Political Implications of the Hizmet-Gülen Movement

Even though Hizmet views itself as a proponent of civil society, its work certainly has political ramifications. It is a faith-based movement, although scrupulous in presenting itself as having no religious agenda at all; it is strictly a civil society initiative.

Political Implications of the Hizmet-Gülen Movement

James C. Harrington

Even though Hizmet (aka Gülen Movement) views itself as a proponent of civil society, its work certainly has political ramifications. It is a faith-based movement, although scrupulous in presenting itself as having no religious agenda at all; it is strictly a civil society initiative.

Religious-based movements seldom show themselves as proponents of democracy, tolerance, inclusion, and dialog. Many religious groups historically have oppressed, even killed, others in the name of their “truth.” This is not to say that religion is always the motivating factor in the strife and conflict perpetrated in its name. Quite often, it is a convenient tool that political and economic forces manipulated to accomplish their goals.

Hizmet is different; it is a leading moderate Islamic reform movement in Turkey. Although business entrepreneurs, middle- class people, and students shape the Hizmet nucleus, it attracts a broad representation of adherents within Turkey and has a grassroots following. Gülen promotes a cosmopolitan, multi-national, and multi-cultural Turkish identity that appeals to his compatriots; and his non-nationalist views and steadfast stand against terrorism resonate with moderate Turks, who reject Islamic extremism.

The movement also draws non-Muslim followers to itself. There is no accurate account of how many people are active in Hizmet to some degree or other, but there clearly are considerable numbers of supporters worldwide.

There is little question that Hizmet has significantly impacted Turkey’s politics and helped build civil society in a country once dominated by military and autocratic regimes. It has played a part in bringing greater democracy to Turkey and assumed an interactive role in Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union. That long, but still incomplete, accession process culminated in the constitutional referendum in 2010 that overwhelmingly adopted civil liberty protections, improved the judicial system, expanded economic and social rights, and created legal accountability for previous coup d’état leaders— all of which Erdoğan is undermining, as discussed later in this report.

Hizmet has become a force in Turkish civil society; but it is a project that has grown at odds with Erdoğan over the last five years, which explains his antipathy to the movement.

Hizmet’s Relationship to the Government

Gülen does not involve himself directly in partisan Turkish politics, although he does interject his message on different issues in the name of civil society, which, of course, often has political ramifications. He promotes addressing issues through the democratic system, but without becoming part of a specific partisan parliamentary party.

Gülen opposes political Islam, and has helped limit its rise in Turkey, arguing that religion is about private piety, not political ideology. He was a vocal critic of the Islamist Welfare Party, which, in the late 1990s, briefly led a coalition government with the conservative True Path Party, until the “soft coup.”

Gülen sees political Islam as basically anti- West and thus set against dialog with the West, which precludes reconciliation with the West. He also sees politics as dangerous to one’s spirituality. Although there can certainly be good political leaders who are spiritual, it is a dangerous career path. For Gülen, service and social harmony are what is important, not building an Islamic state.

After an initial period of tension, AKP leaders, who took power in 2002, and Gülen came closer in their approach to common issues, although they have different social bases: AKP’s is the rural and urban poor; and Gülen’s, the
provincial middle class. Encouraged by Gülen, AKP, with its conservative cultural background, had softened a tendency toward Qur’anic literalism and embraced the need of expanding human rights. Erdoğan has now reversed that agenda.

The movement generally supported earlier AKP reforms beginning in 2002, though not uncritically. And it sometimes spearheaded AKP reforms adopted under Erdoğan as prime minister, especially as to joining the European Union and constitutional reform. However, as Erdoğan has presented a more marked authoritarian streak, the movement has become more critical, (1) particularly through the Zaman newspaper.


Harrington, James C. TURKEY: DEMOCRACY IN PERIL – A HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT. 2015. Pages 13-14


(1) See “Fethullah Gulen: Turkey’s Eroding Democracy,” New York Times, February 3, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/04/opinion/fethullah-gulen-turkeys-eroding-democracy.html

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