions of people. (In fact, when I was in Turkey, visiting Hagia Sophia on a Sunday afternoon, I ran into three Fairfax, Virginia officials, who had brought thousands of blankets to Kimse Yok Mu for distribution to Syrian refugees in eastern Turkey.).

Gülen-inspired media institutions, such as Zaman, the country’s largest-circulation newspaper, Samanyolu TV (STV), which broadcasts four of Turkey’s largest television channels, and weekly magazines, try to set the example of being family-friendly and free of excessive violence, depictions of drug use, and obscenity. Zaman is widely respected for its breadth of coverage and promotion of civil society and democracy (5) and is a major player in Hizmet.

The self-sustaining movement relies on volunteers, charitable donations, and financial underwriting. It is a characteristic Islamic practice to tithe, based on income, to charitable organizations. Individuals in Hizmet tend to give from 7 to 15 percent or more, depending on ability, to Hizmet charities and projects.

Because of the movement’s loose-knit “non- structure,” precise statistics of its work and financial outlay do not exist; but estimates are consistently substantial. A 2009 study by University of Houston sociology Professor Helen Rose Ebaugh indicates that, at the time, some 20,000 Hizmet-supporting businesses and other enterprises yielded as much as $1 billion annually, with some wealthy individuals contributing millions of dollars each. (6) Le Monde has called Hizmet the largest Islamic civic movement in the world. Hizmet, it is thought, may have as many as eight million supporters or admirers in all areas of the planet.

Hizmet supporters organize around the view that humans have the potential to do better than reflected by the current state of world affairs. In sync with Sufi thought, Gülen posits greed, whether individual or collective, as the real foe of peace and harmony, not the differences in religion, ethnicity, or ideology. Greedy individuals and groups achieve their objectives by manipulating people’s fear, individually and socially. Ignorance and misinformation fuel paranoia, personal and collective.

For Hizmet, person-to-person communication is crucial to social tolerance. Dialog is not compromise, conversion, or integration. Rather, it is the coming together of people, committed to their respective religious paths (or who have no faith, but are living a life of good works), to better know and communicate with one another and, in due course, work together. This dynamic helps strip away false prejudices, dissipates fear and antagonism, and lays a foundation for trust, peaceful coexistence, and cooperative undertakings.

To advance these goals, Hizmet promotes conferences, symposia, seminars, luncheons and dinners, and grassroots activities. Besides dialog for dialog’s sake, these meetings can help shape policy and civil society. Hizmet people also organize and help underwrite hundreds of intercultural dialog trips to Turkey for community leaders, political officials, and religious people around the world.

In the United States alone, the movement sponsors some three hundred dialog centers. Rev. Thomas Michel, a Jesuit theologian, believes the Hizmet interfaith dialog effort is the greatest such effort on the globe, both in operation and in the number of people involved.

The most prominent dialog effort inside Turkey is the Abant Platform, founded in 1994 and coordinated by the Journalists and Writers Foundation, which Gülen helped organize. The Platform is a major discussion forum for scholars, writers, and leaders of all backgrounds, who focus on recurring issues in Turkey, such as religion, government, ethnicity, Islam, religion in general, secularism, democracy, and their interrelationship.

Numerous books, conferences, and academic studies have vetted the movement. Most reviews tend to be favorable; some are not; and some, neutral.

Opponents articulate three general themes, with varying logical coherence and sometimes substituting innuendo for fact. First, Hizmet seeks to take over Turkey through its economic prowess and by infiltrating the military and government in order to convert the country into a religious regime. Second, because the movement is atypical in not having formal organizational structures, it lacks transparency, and is therefore suspect. Third, Gülen really represents some other power. This point shifts, according to the audience. Sometimes, he is accused of being a CIA or Mossad operative or a subversive of some foreign county. (7)

The lack of transparency theme garners most traction. The lack of typical hierarchical organization is a Sufi characteristic. However, given that Turkish prosecutors attempted to shut down Gülen-associated entities and seize their assets as part of the political trials mentioned earlier, the wisest self-defense has been not to formalize an organizational structure. This kind of prosecution has happened historically in Turkey to organizations disfavored by the government in power, and is occurring again with Erdoğan and Hizmet.

As to the “infiltration” fear, what actually is occurring sociologically is that economic and social integration is increasing and growing numbers of people, as they become educated, seek secure and better-paying employment in the police, military, and government.

Given all that Gülen has spoken, written, and done over many years promoting democracy and civil society, his foes have found little to rely on.


Harrington, James C. TURKEY: DEMOCRACY IN PERIL – A HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT. 2015. Pages 8-13


(1) See Fethullah Gülen website, http://fgulen.com/en/fethullah-gulens-works.

(2) James C. Harrington, Wrestling with Free Speech, Religious Freedom, and Democracy in Turkey: The Political Trials and Times of Fethullah Gülen (Lanham, Maryland: University Press, 2011).

(3) “Groundbreaking ceremony for joint mosque- cemevi project held in Ankara,” Today’s Zaman, September 8, 2013, http://www.todayszaman.com/national_groundbreaki ng-ceremony-for-joint-mosque-cemevi-project-held-in- ankara_325814.html

(4) The English version of its website is at: http://global.kimseyokmu.org.tr/?lang=en.

(5) The English version of the Today’s Zaman website is at: http://www.todayszaman.com/home.

(6) Comments on April 23, 2010 at discussion of her book at the University of Texas, The Gülen Movement: A Sociological Analysis of a Civil Movement Rooted in Moderate Islam (New York: Springer, 2010), 52-59, inter alia. Ebaugh’s book and that of Muhammed Çetin, The Gülen Movement: Civic Service without Borders (New York: Blue Dome Press, 2009), are the two most comprehensive analyses of Hizmet

(7) Strategic Defamation of Fethullah Gülen: English vs. Turkish (Lanham, Maryland: University Press, 2012

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